Whaling Station Startrails

Whaling Station Startrails


A very brief history of the Isle of Harris whaling station: in the early 1900s, a  Norwegian family ran a whaling station at Bunavoneader (Bun Abhainn Eadar), North Harris. After the First World War, Lord Leverhulme took over, and Lever Brothers ran things until its closure in 1929, following Leverhulme’s death. The station re-opened in 1950 for a few years. It was closed for good in the late 1950s.

I’ve been trying to get a decent night shot of this place for the past 2 years. 2011 has been a poor year in terms of clear skies coinciding with the full moon, therefore severely limiting photo opportunities for the aspiring night photographer. This month came up trumps and the night of November 10th and into the early hours of November 11th saw a super bright full moon accompanied by almost cloudless skies.

Following a drive around the Bays of Harris, taking several shots along the way, I figured a trip to the old whaling station could be worthwhile. I’d attempted a couple of long exposure shots here during August’s full moon which came out kind of OK but there were enough clouds around to make it less than ideal. Despite hanging around for a couple of hours, waiting for the skies to clear and let the moonlight through, things only got worse. Here’s the best of the two shots from August….

Whaling Station

This time around, there wasn’t a cloud to be seen but the moonlight was coming in from the sea side of the tower, ruling out a shot from the same angle as the one I took in August.  While I was wandering around the foot of the tower looking for a good angle, I spotted the Big Dipper (aka the Plough). Using my very limited knowledge of the night sky, I could pinpoint the location of the North Star, also known as Polaris. See the diagram below:

North Star location

To locate the North Star, extend an imaginary line from the two stars furthest from the ‘handle’ section of the Big Dipper. Your imaginary line needs to be approximately four to five times longer than the distance between the two ‘dipper’ stars. This will take you straight to the North Star.

It’s a quirk of the solar system that a line drawn through the earth’s north-south axis interects with the North Star. As a result, night photographs using long enough exposures will record startrails rotating around a point that happens to coincide with the position of the North Star. The southern hemisphere doesn’t have an equivalent so this only works for photographers sited north of the equator.

Most of my night photos are in the 3 to 4 minute range, which is sufficient to record the stars leaving brief light trails as the earth rotates. I’ve occasionally run to much longer times which in turn records much more dramatic trails.

Because the Outer Hebrides lies at a relatively northerly latitude compared to most (57° plus in Harris), the North star appears much higher in the sky than it would to someone a little closer to the equator (like Cornwall 😉 ). Because of this, it’s difficult to squeeze the North Star into the frame if you’re also trying to include a decent portion of  ground level subject matter in the foreground.

The whaling station chimney is one of  the tallest structures in Harris – we’ve got very few buildings higher than two stories!  Now the plan formed… find a spot for the camera that aligned the North Star with the top of the chimney. There’s only one perfect spot and I could see the angle would require positioning the tripod close to the shoreline. After a bit of precarious scrambling around and eyeballing the North Star’s position in relation to the top of the chimney stack, I settled on a spot and set up for 60 minutes’ worth of exposures.

It’s always a gamble committing to such a long exposure – there’s no guarantee it’ll work, plus you’re  giving away an hour of precious moonlight time that could yield a far greater number of shots. I loaded a pair of fully charged batteries into the camera, programmed the timer and hit the button. Time: 3.35am. I hung around long enough to check the second exposure kicked in after the first six minutes had passed by. It looked like everything was working as it should. I spent the next 54 minutes wandering around the nearby ruined buildings and foundations, went back to the van for a shot of coffee, listened to the radio, looked at the sea and pondered the meaning of life 😉

Got back to the camera just before the 60 minutes were up. Everything was still working OK, no condensation on the lens. The signs were good. All over at 4.35am.

The image at the top of the page is the result.

