A glimpse of Mayo’s dark skies ๐ŸŒŒ

Mayo is Ireland’s only dark sky park, internationally recognised for its low levels of light pollution. Basically it’s super starry. Here are a few images from the front door (the only door) of my family’s cottage in northern Mayo.

Night photography: The Pleiades

On the evening of Wednesday 19th January at about 21:00, I spent some time photographing the winter night sky. I was in my West Sussex garden, where there is a surprisingly good clarity of starlight despite the nearby town and railways, etc.

A few nights before when it was a bit cloudier I spent the time just looking through binoculars at the stars. As someone new to stargazing, I was amazed by the gains made from looking through glass. In among the cloud were hundreds of tiny stars where nothing appeared to the eye. This will sound quite dim to more seasoned observers, but the difference made was a joy.

One little cluster I had my eyes on was the Pleiades. This appears to the naked eye like a dusting of light, to the east of Orion. Looking through binoculars gives much greater clarity. On Wednesday night I used my camera to get some images, later cropped and edited a bit in Lightroom.

The Pleiades, from West Sussex, approx. 21:30, 19-1-2022 (Olympus E-M5 MIII + 45mm f1.8 lens (cropped)

The Pleiades is made up of seven larger stars, giving it another name of the ‘Seven Sisters’. That’s the third time that name is used, to my knowledge, in place-naming alongside the Seven Sisters cliffs near Eastbourne in Sussex, and the main road in north-east London. The Seven Sisters road is named after elm trees which are no longer there.

Pablo Carlos Budassi, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The above photo by Carlos Budassi is obviously not as good as my attempts (JOKE). It does, however, help to illustrate this star cluster beautifully. I’m not sure of the camera, lens, settings or editing required to produce this image but it is of astonishing quality. Also, how good of Carlos to share this image with Wikimedia Commons so people can use it. Thank you, Carlos.

Dbachmann, CC BY-SA 3.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/, via Wikimedia Commons

The first known depiction of the Pleiades comes from the Bronze Age as seen in the image above. Wikipedia titles the image: “The Nebra sky disk, dated circa 1600ย BC. The cluster of dots in the upper right portion of the disk is believed to be the Pleiades.” Indeed, there are seven of them.

Ptolemy, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The name ‘Pleiades’ is said to come from the Ancient Greek and is related to sea-faring rather than the Seven Sisters.

Thanks for reading.

Night photography

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The Sussex Weald: ancient oaks under the stars

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Cowdray Park, West Sussex, South Downs National Park, February 2019

Leaving work at five o’clock in the dark is never nice but it depends how you look at it. Inspired by the Dark Night Skies initiative, I made a stop off on my way home to see some stars. I have been photographing trees in the dark since about 2008, mainly of trees under street lamps in south London. It was something to do in those long, drawn out winter evenings. Since then I have started photographing trees in the daylight, too. Having had the chance to volunteer and work in woodland conservation has taught me a lot about trees and their ecology. Having moved away from practical woodland conservation in the day-to-day sense, though still leading the odd tree walk, I am reveling in photographing some of the trees that are found throughout Sussex. One of the trees I have had the pleasure of spending some time with is the Queen Elizabeth I sessile oak in the South Downs National Park. This tree is completely hollow and has perhaps been around for 1000 years.

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Photographing the same tree again and again isn’t always interesting for you or other people. A recent interest in the night sky (the fact I can now see it, being away from a city, rather than knowing anything beyond the moon and the plough) gave me the idea to use the early nightfall to try and photograph this amazingly old tree under the stars.

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The photos were taken with a wide angle lens and a tripod. I used my mobile phone torch to light the tree. The bright light above is the moon, something that plays havoc with night photography due to the fact it outshines many of the stars.

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The problem with my phone torch is that it goes off after a while so I had to trot back and forth to keep the light on. In this light the tree looks fleshy and bulbous, quite animal-like I think.

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When the mobile phone torch light did go out, this is how it looked. I like how the branches reach out to the stars and the astronomically-illiterate thought that they might get snagged in them.

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There are many ancient trees at Cowdray Park in West Sussex near Midhurst. It is almost a point of pilgrimage for people who love old trees and feel some kind of emotional connection to the eldest we have left. This oak has lost almost all of its heartwood and has sinewy remnants decaying inside the bark. I love the purple hue in this photo and the way the distortion of the 10mm wide angle lens warps the trees in the background. I love the rawness of the tree in itself and the stars touching the outstretched twigs.