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Sigma and a tale of excellent service

When I bought my D7000 I swore I would never buy another Sigma lens. It’s not the best when you get a nice new camera body and find issues with your lenses working with it which will always be an issue with 3rd party manufacturers.

Curiously, my Sigma 70-200mm f2.8 EX HSM which is now over 10 years old worked perfectly. However I lost AF in live view on my 10-20mm superwide but that wasn’t something that bothered me as that lens is nearly always MF only and I rarely ever use live view either.

The big problems started with my 28-300mm which was seen by the camera but just didn’t function at all. In the end I sold the lens on as I wasn’t that keen on it anyway but the real issue came with my Sigma 105mm f2.8 EX DG macro. Now, I love this lens. Every summer I cast off the shackles of landscape photography and delve head on into the wonderful world of plants and insects with the macro lens. It’s used a lot. The problem was though that the D7000 simply refused to even see the lens.

To say this hacked me off was an understatement. Sure, I still had my D90 where it worked perfectly but this lens was less than 3 years old and didn’t work with the new kit. I was so hacked off by this that when I was looking for a new mid range lens I totally discounted any Sigma product and went the extra mile for a Nikon 18-200mm VRII as hey, it’s a Nikon lens, and it’ll work for ever no matter what body I buy in future. Sure, it’s expensive but it won’t ever be obsolete.

Luckily though, Sigma DG products come with a 3 year warranty. No problem, send back to Sigma with the proof of purchase and they’ll re-chip it. Problem. No proof of purchase. I had bought it nearly 3 years ago and had no idea where the receipt would be. I phoned Jessops as I had bought the lens along with my D90 there and they couldn’t help. I emailed Jessops customer service and they did manage to locate a duplicate copy for me but when it arrived the date on the receipt was the day they had ran off the copy, not the original date of purchase.

I emailed Sigma again, expressing my displeasure that a less than 3 year old lens wasn’t working and explaining the proof of purchase issue. I had an email back asking me to phone their service supervisor which I did. In the end Sigma, with no persuasion needed offered to re-chip the lens in an act of goodwill even with no proof of purchase, something they didn’t have to do.

The lens was sent recorded delivery to Sigma in the UK and in only 5 days over a weekend too it arrived back re-chipped and cleaned too. Stuck on the D7000 and it worked like a dream. So there you go, in this day and age when the consumer now expects to be shafted silly there are sill a few companies out there giving decent service. My faith in the Sigma brand is restored and I wouldn’t hesitate to buy Sigma again, I always felt they were better built than the more expensive Nikon lenses anyway.

Now, my less than 2 year old original iPad can’t run some apps and it cost more than the lens did. Wonder what Apple’s response would be if I asked them to upgrade it?

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Adapting to the conditions, photography in the rain

]It’s been a funny old couple of weeks weather wise in Scotland. We’ve gone from sitting in the garden in shorts and t-shirt to snow, hail, torrential rain and even thunder and lightning. One thing about the Scottish climate, it certainly keeps you on your toes.

It’s been a very mixed bag for me photography wise. On one hand for astrophotography I want totally clear skies but for landscape I’d prefer a cloudy sky or at least some clouds in the sky. Clouds give you options, slow the exposure down and you can streak the clouds, or if you’re lucky enough to get huge high contrast clouds it can give a shot real drama. Clouds also help a sunset along no end; a slightly cloudy sky will always yield a better sunset than a clear sky will.

The last couple of days though have been really challenging, mainly due to the one thing that can stop play. Rain. Rain can be a real pain in the back end, water on the camera gear isn’t usually desirable although less of an issue with weatherproofed DSLR’s. It’s entirely possible to get some decent shots in rain though, you just need to adapt to the conditions. Remember too, rain can also come with extreme weather and nothing makes a better shot than extreme weather!

Certainly though, rain will stop you using filters, unless you want to sit cloning out rain drops on your shots for days on end. In these conditions I find it best to go simple. Shoot handheld, with the lens hood on and just bring the camera out when you want to take a shot. Balancing exposures will of course be an issue but there’s another weapon at your disposal here. HDR.

