Acadia night sky makes news, draws festival, photographers

Maybe it’s the streetlights of the cities and towns they come from, or the lit-up screens of tablets and smartphones of today’s technology, but at Acadia National Park, 90 percent of visitors surveyed said the park service should help preserve the night sky, according to a new study.

acadia night sky

The official poster for the 2015 Acadia Night Sky Festival features the original painting “Starry Night Over Acadia,” by Bar Harbor artist Katherine Noble Churchill.

The report, published in the journal Park Science just days before the 7th annual Acadia Night Sky Festival begins, suggests it’s not just daytime landscapes and seascapes that attract people to Acadia and other of America’s national parks. It’s also the night views of stars, moon, Milky Way or even Northern Lights.

Calling night skies “a “new” park resource,” the report hit the national news media over the Labor Day weekend, under such headlines as “Twinkle, Twinkle: National Park Visitors Want Starry Views,” and “Sick of Light Pollution? Head to a National Park, Study Says.”

While the headlines focused on national parks being one of the last bastions of dark night sky and the need to protect it, getting scant coverage is the fact that the study is based on two surveys at Acadia National Park, of campers and visitors to 7 of the park’s major attractions.

So perhaps it should be, “Sick of Light Pollution? Head to Acadia National Park.”

No matter the headlines, “Night skies are increasingly recognized as an important resource – biologically, culturally, and experientially – in the national parks,” conclude Robert Manning, professor and director of the Park Studies Laboratory at the University of Vermont, and his co-authors. “This study documents this importance to national park visitors.”

For the stargazers, astronomy buffs and night-sky photography aficionados heading to Acadia and surrounding communities for the Sept. 10-14 night sky festival, here are highlights of festival events, and tips from professional photographers for capturing the stars for the memory book.

Stars over Jordan Pond

Stars over Jordan Pond and the Bubbles. All rights reserved, Brent L. Ander.

Acadia night sky star attraction of annual festival

From star parties to bioluminescent night paddles, lectures and workshops to solar viewing, a 1-mile “Space Race Fun Run” to a kids’ star-themed craft workshop, there’s a constellation of events available, some for free, some for a fee, during the Acadia Night Sky Festival. For events that are weather dependent, call (207) 200-1536 or go to the festival’s Facebook page, and to find other details, check the festival Web site. Among the events:

perseid meteor

A Perseid meteor in a star-filled sky over Acadia National Park, Mount Desert Island, Maine. All rights reserved, J.K. Putnam Photography.

  • Keynote presentationDr. John Grant, one of six scientists in charge of leading day-to-day science planning of the Mars rovers, talks on the topic of “Exploring Mars with the Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity Rovers.” Free, Sept. 10, 6:30 – 8 p.m., MDI High School Auditorium
  • Stars over Sand Beach – Acadia National Park ranger guides you on a tour of the stars. Free, Sept. 10, 9 – 10 p.m., Sand Beach, weather permitting
  • Star Party at Seawall – Rangers, volunteers and local astronomers will point out constellations and other night sky features. Dress warmly and minimize flashlight use. Parking at Seawall Campground (D Loop). No pets allowed. Free, Sept. 11, 8 – 10 p.m., Seawall Picnic Area, weather permitting
  • Photography workshops – Officially part of the night sky festival, although there are other workshops by these and other night sky photographers available at the same or other times.
  • Astronaut Dr. Dan Barry – Two talks and video presentations, plus chance to have lunch with him. Sept. 11, 4 p.m., Criterion Theatre, for “Follow Your Dreams” presentation; Sept. 12, Noon, Galyn’s restaurant, for “Lunch with an Astronaut”; and Sept. 12, 4 p.m., LCC Auditorium, Jackson Laboratory, for “Sensations of Space Flight.”
  • Star Party on Cadillac – Local astronomers point out constellations and other night-sky features. Take bus shuttle from MDI High School, beginning at 7:30 p.m.; Cadillac summit parking limited to handicap access only. Free, Sept. 12, 8 p.m. to 11 p.m., best viewing after 9 p.m., weather permitting.
  • Night-sky themed arts and crafts – For kids, workshop to create star-themed crafts. Free, Sept. 13, 1:30 – 2:45 p.m., Jesup Memorial Library. For adults 21 and older, “Sips & Paint the Acadia Night Sky,” enjoy wine or tea while painting with 2015 Acadia Night Sky Festival poster artist Katherine Noble Churchill. $35, Sept. 11, 12 and 13, 4 p.m. to 6 p.m., ArtWaves.
  • Space Race Fun Run – 1-mile run sponsored by MDI YMCA allows runners to “travel on foot through the solar system” at dusk, via open trails and track at MDI High School. Bring flashlight for safety. Free, Sept. 12, 6 p.m. to 7 p.m., MDI High School, weather permitting.

