Light up the Skies with astrophotographer Stephen Banks
PUBLISHED: 14:39 07 February 2014 | UPDATED: 14:40 07 February 2014
The latest craze for night-time photography is proving particularly popular in Dorset because of its uniquely dark skies. This lack of light pollution has provided the launch pad for the stellar career of stargazing photographer Stephen Banks
It is night-time at Durdle Door. Overhead the Milky Way arcs like a sparkly scarf thrown up to heaven. A light, cold breeze rustles the
grass and below the waves sigh on the shingle. The only other sound is a small click every 30 seconds as a camera captures long exposures of the stars.
Look closer and you’ll see a muffled figure, bundled up in hat, thick parka and fingerless gloves, crouched on the ground by the camera tripod, his face half-lit by the eerie, perpetual glow of his iPhone.
Stephen Banks, from Bridport, is one of a growing number of enthusiasts who have taken up night-time photography. His pictures have featured centre-spread in The Guardian, on the cover of an Astronomy Photographer of the Year book, in the Trinity House Lighthouses calendar for 2014 and on BBC Stargazing Live. His time-lapse video, Bridport by Night, is a viral hit on YouTube with nearly 25,000 views. Not bad for a 24-year-old who only took up photographing the stars two years ago.
Stephen explains how he began: “In 2011 I saw a time-lapse video called The Mountain, filmed in a wilderness area in Spain, and it inspired me to do the same thing for Dorset. There were a couple of warm, very clear weeks that October so I went out with my camera around Bridport to experiment.”
To make a time-lapse video you take a sequence of single still pictures and then run them together to create an animation.
“The first sequences were rubbish,” he says, with brutal honesty. “They were too dark and too short.” Stephen discovered that to create a successful sequence you needed 200 shots for a sequence of eight seconds and with each frame having an exposure of up to 30 seconds. “That required up to two hours filming each time, not the 20 minutes or so that I was giving it.”
Even so, he managed to capture a small piece of time-lapse that showed the stars moving. “That really inspired me. I knew I could do better and I hadn’t pushed the limits of my camera or myself. I quickly realised that with a bit more dedication I could get good results.”
Stephen spent that winter out and about at night photographing the stars moving above Bridport landmarks. Because he didn’t have a car he was limited to places he could reach by bicycle. This required real dedication and sometimes resulted in some scary moments.
“There was one night in early January and it was about minus two degrees with a chilly wind. I was out on top of Colmer’s Hill in Symondsbury until nearly 2am. When the time came to cycle home I was frozen (as was the frame of my bike) and my brain sort of switched off. I didn’t know Symondsbury and I got lost in the lanes and I was panicking a bit. Silly really as I was so near home. I should have done a recce in daylight and been better prepared; I learnt from that. But it was all worth it when one of the photos from that night made it onto the closing credits of BBC Stargazing Live.”
The end result of his winter months of stargazing photography was a time-lapse film Bridport By Night, Stephen’s moving tribute to his adopted hometown, which went online at the end of January 2012.
“I wanted to make a tourism video that showed Bridport in a totally different light that would make people look again at familiar places.”
Originally from Liverpool, Stephen’s active social media profile as the Dorset Scouser catapulted the film in front of tens of thousands of people and whetted his appetite for collaboration.
Passing his test and buying a car expanded his geographical range and he was immediately on to his next project, Dorset by Night.
Though technically better, it hasn’t proved as popular as Bridport by Night. “I think that’s because it doesn’t have the same sense of place,” says Stephen. “I don’t really photograph the stars in themselves and I’d be pushed to identify a lot of the constellations. What I focus on is the landscape foregrounded against the much bigger picture of the stars overhead.”
The summer of 2012 had plenty of clear, warm nights. Stephen spent a lot of them at Durdle Door seeking the ultimate image of the Milky Way over the famous rock arch.
“I’d upgraded my camera so I could get better stills. I concentrated on that rather than time-lapse and I used an LED torch to ‘paint in’ features of the arch.”
