oceans of stars: revealing Dorset’s secret galaxies
We all love the Jurassic Coast landscape – but it took the Liverpudlian Stephen Banks to reveal one of its most magical secrets. Welcome to the stunning astrophotography of the ‘Dorset Scouser’…
Every year, busloads of tourists head to Dorset and take photographs of such iconic landmarks as Corfe Castle or Gold Hill in Shaftesbury. But virtually none of them know one particular secret of these places.
If you wait until midnight – or 1am in British Summer Time – the streetlights go out. And then you suddenly get to see something that’s invisible to most British people most of the time: the dazzling free show that is the Milky Way.
With no motorways or cities, Dorset is one of the darkest counties in the country. Which means that it has one of the brightest, most spectacular night skies.
One man who did discover this secret – and has been generous enough to share it with thousands of followers on Facebook and Instagram – is Stephen Banks, aka the ‘astrophotographer’ Dorset Scouser. He takes panoramic photos of the starlit landscape, and then turns them into stunning stop-motion films like this:
As the nickname suggests, Stephen hails from Liverpool. He moved down to the Jurassic Coast in 2010, and soon fell in love with it. He explains: ‘Discovering the landscape of Dorset, initially through photography of sunrises and sunsets cycling back and forth to West Bay, meant that I never thought of moving back up to Liverpool.’
It was Youtube that turned him on to the idea that it might be worth staying up after sunset. ‘There there was a video I watched called ‘The Mountain’, which has been filmed on one of the Spanish islands, where there was virtually no light pollution whatsoever. A photographer spent a fortnight documenting the night skies in motion there, and recorded incredible sequences of the Milky Way passing across the sky, clouds forming and dying away again.’
Suitably inspired, Stephen embarked upon a time-lapse project called Bridport by Night. ‘At the time I didn’t have a car, so I would be spending most nights in the winter of 2011 cycling around the town creating sequences of videos from hundreds of still photographs.’
The hard work paid off, and the resultant video has been viewed over 30,000 times on Youtube. It sparked the more ambitious Dorset by Night project – a wonderful, hypnotic film of swirling star trails and boats bobbing on dark waters, hauntingly soundtracked by Bridport musician Douglas Dare.
‘As I learnt about the technique, my understanding of the camera settings and patience increased, so I was able to produce better and better results each time I went out. It became a bit of an obsession, until I discovered that I could get far more detail in single still photographs, so after Dorset by Night, I concentrated on that instead.’
Milky Way above Old Harry Rocks – © DorsetScouser Photography
So is there something unique about Dorset that lends itself to night sky photography? Stephen thinks so: ‘Although it’s not unique in terms of dark sky quality in the UK, we have so many iconic landmarks here, most of which fall within some of the darkest skies in the county. Take, for example, Durdle Door. On the beach, facing south, there’s nothing between you and France, which means the stars can really shine through. I love to combine the familiarity of these landmarks with the beautiful Milky Way above, and that has become the focus of my work over the past few years.’
Pulpit Rock and the Core – © DorsetScouser Photography
Gold Hill and the Cosmos – © DorsetScouser Photography
Lyrids above Charmouth Beach Huts – © DorsetScouser Photography
The ‘Dorset Scouser’ has established himself as one of the nation’s best-known astrophotographers. His shots of the night sky over Durdle Door and other famous Dorset landmarks appear frequently in national newspapers, he’s produced three calendars with a fourth currently in production, he has 30,000 Facebook fans and some of his pictures have reached half a million people worldwide.
Not bad when you consider that Stephen has a day job as director of the Watershed PR agency, and his photography is, quite literally, moonlighting. ‘The night-time astrophotography is realistically the only way I can fit in my passion for photography with my day job, and the two work together really well.’
And his favourite place in Dorset?
Kimmeridge at Low Tode – © DorsetScouser Photography
‘It used to be Durdle Door but nowadays I love venturing to Kimmeridge, particularly at low tide, because the rock formations and the way the sea behaves there is fascinating. I remember one night last summer, I arrived at slack tide, and there wasn’t a breath of wind. I had the place to myself and I was standing on one of the rock platforms, in the middle of the perfectly still and silent sea, which was reflecting the stars above. It was just magical.’
Amen to that.
You can buy Stephen’s magical prints on the Dorset Scouser website here, and follow him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.