Shots in the dark over Yorkshire’s skies

  • Photographer Pete Collins works when the rest of us are tucked up in bed. He tells Lynn Leadbeatter why he’s fascinated by Yorkshire’s dark skies.
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The sweeping panorama from Sutton Bank, fishing boats bobbing in Whitby harbour, Swaledale hay meadows ablaze with colour – we all have our idea of that special Yorkshire view, the one that really sums up all the county has to offer. But our favourite landscapes share one thing in common. Most of us imagine them bathed in glorious sunshine, far less obscured by approaching dusk – and those are the images captured by photographers for countless greetings cards, calendars and coffee table books.

Not so Pete Collins. Taking to the hills after sunset, he produces stunning nightscapes that set some of the Yorkshire Dales’ most majestic landscapes and man-made structures against a cosmic backdrop. The Milky Way lights up a stairway to heaven through the Gothic arches of Ribblehead Viaduct. Stars seemingly shower down over Whernside’s limestone pavements. A ghostly Thornton Force shimmers in the moonlight.

Moonlit Malham Cove

Moonlit Malham Cove

“The attraction is being out in the middle of nowhere on your own, late at night,” says Pete. “It’s about looking up at the universe and feeling extremely insignificant. It brings back a childhood sense of wonder, almost like the feeling you had at Christmas when you were a kid.

“It’s just awe-inspiring but the work is also technical. The science of astronomy is every bit as important to me as capturing the Dales landscape as a foreground, because there is beauty in understanding what we are looking at when we gaze up at the night sky.”

As an active member of Heaton Park Astronomy Group in Manchester, Pete gives regular talks to school groups as well as Beavers, Cubs and Brownies working towards their stargazing badges.

“Take a look at Sirius, the brightest star in the sky,” he says. “Because it never rises very high above the horizon for us in the UK, it twinkles with many colours. If you show it to eight-year-old children and tell them that the light they are seeing left the star in the year they were born, it never fails to impress them. So yes, the Dales are inspirational to me – but not as much so as the wonders of the universe.”

St Marys Church, Kirkby Lonsdale

St Marys Church, Kirkby Lonsdale

Not that Pete could even begin to capture his nightscapes back home in Manchester. As well as providing foreground interest, the national park offers the low levels of light pollution against which the true scale of the cosmos can be appreciated. There are four Dark Sky Discovery Sites in the Yorkshire Dales: at Tan Hill Inn above Swaledale and at Hawes, Malham and Buckden. All are sufficiently isolated from major towns and cities that the Milky Way is visible to the naked eye.

“You can maybe see 50 stars from the middle of Manchester but a few thousand from darker areas of the Dales,” says Pete. “Yet even up here it can be black overhead while the lights from Preston and Blackburn cast a glow on the horizon.”

Identifying rural locations away from the glare of street lamps, traffic and security lights is only the first step to creating a nightscape. Pete plans many of his photographs a year in advance, starting by checking which constellations are in the sky at various times of year with planetarium software. Having decided on the backdrop, he then works out the direction that he will be shooting in and uses an Ordnance Survey map to determine the viewpoint. There is usually a window of only a few weeks when the constellation is in the right position and the light of the moon is not too intrusive – otherwise he has to wait a year for a second chance.

For a shot of the Northern Lights over Kingsdale, Pete used the AuroraWatch UK service at Lancaster University, which employs geomagnetic activity measurements to determine when sightings are likely. “I received a Red Alert so I put all the gear in the car and headed up here to the darkest place I could think of that had a low northern horizon,” he says. “Although it was beautifully clear overhead, there appeared to be a grey mist to the north but I took a picture and captured all the colours.”

Photographing the International Space Station with Major Tim Peake on board proved even more tricky. The ISS orbits the earth every 90 minutes and is visible owing to the reflection of the sun from its solar panels but Pete considered a number of passes at different heights and various levels of brightness.

He decided to take the picture against a backdrop of Ribblehead Viaduct, partly because the resulting image would juxtapose Victorian and modern engineering. Using a map, he was able to see how the station would pass against the background of stars and then he checked the weather forecast as 70 per cent of shots are ruined by cloudy conditions.

Finally he worked out that by using a wide-angle lens, he could squeeze Jupiter, Mars and Saturn into the picture. As the ISS takes five minutes to track across the sky, it was impossible to capture in one shot so he took seven 30-second exposures and blended the trails together using Photoshop. The resulting photograph featured in last August’s issue of Sky at Night magazine.

Yet despite the technical difficulties, all of Pete’s pictures are taken with a simple DSLR camera, tripod and powerful head torch – including the enigmatic shots of himself silhouetted against a night sky. “I do the selfies on the 10-second timer,” he says. “I press the shutter release, run like hell, stand still for 30 seconds, wave the torch around a bit, and repeat until I get the effect I want. It would probably be easier to take an assistant!”

Things weren’t always so easy. Pete first became interested in photography at the age of eight, when his father taught him the basic techniques and he joined the school camera club. He was a founder member of Oldham Astronomical Society in the 1980s, helping to grind the mirrors and build the frames for the telescope tubes and mounts. Yet his first shots of deep sky objects were not successful owing to the limitations of the films and equipment available at the time and he soon realised that he could not compete with those taken in other parts of the world.

After 10 years’ involvement, work commitments took over and two more decades passed before Pete returned to astronomy. In the meantime, technology had moved on and it was no longer necessary to use CCD (charge coupled device) webcams, telescopes and associated paraphernalia like laptops and power supplies. Digital photography using a standard DSLR opened up a wealth of new possibilities.

Pete had been toing and froing from in Manchester to the Lake District while he completed the ascent of all the fells listed in Alfred Wainwright’s guides, spending the nights camping or sleeping in the car. Having first fallen in love with the Three Peaks area while on an O-level geology trip, he decided to invest in a caravan to break the journey. Twenty-five years later he now has his third mobile home on the same Ingleton site and considers himself an honorary local. It has also provided the perfect base for capturing striking images of the cosmos against breath-taking landscape features. Last March Pete wound up his specialist building survey business and Diamond Skies Photography was born, offering mounted prints of the night sky in northern England. The new venture takes its name from the lyrics of Bob Dylan’s Mr Tambourine Man:

Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky

With one hand waving free

Silhouetted by the sea

Circled by the circus sands

“It’s art and science rolled together,” Pete adds. “And it’s more personal because the astronomy is seen against a foreground that hopefully people can relate to.”

• For more information or to buy Pete’s images visit diamond-skies.co.uk. His prints and greetings cards are also available from Farfield Mill, Sedbergh, and Curlew Crafts, Ingleton. Pete’s work is currently on display at Poppies Tea Room, Settle, and will also feature in this year’s Overground Underground festival celebrating the Ingleborough dales from May to September. The Yorkshire Dales and North York Moors National Park authorities will be holding their second Dark Skies Festival from February 18 to 26.

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