Behind the Image: Milky Way Over Otter Cliff

Milky Way Over Otter Cliff

A couple of weeks ago, I headed up to Acadia after hearing a report that there might be some northern lights activity. Unfortunately the northern lights failed to make an appearance, but after photographing a spectacular sunset at Bass Harbor Head, the skies cleared and Kristen Wilkinson (check her work out!) headed to Boulder Beach along the Park Loop Road to photograph the Milky Way.

Milky Way Season starts in the northern hemisphere in mid February, and runs until October. Starting in February, it can be seen in the wee hours of the night- around 2am to 5am. As the year progresses, the Milky Way becomes visible earlier. For a landscape photographer, the trick becomes figuring out when the Milky Way will be in the sky above specific landmarks, since its location will change over the course of the season.

Kristen and I had determined that for most of March, the Milky Way would be visible in the sky over Otter Cliff, starting at about 3:30am. So, after a quick nap back at our lodging, we left at 2:30am and headed to Boulder Beach. The stars were so brilliant in the night sky! With no light pollution to obscure it, the Milky Way stood out brilliantly against the deep indigo sky. We made our way down the beach to a spot that gave us a good view of Otter Cliff and the crashing waves.

I've detailed my approach to photographing the night sky before, using stacking software to combine multiple images, which helps reduce noise (like static or grain) in the image due to the lack of light in the scene. This image was particularly difficult, however, because to the naked eye, Otter Cliff was a giant silhouette. In  order to bring out some detail on Otter Cliff, I had to do a 4-minute exposure. The problem with a 4 minute exposure is that the earth's rotation turns the stars into streaks, and I wanted points. You can see this in the image below. So I also took ten 10-second exposures, which allows the stars to stay sharp. When stacked, those 10-second exposures combine to create a nice exposure of the stars, with less noise than one exposure. You can see a single exposure below as well. I then combined the stacked image of the sky with the long exposure of the cliff and water, to create my finished image, which you see above.  While most of my images are single exposures, captured in the moment and edited for color and contrast, night sky images are different, simply because of the length of exposure needed for foreground objects contrasted with the shorter exposures needed to avoid star trails.

Sitting under the stars that night, which was warmer than usual for early March, it was as peaceful as could be. A soft breeze was blowing, and the ocean waves crashing caused the cobblestones covering the beach to rattle against each other. It was like music playing. It's moments like these that make me love what I do.