Photography / Tips and Solutions

11 Tips: How to Photograph Lighthouses

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The lighthouse may be history’s only example of a man-made structure erected in the middle of a scenic vista that did not cause public outcry and protest. You don’t have to be a lifelong sailor to appreciate the beauty of the world’s lighthouses. Even the lighthouses that fail to grace the pages of coffee-table books and the front of potato-chip bags are fantastic in their own ways. Mariner and landlubber alike often find their cameras pointing at these lantern-topped buildings, and releasing the shutter to yield stunning lighthouse photographs.

Photographs © Todd Vorenkamp

Saint George Reef Light, off Crescent City, CA, photographed from the air. First lit in 1892; when it was built, it was one of the most expensive in the world.

As a sailor, I have a special relationship with lighthouses. Over the years, I have absolutely loved photographing them. Making beautiful photos of beautiful lighthouses is not rocket science, nor is it the most technical realm of photography, but here are some thoughts and tips that I hope will make your next lighthouse photograph a definite keeper!

Inside the lantern room at Point Arena Light, in California, constructed in 1870

And, if you are crazy good already and don’t need these tips, but want to try your hand at photographing lighthouses at night, click here for a sister article that talks about capturing these navigation aids with less sunlight.

Point Arena Light

1. Composition and Framing

One of the more subjective aspects of lighthouse photography, composition, is completely at the discretion of the photographer. Point of view is, of course, limited by the camera-and-lens combination, as well as where you can and cannot stand while viewing your subject.

Point Arena Light

Since the lighthouse is static, feel free to play with composition. Do you want to include landscape? How much? Do you want to just shoot the beacon? Do you want to center the lighthouse in the frame? How is the Rule of Thirds working for you? Think foreground and background. Does the foreground add interest and context to the image? Or, does it detract from your subject?

Nauset Light, in Cape Cod, MA, looks just like the one on your potato-chip bag!

Got your postcard shot? Now, sprinkle in some creative energy and put the lighthouse in the frame somewhere most people don’t. It might work on many levels.

Battery Point Light, in Crescent City, CA first lit in 1856

2. Geometric Distortion

When you tilt your lens above the horizon, vertical lines converge. Many lighthouses are tapered by design, so it is not uncommon to see converging lines in images of lighthouses. However, with a wide-angle lens, and positioned close to the structure and pointed skyward, you can get some extreme converging action.

Point Arena Light

Is this distortion objectionable? Well, that is up to you to determine as the artist, and up to the viewer’s personal preferences. Not everyone is going to enjoy the effect, but there can be an artistic benefit to your image.

Nobska Light, near Woods Hole, MA. The current iron tower was erected in 1876.

To eliminate or reduce the converging, you can use a perspective control (shift or tilt-shift) lens, or perform digital geometric corrections in post processing. When you photograph a pipe-covered factory or building with rows of windows, these geometric corrections can be easy to perform. With a tapered lighthouse that is narrower at the top than at the bottom, be sure not to overdo the corrections and make the lighthouse look unnatural.

Watch Hill Light, in Westerly, RI

3. Horizon Lines

Because many lighthouse towers are tapered, be careful not to use your camera’s gridlines to level your horizon on a tapered structure. If the sea is in your frame, that is the world’s best horizon—it is always level unless you find yourself on a small boat in the trough of a big wave!

Alcatraz Island Light, in San Francisco Bay, CA. This is the replacement for the first lighthouse built on the US West Coast. The original was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake.

If the sea is not in the frame, look for other buildings (keeper’s home), flag poles, and the vertical stations of the lantern gallery platform to help you keep your shot level. Of course, if your camera has one of those fancy digital horizon lines, you may use that, as well!

St. George Reef Light

4. Viewpoint

Most lighthouses have limited viewpoints for the photographer, since most of them are very close to the water. Of course, you can photograph them from sea, but don’t get too close—the whole purpose of the light is to keep you and your craft off the rocks!

St. George Reef Light

Sometimes there is a single viewing location for the lighthouse, but if there is not, be sure to explore the angles—both near to and far from the structure. Lighthouse photos can be equally compelling when taken from super-close range, or from a great distance. If you have time to do some scouting, do some scouting. Get up high. Get down low. Go over there. Walk around the property and see where you can get the best views. Change lenses (or focal lengths), too!

Nobska Light

5. Details

One thing that I believe gets a bit overlooked in the lighthouse photography genre is this: details.

Point Arena Light

Most lighthouse images contain this navigational aid in its entirety. There is nothing wrong with that, obviously, but even the simplest of lighthouses can have visually intriguing details that are very photogenic.

Nobska Light. I captured this reflection on the main door’s window with my iPhone.

Look for those details. Stairs, doors, windows, support structures, lightning rods, etc., all may help tell a more complete story of the lighthouse and give you a completely unique image.

