September 26, 2018
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How I captured this amazing shot of a seal photobombing the Milky Way

Stephen Ippolito Photography | BDN
Stephen Ippolito Photography | BDN
A harbor seal basking under the dark skies of Acadia National Park.
By Stephen Ippolito, Special to the BDN
Updated:

I encountered something I never thought I would expect the other weekend while I was taking night sky images at Sand Beach in Acadia National Park on August 14.

I was set up and taking night sky images near the ocean as I was waiting for two other friends to join me later in the night. I was fairly close to the ocean, and the waves were crashing in closer and closer as I was photographing.

After a few shots, I noticed something moving just a few feet from where I was standing. It was very dark and hard to see, and initially I thought something may have washed up on the shore. I turned my flashlight on, and to my surprise I saw I was standing a few feet from what I believe was a harbor seal. (There was no marine biologist nearby to verify.)

It startled me at first. I took a few steps back, and as I did the seal decided to waddle up closer to me, almost as if she were following me or wanted my attention. I then thought it would be interesting to take a photograph of the seal with the Milky Way shining brilliantly overhead.

It wasn’t the easiest to take a photo of the seal in the dark. I didn’t want to draw attention to where I was standing. There were a bunch of other people across the other side of the beach, and I wanted to avoid bothering the seal as much as possible.

I took a few 30-second exposures, and light painted the area. That worked out great for the night sky and the beach, and for capturing a image of the seal’s body, but that didn’t work out quite so well for the seal’s head. It just didn’t want to stay still for 30 seconds. He would move his head from left to right or lay it down in the sand during the 30-second exposure.

It’s hard enough for me to stand still to pose for a night shot, let alone a harbor seal, who probably had no idea what I was trying to do. So I thought my only bet was to take one 30-second exposure at F/2.8 and ISO 3200 to capture the brilliant night sky, the light painted foreground as well as most of the seal’s body, and then while not moving my camera at all (I had it set up on a tripod) take a much shorter exposure at 1.3 seconds with a high very high ISO setting of 10,000 as I lit up the area with a small light.

I then took both exposures and merged them together. Since the seal didn’t move the rest of his body it was quite easy to do, and I was able to get as still an image of a seal as I could for that 1.3-second exposure.

When I texted my family the image, my 13-year-old son didn’t believe it — he was so amazed.

I must say, I didn’t expect to encounter a seal at all. I thought maybe I would see a shooting star or the Northern Lights, but the seal for me was a once-in-a-lifetime moment and it totally made my night.

Stephen Ippolito is a Connecticut-based photographer. Follow him on Facebook or Instagram


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