Night photography: January stars

These long, cold nights are a good chance to spend some time exploring the night sky. In mid-January we’ve had a number of gloriously sunny days and clear nights. After one of the dreariest Decembers on record in the UK, with only an averaged total of 27 hours of direct sunlight, it is very welcome.

The clear nights have given me so much to photograph: starry skies followed by frosty, foggy mornings with beautiful light.

Tonight (14th January) I spent a bit of time in my garden with my full-frame DSLR and a 50mm lens with an f1.4 aperture. That’s a very bright lens, meaning it collects a high level of light which is very good for astrophotography. My garden is packed in among several others, so when one neighbour a couple of doors down pops out, they usually see me as a man standing there in the dark. It can be quite awkward when you say things like, “I’m trying to get a photo of Uranus”.

I couldn’t even manage that. Here’s what I did get:

Orion is my go-to constellation. I find it easy to identify and does help to anchor my eyes in the night sky.

Hoping the diagram above makes sense to you. Orion’s belt is the most obvious part of the constellation. Don’t mess with Orion!

My 50mm lens is bright but it doesn’t reach very far. That said I did crop part of the image to capture part of the Orion nebula (‘Gt. Neb.’ in the image above).

This is one of two new constellations for me that I photographed: Gemini. It’s probably not that easy to make out but it covers the whole of the image. I think also that I tilted the camera to much which makes the two anchoring stars on the left hand side (Pollux and Castor) out of sync with the diagrams. Come on, it was dark out there!

Gemini is Latin for ‘twins’, representing Greek mythological figures Castor and Pollux.

The second of the two new constellations for me was the head of Hydra, which can be seen as the clearest collection of stars here.

I was amazed to read that Hydra is the largest constellation in the night sky. It’s not surprising when you later see the diagram and how huge it is.

Thanks for reading.

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The Sussex Weald: stars in a different sky

The Low Weald, West Sussex, January 2021

A second wave of Covid has thrown us back into lockdown in England. You can only leave the house for essentials and exercise. It’s much harder now that the night falls early and the window on experiencing daylight has narrowed. But the days are lengthening and spring is building in small ways.

At night the foxes are making their blood-curdling cries and other social calls. They are breeding, probably just outside the back door each night.

On clear nights I sit on the edge of the bed and, with lights out, can see stars. The three lights of Orion’s Belt shine bright, but not more so than Sirius to the south-east. It’s the brightest star in the sky.

Out on my exercise for the day, I stand in a frosty glade of bracken. Silver birches are clustered at the edges, ash branches have collapsed and fallen to the ground. Their twigs reveal leafy lichens, in some places known as oak moss. There are real mosses too, little green pin cushions with their sporophytes poised.

The birds are foraging for life in this time of scarcity. A jay moves between trees and shrubs, flushing white wing-bars as it flies. Nuthatches are dripping from the tree trunks in both number and sound. Further away the hooting of two tawny owls ruffles out of the trees, half-baked. Are these early territorial warning signs? Spring, indeed.

Alarm calls break across the branches and bare blue sky. It is a beautiful day. Knowing these alarm calls mean something is happening, I look up at the patch of sky over the clearing. From the north-west two birds fly close to one another, on passage. To identify them will take a process of elimination:

  • Wings too sharp for sparrowhawk
  • Too small and direct in flight for buzzard
  • Too big for merlin
  • Hobbies are holidaying in Africa
  • Tail too short for kestrel

They’re peregrine falcons, stars in a different sky. Perhaps they are returning to the South Downs and an early morning hunting pigeons in the towns. Maybe they’re a pair getting to know each other and seeking a place to breed. Wherever they’re going, bit by bit, winter is edging away with them.

The Sussex Weald