Milky Way panorama from Holy Island in Northumberland fine art print.
I'd already got the idea of the image via a friend, but an image such as this requires lots of variables to be in-place including the right time of year for the Milky Way to be seen off the east coast and also for the ash cloud to rise before sunrise; this tends to be during February through to mid May - any later with the early rising sun, you get to much 'sun' pollution in the night sky at around the time you'd expect to see the Milky Way. No moon, as the moon sheds too much light into the night sky and of course clear skies.
I'd checked the forecast for this particular night and the met office said clear skies… a good starting point. I also used a little app called the Photographers Ephemeris (a must have for any landscape photographer) to find out when the moon would rise and fall - according to the app, the moon would set below the horizon at 3:30, just in time for the Milky Way's large ash cloud to rise over the horizon.
One more very important part of this shoot would be the tide - Holy Island as you may have guessed is an Island, and you require low tide to make onto it via the road. A quick check on the website told me the tide would be at it's lowest at 2am… bang on the money!!
With all these in place, I made plans for heading out at 2am, with an arrival time of around 3:15/30. Anyone who has small children in the house will know that plans never quite work out! I went to bed at 12 with the intention of leaving at 2am… My grandson put pay to that! He woke up at 1am rather unhappy, which in turn woke the house up - Being wide awake and only having had 30mins or so sleep, I pulled myself out of bed, made a flask of coffee, gathered my gear and set off on the 1hr and half drive up to Holy Island.
As you head to Holy Island, you see the light pollution from the cities slowly diminish, and mile by mile you start to see the night sky in more detail. I arrived at the causeway bang on 2:20 and as the tides had suggested, I was able to drive straight onto the Island - trying of course to be as quiet as possible driving through the little village. As I'd been to the Island on quite a few occasions, I knew exactly where to head to and park up.
I arrived at my location, turned off the car and sat for 5 mins in the dark, allowing my eyes to adjust. Once adjusted, I got out of the car, and what a view of the night sky you get; it's pitch back and with a clear sky it is just beautiful. I grabbed my gear from out of the boot and tool the short walk to where I'd spend the next 4hrs!! The spot I chose was to include the upturned boats to the left of the frame and Lindisfarne Castle in the distance. The upturned boats are now fishermen's huts, used for storing all of their gear and Lindisfarne Castle is where the Vikings landed and massacred all of the inhabitants in AD 793 - a little slice of history for you there.
The shot, or should I say shots, where taken in March of this year on a bitterly cold night!! Being a hiker/climber I'm used to being out in all weathers, so of course I was suitable dressed to spend 5hrs out in the cold - big Rab winter jacket, winter trousers, big boots, gloves, hat and of course…. my flask of coffee!
I knew from the outset, that I would need to take multiple images and stitch them together later in post production - even using the wide angle lens, it just isn't wide enough to fit the entire scene in all at once. Regarding this, there's certain preparation work you have to do. First is to ensure that the tripod is perfectly level, then you've got to ensure that the camera is level throughout its rotation. Once I'd picked my spot where I'd be taking the series of images, I set about getting the tripod and ball head level, then a couple of test images noting how many images I would need for each section of final image, each one overlapping the previous slightly; this ended up being 3 horizontal images across the bottom and 5 vertical ones across the top.
With it still being quite early (around 3am), the moon was still up and throwing a little light on the boat sheds - not enough to fully illuminate them, but enough to give me something to work with. The camera I used was a Nikon D800e and the lens was a Nikon 14-24 f/2.8 - highly regarded as the best wide zoom available for Digital camera's. Being a fast 2.8 lens, it allows me to not use a really high ISO value, which in-turn reduces noise in the image… A killer of astro-photography!! I took a couple or initial tests, eventually working out that an exposure time of 20s, f/2.8 at ISO 800 was enough to pull the details from the boat-sheds and foreground - even with this, I still had to use my torch for the last few seconds of the exposure to throw some extra light on the boats. Using an exposure such as this, enables me to pull details from the darkness that you just can't see with the naked eye.
I took numerous images for the foreground until the moon dipped below the horizon behind me - and what a difference to the night sky this makes. It is as if by magic, the sky comes alive and shows you mother-nature has been hiding - with that and a couple of minutes for my eyes to adjust, the fabulous Milky Way becomes visible - not as visible as the camera see's, but still a stunning site!!
With the milk way now in view, I took the camera of the ball head and turned it into portrait mode so I could shoot the vertical set. Again, I set about taking a few test images, working out the correct exposure and overlap points for each images. With the tests done, I ended up requiring 5 images, each with an exposure of 28s, f/2.8 at ISO 5000. Using these settings allows so much light to enter the camera and as mentioned above, allow you to see much more information that the naked eye just cannot see.
The downside to using such an exposure is the amount of light you pull in from miles away. The light to the left of the image is from Berwick and the light from the right is Bamburgh - this light was not visible with the naked eye, but because of the amount of light you gather, you're also able to see the milk way in all it's detail.
From the time the moon set, through until around 5am, I carried on shooting the vertical series of images; starting from the left, then image by image, turning the camera a few degrees to the right and capturing a new image. I stopped at 5am as by now, you could see the faint glow on the horizon from the rising sun, which minute by minute would render the milky way less visible.
During this time, lots of fishermen went past, geared up and set off in their little boats, plus I had a police-man stop and question me…. after all, strange man stood out by the boat sheds with a head torch! He was suitable impressed when I showed him a couple of the images from the back of camera preview.
5:30am after packing up, I headed back home - stopping off at Mc Donald's for a well deserved breakfast and cappuccino, eventually arriving back home at around 7:30am…. ready to start a regular days work!! I didn't even look at the images on the mac until around lunch time at which point I was bouncing with Joy over what I'd captured, but now started the laborious task of sticking and blending all of the images together. This proved to be a pain of task, with a final native print size of over 52" and a file size around 2gb… Photoshop scratch disk size was 10gb!! As you imagine, this put quite a strain on my Mac, which is by no-means a slouch!!! The final image once stitched together then required other adjustments in PhotoShop to bring out the finer details of the MilkyWay, including contrast adjustments and a couple of curves adjustment layers.
I'm utterly over the moon with the final image, and peoples reactions have been extremely complimentary - The image has gone on to win a variety of competitions including the 'Big Picture' in the Daily Telegraph which won me a new camera - it is also my best selling piece of work to date - this images comes to life when you see it as a large, high-quality print with all of the smaller details, galaxies, shooting starts etc popping out of the print. You can't see in the screen version, but there are various shooting stars, and other galaxies clearly visible and millions of other starts that you cannot see with the eye.
This is one of my favourite images to date and has so far been featured in the DailyMail and also the Telegraph newspapers.
All images are under copyright © Richards & Co Photography