Snowdonia National Park is only the second area in Wales to be designated as an International Dark Sky Reserve. The opportunities to stargaze and admire the night sky from the mountains and foothills of Snowdonia are abundant as well as capturing some fantastic images of the night skies which are sure to earn your family and friends' admiration.
All images in the article are the copyright of Keith O'Brien and have been very kindly loaned to the SNPA. They may not be used or reproduced for any other purpose without the express permission of Keith O'Brien.
Afon Cain (© Keith O'Brien)
Once you’ve found your way around the night sky, learned the names of the stars and constellations, spied a distant nebulae through a pair of binoculars or a telescope, you may find yourself wanting to capture the marvels of the night sky to enjoy beyond the magic of the moment. However, if you’re used to taking point-and-shoot photos, astrophotography can be pretty daunting. So put your coat on, take your camera and dip a toe into an exciting dark and light of astrophotography.
While you can get caught up with getting fancy equipment to capture the night skies, astrophotography doesn't have to be that difficult. Your ordinary point-and-shoot camera with a tripod can take great pictures of the Moon and much more. Conjunctions, star trails and meteors are great starters for budding astrophotographers.
Most digital cameras include shooting options that will give you some great skyscapes including night mode, continuous-fire, shutter-release, manual exposure control, and even manual focusing. Remember to always disable the flash!
Your camera’s auto exposure setting probably will not give good results, so manually set your exposure length and try different values to see what works best – take lots of shots, be patient and experiment. The great thing about digital photography is that your camera will usually have a feature that can tell the exposure time and other relevant technical information for future reference.
Trawsfynydd Memorial (© Keith O'Brien)
Conjunctions - Close Pairings
Among the most attractive astronomical events you can record with your point-and-shoot camera are conjunctions (close pairings) of the Moon and planets. When shooting conjunctions, you’ll often want to zoom in. Many point-and-shoot cameras have both optical and digital zoom. Optical zoom magnifies your chosen target, but Digital zoom simply crops in on the scene and blows up the pixels, which doesn’t help at all, as it just will make a blur bigger. If you can, disable the digital-zoom function or note how much optical zoom your camera has, and don’t zoom in any further.
Star Trails and Meteors
Star trails are delightful to capture and give a real sense of the turning world. The key is to keep the shutter open as long as possible to reveal the revolving of the heavens over the course of an evening. Your camera’s maximum exposure time may be only 10 to 15 seconds, but with the addition of one basic tool and a free computer program, it is possible to take excellent star-trail images. To hold down your shutter button so that you can record consecutive images without touching your camera get a small bar clamp with rubber grips (easy to find in a DIY store for about £6).
Star Trails (© Keith O'Brien)
Tip: How to photograph a star trail:
1. Frame your target area using the camera’s widest zoom angle.
2. Add more interest to your final picture include a feature in the foreground to give the photo a sense of scale and place such as trees, hills, cliffs or other landscape features.
3. Start your image series, set your camera for its maximum exposure length (or to night mode, if you can’t select a particular shutter speed), then change the ISO speed of your camera to 400.
4.Set the lens focus at infinity (∞).
5. Select the continuous- fire shutter-release function, and put the clamp onto your camera to hold down the shutter button.
6. Stand back and shoot for at least 10 minutes — the longer, the better.
7. Once finished you will have dozens or even hundreds of short exposures with a few recognisable constellations visible in them.
8. Your next step is to download and install one of the free computer programs specifically written for the purpose of combining the individual frames.
Meteor showers can be shot and processed exactly the same method as star trails, although you will have to be more patient and keep you camera pointing in the same place all night. Pick an area of the sky that is both dark and photogenic, and maybe perhaps including your favourite constellation of the season – in Wales choose Draco! This same technique can also record passes of the International Space Station, the Space Shuttle, and flares from Iridium satellites.
Best stargazing sites in Snowdonia
Want to make the most of Snowdonia National Park’s amazing dark skies? Here are some of the best places to see the stars.
Llyn y Dywarchen
Llyn y Dywarchen is located above the village of Drws y Coed in Dyffryn Nantlle, near Rhyd Ddu. It is a very popular fishing lake, and has a car park nearby.
This is a very popular lake in the Gwydir Forest above Betws y Coed. During the summer months it is popular with picnickers as well as those who take part in water sport activities, as this is the only lake in Snowdonia where power boats and water skiing are permitted. There’s a car park on the lake’s shore, and public conveniences available during the summer.
Llynnau Cregennen are two of the most popular lakes in south Merionethshire. They lie on the foothills of Cader Idris, overlooked by the crags of Tyrrau Mawr to the south east, and Pared y Cefn Hir to the north. There is a car park and public conveniences near the largest lake, and fishing is allowed provided that you are in possession of the appropriate permits.
Tŷ Cipar, y Migneint
Tŷ Cipar is a former Gamekeeper’s house. It is located between Llan Ffestiniog and Ysbyty Ifan, within the Special Protected Area of Migneint and Arenig Dduallt. It is one of the largest areas of blanket bog in Wales, and birds such as the Hen Harrier, Peregrine and Merlin can be spotted here.
Bwlch y Groes
Bwlch y Groes lies on the minor road linking Dinas Mawddwy and Llanuwchllyn, and is one of the highest tarmacked passes in Wales. The view from the pass encompasses the plain of the Dyfi valley, Cader Idris and Aran Fawddwy, and the Berwyn Mountains to the north-east.
Llyn Cregennan (© Keith O'Brien)
If you're a budding astrophotographer, we have three workshop organised in November with expert tuition from award winning photographers Gareth Mon Jones and Elgan Jones.
Click on the links below to find out more and buy tickets;
For more information about our astrophotography workshops contact Dani Robertson, SNPA Dark Sky Officer on 01766 770274 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
If you do decide to head outside remember to take enough layers to keep you warm in the cold evenings and take plenty of supplies with you to keep you fuelled and hydrated.