There, I said it. That dirty photography word, HDR. “Stone him” I hear you all cry. But wait! Why not? I’ve hardly used HDR for the last 18 months but the last couple of days it’s been a useful style to adopt. HDR is really down to personal taste but if done tastefully then I can’t see any reason why not? A bad shot will still look like a pile of poo in HDR but a good shot can look particularly pleasing if done properly.

My bad weather method of shooting HDR is as follows.

1. Low as ISO as you can, HDR always works better with a low ISO, I try to stick to ISO200 or lower.
2. Shoot 3 bracketed shots for everything, +2, 0 and -2ev. Most DSLR’s have an auto bracketing feature.
3. Turn on your high speed drive and if you have it vibration reduction, image stabilization or whatever it’s called on your camera.
4. Frame the shot, focus and press the shutter until you hear all 3 shots rattled off.

It’ll take about as long as a blink of the eye and you should have 3 shots, sharp, bracketed and not that far off the same position. Use features matching in Photomatix when you’re combining the exposures and you should be fine.

I like to bump up the contrast in Photoshop of HDR shots after the tone mapping is finished; I feel it gives a cleaner look with more tonal depth. Tone mapped images can look a little bland to me and bumping up the contrast finishes off a shot how I like it.

While you’re getting your shots though, do try to keep the lens pointed down when you’re not shooting and keep a close eye open for rain drops on the front lens element. They might not be that noticeable on the preview screen but they’ll be the cause of much wailing and gnashing of teeth if you find them once the pics are downloaded.

These shots were all taken in rain the last 2 days using a Nikon D7000 and Nikon 18-200mm VRII lens. All are 3 exposures combined in Photomatix Pro 4 and finished in Photoshop.

Forth Bridge in the Rain

Storm Clouds over the Bridge

Pier and Bridge

Crags to Calton Hill


An Evening of Astro-Photography

I’m obsessed with the night sky just now. Which is unfortunate as now we’re into BST the night sky is coming at a more unsociable hour. Who’d have thought after a long winter I was going to miss the dark nights? I’ve enjoyed my recent journey into some low level astro-photography, even without a telescope to really start on deep space and planets, with some modest photography equipment it can be an engaging subject to photograph.

A crystal clear sky on any night is a joy to behold, especially if you’re away from heavy light pollution, and it’s even more enjoyable once you get an idea what you’re looking at. Last night (March 26th) was one of those special nights with a conjunction in the night sky, where 2 or more celestial bodies appear close to each other in the night sky. Last night was the turn of a nice thin crescent Moon and Venus to take centre stage.

Unlike the night before when Jupiter and the Moon were in conjunction the sky had finally lost that misty haze of the last few days and the seeing was very good indeed. Without a cloud in the sky it was too good an opportunity to miss.

We’ve all seen the proper astro-photography stuff, those striking coloured images of distant nebula or close in shots of planets which is specialised stuff but with a basic camera setup you can have a great night working these special night sky events into your pictures.

All pictures were taken with a Nikon D7000, on a tripod and fired using a wired remote control, but most cameras would do a decent job with a mid range zoom lens.

This close in shot of the Moon and Venus show’s just how close they were in the sky. This was taken with a Sigma 70-200mm f2.8 and 2x teleconverter, and it filled the D7000’s frame perfectly. 1/60th, f5.6, ISO400 and 400mm. The moon needs a fast exposure to stop the detail burning out as it’s a very bright object, a full moon requires a even faster shutter, luckily Venus is so bright its fine with the faster shutter speed too.

Moon Venus conjunction March 26th 2012

Switching now to a Nikon 18-200mm VRII lens, a general purpose mid-range super zoom, we get a wider view of the same scene. This time though I’ve slightly lengthened the exposure to 1/2s, f5.6, ISO400, -2/3ev and 200mm. The result is lost detail in the bright part of the moon but I’ve picked up the Earthshine instead, the light reflecting back of Earth lighting the shadow portion of the moon.

Moon Venus conjunction with ES 26 March 2012

Pulling back the zoom even further it was possible to include Jupiter in the shot as well. Same settings as the previous shot, but at 135mm. Jupiter is on the lower right of the shot.

Moon Venus Jupiter conjunction March 26 2012

It’s all very well shooting the moon and planets on their own, you could do that from your own garden probably, but sometimes it’s nice to get a little context to the shot as well. I was at Blackford Pond in Edinburgh, not long after sunset when I was taking these so a bit of playing about got the 2 planets and the moon with the tail end of the sunset over the pond. 1/8th, f5.6, ISO400, 18mm, -4/3ev.

