I do find it difficult to appreciate how quickly my mood can change. Despite my friend leaving rather late and the clocks “springing” forward an hour last night, I decided that I needed to try taking some pictures of the stars last night. This time I decided I needed to take some supplies (a large package of crisps and a bottle of water) and a pair of trousers (soft shell material) just in case I managed to have another mishap and get stuck again. I noticed it was ten past one in the morning when I went into the bedroom and rummage through my wardrobe with the light of my mobile to find my trousers. It took me just over thirty minutes to get to my “darker sky” site that I went to before, but this time I pulled into the closed entrance of a wind farm so there was plenty of room to stumble around in the dark.

I turned off the main road onto one of the country lanes that knits it’s way through the dark. I also turned off the music I was singing along to; it takes time to adjust to the rhythm of lane driving and at that time of night I wanted to have my best concentration available. As I drove through the country lanes, I monitored the temperature and saw it plunge from six degrees C at home to sub-freezing. The puddles in the road were not frozen yet but I did wonder what the road conditions would be like on my return. There are no gritters out in these remote parts. I really didn’t want to get stuck again.

There really isn’t much setting up to do once I have parked up. I got out of the car, zipped all my layers up, pulled the hood of my hoodie up over my fleecy hat and put on my duvet jacket. I pulled my long woollen socks up but decided to stay in shorts and completed the ensemble with fingerless woollen mittens. Next up was fitting the camera onto the tripod and if I could see, the quick release fitting would be a doddle but in little light it always takes me a few seconds of fiddling around to work out why it won’t click into the secure position. All that is left to do is to extend the tripod legs and the central strut, choose a piece of sky and take photos.

Except the exposure settings need to be change. In my rush I didn’t take my headtorch which can operate with a red LED so I am once again fiddling with controls trying to remember which button gives me quick access to the self-timer, etc. I am aware that the light form the camera display and the interior lights on the car (which seemed to stay on for an inordinate amount of time – I think I left a rear door ajar) are affecting my night vision but to be honest I don’t think it matters too much. The clarity of the night sky is amazing. I can see so many stars that I actually find it hard to identify the common constellations. Is that the Big Dipper asterism? Yes it must be, then is that the pole star? It doesn’t look so busy normally. I think I see Cassiopeia, which means the Milky Way might actually be visible too. As time goes on, I convince myself I can see the band that is a sideways view of our galaxy just above the horizon to the north east.

I manage to get the autofocus to lock onto Jupiter shining clearly in the southerly direction and then switch the focus to manual. Starting with Ursula Major I point the camera in the rough direction. The Plough shows up nicely on the camera’s screen and I readjust the camera position and take another test. I start taking multiple 15 second shots with the maximum aperture and minimum ISO settings. Somehow I have changed the settings so that the camera isn’t doing noise reduction calculations on the JPG files it produces but I have no idea how I did it. I am not worried about the JPGs to be honest, it is the RAW files I need for stacking. The reduced calculation workload means that the images are captured quite quickly (and also means the battery lasts much longer). Reviewing an image on the camera screen shows fine details and colours my eye doesn’t pick out directly. This feels a bit too easy.

Other constellations follow, Gemini, Cassiopeia, Auriga, Leo Minor and Cygnus. I don’t recognise all these though until I consult my laptop software, some are chosen because they look like good targets. I finish off by composing some shots with Jupiter in it. The images are interesting. There are some low clouds in the south and light pollution shows from what I can only assume is Perth some twenty miles away. Some stars shine through the clouds and all in all it is an interesting effect. I shift Jupiter around the frame and try different angles; they look good.

I have probably been standing there for a little under an hour but it feels like it is time to head home. I am pleased by the images I have captured, I just hope something will be useable. As I pack up the equipment and load it back into the car, I remind myself that I am still learning this type of photography but as I turn the ignition key and depress the clutch to start the engine, I am in a buoyant mood. It was definitely worth the effort to come out here and if nothing else, I’ve had a great look at the sky.

I light up the countryside with my full-beam lights, set the music playing to sing along to (I find it is a good way of keeping awake) and head off with Jupiter my guide. I enjoy the drive back, the road is familiar and I am relaxed. I see (but not hit) two raptors and a hair in its winter whites which feels like rewards for staying up late. With music blaring I seem to get back to the main road much quicker on my return and so onto home. As I reverse onto my driveway, some music comes on from I band I don’t know but it captures my attention and the voices of a women solo, then a man solo, then a duet pull me in. I sit on the driveway listening until it finishes. I pull the key out of the ignition and open the door. It seems to me that I am content; it has been a long tough day in some ways but I am so glad I made the effort to get out. It certainly seems to appear to have paid off.

Postscript

The next dayI find time to review the images I took. Initially they look black on my laptop but with a lot of fiddling, the stars come through. Unfortunately this tweaking doesn’t seem to be preserving the colours of the stars, there is far too much red in the image. Dammit, it seems I should have increased the ISO rating to gain more dynamic range. I think my night vision gave me a false view of the images when I looked at them on the camera screen. Maybe I will get some improvement when I stack them but I wonder if it is worth the effort. Fifteen seconds also seems to be a bit on the long side because some star trailing is apparent, though maybe I don’t need to be as zoomed in.

It looks like I need to improve my knowledge. At least Jupiter didn’t come out too bad.

 

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