“Lighthouses are endlessly suggestive signifiers of both human isolation and our ultimate connectedness to each other.” – Virginia Woolf
I love photographing lighthouses; they can be so majestic, mysterious, beautiful, and yes even foreboding. We have quite a few along the Pacific west coast where I live, but I’ve photographed them all over the world. As with any subject, it’s not the thing (the lighthouse) I photograph, but it’s the light around it which enhances the subject. I also prefer to photograph lighthouses either at the golden hour or in the soft light of pre-dawn or dusk, so for me a tripod is essential.
I don’t go too wide when photographing my lighthouses. I often use a 24-70mm lens to capture a foreground, but not wide enough to make the sides of the lighthouse go wonky. You can straighten things up a bit in post-processing, but it never seems to look right.
Also, I try to tell a story when photographing a lighthouse. I might include a passing ship, or I photograph on a stormy day to convey to the viewer why that lighthouse exists in the first place. Sometimes I might use a telephoto lens to capture my lighthouse in front of a setting moon to suggest the story of the tides. I might also use the lighthouse as a small counterpoint in the image, to give a sense of its remoteness. Use your imagination; there are plenty of lighthouse stories to tell with an image.
As with many landscape images, when photographing lighthouses use a foreground. Some interesting colored stones, fence lines, dune grass, pools reflecting the lighthouse, or jaggedly formed rocks all make great foreground subjects. Take your time and look for what works best with your subject.
Use a leading line. This not only enhances your foreground, but it gives the image more dimension. Coastal shorelines are the most obvious choice. Other suggestions for leading lines might be the reflected light of the setting sun or moon on the ocean, footprints in the sand, breaking waves, or the fence line around the lighthouse.
If the lantern is still functioning at the lighthouse, try to capture the catch-light. As with wildlife photography and capturing that glint in the animal’s eye to give it life, the same is true for a lighthouse. Wait for that light and make sure you capture the glint in the lighthouse’s “eye.”
Change your perspective. Get high above the lighthouse if you can, and shoot down or walk to the base of the lighthouse and shoot up for a different look. Sometimes a piece of the lighthouse can be more interesting than the whole. It might be some old paint, a rusty slab of metal, a cool window, a handrail, the spiral staircase to the lantern, or a detail image of the lantern itself; whatever it is take your time to explore and find that interesting piece.
I hope these handful of tips help you the next time you head out to your favorite lighthouse, whether it be a stormy weekend or during a sunny vacation.
Location: Mosier, Oregon
As a long-distance hiker, I have sharpened my photographic perspective over the years on the Pacific Crest Trail, the Continental Divide, the Canadian Divide and most recently walking across Iceland. My goal is to capture the wonders I see in nature for the enjoyment of all those with an eye for the extraordinary.