Conjunction Blackford Pond March 26 2012

With the pond so still there were a lot of reflections from the trees but where was the moon reflection? Moving right to the edge of the pond revealed where it was and with a little playing about with the composition and waiting for a swan to move away which was causing ripples I got a respectable shot of the reflection in the pond.

Same settings as the previous shot but -2/3ev and ISO3200. The super high ISO was required to get as fast a shutter as possible to freeze the movement of the gentle ripples in the water to stop the reflection distorting. This isb’t a major problem with high end DSLR’s these days but some old cameras will give very noisy shots at this high an ISO.

Reflected Conjunction

Final shot of the night was a closer in view of the reflection, again a high ISO was required and I also switched on the VR on the lens, which you wouldn’t normally do on a tripod but it did help. After many goes, I finally got a shot with a proper moon shape and pin point stars.

Reflected celestial triangle

To finish up with, here’s a quick shot of the Jupiter Moon conjunction the night before, if you look very close next to Jupiter and around 4 o’ clock there is 2 tiny pin pricks of light, 2 of Jupiter’s moons.

Moon, Jupiter conjunction, earthshine and Jupiter moons

Next time you find a nice clear night and you’re looking for something new to photograph, why not see how you get on with the stars? They are far from the easiest subjects to photograph thanks to the Earth rotation but with a little practice you could be adding extra depth to night landscapes.


Cameras are like arseholes…

…everybody’s got one.

I never really noticed until this weekend. When I first started properly dabbling in photography I was quite self conscious of my camera. I was even worse when I first started using a tripod regularly. What? Stand in the centre of town with a big camera and a tripod? I think not…

I eased over time and now I really couldn’t give monkeys what anyone thinks when I wander past with a fully extended tripod and big camera but nobody ever really notices anyway, that’s because everyone in the civilised world now carries a camera of some sort. Just a few short years ago it wasn’t that common, now people will look at you and point in the street if you don’t have a camera in the city centre.

Standing on Calton Hill for the sunset on Saturday night there must have been at least a dozen people with tripods and SLR’s and at least twice that again wandering around with compact cameras or smart phones with decent cameras. Not that unusual for Calton Hill I’ll admit that but it’s a remarkable amount of images all being captured in the half hour just before the sun goes down.

Where I really noticed it was Sunday night at Newhaven Harbour. Now, Newhaven isn’t exactly tourist territory, it’s far more likely to be locals down there and again there were dozens of cameras on display of all shapes and sizes. People pulled up in cars and jumped out to get a shot of the sunset. Even up to a couple of years ago down here on a cold night you could almost be the only photographer about, now it always seems to have swarms of them!

I spotted it at the Forth Bridges too recently. With the bridge lights back on I stopped in South Queensferry only to find at least 4 other photographers out with the same idea on a really cold night.

Of course the easy availability of cameras these days if one reason behind it. Even an entry level SLR could cost you less than £300 and you could pick up a compact with your weekly shopping for under £40 easily. It’s not the whole story though, cheap cameras have always been around and it’s not just the convenience of digital either. Digital’s been about for a long time now and so have cheap digital cameras so what’s the difference?

In my humble opinion, it’s the rise of social media as part of our everyday lives. We’re exposed to photographs everywhere these days, email, Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Blipfoto etc etc etc whether it’s people just sharing images of their latest drunken night out or first attempts at photographing a sunset, the world finally has an outlet for it’s photographs beyond the paper envelope with your always disappoint prints that only your friends or family ever seen. The prints that ended up in a shoebox under the bed for years on end now have a place to live and been seen without being hidden away.

From my own point of view it’s the main reason I enjoy what I do with a camera. If I were to take pictures and only ever looked at them myself yes I’d still get some enjoyment from it but it’s the easy ability to share that really makes it for me. I don’t care if an image is viewed by 20 people or 20,000. I don’t care if it’s had stacks of comments or none at all. The fact that it’s seen is enough for me. It gives a purpose to an expensive and time consuming hobby if that image is enjoyed by just one other person then the effort is worth it.


