By Jon Secord
There’s something about traveling and exploring new places that can really spark creativity and inspiration. Photographing the same locations over and over does have it’s benefits, as you learn how the light interacts with the landscape, making it easier to plan future shoots, but my favorite images always come from trips to new areas. Last week, we packed up the car and headed up to Acadia National Park to shoot around and scout locations for our upcoming astrophotography workshops. With clear skies in the forecast and so much gear in the car we had barely enough room to sit, the excitement level was pretty high!
After dropping off most of our stuff at the rental house, we set out to explore and find some places to shoot later that night. As soon as we entered the park, everyone’s phones started going off with notifications- Aurora alert! The new mission was to find a spot with open views to the north, and hoping the Aurora would keep up for a few hours until it got dark.
A few hours later, after stocking up on energy drinks and snacks, we drove back and made the short hike up to Otter Cliff. Rising 110 feet above the crashing waves, with views looking down the shoreline and mountains in the distance, it made for a pretty amazing location to set up (just don’t look down!). Immediately after setting up my tripod, as my eyes adjusted to the dark, I could see the Aurora spiking and dancing across the northern horizon. Here in New England, it’s not very common to see much visible Aurora with the naked eye, except for very faint glow along the horizon, so once I saw light pillars before even taking a photo, it was a rush to quickly find a composition and start firing off frames. While waiting for those first photos to pop up on the camera screen, 20 seconds can feel like an eternity! It’s safe to say the trip was off to a good start.
It’s no secret among New England landscape photographers that Acadia has some of the darkest skies around, and our main goal was capturing images of the Milky Way during the trip. The galactic core of our galaxy isn’t visible during the winter months for us in the Northern Hemisphere, and while it does appear on the horizon briefly before sunrise in February, March is usually my first big month for Milky Way shooting. Shortly after 2 a.m., the core rises to the southeast, with a few hours to shoot before the light from the approaching sunrise washes out detail in the stars. Needless to say, sleep was a commodity in short supply over the course of the week. In between shoots, I’d manage to catch a few hours here and there, but as soon as the cameras were set up, I’d forget about the exhaustion and be totally in the moment.
It can be amazing how much detail in the landscape you can see once your eyes adjust, just from the light of the stars. For this photo looking down on Monument Cove, I blended a sky exposure of 20 seconds with a foreground frame of five minutes at a lower ISO for less noise and better detail. Light from a fishing boat starting its day can be seen on the right side of the horizon. There’s nothing like photographing the night sky along the coast. During those long exposures, all you can do is sit and watch the stars pass by, listening to the waves softly crash below. After being so focused on setting up a composition and getting your exposure dialed in, it’s so peaceful to take a few minutes and just appreciate the scene in front of you.
The last composition I had really hoped to get was the Milky Way over Otter Cliff from Boulder Beach. Although I had seen plenty of photos of this beach, made up of round rocks smoothed over by years of tides, I didn’t realize how big it was! Also, how treacherous it would be to walk across. Imagine carrying all of your camera gear across a beach of wet bowling balls- I’d be lying if I said I didn’t fall a few times. Thankfully my gear survived, and I made it to the waterline with only a few bruises. With blue hour fast approaching, I had to work quickly. This image is another blend of a shorter sky exposure of 20 seconds at ISO6400, and a foreground exposure at ISO3200 for five minutes. Even though the five minute exposure is too bright at first, having a balanced histogram means far less noise in your final image. I always find it better to bring down the exposure to balance the brightness with the sky frame, rather than trying to pull out shadow detail from one frame.
With a nice collection of images to bring home and new locations scouted for our workshops, it was a successful trip full of great memories. As usual, I’m happy to have photos to share, but what I’ll remember most is the fun I had with friends exploring a new area. For me, the photos almost feel like an extra bonus complementing the experiences I had. I encourage any photographer to start planning some trips for 2016 with some friends, it doesn’t cost as much as you’d think! Between the seven people on this trip, the rental house only cost us around $80 each, and I only spent about $250 for the entire trip (I would’ve spent less if we hadn’t found an amazing bagel shop in Bar Harbor). So get out your maps, gather some friends, and start planning your own adventures this year! I promise you won’t regret it.