Trinidad Head Light, in Trinidad, CA, built in 1871. The light is 196 feet over the water, but, in 1914, a storm wave extinguished the lantern!

6. Access

Depending on the lighthouse you are visiting, there are different options for access available. Some lighthouses can only be viewed from a distance. Others allow you to go inside. Some allow you to walk up to the base, but not go inside. And some are only visible from the sea or an aircraft.

St. George Reef Light

Regardless of the level of access, it might pay wonderful photographic dividends to see if you can get inside those lighthouses that are closed to the public, or inside the fence line at another lighthouse. Never trespass. That is not cool. But, do your due diligence and contact the lighthouse keeper(s), be it government or private, and see if you can be granted permission to get closer than everyone else.

Point Arena Light

7. Staircases/Windows

If you do get inside a lighthouse, be ready to take advantage of grand spiral staircases and interesting mechanicals for those lighthouses that feature rotating lanterns. Also, many taller lighthouse towers have windows that allow light into the stairwells and other rooms—be sure to not only look out of those windows, but check out where the light falls that enters the structure.

Windows inside Gibbs Hill Light (Bermuda), Alcatraz Island Light, Gibbs Hill, Point Arena, and Gibbs Hill

When it comes to spiral staircase photography, tripods are a good thing to have, because the inside of the tower can be relatively dark, even at midday. Also, pay attention to symmetry when composing. Usually, you are looking straight up or straight down, trying to get the classic nautilus shell-look, and it is easy to find yourself subtly off-angle.

Staircases in Point Arena (3) and Alcatraz Island Light

8. Lanterns and Lantern Room

Point Arena Light. The lantern is in the Keeper’s house in the gift shop.

If you can get access to the lantern room, and there is still a lantern present, get ready for some awesomeness! Even small Fresnel lenses are beautiful and jewel-like.

Point Arena Light

They are truly works of art. While a standard portrait of a lantern is cool, here is yet another opportunity to get creative and find unique images.

Gibbs Hill Light, in Bermuda. Built in 1844, the lantern is 354' above sea level.

If you like lenses, photographic or otherwise, the Fresnel lens of a lighthouse lantern is about as amazing as lenses get. See how it bends light, notice its prismatic effects, and get up close to see if some abstract lens art speaks to you. But, do not touch the lantern—that is a lighthouse-visiting faux pas.

Gibbs Hill Light
The Fresnel lens at Gibbs Hill Light

9. Time of Day, Time of Year, Weather

When I look back through my collection of lighthouse images, I am struck by the fact that many of them are taken on boring weather days or in the middle of the day. I then recall that many of these lighthouses were photographed while simply passing by the site on a road trip, sailing voyage, or helicopter flight.

St. George Reef Light
​​​​​​​Diamond Head Light, in Honolulu, HI; Cape Blanco Light, Oregon; and Point Arena Light; all photographed from the air while going from A to B. No time to smell the roses!

I promise you that bi-weekly flights to Point Arena, CA, to re-circulate jet fuel were not scheduled to facilitate beautiful weather for lighthouse photography.

Gibbs Hill Light

Lighthouses are always photogenic, but there are days when they are less photogenic. If you have the time, or live near one of these beauties, keep a weather eye on the horizon and get your shots when the light is right.

Watch Hill Arena Light

Dawn and dusk are generally the best times, fog is apropos for a lighthouse’s fog horn, and tune in to my article about shooting lighthouses at night when ready.

Point Arena Light

10. History

Maybe you are just passing by and lighthouses aren’t really your thing, but if you are spending some time photographing a particular lighthouse, I won’t hesitate to recommend that you do some research about the lighthouse. They all have stories. All of them. And, having some tidbits of history and stats about the lighthouse will serve to make the photographic experience that much more meaningful for you and, maybe, your audience.

Trinidad Head Light, photographed from the building housing the fog horn down the cliff

11. Inspiration from Others

There is some amazing lighthouse photography out there for your enjoyment—truly amazing images. Enjoy them, study them by applying the above tips, and be inspired to get your own great shots!

Watch Hill Light

Are you a lighthouse aficionado? What other tips do you have for getting awesome lighthouse photos?

St. George Reef Light

2 Comments

As much as I enjoy still pics of lighthouses, I still enjoy flying my drone for video shoots! I had the pleasure of a Flying Santa Lighthouse Cruise, out of Plymouth Harbor this past fall. The day before the cruise I shot the Old Scituate Light, the day before the cruise. If it's allowed, my video may be viewed here. It was one of those cloudy days, where the sea was rather whipped up and made for a fantastic shoot! https://www.airvuz.com/video/Scituate-Lighthouse?id=5a284e5a07363c27c5a81f81

Great video! Thanks for sharing, Kevin!

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