Pro tips for taking pictures of night sky from expert photographers

It’s all in the equipment and technique, say professional photographers Vincent Lawrence, John K. Putnam and Brent L. Ander, all of whom provide workshops on night-sky photography in Acadia, whether during the Night Sky Festival or at other times.

Here are some highlights shared by each photographer via e-mail.

star trails

Star trails by Acadia Images. All rights reserved.

Vincent Lawrence of Acadia Images – “Dark skies are key! You won’t see the Milky Way clearly if you are surrounded by light pollution. Part of the Acadia Night Sky festival is to bring awareness to the need to preserve dark skies.”

The other key, if you want to take pictures of the Milky Way, meteor showers or stars in general, is to do it during the new moon, according to Lawrence. “When the moon is out it diminishes the visibility of the stars, that’s why the Night Sky Festival is near the new moon, when the nights are their darkest,” he said.

The best time to catch the Milky Way is during the new moons between May and August, when it’s in the right position in the sky, and when Acadia Images schedules most of its night-time photography workshops.

“During September and October the core of the Milky Way is setting pretty early, while in July you can shoot all night until the sun starts to lighten the sky at about 3:30am,” Lawrence said.

But if you happen to be visiting Acadia at other times, other night-sky photo opportunities can present themselves. “Shooting the full moon rising or setting is a possibility because for one or two days it will be on the horizon near sunset or sunrise when you can shoot some landscapes with the moon in them.  Landscapes lit by a full moon can appear almost like daylight.  Quarter moons (when we can see half the moon lit) or smaller are a time when you can get both some stars and some landscapes lit by moon light,” Lawrence said.

milky way

Milky Way over the Causeway in Acadia National Park. All rights reserved, Acadia Images.

As to equipment, Lawrence said: “Many cameras can capture the night sky, but this is one area of photography that better equipment really makes a difference. We are pushing the technology to its limits so the newer cameras perform better.”

Lawrence uses an older camera, a Canon 5DMkII and a 16-35mm f/2.8 lens. Among the new models that he considers top night-sky cameras: Sony a7S; Nikon D810 and Canon 6D. (NOTE: Please see sidebar about links on this site.)

The lens and tripod matter too. “The lens is a huge factor and this is where a lot of the investment goes. Extreme wide angle lenses, anywhere from 11mm to 16mm, allow us to capture the vast scale of the night sky. Lenses come in different qualities and ones that have a maximum aperture of f/2.8 or wider (f/2, f/1.8, etc.) allow more of that dim starlight to be recorded,” Lawrence said. “A sturdy tripod is a good investment.”

While Lawrence isn’t offering any workshops as part of the Acadia Night Sky Festival, he does individualized night-sky outings around new moons. For 2016, Acadia Images has already scheduled 3- to 4-day night-sky workshops from May through July, teaming up with other night-sky photographers Mike Taylor and Aaron Priest.

Acadia night sky

Panoramic view of Milky Way and Acadia night sky. All rights reserved, Acadia Images

John K. Putnam of J.K. Putnam Photography and Acadia Workshops – Night photography in Acadia isn’t just about the stars and the moon and other celestial bodies for Putnam.

“I was shooting at Great Meadow one night and was treated to a chorus of owls. I had heard owls hooting before but never three or four at a time. Being out at night always brings with it surprises, stuff you’re not used seeing or hearing during the day.”

milky way

Milky Way over Acadia National Park, Mount Desert Island, Maine. All rights reserved, J.K. Putnam Photography.

If you want night photographs of something other than stars during a new moon or before the moon has risen, Putnam suggests the following: “With no ambient light, the foreground of a night scene can get a little boring, so shoot when the moon is out and full and let it light up the landscape. Another way to brighten the foreground would be light painting. I use a good old fashioned tungsten Maglite(R). LEDs produce less than desirable colors of light. A tungsten Maglite(R) always produces a nice warm orange.”

Each night-sky scene has its own attraction, and challenges, Putnam said. “The moon can really illuminate the landscape, I have some shots where it looks almost like daytime but the stars are out. However you won’t capture as many stars and you certainly won’t capture the Milky Way in all its glory. You need some dark, dark skies for that and for the aurora.

“When it comes to photographing a lunar eclipse you want a telephoto lens. You want the moon to be as big as possible in your frame so the viewer can really see what’s going on with it. Find a far-away foreground element (something down here on Earth) to frame with the moon. Try to keep your shutter speed on the faster side of things so the moon doesn’t move too much during your exposure,” Putnam said.

As to equipment, “Photographing the night sky is one time when the quality of your gear really matters,” Putnam said.