A few technical details:

I used an interval timer and set it to take 10 x 6 minute exposures, with an interval of 1 second between each. If I’d simply locked the shutter open for an hour, the image would have been massively over exposed. I used a free Photoshop plug-in called Dr. Robert’s Stack-a-Matic to layer the images on top of eachother. By setting the blend mode to maximum, the programme reveals only the portions of the underlying images that are brighter than those above. Because everything effectively remains the same throughout, apart from the stars’ movement, the final image reveals the hour long startrails. What you’re actually seeing is how far the earth has revolved relative to the stars in that hour.

The final picture of the tower with the stars radiating around its top reminded me of something.
Remember this?









4 thoughts on “Whaling Station Startrails”

  1. John, this is really great, but also a great read also about the technical details. I love seeing Harris through your lens. I’m a member of Ayrshire Astronomical Society and agreed, it has been an AWFUL year in Scotland for the night sky. But I’m really enjoying seeing images from folk who are finding gaps between the clouds. Well done.

    I’d like to know exactly what kit you used on this shot if possible.


  2. Thanks Chris.
    Agreed, the weather hasn’t been great this year, especially during the few days around the full moon that I rely on to create my night photos. I got a few night shots back in January and February but subsequent months saw heavy cloud obscure the full moonlit skies. The other disadvantage we have this far north is the night sky is too bright during the summer months of May, June and July to capture any stars, although that’s probably seen as a major advantage to most normal folk who have a life outside of night photography 😉

    In fact this months full moon was so bright, the majority of shots I took on the night look like daylight images; the only give away in some instances being the appearance of extended startrails in the sky. I suspect if you’re into photographing the night sky from an astronomy point of view, the full moon isn’t the best time of the month as the brighter sky tends to lessen the visual impact of the stars?

    As for the kit…

    Camera: Canon 5D.

    Lens: I recently purchased a Samyang 14mm prime, which might be termed an ultra-ultra wide angle lens! My usual choice of lens for night photos with the full frame 5D is a Canon 17-40mm L but in this case the extra field of view was a bonus because it got way more of the scene into the shot than the 17-40mm would allow. Because there was only one camera position for this shot to work, the extra viewing angle afforded by the 14mm lens made it the obvious choice. The 17-40mm couldn’t have got as much of the sky or foreground into the frame so would have lost a huge portion of the startrails. The downside to going so wide with the camera pointed upward at a reasonably steep angle, is perspective distortion. You can see an almost fisheye style effect, particularly on the hills in the far right of the photo. I corrected this a little in Photoshop but if you go too far, the chimney starts to look weird.

    The Samyang is a fully manual lens, so it takes a little more care when setting up the shot compared to using an Auto Foucus lens. I’ll review the Samyang 14mm in an upcoming blog post, including an inexpensive modification I’ve added to better aid focusing. This was the first time I used the Samyang on a night shoot and for the money, I have to say I’m very impressed with the results. I bought it new for £269 including delivery. Compare that to Canon’s 14mm-L prime at around £1500!!

    Camera settings: you can check the exif info on the photo’s flickr page but because the Samyang lens is fully manual and therefore has no direct communication with the camera, focal length and aperture are reported incorrectly (f/1.4, 50mm). The actual settings were f/5.6 with focal length fixed at 14mm and for best image quality, ISO 100. With such a wide angle lens, anything from about a metre away to infinity is in good focus, even at f/5.6!

    Other techy stuff: I used a Hahnel Giga T Pro wireless shutter release to programme the length and number of shots. For this setup I programmed it to take ten exposures of six minutes duration, with a one second interval between each to minimise the possibility of any gaps appearing in the startrails.
    I’ve also fitted my camera with a battery grip so I have double the battery power. I probably could have crammed in an extra hour or more if I’d had the patience 😉

    This was all mounted on a Manfrotto 055XPROB tripod, fitted with a PhotoClam 44mm ball head, which uses the Arca-Swiss style mount system. Connection between camera and tripod is via a recently purchased ‘Really Right Stuff’ L-plate.