Imaging the Night Sky in Northumberland

Northumberland's dark skies offer some excellent opportunities for astrophotography.

Newcastle upon Tyne and the surrounding network of towns in South East Northumberland throw out a blaze of light pollution. This results in ‘sky glow’ that can be seen for many miles.

As you move away from this area you will discover that the rest of Northumberland is quite rural and a lot darker at night. There are still a few large towns like Hexham, Alnwick and Berwick upon Tweed that emit light pollution. However, these are well spread out and it is fairly easy to find darker areas in between.

Northumberland County Council has also been rolling out changes in street lighting. The old orange sodium vapour street lights that cause a lot of light pollution are being replaced by modern downward directed LED lighting. This offers some improvement over the old style of lighting and brings benefits as far as astrophotography is concerned.

Check the Light Pollution Map in the Useful Tools Section for more information.

Astrophotography in Northumberland
Photographing the Milky Way in Rural Northumberland

Landscape Astrophotography

The Milky Way near Budle Bay, Northumberland

Northumberland is a popular destination for landscape photographers. It not only has beautiful scenery it also hosts many iconic landscape features such as Hadrian’s Wall and number of well known castles.

For the photographer who is willing to work in the dark and brave cold winter nights there are alternative angles. Shooting landscape features under the stars can offer a completely different feel to a photograph.

The dark skies found in many parts of Northumberland are perfect for this kind of ‘nightscape’ photography. The good news is that many popular sites for daytime landscape photography also have dark skies at night.

Landscape Astrophotography Sites

Below are some of the most popular sites for Landscape Astrophotography in Northumberland:

  • Kielder Observatory/Kielder Forest
  • Sycamore Gap (Haydon Bridge)
  • Holy Island
  • Howick Bathing House
  • Dunstanburgh Castle

All of these sites are popular because they hold well known landscape features under dark skies. If visiting one of these well known sites doesn’t appeal, then it is very easy to explore and find other places. Northumberland has many areas with dark skies and interesting landscape features to photograph.

Aurora Borealis and Milky Way, Holy Island, Northumberland

The Night Sky in Northumberland has much to offer Photographers

It is possible to use a range of photographic techniques and different features of the night sky to create interesting images. Below are some popular techniques and targets.

Star Trails

Star trails are long exposure photographs taken over a period of time long enough to capture the movement of the earth’s rotation. This method allows the creation of a composite image showing the light from stars streaking across the sky. When you point the camera north towards Polaris (the North Star) the stars streak in a circular pattern around Polaris.

Northumberland is full of suitable features to add foreground interest and create eye-catching star trail images.

Be prepared to spend some time stood around waiting if you try this. To get a reasonable length of light streaks in an image I would suggest at least 45-60 minutes worth of exposures.

A Star Trail at Bamburgh Castle, Northumberland

Milky Way

Because much of Northumberland has reasonably dark skies you can often see the Milky Way. To see and photograph the Milky Way a little planning is required. You need to check the current moon rise and set times. For views of the Milky Way you need the sky to be DARK, so it’s no good if the moon is up.

The Milky Way in Northumberland can be seen in any month apart from June and July (when it doesn’t get fully dark at night). It is probably best viewed in the months of May and August, either side of the continuous twilight of mid-summer. During these months the cloudy core of the Milky Way becomes visible. During mid winter the core of the Milky Way remains below the horizon from Northumberland (latitude 55º), however, the rest of the Milky Way is still clearly visible.

The Milky Way & Aurora Borealis at Dunstanburgh Castle, Northumberland

Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights)

With a little effort (and a lot of luck) it is possible to see the Aurora Borealis from Northumberland. For the aurora to be visible the conditions have to be right.

You will need:

  • A strong geomagnetic storm taking place
  • Skies free of heavy light pollution
  • Skies free of clouds
  • Ideally the moon needs to be below the horizon.

If you have all of these then you stand a reasonable chance of seeing the aurora. 

Find out more about Aurora Borealis in Northumberland

Aurora Borealis, Beadnell, Northumberland
Lunar Halo at Dunstanburgh Castle, Northumberland

The Moon

The Moon offers many opportunities for the landscape photographer who is willing to head out at night. With landmarks scattered all over Northumberland the possibilities are endless.

Weather conditions can also add to a photograph of the Moon. Sometimes a little cloud combined with the moon can have more impact than a crystal clear star filled sky. A good example is the lunar halo, an atmospheric phenomenon that occurs regularly in Northumberland during the winter months.

Noctilucent Clouds

During the months of June and July it doesn’t get fully dark in Northumberland. This continuous twilight in mid-summer means that seeing the Milky Way or Aurora is impossible for a couple of months, the sky is just too light.

The good news is that with the continuous twilight of mid-summer comes Noctilucent Clouds. These high altitude, silvery, thread like clouds of the more northern and southern latitudes can only be seen after the sun has set and before the sun rises in mid-summer.

Noctilucent Clouds, Newton Point, Northumberland

Meteor Showers and Comets

Northumberland is a popular place to watch and photograph the annually occurring meteor showers. This is simply because there is less light pollution to impact photographs.

It is fairly easy to shoot a meteor shower above a landscape feature in dark sky area. As with other forms of night sky photography it is best if there are no clouds and the moon is below the horizon.

