Beyond the BackyardMaine Trip - July 2013

Star Photography In Maine!

Rich and I are both interested in astronomy, so we were excited to go to Maine where there is so little light pollution.  Part of the reason we rented a cottage at Seaside Cottages was the easy access to a little strip of beach on the western side of Mount Desert Island.  We spent several evenings sitting on the rocky beach, watching the stars.  It was incredible just how many stars you could see!  The sky was so bright with tiny pinpoints of light.  I had a blast experimenting with star photography.

The Milky Way
The Milky Way

It was our first opportunity to view the Milky Way, which was just incredible!  You can see the Milky Way in the summer in the northern hemisphere.  Our little cottage’s western beach was perfect for framing the Milky Way with rocky Maine coastline and gorgeous tall trees.  I experimented with a variety of exposure settings to make the image above.  A too-long exposure yields star trails, which are fun but not what I was going for.  A too-short exposure doesn’t capture as many stars.  Low ISO settings are less noisy, but higher ISOs yield more stars.  This image was made with my 17-40mm wide-angle at f/4.0, for 30 seconds at ISO 6400.  I added a bit of clarity to to the Milky Way in post-processing.

That night I also experimented with star trails.  In the film days, you’d set up your camera for a bulb exposure with an external timer, and photograph for several hours.  The result would be an image where the stars made circles in the sky, due to the rotation of the Earth.  These days with digital, you can create the same effect with less noise by stacking lots of shorter exposures.  I used a program called StarStaX to make mine.  It’s a lot easier than manually stacking the images in Photoshop.  If you point your camera towards the North Star, you’ll get trails that are complete circles.  I didn’t have a clear view to the north, so my trails aren’t full circles.  But they are still pretty cool!

Star Trails Over Maine
Star Trails Over Maine

The star trail image above is a combination of 78 30-second exposures.  I was amazed at how much the stars travel in a little over half an hour!  I thought it was cool that I had caught the Milky Way behind the trails.  We were lucky because our trip coincided with a new moon.  On a night with a full moon, the moon’s light diminishes the light you can capture from the stars.

I liked having dark trees as a foreground for my trails.  Other people experiment with light painting to illuminate the foreground.  They shine a flashlight over the features they want to illuminate.  It’s a fun effect, although we found out by accident that Rich’s iPhone flashlight did not exactly yield pleasing light effects.  We both laughed at the image where he came walking towards the beach illuminating the path with his phone!  But don’t worry too much if your companions accidentally walk into your image.  It’s very easy to edit out using the corresponding parts of the previous frame.

iPhone Light Painting!
iPhone Light Painting!

On the Fourth of July, we skipped the Bar Harbor fireworks and headed to our cottage’s beach.  There were more clouds that evening, but it was still one of the clearest nights of our trip.  Star trails require really clear skies for good results, but I didn’t have too many nights in Maine, so I set up the camera and tried anyway.  Clouds covered the skies for the first part of the hour, and then it cleared up during the second half.  If I hadn’t been exhausted, I would have tried for another hour!  When I stitched the trails together, I found that the clouds really were too thick.  But the sequence made for a pretty good time lapse!  I love watching the rotation of the Milky Way.  You certainly don’t notice the rotation as you sit there observing it.

Another thing I learned was to watch for planes.  As I sat in Florida, dreaming about the star trail opportunities I’d have in Maine, I imagined trails over the picturesque dock by the beach.  But I didn’t consider the Bar Harbor airport that’s a little to the north of MDI.  As I sat there making my trails, I saw several planes fly through the stars.  They make rather unnatural streaks in your image!  I stopped my exposures after about 15 minutes after realizing how many planes there were.  Besides, there were an awful lot of clouds on the horizon.

Too Many Planes!
Too Many Planes!

After watching the sunset on Cadillac Mountain a few days later, Rich asked me what I wanted to do next.  I told him we should go camp out at Jordan Pond and do some star trails there!  I’d seen some impressive ones online.  Rich gave me this dubious look and told me that he’s never sure when I’m serious when I talk about my feather-brained ideas!  Luckily for him, it was a cloudy evening, not at all right for star trails.  But I know what we’re doing the next time we go to Maine!!