West Coast Lighthouses
Guided By The Light

Point Pinos Lighthouse is located in Pacific Grove and is surrounded by a golf course, making access difficult. It is open to the public at certain times, but I never seem to be there at the right time. This shot was true serendipity. I found a hole in the fence and then the light happened right on cue.
Photos © 1999, Joseph A. Dickerson, All Rights Reserved

I've always loved the sea, and having grown up around, on, and in the ocean, I guess a fascination with lighthouses was inevitable. If I'm near the coast on a shooting trip and there is a lighthouse nearby I'll try to photograph it. It's fun to contemplate some day capturing all the West Coast lighthouses on film but with 36 or so in California alone it doesn't seem too likely I'll get around to them all. But one can hope. To date this endeavor has proven only a diversion of sorts but I hope that some day it'll evolve into a major project of some kind.

You may also be fascinated by these Sentinels of Solitude, so I'd like to share some of my research strategies and shooting techniques with you. I'm hopeful that you'll find something in my approach that will be useful in your own quest for that ultimate lighthouse shot.

Getting There
One of the difficulties encountered in trying to bag lighthouses is finding the little darlin's. Many road maps don't show marine navigational aids at all, and even when they do they're often shown some distance from where they actually are. Marine charts are very accurate but they usually don't show roads, so they aren't much help either. So we're left with only a few possible resources: books, traveler's guides, and web sites.

Generally, I use web sites as a pre-trip planning tool and books and/or traveler's guides while I'm on the road. I have listed a few resources in the sidebar. You will undoubtedly be able to find dozens more, but by all means start with the US Lighthouse Society web site. Also, your local library, bookstore, or an online bookseller may have many more offerings that cover the geographic area that interests you.

Don't think that research is only a pre-trip exercise. Many of my most valued books, maps, or charts were found while browsing local bookstores and tourist information kiosks at my travel destination. Lighthouses that have a visitor's center can be a great source of information and occasionally have well-stocked bookstores on site. Also, don't forget to pump the docents for information. These people are extremely well versed in facts and folklore and are more than happy to share their knowledge.

Today, more and more lighthouses are being operated by non-profit organizations or private groups and many even offer lodging. Some are run as hostels and as such aren't too fancy. One, however, East Brother Island Lighthouse in San Francisco Bay near Point San Pablo, is an upscale bed and breakfast. Inn and hostel keepers are an excellent source for historical information as well as the occasional hair-raising story involving ghosties and things that go bump in the night.

Cabrillo Point is just a short drive from Mendocino but there is a bit of a walk from the highway to the lighthouse. It is currently undergoing restoration.

Gear And Setups
Once you have located the lighthouses and have a rough idea about how to get to them, it's time to think about equipment. If you're just out for a record shot almost any camera will do the trick. For the photographer hoping for something more expressive, however, lighthouses can be a bit of a challenge. Many don't offer direct public access, or do so only on a limited basis, but even those may often be photographed from adjacent public lands. Others will be open to the public and may offer guided tours and have visitor's centers or museums.

There are three basic shots you'll be looking for: the lighthouse and its environment, the lighthouse as architecture, and architectural details, each of course requiring a somewhat different approach.

For shots showing the lighthouse in its majestic setting I usually prefer medium to long lenses. A zoom in the 100-300mm range for 35mm and moderate to long focal lengths for medium and large format will isolate the lighthouse and help minimize any keystoning or convergence of vertical lines. A big advantage of 35mm for this type of photography is that longer focal lengths are readily available, making certain viewpoints viable that are impractical for larger format users. For the multi-format photographer this means that shooting both 35mm and in larger formats can result in very different images.

I will generally explore with the 35mm gear first, making mental or written notes on potential locations for large format shots. I hand carry the 35mm with zoom lens attached until I find a likely location and then, still handheld, I find exactly the camera position, height, and focal length that gives me the composition I want. Then I place the camera on the tripod, double check that my depth of field is adequate and shoot.

