So I first tried to photograph the Perseids in 2015. I had selected my ideal location as the Lairig Ghru in Cairngorm which lined up with the radiant giving what I hoped would be a great composition of the River Dee in the foreground, Devil's Point in the mid-ground and the Perseids as the third element of the shot. I had done a reccy of the location a few weeks before and identified my camp location. I cycled in carrying much of my camera gear in a rucksack along with panniers. The last bit of the trail was very rough and I broke one the panniers resulting in some temporary repairs being required.
With tent and camera quickly setup I started preparing my tea just as the wind dropped and a cloud of midgies descended on me, my camera and the food. Freeze dried food is pretty tasteless at the best of times but eating while wearing a midge net knocked a couple more stars off the restaurant review.
Midges are relentless critters and the only solution was to hide in my tent and hope they didn't devour the camera which I left ready to shoot.
For the photo gear geeks this is a Canon EOS 5D mk2 with a Samyang 14mm f2.8. The bright red thing is a lens warmer which prevents the lens fogging up with overnight dew, essential on any night in Scotland if you're hoping for clear skies.
I grabbed a couple of hours sleep before emerging from my tent approaching midnight to clear skies and started the camera shooting using an intervalometer (thing that keeps pressing the shutter button electronically so you don't have to). Twenty minutes later the cloud rolled in and obscured the night sky for the rest of the night. I'd managed to capture one shooting star.
The trip wasn't an entire waste of time. I'd managed to take a reasonable evening lanscape shot. Not what I was after but better than nothing. You can see the idea of the composition I was looking for. That's Devil's Point on the left and the v shaped Lairig Ghru would have balanced the shot nicely.
I also learnt a few things from the experience:
- I hate midges.
- Banking on a single location in Scotland is unlikely to work out. I'd need to be more flexible and have several options ready depending on weather conditions and cloud forecast, preferably all with great foreground aligning with the Perseid radiant azimuth.
- Carrying lots of heavy photo gear on your back whilst cycling isn't safe both for the cyclist or the camera gear.
- Freeze dried camping food sucks.
One interesting fact I learnt about meteor showers is that you get more meteors after midnight; why? Because before midnight you are in the lee of the rotation of the earth around the sun. The earth goes around the sun in an anti-clockwise direction when viewed from above the north pole and it rotates on its own axis in the same direction. So if you visualise the earth sweeping through a cloud of dust, then it will pick up more of that dust on the leading face as it rotates around the sun. Because it is also rotating on its own axis, the leading face is always changing and it's only after midnight (no daylight saving time applied) that you are on the side that is on this leading face.
However, the meteor forecast for 2020 was going to be affected by moonlight. The predicted peak number of meteors would occur on the night of the 12th / 13th August and the moon would rise shortly after midnight.
So you can see from the graph here that the predicted number of visible meteors is increasing until the time at which the moon rises where it takes a sharp decline before it resumes an upward trend until dawn washes out any chances.
This proved to be a bit of an issue when after 6 miles of hard cycling (yes, even on an eBike) and 1200 feet of ascent I reached a deer fence. Such fences are a real pain if you have an eBike because lifting a heavy bike over them is virtually impossible. There was a kissing gate in the fence but without cutting my bike in two it wasn't going through. So I parked the bike up and set off for the remaining mile on foot. The thought of coming back later and lugging camping and camera gear over that mile wasn't appealing.
However, after I reached my planned shooting spot and confirming it was good, I also spied a couple of vehicle tracks running on the other side of the fence I had previously crossed. Following the tracks led me back close to where I'd left the bike. It would be a bit boggy but definitely doable. Plan A was back on !
I had arrived just as the sun was setting. Ideally I'd have been already in place and setup about an hour earlier but storms and the Forestry commission's deer fencing policy had been against me.
A quick brew and some more food and I was then ready. I was in just a bivvy bag, no room for a tent but it was really warm at about 20C so not a problem. I could sit and keep an eye on the camera whilst enjoying the view and a cuppa. Bliss. Not a single soul about as I sat back and waited for the show to start.
The problem is that watching for meteors is actually quite boring. Humans aren't good at staring at a dark piece of sky for long periods with nothing appearing to happen. Yes it's a really great experience and fantastic when you see a really bright meteor but there were so few that night that I even checked I was looking in the right direction.
