Over lockdown I was trying to broaden my photography skills and noticed some brilliant Winter night skies over Porthcurno. Having seen the images that local photographers had taken for the ‘Outstanding Penwith at Night’ photography competition, held by Penwith Landscape Partnership, I decided I wanted to give it a go.
Learning the photographic process for night photography
Usually focussing on wildlife as my subject, I did not really have much experience with landscape photography, let alone astrophotography. It was a learning curve to say the least, requiring a lot more planning than the photography I am used to. Having to plot around the weather, cloud coverage, the time it gets dark, and what features of the sky are visible at what times was quite a lot to juggle at once, ending up with some varying results and some failed shoots. The photographic process is also far longer than that of wildlife photography, you often spend hours out in the dark just to construct one image as the final result. Images are usually composites made up of two or more different shots and compiled photoshop.
When I first started, I did not realise this and ended up with images that had fewer stars, because the length of time required to expose the night sky, would have completely overexposed the foreground. After getting the correct technique down (and reading a lot of astrophotography magazines!) I started taking astro images by exposing the night sky first, and the foreground after, then spent the same amount of time again editing them together and doing endless tweaks on photoshop until I was satisfied with the result. For example, in this shot I did several exposures of the night sky at different angles as the sky over Logan Rock was too cloudy to photograph- this meant I was able to stitch the two exposures together to create the atmospheric piece I envisioned.
Getting close to nature
The other side of astrophotography that I had not come to experience was how close to nature you end up being. Because you want to reduce as much light in your frame as possible, you are often standing in complete darkness without a torch on. Once when I was out taking photos at night, I could hear loud scuttling, so I stayed very quiet. I then saw an adult badger walk right by me, not paying the slightest bit of attention to my presence!
Playful nature of noctural animals
I have felt a similar kind of connection to nature while setting up the Planet PK night cameras (courtesy of Tevi). Being able to view the usually secret nocturnal world has been an amazing experience, especially with our viral footage of a badger acting like a puppy while it played with a bit of hanging rope outside PK Porthcurno museum. The footage has opened my eyes to the playful nature of these elusive animals!
Leading up to the opening of our ‘Lights Out for Darker Skies’ exhibition, inspired by the song title by English rock band British Sea Power, and in support of West Penwith’s application to become a Dark Sky Park, I started doing more research around light pollution to get a better idea of its effects on the environment. Usually when someone says the word ‘pollution’ we immediately think of physical pollution, and mostly litter, plastics, chemical spills, and trash heaps. These all have devastating effects on the planet, but light pollution has an effect on wildlife that is almost unseen to us. Light pollution is a form of habitat loss to nocturnal animals, as they rely on darkness to hide from predators and hunt for prey. Light cast by household outdoor lighting as well as streetlamps and light from venues leaves less and less room for animals to avoid danger. An example of this is with wild frogs and toads, who stifle their night-time mating calls when exposed to light to avoid being preyed upon, subsequently meaning that they are breeding less effectively.
Viewing the Milky Way in Porthcurno
Especially in Cornwall, it is easy to take the night sky for granted, as we usually have a clear and brilliant view of the stars, from Porthcurno you can see the Milky Way from March to October! We must not forget that this is not a universal experience as it once was, but the ability to view the night sky is getting more and more rare across the world, with 80 percent of the world’s population being frequently under some form of artificial light. It is vitally important to take steps to stop the progress or even to reverse the pollution. We explain how you can do this in our exhibition. Visit PK Porthcurno to see the brilliance of the nocturnal world and take a look at how you can help create change!
Maeve Cushla, Young Curator
Header Photo: Maeve Cushla
Go to Lights Out for Darker Skies to discover more about the exhibition.