“I use a Canon 6D. It has a full frame sensor and comes with a relatively reasonable price tag for what you get,” he said. “You also want a fast lens, f/2.8 or f/4. Canon recently released the EF 16-35mm f4L which also has a really reasonable price tag for what you get. These two pieces of gear plus a sturdy tripod make for a great night sky setup. On the cheap? One of the Canon Rebel models and the Canon EF-S 24mm.” (NOTE: Please see sidebar about links on this site.)

Although Putnam said he tends to recommend Canon because he knows it well, he added he has “absolutely nothing against other brands (Nikon, Sony and other companies make spectacular gear).”

While Putnam is not offering a photo workshop as part of the official Night Sky Festival, he happens to be hosting 5-hour “Capturing Acadia’s Night Sky” workshops from Sept. 11 through Sept. 15, beginning with a sunset shoot and transitioning to star trails and light painting.

milky way

Four consecutive shots were “stitched together” to allow the Milky Way and Bass Harbor Head Light to appear in one image. All rights reserved, J.K. Putnam Photography.

Brent L. Ander of Ander Photography – As part of the Night Sky Festival, Ander is offering two “Capturing the Night Sky” workshops at Rockefeller Hall in the Schoodic section of Acadia National Park, one on Friday, Sept. 11, and one on Saturday, Sept. 12, both from 8 p.m. to midnight, weather permitting.

You’ve heard of people obsessed with hiking Cadillac in the pre-dawn hours to catch the rays of the first sunrise?

Ander was so obsessed with photographing a couple of different comets passing the Earth the last two winters, “I put on my snowshoes and hiked the North Ridge up to Cadillac Mountain…in the dark…on snow and large patches of ice flows…eight times.

comet lovejoy

It took 8 trips up a wintry Cadillac North Ridge Trail before Brent L. Ander got this photo of Comet Lovejoy in January 2015. All rights reserved, Ander Photography.

“Eight cold, treacherous, dark hikes up and down the highest mountain on the eastern US coast, carrying a bunch of camera gear on my aging faulty back. Naturally Mother Nature had other ideas. Each and every time, I was greeted at the top of my hike with dense clouds hanging on the top of the mountain that were not there when I started up my climb…every time, except one. In January of 2015 I was able to capture Comet Lovejoy as it rounded the sun. It was all worth it.”

While he won’t be leading Acadia Night Sky Festival workshop participants this week on any hikes up ice flows, Ander will nonetheless be sharing his passion for taking landscape photographs under the stars, also known as astro-landscape or night-sky photography.

“This is what I like to do, especially here at Acadia where the night skies are some of the clearest on the East coast of the United States,” Ander said. His workshop will also explore light painting, “where the photographer uses any of a variety of artificial light sources to ‘paint’ the scene with controlled light,” and other night-photography techniques.

As to equipment, Ander uses a Canon 6D. “I love my Rokinon 24mm f/1.4 lens for night sky. This is a manual lens without autofocus, but it’s very sharp and fast (and relatively inexpensive). It also makes a dandy daylight landscape lens (much sharper than a zoom),” Ander said. (NOTE: Please see sidebar about links on this site.)


A meteor fireball at Schoodic Point, Acadia National Park. All rights reserved, Brent L. Ander.

“For the beginner, I would recommend a Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) camera or one of the new mirrorless cameras (though the ones I’ve seen appear to be mighty complicated). The primary goal is to have the versatility of interchangeable lenses and a relatively fast ISO range for the camera. For night sky photography, I recommend a camera as fast as 6400 ISO or greater.” His Canon 6D has a max ISO of 102400, which allows him to “take a shot of the Milky Way with the following settings: 24mm lens, f/1.4 at ¼ second,” but any fast wide angle lens, with a minimum f2.8, can work. (ISO indicates light sensitivity; the higher the number, the less light needed, with the “normal” ISO range being 200 to 1600.)

“Each celestial circumstance a photographer encounters – such as a full moon, or partially lit moon, an eclipse of the moon, an aurora borealis or the Milky Way – requires [its] own camera exposure settings based on the camera and lens capabilities. For example I usually shoot the Milky Way with my 24mm lens at f/1.4, ISO 1600 for 15 seconds. If you had a lens that only goes to 2.8 then the setting would be completely different: f/2.8, ISO 6400 for 15 seconds,” Ander said.

“The camera sensor size makes a difference too. If you are not using a full frame sensor, then the lens focal length is not what it says on the lens. . . which changes the situation a bit. Full frame sensors are pricey and not essential to the beginner.”

Other ways to learn about photographing Acadia, night or day

If the discussion about night-sky photography and technique is getting a bit too technical, take one of the many photography workshops available in and around Acadia during the Night Sky Festival, or at any other time of the year, offered by any of the photographers mentioned here, or through doing your own research.

And here are some other resources to learn more about photographing Acadia at night or during the day (NOTE: Please see sidebar about links on this site):