At first glance this panoramic view looking south over Portsmouth at twilight is not a complex image. In fact, visually, the aesthetic is particularly simple. However, this simple appearance defies both the complexity of capture and the significance of what it represents.
Within the inky sky that spans a viewing angle of nearly 180º lies a rare planetary occurrence: a conjunction of five planets visible from earth.
Timing was everything, from the seasonal timing of the 3-4 week period during which this rare alignment took place; to the photographic timing, searching for a glimpse of Mercury faintly showing above the horizon before the encroachment of daylight became too strong. In February, the cloudless conditions required for a clear sky view meant the ground conditions were pretty chilly, too!
Visibility of Mercury was the defining element from a photographic perspective. A dark-sky site would be irrelevant, given the imminence of sunrise, whilst a hilltop vantage point ensured the lower planets couldn't be concealed behind a foreground element. In fact, the yellowy glow of the city brought further balance to the foreground, with its illumination and colour.
I opted for a 50mm lens attached to my Sony A7s, mounted vertically on the tripod. The capture phase took two rows of 14 frames to record optimum amounts of sky & foreground. With so many frames to record per single attempt there was a very real chance of the ambient light changing from start to finish. To counter that, I dialled in an ISO sensitivity of 400 and a shutter speed of 4 seconds per frame, with the short exposures having the further benefit of eliminating any trails from the stars & planets.
With so much source data the final image is huge, obviously. At 100% zoom you can even make out two of Jupiter's moons! If my calculations are right it should print at up to 10ft long- worth bearing in mind if you're looking to fill a wide wall space.
When I got home from shooting, I discovered my editing monitor had died. As the pertinence of the image faded, it took me until now to approach the edit on a new screen. It was only when turning to the internet to cross reference my labelling of the features against other images/ reports of the conjunction that I discovered, well, not very much. There seem to be very few other images of the five-planet conjunction, making this an especially unusual image. That makes it all the more gratifying that it was achieved on my first try. If only I could enjoy similar success with capturing aurora at these southern latitudes!