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Photographing lighthouses

Photographing lighthouses - If you fancy a drive to the coast to take some photographs of lighthouses then Mike Hershberger is the man to talk to about it.

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Lighthouse at Sunset by Mike Hershberger
 © Mike Hershberger.
Why should people go out and take photographs of lighthouses?
"Unless they really enjoy being out on the beaches, coastlines and really getting a feel for those places, they shouldn't bother. As with any other style of photography, the photographer must have an interest, if not a passion, for their subject for the images to really come alive.

I photograph lighthouses because I want to try to capture the feel of the beaches and coastlines, and the lighthouses are a perfect subject to convey that. Sometimes this is a bright sunny day or a subtly lit dusk, sometimes a violent windstorm or an explosion of vivid colour at the peak of a summer sunset.

How do you find the lighthouses to photograph? Do you do a lot of research?
"Yes! First to find photogenic lighthouses (not all of them are), and second to learn about the conditions that will affect my photography. Maps, GPS coordinates, access restrictions and visitor information can all be found with a few simple searches. There are innumerable resources for this kind of information on the internet, not the least of which are lighthouse photography sites. Look in on what others are shooting to see what angles work at sunset or sunrise, see what directions passing ships come from, or where the waves hit on a big storm."

Lighthouse in winter by Mike Hershberger
  © Mike Hershberger.
Is it something that takes a lot of time to get right?
"It may only take a few seconds to take the perfect photograph, but the true time commitment comes in the preparation. Not only in research, but in getting out and taking photos! The time spent in the field becoming familiar with one's equipment and then mastering it makes all the difference. When the magic moment comes, flipping through your camera's manual may just cost you the shot of a lifetime."

What camera do you use for your lighthouse photography?

"I use two cameras, a Nikon F5 for 35mm transparency film and a D300 for digital work. I mainly use the 35mm for the low-light characteristics in sunrise and sunset photography. I get much better colour saturation than I could ever hope for on digital. I love experimenting with pushing Fuji Velvia 50 into reciprocity failure and seeing the funky colour shifts that result.

St Joseph lighthouse winter by Mike Hershberger
© Mike Hershberger.
The digital, on the other hand, gives me the advantages we all appreciate over film. I have found that transitioning to digital really broadened my creativity due to the instant feedback in the field.
When it comes to camera settings there's no such thing as a 'magic bullet'. Taking a photograph is nothing more than using a camera's sensor of film to record the light entering the lens. To record the light properly and to make a quality image, you must constantly analyse the conditions and tailor your approach to them. Sometimes the fully automatic modes work well, but in the more difficult situations it is often best to go to aperture or shutter priority or full manual to really dial in the perfect exposure."

Do you need a tripod?
"In my experience a tripod is an absolutely indispensable tool for quality photography. My long exposures sometimes run into the range of minutes instead of seconds, which make a tripod essential. And when it comes to storm photography, shooting a gigantic wave breaking over a pier at 6 or 8 frames per sec in gale force winds is very difficult to do hand-held. Whenever possible I try to shoot hand-held, it allows for more spontaneity in compositions."

St Joe's lighthouse in a storm by Mike Hershberger
  © Mike Hershberger
What lenses do you use and why?
"I use a 18-200mm lens 95% of the time, but when I really need to reach out I put on a 80-400mm hi-power zoom. I also carry a 14mm ultra wide, a 19-35mm wide zoom and a 2x teleconvertor but those generally only fill very specific niches in my photography. The most important consideration with lenses is to buy the very best you can afford."

Are there any particular details of the lighthouse you always try to capture? Or any particular types of shot that work well?
"If a lighthouse has a Fresnel lens intact, I always try to get at least a few photos of it in place. Many lighthouses have had their Fresnels removed over the years and replaced with very efficient (and unattractive) modern optics. The Fresnels are brilliant pieces of engineering, but more than that, I think of the Fresnel as the soul of the lighthouse."

Ontonogan lighthouse photography
  © Mike Hershberger.
Is there a best time of day for this type of photography?
"This is very much dependent on the location where you're shooting. Some lighthouses catch the early morning light, giving them a warm glow, while some are perfectly positioned to silhouette a brilliant sunset. Some just seem to beg to be photographed no matter what the clock says. If the lighthouse you want to photograph is easily accessible to visitors, you may need to visit in early morning to avoid crowds of people in your shots."

Is framing important? Is there a particular way you always frame the lighthouses?
"The way a scene is framed, or composed, is what often sets a routine snapshot from a quality photograph. Lighthouses are often popular tourist sites, thus many are photographed constantly. If you want your photos to really stand out, don't go for the obvious photo. Try to visualise a shot that you've never seen before and then figure out how to make it happen. If you can get in the habit of taking this approach, you will become a better photographer."

Rock of Ages lighthouse by Mike Hershberger
  © Mike Hershberger.
Is it important to have an interesting background?
"A background when shooting lighthouses generally means the sky, and it is critical to any photo. The sky is what allows you to visit a location time after time and still be able to capture unique and interesting images. The background can also be dunes or wooded areas that undergo seasonal changes that can add dimension to your photos."

How do you make each lighthouse you photograph look unique?
"I try to look beyond the lighthouse itself and try to get a sense of the feel of the area where I'm at. That sounds corny, but it's true. I try to incorporate things like boardwalks, park benches, historical markers, even signs into the photos. Beyond that, I try to shoot in unusual situations such as low light conditions or during nasty storms."

Do you do any post-production work?
"Some amount of post production is always necessary, whether with film or digital based shooting. Generally I am able to keep it to a minimum, with simple levels and saturation adjustments and some cropping. No matter how a photo looks, I refuse to resort to any kind of 'trickery' to turn a mediocre photo into something 'sellable'. For me, part of the fun of photography is challenging myself to make better photos, and cheating after the fact erases the challenge."

Visit Mike Hershberger's website for more details.

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Kako 11 159
20 Aug 2009 11:31AM
Fabulous photos and a great article Mike. I must confess to having a 'thing' for lighthouses myself. Always have to visit new ones on holiday. Having seen the quality of your photos i'll definitely make more of an effort next time i visit one, although having the family 'in tow ' isn't usually conducive to quality photos of the same as they usually want to move on after half an hour!

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