Don't be afraid to leave some room around your lighthouses. Here I think the open space intensifies the feeling of solitude.

I'll always bracket my exposures but sometimes I bracket my composition as well. I may try zooming in or out to exclude or include foreground elements, try vertical and horizontal compositions, or capture different wave patterns in the foreground. Some lighthouses will allow you to shoot from several locations while others will be limited by the topography to one or two views. In both cases you're likely to have many variations available to you. Sometimes that's a wonderful thing and other times it'll drive you nuts. But it's all part of the fun. One accessory I use religiously is a bubble level that fits in the accessory shoe of my camera. This assures I don't wind up with the horizon tilted and the ocean looking like it's going to flow out of the shot.

Some lighthouses look good in both evening and morning light. Pigeon Point north of Santa Cruz, California, is like that. It's also a hostel, and the lighthouse grounds are open to the public. I frequently camp nearby so I can capture it at first and last light.

The Architectural View
Shooting the lighthouse as an architectural subject is a bit more demanding, due to their lofty countenance. Generally, we want to minimize distortions and this means using view cameras or Perspective Control (PC) lenses. If I don't have a PC lens or a view camera with adequate movements at my disposal my reasoning is that a lot of distortion is better than a little. I'll use an extreme wide angle lens and get in very close to intentionally emphasize the height of the structure. If you're attempting to show the lighthouse in silhouette against a fiery sunrise or sunset there is a simple method for getting the right exposure. Aim your camera, in the manual metering mode, or your handheld meter just to the left or right of the sun. The sun should be just outside your frame or your meter's angle of acceptance when you make the reading so that you are reading only the lightest part of the sky. Then, without changing the exposure settings, recompose your image and shoot. If you like, you can bracket on either side of this exposure setting but you'll probably find that all the shots will be acceptable.

Santa Cruz Lighthouse taken with a 17-35mm zoom. I used the short end of the zoom and got in close to emphasize the building's natural convergence. The building also houses a surfing museum. Cool, dude.

Weather Tips
Many of the most exciting photo opportunities will take place in really crummy weather. If you are shooting in inclement weather conditions be careful with your gear. Most of that moisture blowing around out there will be salty. If you can, cover your camera and lens. Even a garbage bag cut down to the proper proportions will work. I prefer a Laird Rain Cape that covers the camera completely but allows access to the controls and viewfinder. I even have one for my 4x5 that doubles as a focusing cloth. Be extremely careful reloading the camera in windy conditions, as you really don't want all that spindrift inside your camera. If possible I'll return to the van to load and unload film, or at least I'll protect the camera with my jacket and keep the camera open for as short a time as possible. It's also a good idea to protect the front of the lens with a skylight or UV filter. You'll also want some lens cleaning tissue or a micro fiber lens cloth so you can wipe the spray off the filter when needed.

When you have finished the shoot spend some time getting the salt and spray off your gear before you head for the local pub and your well-earned dark frothy beverage. A bottle of distilled water and a roll or two of shop strength paper towels are part of my permanent equipment inventory in the van. A little extra effort right after the shoot will prevent future equipment problems caused by corrosion.

As you explore the lighthouse and its grounds watch for interesting and historic details. Commemorative plaques, intricate wrought iron work, or other vignettes will help you to tell the complete story of the lighthouse. If you can actually enter the lighthouse itself you may even be able to take shots of the Fresnel (say: Fre-nell) lens and its rotational mechanism.

The Fresnel lens in Point Arena Lighthouse makes a great subject. There is a museum and magnificent views of the coast.

Who knows, someday we may bump into one another shooting some light keeper's cottage, and after the sun goes down we can share one of those dark, frothy beverages.

Sources For Lighthouse Information
US Lighthouse Society

Lighthouses And Societies

Topo Maps, Etc.

Photo/Travel Guides
Photo Traveler Publications
PO Box 39912
Los Angeles, CA 90039
(800) 417-4680