Many of my photos are fairly spontaneous. I watch the weather, decide where I'd like to photograph, and off I go. There is some amount of planning, but it's usually limited to checking the weather and finding a day to go. But anytime I want to include a celestial object like the Milky Way or a full moon, a little more precise planning is required. I've photographed at Giant's Stairs in Harpswell, on Bailey Island, many times before. It's one of my favorite places to go for rocky coastline and dramatic, epic waves. But as I photographed it in January of 2021, I wondered if I could capture the Milky Way over this rugged piece of coastal Maine.
A Year In The Making
After doing some research, I found that the best time to capture the Milky Way cradled between the huge rock formations on Bailey Island, would be at the new moon at the end of May/beginning of June, and again at the next new moon at the end of June. Well, as it turns out, I won't be in Maine at the end of June, so this was my one shot to make this photograph.
My friend Kristen Wilkinson helped with quite a bit of the research, using an app called Sun Surveyor to predict where and when the Milky Way would appear in that part of the sky. Then she scouted the locations when in Maine to confirm what the app was telling her. As the date approached, we began watching the weather to see if it would cooperate. We figured we had opportunities Friday night, Saturday night, and Sunday night. With commitments Tuesday and Wednesday, those nights became impossible for me. Friday night was cloudy with rain. Saturday was predicted to be rainy all day, but was supposed to clear by 10pm. We needed it to remain clear through about 2am.
Sure enough, the weather cooperated. The rain predicted for most of the day was almost nonexistent, and the clouds began clearing by 8pm. We arrived at midnight, which also happened to be high tide. As we climbed down to the spot I had in mind, I could hear, but not see, an angry ocean pounding the rocky coastline. Wave after wave exploded on the rocks. It's unnerving enough to see it during the day like that. At night, in the pitch dark and unable to see it, it was downright scary.
Once in position, I set up my gear and began making test exposures. The completed print is a result of 9 separate images, exposed for 15 seconds each, for the sky, which I stacked to reduce digital noise in the photo. Then, in an effort to get some light on the rocks in the foreground, I did one seven minute exposure. The shorter exposures are necessary for the sky, because stars begin to show movement after about 20 seconds, depending on the lens used. So I used the long exposure from the foreground, and the short combined exposures from the sky, combined together to produce the final image.
It's incredibly rewarding to plan something like that, and keep an eye on the calendar for so long, hoping weather cooperates and then being able to execute it the way I saw it in my head. Night sky images present a myriad of challenges, even when conditions are perfect. I hope you enjoy the image as much as I enjoyed making it.
For comparison, the image below shows the same area I photographed above. In this image, I was standing atop the rock formation showing at the left in the nighttime photo above.