The UK is the home of some of Europe’s best stargazing sites. Thanks to the dark skies and low light pollution ratings, the UK has more than 100 stargazing sites which makes it one of the best places to capture astrophotography shots. Astrophotography is challenging to capture even in the UK’s darkest spots. Here are Wilkinson’s top locations and tips for astrophotography in the UK.
Ennerdale, Lake District National Park, Cumbria
Ennerdale, located in the Lake District National Park, is one of the most remote valleys in the UK and is located almost two miles away from the nearest public road. This site has special stargazing events taking place all throughout the year. Weather permitting you can see an endless, illuminated band of countless stars across the night sky. Not only that, but you can also see meteor showers and, if you are lucky, the Milky Way! The Low Gillerthewaite Field Centre was the first Dark Sky Discovery centre in the North West of England and has attracted thousands of astrophotography enthusiasts who come to enjoy and shoot the spectacular scenery above.
Tip 1: Use a Tripod
Getting a great camera with the correct settings is always the first step. But, for great night sky images, a tripod is essential. You’ll be shooting with lower shutter speeds, so to ensure sharp images you’re going to need a tripod. Your own heart beat will result in blurry images beyond 1/60 second shutter speed and that’s assuming you aren’t shivering in the cold! (The clear skies which are so perfect for night sky photography also mean colder conditions!)
BONUS TIP: Remember to turn stabilisation off on your lens (or on your camera if you have in-build image stabilisation) when using a tripod. Having stabilisation turned on when mounting your camera on a tripod can result in blur due to how the stabilisation systems work.
Cairngorms National Park, Scotland
Cairngorms National Park in Scotland is the most northern National Park in the UK. It is one of the best places in the UK to perfect your astrophotography technique. The remote areas of Tomintoul and Glenlivet are particularly good for stargazing and you can see the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) from the Glenlivet Estate depending on the season. Cairngorms National Park is on the same latitude as parts of Norway and Alaska, so you can see the natural wonder of the Northern Lights without having to leave the UK.
Tip 2: Use a Release Cable or Remote to Trigger the Shutter
Just as your heartbeat can sometimes affect the sharpness and clarity of your images, the movement of pressing and then releasing the shutter on your camera can do the same. By using a shutter release cable or remote, it reduces the movement that might blur your photos further. There are a variety of remotes and release cables that you can plug right into your camera or pair via Bluetooth, meaning you can control your camera without touching it at all. Modern cameras often have the ability to be triggered by a mobile device using Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. This is great if you’re on a budget, but remember that this drains the battery on your camera and your phone/tablet quicker. Pair this with the cold conditions that you are likely to encounter, which also reduce battery life more quickly, and you might find yourself in trouble!
Galloway Forest National Park, Dumfries and Galloway
The Galloway Forest National Park was the first National Park in the UK to obtain a Dark Sky Status in 2009. It has been named as one of the must-visit points on a dark sky map of Scotland. You will be able to see over 7,000 stars and even the Milky Way, all of which are visible to the naked eye. At the Galloway Forest National Park we recommend visiting Clatteringshaws Visitor Centre and Bruce’s Stone for prime astrophotography opportunities. The Clatteringshaws Visitor Centre overlooks the darkest area of the Forest Park, which ensures a particularly dramatic stellar show, while Bruce’s Stone offers panoramic views of the stars over Loch Trool.
Tip 3: Bring Extra Batteries
It is easy to overlook the most important thing that you will need to bring to shoot excellent astrophotography; extra batteries! Long exposure times and cold weather at night can drain your camera batteries quickly. So, make sure you pack extra batteries whenever you’re heading out to shoot the stars.
Brecon Beacons National Park, Wales
If you are looking to spot The Plough or the Polaris (most commonly known as the North Star) the best place to enjoy them is at the Brecon Beacons National Park in Wales. Brecon Beacons National Park is the only Dark Sky preserve in Wales and the locals are known to go to great lengths to preserve the dark sky and reduce the effects of light pollution in the Beacons. Some of the best places in the Brecon Beacons for astrophotography include the Llangorse Lake, which is the largest natural lake in South Wales and makes for great shots, as well as the Usk reservoir.
Tip 4: Learn how High your ISO can go without Noise
The higher your ISO is, the more ‘noise’ you will see in your pictures. ISO is how sensitive your camera’s sensor is. When it comes to astrophotography, noise looks a lot like colour in the sky, cloudiness and what seems to be stars everywhere. If you are looking to get this effect in your pictures, then set your ISO high. If you are looking for darker skies in your pictures, try setting your ISO lower.
Exmoor National Park, Devon
Exmoor National Park in Devon was the first international Dark Sky Reserve to be located in Europe. By visiting Exmoor in North Devon, you will be able to enjoy several astronomical beauties without the need for a telescope, which makes it a perfect astrophotography location in the UK. From Exmoor National Park you will be able to see wonders such as the Orion constellation, the Plough and parts of the Great Bear (Ursa Major) constellation depending on the season. Some of the best Dark Sky locations in Exmoor National Park are Wimbleball Lake, which is a reservoir – great for adding to your astrophotography shots – and Holdstone Hill.
Tip 5: Make your Aperture as Wide as Possible
It is generally a good rule of thumb to open your aperture as wide as possible to capture more light, but this depends on the lens(es) that you’re shooting with. A different way to say this is that you want your F-stop to be the lowest number possible. In most cases, an F-stop of 1.8-2.8 will be good range for astrophotography. If your lens does not go that low, you will need to set your ISO higher to make up the difference to capture more light.
Isle of Man
The Isle of Man is recognised for having 26 official Dark Sky spots across the island. This is a valued attribute of the rural character and tranquillity of the island, which makes it perfect for astrophotography. Many astronomical sights can be seen with the naked eye here, including the Orion Nebula, the Milky Way and one of the Milky Way’s companion galaxies, the Great Andromeda Galaxy, depending on the season. Occasionally you can spot the Northern Lights from the North Eastern coast of the Isle of Man, making it an excellent location for astrophotography.
Tip 6: Control your Shutter to Capture the Stars
Astrophotographers aren’t all looking for the same thing: some are looking for star trails, others are looking for pin-prick stars. Depending on your preferences you will need to adjust your shutter speeds to suit the type of photo you are looking for. If you are looking for sharp, clear stars in your photos, keep your shutter speed to 15 seconds or shorter. To make sure you capture enough light to see anything at all, you’ll need a lower aperture and higher ISO. If you are looking for star trails, opt for a longer shutter speed; you can start to see star trails at 30-seconds of exposure. This again depends on your aperture, ISO and the direction you’re pointing in the sky.
Tip 7: Manual Focus… before you leave the house!
Autofocus systems use light; something there isn’t much of when you’re taking night sky photos! We recommend turning Auto Focus off on your lens/camera, setting the focus to infinity. Make sure you do this before you get to your location. You don’t want to be trying to find the settings in the freezing cold and dark. Then, using Live View and manual focus, set the focus on a bright object such as a star or a light in the distance. These steps, plus using a tripod, should help to ensure you have sharp images.