Behind the Shot: Quoddy Lighthouse

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Earlier this year in May, I was co-leading a night photography workshop in Acadia National Park with Adam Woodworth. Acadia National Park is amazing in May. The weather is still crisp, the park isn’t crowded at all, and there are still plenty of things to photograph during the day.

This workshop in particular was one of my favorites because we had a great group that came with us. There were a total of six night workshops going on during the week, so each group would pick a spot to shoot and we would rotate so everyone would have the best opportunity to get high quality Milky Way photos.

Related course: How to Photograph the Night Sky

However, there was one thing missing in the workshop: clear skies! You see, you can’t see the Milky Way with clouds in the way.

Yes, we had plenty of opportunities to go practice the techniques used to get tack sharp star focus and the correct white balance, but that gets old after a couple nights of solid cloud cover. Sooner or later people want to see the Milky Way. You can also teach Milky Way editing techniques in classroom sessions, but without any Milky Way images, you can’t really practice.

On the last night of the workshop, we decided to take a risk by making an unplanned road trip northeast to West Quoddy Head Lighthouse. There was a chance of a four hour window of clear skies and bright Milky Way viewing. We cancelled our last night at the hotel and hit the road.

Related eBook: The Landscape Photography Handbook

After dinner, the majority of our group decided to grab a quick nap before that night’s shoot. I opted for an entire pot of coffee while I watched the Red Sox game and was absolutely wired by the time we left for the lighthouse.

When we got to the site, we split up into two groups and started shooting. There were a few compositions to try out. One was a far off panorama from the rocks, one was from directly beneath the lighthouse, and the final one was from a mid-range distance. This is really a story like Goldilocks and the Three Bears.

The panorama from the rocky shoreline was absolutely awesome for sure. I love the look of an arched Milky Way when it’s shot in pano style. The sea mist and my lens even produced a great full circle rainbow from the light of the lighthouse. But, I wanted to heavily feature the actual lighthouse more.

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So, I tried the closer perspective. However, I quickly noticed that the close view wasn’t going to allow me to capture enough of the Milky Way. Again it was a really interesting perspective, but I wanted both a bold lighthouse and a bold Milky Way. I tried this test shot, getting that circular rainbow again, but I wasn’t feeling it.

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That’s when I decided to try the last perspective. I took a couple people from my group and stood on a picnic table to get up high. I could easily see the large majority of the Milky Way behind the lighthouse and knew this was going to be it.

But there was one problem. The lighthouse was a pulsing light instead of a spinning light. Every eight seconds, the light would illuminate. If it lit too many times, the photograph would be blown out and the Milky Way would barely be visible. So, I had to time the light. If I started the twenty second exposure right after one flash of the lighthouse, I could accomplish just two sets of flashes and get the light perfectly correct in the exposure. It also allowed me to see the full glory of the Milky Way behind the lighthouse.

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Everything worked out perfectly and I only had to clone stamp a couple of the workshop participants out of the photograph in Photoshop.

Sure enough, the clouds eventually rolled back in, but we had all shot great photos of the Milky Way and were thankful for the clear skies we saw, no matter how short the gap was! When my coffee jolt finally wore off, I collapsed into bed and got a couple hours rest before having to drive back to the Bangor, Maine airport.

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About the author: When David Johnston isn’t leading photography workshops and tutorials or hosting his popular photography podcast, Photography Roundtable, he can be found traveling the world taking photos to awe and inspire his viewers. David has a passion for sharing his knowledge of photography and has many educational offerings designed to help photographers improve their work. Visit his website at www.photographyroundtable.com.

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