Milky Way Photography in Acadia National Park

At the beginning of August, I treated myself to two nights of solo camping in Acadia National Park to once again chase the stars around the night sky. I had visited the area for three consecutive years at this point, but I'd never been by myself, and the idea of a trip dedicated solely to photography sounded like a great idea.

To shoot the night sky, it helps a lot if you can get to an area that's low on the Bortle scale, a 9-tier ranking system that measures light pollution. For context, Boston is a Bortle 9 and the middle of the ocean is Bortle 1 - so, basically, you need to get away from big cities and find somewhere dark to shoot. Mount Desert Island (where Acadia NP is located) is a Bortle 3-4 zone, meaning it has some of the darkest skies in the Northeast. Perfect for stargazing.

 The First Night

I had a few compositions in mind for this trip, having scouted them during the daytime on past visits. The first was North Bubble Rock, which is a short but steep hike that looks over the famous waters of Jordan Pond. The shore of the pond is an iconic location in Acadia, but it's not photographed as often from above. I hadn't seen too many Milky Way photos from this location, and even fewer had a person in the frame.

The Milky Way comes out early at this time of year, so I arrived at the trailhead at around 9:15pm and made the half-mile trek to the top by about 9:45pm. After snapping a handful of test photos with different compositions, I found a few that I liked and got to work. Things got interesting pretty quickly...

It's a multi-step process to get a high-quality image at night - I typically shoot a long exposure to capture more detail in the foreground, followed by 10-15 shorter exposures of the sky that I stack later to cut down on the noise. If I'm shooting a selfie with a light, I'll also take 2-3 photos at a short exposure to get the glow just right. All in all, each final photo is often a combination of around 20 total images stacked and blended together in post processing. The result looks like this:

The Milky Way core rises in the southern sky over Jordan Pond in Acadia National park
Sky: 14mm, 15 seconds at f/2.8, ISO 6400 | Foreground: 14mm, 300 seconds at f/2.8, ISO 800 | Light: 14mm, 5 seconds at f/2.8, ISO 3200

A Close Encounter?

Happy with the images I captured, I was finishing up my last long foreground exposure and getting ready to head back to the car when something really strange happened... the area around me suddenly lit up in a light green color. At first, I thought it was the headlamp of another hiker coming around the trail behind me (as sometimes happens on night hikes), so I didn't think much of it. But, I turned around and there was nobody there, and I can assure you with 100% certainty that I was the only one on the bubble rocks. Odd.

It got weirder moments later when a thin streak of bright green light appeared out of nowhere in the sky about 25 yards away from me. It resembled a piece of a firework falling through the air, but those are illegal in national parks, and I didn't hear the distinctive firework boom. My next thought was a flare gun, because of the way it lit up the area and lingered in the sky - but again, those make a pretty clear sound. They are also much more than a short thin streak of light... As quickly as I saw it, it disappeared, and the night returned to its darkened state - although it definitely felt a little eerie now!

Needless to say, I packed up and descended pretty quickly, just in case of... well, I'm not sure. When I got back to the car, I pulled out the camera to see if I was just hallucinating from lack of sleep. But, there, on full display, was the dull green hue cast over the foreground by this mystery light... So, what was it? A firework? A flare gun? Some sort of brief aurora phenomenon? Alien activity? I'll probably never know, but it was certainly a memorable end to that trek.

You can see a green hue around this puddle. The red color is from my headlamp

An Impromptu Stop

As I was driving back to my campsite, I noticed the last quarter moon had risen just above the horizon, and it was glowing a soft yellow color. Since I happened to be renting a zoom lens for the weekend, I decided to head down to the shoreline near the Blackwoods campground to try my hand at capturing the moon - which is not something I typically photograph. Sadly, my skills at shooting the moon need a lot of improvement, and those shots were garbage. 

Dejected by that failure, I turned to pack up again and noticed that the Milky Way was still faintly visible in the sky, despite the growing moonlight. I quickly found a composition that I liked, set up my camera and snapped what might be my favorite image of the night. A vertical Milky way fading into the night sky over Acadia's famous rocky coast. Nice way to finish!

A faint Milky Way positioned vertically over the rocky shoreline of Acadia National Park in Maine
Sky: 13 frames at 14mm, 15 seconds at f/2.8, ISO 4000 | Foreground: 14mm, 30 seconds at f/2.8, ISO 1600

The Second Night

The next night I really wanted to try something new and visit a location that I'd never photographed before, so I headed across Frenchman's Bay to the Schoodic Peninsula. Fun fact - the Schoodic Peninsula is the only part of Acadia NP that's located on the mainland (not on Mount Desert Island), and it sees significantly lower crowds than the rest of the park. That's kind of irrelevant for night photography, but it's still a nice perk. I had scouted an area called the Raven's Nest earlier in the day, so I headed back around 8pm for another night of stargazing from a new location.

The Raven's Nest is a really cool spot situated around a huge outcropping of rocks. On one side is a picturesque little pebble cove, and on the other is a long, jagged cliff that juts out into another cove. Kind of like a much bigger (and cooler) Thunder Hole. The second cove faced the wrong direction for a Milky Way shot, but I really liked the scene, so I had some fun with another selfie on the rocks under a starry sky with Cadillac Mountain visible in the distance. I was hoping to do some star trails, but it didn't work out this time.

Stars shine in the night sky over the Raven's Nest, in Acadia National Park
Sky: 10 frames at 14mm, 13 seconds at f/2.8, ISO 4000 | Foreground: 14mm, 320 seconds at f/2.8, ISO 2500 | Light: 14mm, 5 seconds at f/2.8, ISO 3200

Back at the first cove, I had some trouble with the scale of the scene. I tried a few different compositions, but I ended up shooting down at the cove to really give a sense of scale to the cliffs that flanked the beach. I took a two-shot horizontal panorama to capture the full foreground scene, then I blended that with a stacked sequence of sky frames to get the full effect. I'm pretty happy with how that turned out:

The Milky Way dominates the night sky, looking down at a pebble beach at The Raven's Nest in Acadia National Park, MaineSky: 14mm, 15 seconds at f/2.8, ISO 6400 | Foreground: 14mm, 300 seconds at f/2.8, ISO 800

Satisfied with what I captured, and happy to have explored a new location, I packed up and headed back to the car for the long drive back to Blackwoods campground. PSA that while the Schoodic Peninsula is just across the Bay from Acadia NP, it's a 2+ hour driving commitment in total - they're not that close!

If you live in the Northeast, the night sky in Acadia is really tough to beat. Every time I've visited, I've been fortunate to have clear dark skies with bright stars and a sharp Milky Way. So, if you want to try some night photography and you're looking for a place to practice, I'd highly recommend visiting.

Here are some other photos that I captured during my quick weekend trip:

The Milky Way reflects in a puddle on top of North Bubble Rock in Acadia National Park, Maine

The Milky Way over Jordan Pond in Acadia National Park, Maine

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