The Forth Bridge lights

After 2 years in darkness the Forth Bridge is finally lit up again, by 1000 new spotlights. I remember the old lights. You were never sure they were on at first; the lights came on gradually until the bridge was tastefully lit. These new lights though?

See for yourself from this picture.

Forth Bridge lit up

As you can see, the lights are very… open? The bridge looks fantastic but do the lights really need to be so blatant? It’s seriously one of the worst examples I think I’ve seen of structure lighting. You couldn’t see the light source from the old lights but these lights are way too open. The light pollution around the bridge itself is huge. A snow shower moved over last night and you could see the lights streaking up way above the bridge for a fair height. It’s simply too bright.

For photography purposes this is an issue. The old favourite panoramic shot of both bridges with a wide angle lens is not really an option at night anymore, the road bridge is a lot darker than the rail bridge and the lens flares from those lights are terrible. You could try a grad filter to ease out some of the rail bridge but I think that would make the flares even worse. See below for an example, I’ve marked the lens flares on the shot.

Not that long ago I was shooting star trails with the bridge, that’ll be impossible now. You simply couldn’t get those lights under control for a 30s exposure and the resulting pollution will mask the stars anyway. I didn’t try from down the Hawes Pier last night but I suspect the problem will be even worse down there.

It’s not a lot better from the North Queensferry side either sadly, although there does seem to be access under the bridge from that side with the works now removed, one to be better checked out in daylight.

Forth Bridge at night with lights

The Lights are on

I do hope that Scotrail don’t leave the lights like this although I suspect the bridge will now be like this forever. IN a time where we are more away of light pollution it seems very odd to light up an iconic structure in this fashion, especially as we’re all supposed to be getting “greener”. Frankly, I preferred it in the dark.


First tentative steps with Astrophotography

Well, I knew it was going to happen. This tale kicks off back in early December when I made my first ever attempt at a star-trail image, it never happened that night as cloud rolled in but I did get a natty shot of the Forth Bridge and the Big Dipper next to it in the sky. That was the start of the near obsession with the night sky.

Winter is a difficult time for me photographically, especially a winter with little or no snow like this year. Sunsets are difficult, due to working when the sun in setting and the position of the winter sunset is tricky in Edinburgh to so I typically resort to night-time shots and to be honest, I get a bit fed up with photographing the city at night so I needed something new. That something new turned out to be the oldest thing I could photograph, our universe.

Since that night I’ve progressed though star-trails, photographing star fields, the Milky Way, the planets the ISS and anything else astro related I could manage with my current photography equipment but I still lacked one thing, mega zoom!

I needed a telescope. So I bought one for the exorbitant fee of £30 from Jessops. Now, I didn’t expect much from a £30 Jessops junior telescope with a 50mm front on it. What I didn’t reckon for was how bad it actually was. This spindly thing was dreadful and nearly put me off a telescope all together. It was so frustrating to use. I went off the idea since then and started looking at a Sigma 150-500mm lens instead, which combined with my Sigma 2x teleconverter would have gave me a 1000mm lens, 1500mm on the crop sensor. To be honest I’d have bought this but I lacked the £800 or so I needed to get one.

Then Gumtree happened. Up popped a Meade 4504 114mm Newtonian Reflector and motor-driven equatorial mount. The usual Googling was done and off I went to see it. As soon as I laid eyes on it I knew I was buying it. It was huge and that’s what matters right? £80 paid and off I went with my bazooka sized new toy. Satisfyingly filling the boot and back seat of the Mondeo it looked perfect, there was even a camera adapter with it. Glorious up close moon shots were just around the corner, or so I thought.

If you’ve never used a telescope on an Equatorial mount before then you are well unprepared for how difficult it is to get the thing pointing where you want it to. Then when you discover that your 2nd hand bargain has had a harder life than you first thought the bubble slowly starts to burst. Over the next 2 days I discovered that the mount won’t lock in place, a real pain, once you located an object it requires little more than a gnats fart to move the scope and lose the object. Not that bad with the moon but a real bollock ache with the planets.

No matter thinks I, it’s got a motor drive that’ll fix the problem! 10, yes 10 AA batteries later and the motor drive whirred into action. It works, yes. But wait, shouldn’t the mount actually move when I tell it to? Scratch that, it doesn’t work. So, I now have this massive malfunctioning telescope sat in my shed, the wife wont let me keep it in the living room. To be fair, it’s that heavy I don’t really want to carry it from the house to garden to use, 8ft out the shed is much better so there it lives under an old blanket.