He also photographed Knowlton Church, near Wareham, a ruined, medieval church, set within a Neolithic henge earthwork, which is reputed to be one of Dorset’s most haunted places. “I don’t believe in ghosts, but when you are out in the dark all your senses are heightened and you can get jumpy,” says Stephen. “I was walking towards the church when I heard voices. I couldn’t see anyone, just little flashes of light. My heart was really racing but I walked around the other side of the church and there were two deep-space photographers with a telescope. They had been attracted to the site like me because of its dark skies.”
Stephen’s now developing his latest project, Dorset Dark Skies on Twitter (@DorsetDarkSkies). “Dorset has got some excellent dark sky locations,” he says.
“There are dark skies reserves in other parts of the South West and I’d like to see something similar in Dorset because there is a growing interest in stargazing and photography - and the county as a whole could benefit from that.”
Stephen’s top tips
You will need:
1. Digital SLR camera with wide-angle, wide aperture (f/2.8 or wider), easy-to-manual-focus lens
2. Sturdy tripod
3. Good footwear
4. Bright LED torch
5. Warm clothes
Best night-time locations:
These have the least light pollution and offer the dark skies you need for great images.
1. Durdle Door
2. Lulworth Cove
3. Knowlton Church
4. Corfe Castle
5. Colmer’s Hill, Bridport
1. Don’t be afraid to push your camera beyond what you think is its limit. If you get serious and find your camera isn’t good enough, you might want to upgrade to a full-frame camera, but you can do a lot with a basic digital SLR.
2. A 30-second exposure is the maximum length to use; otherwise the stars appear to move in your individual shots.
3. Use a wide aperture (f/2.8 or less) to allow as much light in as possible.
4. Set your manual focus to infinity (or as close as you can get to it). Remember, space is infinite!
5. Set your interval timer if you want to do time-lapse. These are often built into the most recent digital SLRs, but if you have an older one, you can get separate remote shutter triggers, which also allow for shutter speeds of over 30 seconds.
6. Set your camera sensitivity to a high setting (1,600 to 6,400+).
1. First visit your location in the daytime. Work out the best route and best angles to shoot from. Consider the position of the stars, phase of the moon and Milky Way for that evening.
2. Don’t give up - the more you are out with your camera, the more likely you are to see a spectacular fleeting moment, such as a meteor.
3. Co-operate with other photographers - if there’s someone else taking a picture at the location, go and talk to them and see what they’re doing. You don’t want to spoil each other’s shots.
4. Don’t leave your camera unattended, especially in tricky situations. Working in the dark is very precarious and one little knock to your tripod could spell disaster for thousands of pounds worth of kit.
5. Work with the seasons. Winter has long dark nights, better for shooting specific celestial objects. Summer has short nights, but the Milky Way is at its clearest. Stay up until the early hours of the morning at the height of summer for the best Milky Way pictures.
6. If the moon is out, forget about the stars. Use the moonlight to your advantage, lighting up landscapes, casting interesting shadows. Also think about using cloud cover to add drama and a sense of motion.
7. Make the most of technology. Mobile phone/tablet apps like StarWalk allow you to pinpoint certain objects in the night sky. Various websites (such as timeanddate.com/worldclock/astronomy) allow you to track the position and phase of the moon, as well as when it rises and sets.
8. Look out for periods of heightened night sky activity. International Space Station pass-overs, meteor showers, penumbral eclipses and super moons or aurorae.
If you’re stuck, ask Stephen for tips. You can find him on:
Follow @DorsetDarkSkies on Twitter to share your photos
Saturday 8 February: Stargazing Night An introduction to stargazing in association with BBC Stargazing Live and Wessex Astronomical Society at Moors Valley Park in East Dorset. A selection of telescopes will be available to use at the lakeside picnic area. Introductory talks at approximately 7.15pm and 8.30pm. Doors open at 6.45pm ends 10pm. For more details visit moors-valley.co.uk or call 01425 470721
Monday 24 February (and three following Mondays): Stargazing Course Join Stephen Tonkin for a tour around our night sky on this four-week course at Moors Valley Park, East Dorset. Sessions cover observing equipment, the Solar System and Deep Sky Objects (galaxies, nebulae and star clusters). Four consecutive Mondays, 7pm – 9pm cost £32 per person for the course. For more details and to book visit moors-valley.co.uk or call 01425 470721.