British photographer Stephen Pemberton, who goes by NorthernPixl, has demonstrated how determination, preparation, and good luck can result in beautiful night sky photographs. When photographing auroras in early November, the photographer was treated to a rare night sky phenomenon called STEVE.
On November 5, NorthernPixl captured incredible images featuring brilliant northern lights, the Milky Way, and STEVE, which stands for Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement. Combining these three elements in a single night of photography is exceptional and unusual.
“There had been some prior warning there may be an active aurora, and the skies were forecast to be clear, so I headed to my favorite place on the Northumberland coast, the Bathing House at Howick,” he tells PetaPixel. “It turned out to be the best Bonfire Night display I’ve ever witnessed.”
Bonfire Night is an annual holiday celebrated in Great Britain and some Commonwealth nations on November 5th. It is typically marked by bonfires and fireworks. Nature provided NorthernPixl with plenty of fireworks this year.
While photographing the auroras, which is spectacular enough in and of itself, the photographer saw a bright white trail directly overhead, passing in front of the Milky Way. He initially dismissed the trail as the result of passing aircraft but gave into the curiosity that it could be something else and took a test shot.
“On the back of the camera, there was a vivid red and white stripe running the length of the image. It absolutely took my breath away. I knew immediately this was incredibly rare to see, and it was beautiful,” NorthernPixl tells My Modern Met. “The contrast from one side of the line to the other made it look as though there were two skies separated by a tear in the sky. I’m incredibly lucky to have captured the image, and it’s hands down the best photo I’ve ever taken.”
He got a lot more than one shot that night, and he tells PetaPixel that he actually had to decrease the colors in his favorite photos because the colors were so vivid that they “looked fake… That’s how bright the aurora was that evening.”
“It was my first time witnessing STEVE, but I’ve been lucky to have captured the aurora a few times. I’ve even captured a faint aurora from my bedroom window! I’m extremely fortunate to live where I live in Northumberland. Northumberland is a spectacular place to visit and explore, and that doesn’t stop even at night. It has designated dark sky areas such as Kielder and along the coast at places like Embleton,” says the photographer.
STEVE, named in late 2016 by Canadian aurora observers, is caused by a wide ribbon of hot plasma at a specific altitude — about 280 miles (450 kilometers). While not rare, it has long been very poorly studied. Anecdotal observations date back centuries, although research papers concerning the phenomenon have only begun cropping up in the last few years.
Like every enthusiastic astrophotographer, he operates at unusual hours. “Thankfully, my family are very understanding. If an alert comes through and there’s a clear sky, my wife knows I’ll be off out and home late.”
Sometimes his family joins him on his photo adventures. “We all share a fascination with the night sky and what we can see. My son and daughter both love the night sky, and we’ve been known to take blankets, lay down and watch meteor showers, or stay up past bedtime to spot the ISS whizzing past.”
As so many photographers know, images like NorthernPixl’s do not come easy. Even when the conditions are perfect, astrophotography is very challenging.
“Astrophotography can be a very difficult area to start in, but it doesn’t have to be. I have taken night photos for a couple of years now and I’m always fascinated with the results. The camera picks up so much detail that when processed in the right way, it can reveal galaxies our eyes can’t pick up. I’ve still got a huge amount to learn, and there are some incredible photographers that capture galaxies and nebula with a camera,” NorthernPixl explains.
“It’s trial and error when I’m out. Through experience I know roughly the settings I’ll need and I adjust them from there. I’d love one day to be at that level of the professional photographers, but for now, I’m just enjoying every minute of it. The difficulty with astrophotography is the amount and cost of equipment.”
NorthernPixl uses a Sony a7 IV and Samyang 14mm f/2.8 manual focus lens on a “basic” tripod. He hopes one day to add a sophisticated star tracker and telescope to his kit, which will enable him to capture photos of distant objects and shoot longer exposures while maintaining tack-sharp, pinpoint stars. Still, he admits he is “nowhere near that stage.”
NorthernPixl is trying to turn his passion for photography into something more than a hobby. His photography journey has been quite a tumultuous one.
“I had a DSLR for a number of years but stopped taking photos about 10-11 years ago as I needed to sell all my camera kit. I didn’t pick a camera up for years but through my old work, a customer kindly gave me an old Ricoh film camera. It sat in my cupboard for a couple of years, and then COVID hit,” the photographer says. “I was stuck in the house and finding I couldn’t cope with the massive change. I knew I needed something to focus my attention on, so I decided to use the film camera. I loved it! It was amazing to get out with the camera, even just for local walks. I found I had fallen back in love with photography, so I decided to buy a digital camera and a couple of lenses.”
Photography has had a significant impact on NorthernPixl. “Since getting the camera, I’ve done things I would never have expected. I’ve hiked over the Cheviot three times, explored remote areas of Northumberland, walked 22 miles of the Devon coastal path in one day, and done two 25-mile charity hikes for Macmillan.”
“None of this would have happened if I hadn’t picked that film camera back up.”
Beyond learning the ropes of astrophotography, the photographer recently bought a telephoto lens and is honing his wildlife photo skills. He has even done a few weddings and family portrait sessions. “I just love getting out with my camera, it doesn’t matter what the subject is.”
“Photography has opened my eyes to what we have around us; we are so lucky to be in Northumberland. I know there are a lot of people who, for whatever reason, don’t have the ability to get to the places I can, and that’s a massive factor in why I share my images. I’m a huge advocate for Northumberland and kind of see myself as an unofficial ambassador for the area. We need to protect our dark skies so future generations can witness the same spectacular displays that we do today.”
NorthernPixl would “love to organize groups to join me on walks and teach them about their cameras while taking in spectacular scenery or wildlife encounters.” More information about his recommended walking routes and prints is available on his website. NorthernPixl’s work is also available on Instagram and Facebook.
Image credits: All images © NorthernPixl