Much as I was disappointed by the mount I still figured I could at least get some moon shots with this setup. That’s when I got a stark lesson in focal lengths of telescopes. No matter what I do I cannot get the D90 to focus when attached to the telescope, either using the prime focus or eyepiece projection methods. It seems as if the camera is too far from the telescope mirror. I tried every combination but nothing worked. I’ve since read that using a 2x Barlow lens might correct the issue, I’ve got one of them so that’ll be the test for tonight.

All in, it’s been a frustrating and disappointing experience so far, I didn’t expect to jump right in and be photographing details on Saturn or distant galaxies from day 1 but I had hoped at least for a sharp shot of the moon filling the frame. I’m treating this as part of the learning curve for now, I had similar issues when I first delved into proper long exposure photography but with a little dedication I did get there in the end.

But, and there has to be a but. This post sounds fairly negative, it’s not been the best of experiences but there has been a massive positive. Even with the scope not perfect, I’ve managed to observe the moon really close up, right into individual craters and even a view of the moon on the lowest magnification is awesome, it’s so sharp. A truly breathtaking sight. If that wasn’t enough I’ve also observed Jupiter and close enough in to pick out the moons and the coloured bands around the planet. Something which amazed my youngest son too. I’ve also seen Saturn and the rings around the planet, a sight so awesome it’s hard to describe. When you think about the distances involved in where these objects are its mind boggling.

Even if this telescope never takes a picture for the views I’ve had so far it’s been worth it alone. I’ve seen things that relative to the amount of people on the planet, few have seen. I get fairly awestruck seeing historic landmarks you’ve only heard about of seen pictures off, places like the unfinished cathedral in Barcelona, the leaning tower of Pisa, Pompeii to name a few but seeing Jupiter and Saturn? That’s quite a special feeling and one you can get from your back garden with an £80 investment.



Daily Mail in “Talks Bollocks” shocker

This has bugged me since yesterday.

While skimming through the “I’m off for a shit” and tweets that describe a scenario and then say “That” at the end of it on Twitter yesterday I came across this from the @photobox account.

“You’ll be left startstruck with this stunning ‘space rainbow’ shot… magical!”

A what? A “Space Rainbow”? Now that’s a new one on me, I’ve heard of lunar rainbows but a “Space Rainbow”? This must be worth a look.

The link in the tweet take you to this page on the Daily Mail website.

Now, what’s even funnier here is that they have changed the wording of the article to refer to the “rainbow” as a star cluster and have removed the line that referred to the picture as “time-lapse photography”.

The “Space Rainbow” is in fact a panoramic shot of the Milky Way (go check Flickr for panoramic shots of the Milky Way”, which is obviously done with a fairly short exposure since the stars are pin pricks of light and not trails.

And better still, the Mail goes on to say, “The Italian snapper regularly takes pictures of space but has never seen – or heard of – a rainbow being captured in space before.”

Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but if this guy is in a dark sky area (which he must be), and he regularly does this kind of photography would he really be amazed by this capture and would he really refer to it as a “Space Rainbow”? Of course he wouldn’t, to capture something like this is a skilled photographer, someone who knows exactly what they are doing, it’s not been a chance capture, it’s been planned and the photographer knows exactly what he’s captured.

What we have here is a classic example of a clueless journalist making up their quota of stories for the day by using the pics and fabricating most of the story around their own ignorance to fill a page which in turn makes the photographer look like a complete dick.

The moral of the story? If the Daily Mail come asking for your pictures, unless they are being generous with the cash, tell them to get fucked!


New Ventures: Targetted photography lessons

I’ve enjoyed imparting knowledge as I’ve gained it through this blog. In fact, I really enjoy helping people with photography. Many’s a time I’ve been stood explaining to a confused tourist why their pics are turning out like they are. They do tend to ask a lot when you’re stood next to them with a big camera, tripod, remotes and bag full of lenses and filters.

I actually enjoy the imparting of knowledge thing so much I’ve decided why not make it an actual “thing”? I’ve been asked in the past for lessons but have always declined the requests, until now at least.

