Stargazing and Aurora Watching in Scotland

Scotland, and the Scottish Highlands in particular, is a fantastic place to view the natural wonders of the night sky. With relatively little light pollution away from the larger towns and cities it is possible to find some truly dark places where the stars will both dazzle and enthrall you.

If you are staying with us at Inverglen Guest House, then right on our doorstep is Moray, an area with many dark skies locations. The Moray coast has fantastic clear, dark, northern horizons that are ideal for both Aurora watching and general star-gazing. One of the favorite spots is at Alturlie Point just a few miles from our Guest House where displays of the Northern Lights are regularly seen. Another of our local tips for star-gazing is the Clava Cairns (a bronze age burial site with standing stones) where spectacular skies can be seen.

If you are interested in learning more about the night sky why not check out http://www.sigma-astro.co.uk/ which is Moray’s Astronomy Club. The club hosts public events throughout the year, dependent on interesting astronomical opportunities, or occasionally drop-of-the-hat sessions such as Aurora Watches.

Another superb Scottish Highlands location for star gazing is The Isle of Skye. This follows the launch of “Dark Skye” by the Astronomer Royal for Scotland, Professor John Brown. This project plans to build on the recent accreditation of nine Dark Sky Discovery Sites across the island. In the northwest area there are 3 sites around Waternish, another near Broadford, and a further 2 at Kylerhea and Kinloch Forest. The remaining three sites are on Clan Donald land at Armadale in the southwest of the island.

The Isle of Skye is blessed with very little light pollution and it is fairly easy to find yourself in some excellent dark locations. All the designated Dark Skye Discovery Sites  are well marked, have car parking and are wheelchair accessible. You can find out more at www.darksky-skye.com

How to Photograph the Night Sky

Photographing the night sky and getting good images does require a degree of discipline and is certainly helped by having the right equipment. However, it needn’t be too difficult and it is a truly fascinating and amazing experience.

When you find yourself in a truly dark location you will be amazed at just how many stars can be seen. If you follow the steps below there is a good chance you will get some truly wonderful images of the night sky.

Equipment

  • DSLR Camera (or similar) – you don’t need top of the range, but just one that is good at a high ISO
  • Wide angle lens – the wider the better and preferably with a wide maximum aperture (f2.8 or better)
  • Cable release (or intervalometer if you would like star trails or are shooting a timelapse)
  • Good sturdy tripod
  • Warm clothes (it can get cold)
  • Torch (a head torch is useful)

Where and When

Although the UK can be quite bad for light pollution in general, the Scottish Highlands does afford many more dark sky locations. You need to find somewhere with as little light pollution as possible, and we’ll gladly point you in the right direction. We are lucky to be right next to a north facing coastline which can yeild some spectacular views of the Northern Lights.

You can photograph the night sky throughout the year, but for the best results you need a good clear night with no clouds and no moon in the sky. Scotland in winter can be a fantastic location, but do be aware of the cold. In summer, the days are far longer, making star watching more challenging, but still highly rewarding.

Although for the best star photos you will want to choose nights when there is no moon, it can sometimes be a help, particularly when it is in its first phases as  it’s light will help get a more even exposure by bringing out details in the foreground.

Taking the Photograph

It is best to get to your location before it gets too dark. This will give you time to explore the area and find the best place from which to take your pictures. If you are trying to do this in the pitch dark you run the risk of tripping over unseen hazards (a reason why the head torch is helpful).

Once you have your spot, set your tripod up and ensure it is firmly planted. Now put your camera into manual mode and ensure that the lens is set for manual focusing. Make sure your lens is set to focus to infinity by turning the focus ring until you see the ∞ symbol.

Although the stars may look fairly static, they are actually moving pretty quickly across the sky due to the earth’s rotation. If you leave the camera shutter open too long it will create star trails (which is okay if that is what you want), rather than capturing stars as stars.

Selecting the right shutter speed to avoid star trails forming is fairly easy. All you need to know is the focal length of your lens and your camera’s crop factor. All you do is take the number 500 and divide it by the focal length of your lens, the divide that figure by the crop factor of your camera’s sensor if it isn’t full frame. As an example I have taken a 20mm lens on a Canon 50D (which has a 1.6 crop factor) to work out the shutter speed as follows:

500 divided by 2o (the focal length of the lens) = 25

25 divided by 1.6 (the crop factor of the Canon 50D) = 15 Second (rounded down from 15.625 seconds)

Using the above calculation we know that the longest exposure we can take before the stars start to blur is 15 seconds.

As you are in manual mode on your camera, set the shutter speed to 15 seconds (or the appropriate figure based on your lens and crop factor as detailed above) and also set the lens to its widest aperture. Now, you are going to need a fairly high ISO and depending on where you are and how much ambient light there is, the correct setting may vary quite a bit. As a starting point I would recommend trying something like ISO 2000, but you may need to experiment to see what works for your chosen location. Just fire off a test shot and see what things look like on the camera and adjust as necessary. A test shot also allows you to check that the focus is good.

The above tips will get you started, but beyond these basics there is a host of variations that allow you to get creative with your compositions.

In future posts we will give tips on photographing The Northern Lights and also producing star trails.

Visit the Stars via Scotland