Der Himmel Über London.

The sky at night over London is alive. Perhaps not with immortal angels listening in to the thoughts of those down below but very much alive it is.
A camera, a tripod and an Internet forum thread with tips on settings was everything we needed but for the skies themselves. Then, for a handful of nights in February, the heavens pitched in to show that, yes, alive indeed they are.
A trail of white lights: a stream running from left to right like an avenue in the sky over the western part of the city. Further to the left and higher up, a faint halo: a stack of Plasmon biscuits made of red lines and dots. Planes coming in to land at Heathrow airport; more planes – or perhaps the same – patiently waiting for their turn in a ‘stack’, a gigantic three-dimensional racetrack where planes enter from up above and descend, slowly but steadily, until it’s their turn to line up for the runways. As they proceed, as they move about the sky, they leave a faint but indelible trace on the sequence of 1 and 0s that make the RAW file captured by my camera’s sensor. In the deepening turquoise of London’s evening, the sky is not populated by angels. It’s business consultants coming home, travellers transferring on to the late night long hauls, it’s pilots and cabin crews. People.
On our second attempt the twilight had well and truly been washed away from the sky. We left the camera on its tripod, quietly whirring away, and went about our business. When we returned, after well more than an hour, we had an unexpected surprise: not only had the sensor captured the pale, blinking lights of the jets but it had also recorded things we had never figured we could see. Strange curving lines – some green, some white, some stronger, some paler – bisecting the dotted vectors of commercial flights. They were so intriguing that we ignored the novelty of having been able to capture not just Heathrow’s but also City’s traffic: what were they?
The answer could only be satellites.

There are an estimated 4,600 satellites orbiting around Earth, not including junk. Tiny moons we can’t see with naked eye but that, still basking in direct sunlight, describe their serene trajectories as they allowed humans to communicate with one another, share Instagram photos or spy over unsuspecting fellow earthlings.
Night #3 brought a change. A breeze from the east meant a shift in air operations: airliners would no longer cruise over the city en route to Heathrow, opting instead for an approach that led them above Windsor. Take offs, on the other side, would aim for the city, swerving gently over north London to avoid the centre. Fully expecting a less crowded scene we nonetheless set up our camera pointing northwards, ready to capture whatever may come.
Boy weren’t we in for a surprise.

Beacons criss-crossed the sky in delicate networks, the lights of the departing widebodies bound for the East and Africa mingling with thin necklaces of green and red anti-collision lights of those flights that already were at cruising altitude. Here and there, like old friends stopping by for a quick greet, were the satellites, sailing higher than anyone could.
Days of morning fog ensued before, eventually, a clear dawn appeared. A clear dawn with no easterly winds. As they arrived from China, Singapore and South Africa the early morning flights lined up diligently and, one after the other, came in to land with their cargo of yawning families, execs straightening the knot of their ties and window seat dreamers. To the east, behind the towers of Canary Wharf, a golden glow announced a new day.

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19 Responses to Der Himmel Über London.

  1. richandalice says:

    Very cool exercise. Note your last frame in particular: (1) you can clearly see the different colors of the stars, corresponding to their differing temperatures, (2) you captured a meteor, about 1/3 in from the right and down from the top.

    Liked by 1 person

    • awtytravels says:

      Hi Rich,
      Fascinating! Having your expertise at ‘hand’, so to speak, is incredible. so it wasn’t just satellites then? I thought it’d be impossible for stars to be visible due to the light pollution (plus I thought that the Earth wouldn’t be revolving that fast for them to sort of draw a line). Which ones of the ‘lines’ are stars, and how do we recognise the different kind of stars based on their colours?
      And last question, is the meteorite the purple-blue-ish trail 1/3 from the right?


  2. Success! And the title was one already. Have you heard of Mr. Bruno Ganz’ recent passing, one of the original angels in Berlin? It touched me. I’ve always loved this film so much.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m speechless. What a sight

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Anna says:

    Really amazing photos!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. J.D. Riso says:

    Very cool, Fabrizio.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Wow, these make for extremely interesting photographs. What a busy sky.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Dave Ply says:

    Interesting exercise. Strangely enough I’ve never tried the really long exposures you have here. I’ve never seen as good a visual of jet’s holding pattern.

    It doesn’t take long to get a star trail. Have you heard of the rule of 500? Divide 500 by your focal length to get the max time you can shoot before the stars start leaving a trail. So, if you were shooting with a 35mm lens, you can’t shoot for longer than 14 seconds (500/35=14, roughly). If you have a crop sensor camera you need to adjust that ratio. For example my camera is an APS-C crop sensor, which means I’d need to multiply the 35 by 1.5 (=52) before doing the division. So, with a 35mm on my camera I can only shoot for roughly10 seconds before the stars show movement. (These are considerations for shooting milky way pictures, which I suspect you’ll be trying soon if you get away from city lights.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • awtytravels says:

      Hi Dave!
      I hadn’t heard about the 500 rule, thanks for it. I’ve added it to my little book of photo ideas, we’re going to Chile later in the year and hopefully I’ll be able to use it for night-time photography…

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Bama says:

    It’s amazing to think that this is all made possible by agreements among nations about flight paths and satellite paths so whatever there are flying in the sky won’t collide into one another. Certainly a concept that has only recently been developed throughout the history of mankind.

    Liked by 1 person

    • awtytravels says:

      Indeed! Agreements, best practices and a lot of talking. And it works! Planes of all kinds, from everywhere, doing it. Sometimes I think we should let the geeks run the world.


  9. Great pictures, glad to see you’re getting into super long exposures! London was a fitting choice, I think Heathrow alone shuffled more than 80 million passengers last year.

    Hope it wasn’t too cold? I had my share of colds from waiting with chattering teeth next to a tripod.

    – Verne

    Liked by 1 person

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