There’s nothing worse that seeing shots in Flickr or elsewhere and thinking, “I must give that a try”, but having no idea where to start or getting a shot nothing like what you expect. I’ve been there and been through that learning curve and came out the other end and now I’m in a perfect position to help others and hopefully save some lovely people some of the frustrations and financial faux-pas I made along the way. Equipment isn’t cheap and you don’t want to be buying the wrong stuff!

You could of course do some night classes and learn all about exposure, aperture and all that stuff and it’ll work well for you, but what these courses won’t show you is how to get that glassy surface water, how to get those star trails, or how to compose those flower macro shots. I’ll show you all this stuff in real world situations, getting the shots YOU want to get.

Sorry, I’m starting to sound like a marketing drone there.

Anyway, I’ve added a new page to the blog to expain the process, which you can read more about here.

You might also notice some of those other new pages? Since I’ve decided to ditch my old website I’ve moved some of the content over to here, this blog always got more traffic than the prints sales site ever did anyway. You can also get here now with the domain, www.photosofedinburgh.co.uk which now redirects to the blog.

Remember, if your star trails are wonky or your long exposures just aren’t long enough, drop me a line and start out on the road to brilliant pictures!


Photographing the International Space Station (ISS) from the UK

Valentines Day this year saw the start of another series of visible passes from the UK of the International Space Station, which if timed correctly can provide a nice photo opportunity. Lot’s of satellites are routinely visible from Earth but with sheer size of the ISS makes it a worthwhile subject to hunt down.

When it’s visible essentially what you will see if a very bright dot in the sky moving at a fair pace. You won’t confuse it with aircraft as it doesn’t have any flashing lights, it’s a steady white light similar to a bright star moving across the sky. For it to be visible though you need to catch it when it’s not in the Earth’s shadow as the light is provided by the sun reflecting off its surfaces, if it’s out of reach of the sun, you won’t see it.

Predicting where it will pass is pretty easy if you have access to app’s such as Star Walk on the iPhone, or any similar night sky tracker that show’s satellite positions. With Star Walk you can locate the ISS and then fast forward time to see where it will be at any given time, what it won’t show you though is if it will be visible from your location or not.

To determine visibility you’ll need the Heavens Above website. Simply select your location in the configuration settings and then look at the ISS predictions for the next 10 days, this will show you all the visible passes. Remember to deduct 1hr from the time for current UK time. Also check how long it will be visible for, it might be only a handful of seconds, it might be minutes depending on the position of the Earth shadow. The lower the mag value, the brighter the pass will be.

Armed with this information, what you need now is a nice dark location with a good view to the West and South and a clear sky, the ISS will arrive from the West travelling east. On a shorter visible pass your best bet is to setup the camera looking approx South-West, if you have access to the Star Walk app, try to see which easily identifiable star constellation it will pass near, that will help you decide where to point the camera. At the moment, it’s passing very close to Orion, one of the easier constellations to find.

Usual star photography settings apply, you want to be (in a very dark location) around ISO1600, lens as wide as you can get it (f3.5-4.5 is fine) and exposure should be enough so the sky looks light but not blown out, you can darken the sky back down again in post processing but for now we want to be sure we’re picking up as much image data on the stars as we can. In more light polluted area’s you’ll have to drop the ISO to maybe around ISO400 to stop the image blowing out.

After that it’s a case of watch and wait. Take a few test exposures so you know what field of view you’re going to capture in the shot, as you see the ISS (it’ll be fairly obvious) approach your field of view, hit the shutter (with a remote obviously) and keep taking exposures until it’s gone or you’re sure it’s out your field of view.

You can always combine multiple exposures in a programme such as Startrails.exe or StarStax to get a full trail of the ISS over the frame later.

This is an example of pointing the camera to much to the South and not enough to the South West, the little streak on the bottom right is the ISS but despite having watched it for a good 20s before it went into the shot it then went into the Earth shadow and that was it, gone for the night! There are loads of opportunities though over the next few days so if you don’t get it first time, try, try and try again!

ISS over the Pentlands

If you get a dark enough location you might also be lucky enough to get some decent star shots in general just now, with the moon well out the way of the early evening night sky the stars are nice and bright to the point it’s even possible to pick out (faintly) the Milky Way just a few miles outside light polluted Edinburgh.

Stars over Harlaw