More often than not comets are the preserve of the astrophotographer with a telescope set up, many are too faint and distant for naked eye views. However, very occasionally an opportunity will arrive to photograph a particularly bright or close comet in a landscape context. When this happens Northumberland has many sites to choose from to create an interesting image.

Geminid Meteor Shower, Dunstanburgh Castle, Northumberland
Comet Neowise - Dunstanburgh Castle
Comet Neowise, Dunstanburgh Castle, Northumberland


For those wishing to go a little deeper with their night sky photography, Northumberland is a good location.

For many people astrophotography is a never-ending learning experience. However, regardless of your knowledge level certain sky conditions will always help to make things easier. Low levels of light pollution across much of Northumberland certainly make astrophotography that bit easier than it would be in a light polluted area.

Once experienced, the benefits of a ‘dark site’ are hard to ignore. Many amateur astrophotographers will travel to search for suitable dark locations.

If you are looking for a ‘dark site’ for astrophotography Northumberland has plenty ! Many of the rural areas in Northumberland also have caravan and camping sites that offer easy dark sky opportunities for visitors.

Time lapse video of a telescope imaging session under the dark skies of North Northumberland. The bright star rising is actually the planet Mars and the red flashes are just light trails from a headtorch.

Iris Nebula (NGC 7023) - Image from a dark site in Northumberland

Why Dark Skies ?

When imaging in towns light pollution will quickly wash out detail and reduce exposure times. The solution for most is to employ light pollution filters. These filters block out some wavelengths of light pollution but modern LED lighting wavelengths can be more difficult to deal with. Filters will invariably block out some natural light sources too and impact image quality to some extent.

The ideal scenario for general astrophotography is not to use any light pollution filters. This will allow all of the light from the night sky to hit your camera sensor. In turn, this allows more fine detail to be gathered on faint targets like galaxies and nebulae.

Many sites in Northumberland are dark enough to allow long exposures without the need for any light pollution filters.

Deep Sky Objects

Nebulae and galaxies are generally faint and they require long exposures on tracked mounts to gather the finer details in an image. In many locations Northumberland’s darker skies are excellent for this type of astrophotography. The dark skies allowing for longer exposures without light pollution filters, so all of the light from the night sky is hitting the camera’s sensor.

It is relatively easy to achieve interesting images with very modest astrophotography equipment. The image to the right is of the Bode’s and Cigar Galaxies. It was taken with a low end DSLR (Canon 600D) attached to a small Newtonian reflector telescope on an equatorial mount. The exposure time was 10 minutes. The DSLR was astro-modified.

This sort of imaging would be impossible in towns and cities without the use of light pollution filters.

Rosette Nebula (NGC 2237) - Image from a dark site in Northumberland
Jupiter - Image taken in North Northumberland


Another popular target for astrophotographers are the planets. I personally haven’t dabbled in this area at all yet but when out under the stars you can often see these bright points of light. Once viewed with a telescope you can pick up some detail of the larger planets like the bands on Jupiter or rings of Saturn.

Imaging planets isn’t reliant on long exposures like galaxies and nebulae, so having dark skies is not as beneficial as it is for deep sky objects.

The image of Jupiter to the left was taken by a neighbour through a long focal length telescope using a ZWO ASI 120MC camera.

The Moon

It’s all very well having dark skies but what do you do when the moon is up ?

Well, you can photograph the moon of course ! The Moon is a fascinating target and lunar imaging offers many options. Perhaps short exposures with a long telephoto lens or maybe a telescope with a barlow for close ups of craters.

When the moon is up you could also try using narrowband filters to photograph emission nebulae through the moonlight. Narrowband filters capture only specific wavelengths of light and block all others (including moonlight). These filters work best on certain nebulae that emit their own light. Narrowband filters won’t work on reflection nebulae or galaxies.

Waxing Crescent Moon - Image taken in North Northumberland
Tadpoles Nebula (IC410) - Narrowband image (Hydrogen-alpha, Sulphur-II and Oxygen-III) taken under strong moonlight in North Northumberland

Astrophotography in Northumberland - Top Tips

Landscape Astrophotography Tips

  • Remember that during the months of June and July it doesn’t get fully dark in Northumberland
  • In June and July look out for Noctilucent Clouds
  • If you are in the southern half of Northumberland the light pollution from Newcastle upon Tyne will visible to some extent when shooting south or south east
  • Remember that to see the Milky Way or Aurora Borealis it’s always best to look when the moon is below the horizon
  • Download a star chart app to your phone that shows quick reference information like moonrise and moonset times.

Astrophotography Tips

  • Remember that during the months of June and July it doesn’t get fully dark in Northumberland. Many deep sky objects are not possible during this period (though may be possible with the use of narrowband filters)
  • If you are in the southern half of Northumberland, imaging targets low in the south or south eastern sky will require a light pollution filter. Sky glow from Newcastle upon Tyne will be visible to some extent.
  • Download a star chart app to your phone that shows quick reference information like moonrise and moonset times.

Explore Northumberland and find your very own 'dark site'.

The Moon will impact some forms of astrophotography. Always check the moonrise and moonset times to help plan your sessions.