There was also some high cirrus cloud that wasn't helping the chances of any good images.
Sometimes the meteors are there but so faint that only the camera picks them up. But later on after checking I found only a couple of images with meteors but loads of satellites and aircraft which are easy to mistake for meteors if you don't know what you're looking for.
During the storm on Tuesday night I'd added a new app called "Lightning" to my phone's weather app collection (you can never have enough weather info). The thought had crossed my mind that being up a hill, not far from a wire fence and having a metal object atop a tripod right next to me might not be a good idea if a storm were to come my way. There was also a mobile phone mast at the top of this hill; not sure if that was likely to attract lightning or not. I remember from O Level Physics that lightning conductors on tall buildings actually reduce the frequency of lightning strikes. But I wasn't going to bet my life on a 40 year old memory of a physics class that was probably glossing over some significant details that meant it didn't apply in my situation. But it did mean I was getting a good data signal which allowed me to keep an eye on any storms in the vicinity.
At about midnight I noticed the unmistakeable flash of lightning away to the south of me. There was no thunder so I knew it was still far away but still a concern. I checked the weather radar and lightning apps; Cumbria was getting it and after watching for a while it was clear it was moving north towards me.
In this picture the red dots are the lightning strikes and the blue dot is me. The nearest red dot is about 50 km away.
I've only ever been on a mountain in an electric storm once before; it was the most frightening experience of my life and not one I wished to repeat, especially at night and alone. So I was getting a little nervous when another much brighter lightning flash occurred due east of me. The strike didn't appear on the lightning app but I wasn't going to ignore the evidence of my own eyes; it was time to go. I knew packing up camp in the dark wouldn't be easy and I'd need to take take extra time to ensure I didn't leave anything behind. Then I had at least 30 mins of walking the bike down through the boggy bit and past the deer fence and into the relative safety of a forest.
Once back onto forest fire roads I took my time descending and concentrated on not getting lost. Bike lights as bright as car headlights helped dispel any remaining fear and allowed me to spot a hare and a hedgehog; always good to see those guys about. I was soon back at my van where I tried (probably unsuccessfully) not to wake my neighbours.
Of course the storm never arrived overhead. Not sure where it went because once I'd had a cuppa, I was off for some kip. I was disappointed yet again to have failed to capture the Perseids but I had booked two nights at the campsite and the weather forecast for Thursday night was much better....there was still hope.
I returned later giving myself plenty of time to get set up and ready. I was using a tarp for a shelter rather than a tent. This makes it easier to access the camera and also allows you to enjoy the view, you literally do sleep under the stars. The disadvantage is that there is no hiding place from the midges and it can get a wee bit cold although you get some shelter from the wind and any dew.
Of course the wind dropped whilst having some food so eating with the midge net was required again. I'd also selected Tesco's sausage casserole for dinner which proved equally as tasteless as freeze dried food. I'm still searching for decent camping food.
I had the place to myself although some hill walkers doing the Southern Upland Way were camped in two tents about a kilometre away. Thankfully they stayed away and didn't join my campsite as I don't think they would have appreciated the noise of me climbing in and out of my sleeping bag through the night.
It was a lovely morning and I momentarily contemplated having some breakfast as I sat and watched the sunrise. Then I remembered that I hadn't brought any breakfast. I still wasn't really awake.
So it was a quick pack up and an easy downhill ride back to the van or so I thought. The warmth of the sun had also woken about a zillion midges. Cycling through a cloud of midge at 20 mph is a unique experience; one that required the use of eye protection and a mask to prevent ingesting them up the nose.
Back at the campsite it was no better; they were really hungry and I was on their breakfast menu. So I sought shelter in the van and waited for the sun to force them into hiding. The midge lives a perilous life and being so tiny is in constant fear of dehydration from strong sun. Too windy and it can't fly. But cool damp calm days are its prime environment.
I used the midge downtime to back up the images, shower and get some breakfast. I still didn't know if I'd got any good meteor shots and decided not to look until next day. Instead I'd just enjoy the rest of the day as there was nothing more I could do.