Tuesday, February 18, 2014

A Star to Steer By...

We all enjoy visiting and photographing lighthouses. We take pictures mostly by day. It's easy in the daytime. No special equipment needed.

But at night lighthouses become fantastic objects for the camera! And, of course, night time is when they do their most important work. Why else would they need lights if not to help the navigator in fog, rain, snow, and darkness?

Catching a lighthouse at night with your camera is no easy task. I've tried numerous times with various types of cameras, with moderate success. (All of my night shots are slides, else I'd post some here.) A tripod is essential for night pictures, as is patience. Sky conditions need to be right too. Even then, I often end up with blurry, less than eye-popping images. What my eye catches seems not what my camera catches. A camera can catch more or less of what we see, I think. 

Digital cameras now do much of the work that skilled photographers once did. I've worked with several photographers who were assigned to do the pictures for some of my books. They all eschew digital photography and still create images the old-fashioned way with 35mm cameras and lots of equipment in cases and trunks. One of them admitted, though, that he uses "some software" to refine his images.

Yes, a little Photoshopping can make those night pictures pop, sometimes garishly....but delightfully too. What does a mariner really see when looking at a lighthouse from sea? What does the casual beach-goer see looking at a lighthouse from land? I doubt they see what's below. (Image of Pigeon Point Lighthouse, California, from Holidayaholic on Flicker. No derision is intended by my comments; this is a lovely image. I just think it's not what we would see with the human eye, especially with a blue sky in the background and clear air.)

A good foggy night will show us the beams revolving around the lantern (see Jennifer Oakes' Point Carbillo photo farther down the page), and perhaps we'd see a faint outline of the beams on a clear night (below), probably only if we stood under or near the lantern, as a guy named Martys did to take this shot, shared on www.downeast.com. It's all about perspective--where you are when you view the lighthouse. This is a wonderful image below, and I have indeed seen this effect at lighthouses. The moisture in the ocean air can illuminate the beams like this. The lighthouse Martys caught in his camera lens is the pretty one at West Quoddy Head, Maine. Check out his other image to see what happened at a short distance from the tower. The effect of the beams disappeared.

From sea, a lighthouse with a fixed beacon (no flash signature) can look like any other light along the shore, unless a sailor has an intimate knowledge of the coast and a good manual to help identify the lights he/she sees. In the "good old days," there weren't so many lights on the shore at night, and a lighthouse was easy to find. Now, it can be a challenge unless you really know your course. Our shorelines in many places--practically the entire Eastern Seaboard, I think--are all lit up. Cities have become their own lighthouses, sighted by ships long before the simple beams of an old lighthouse are seen.

So, what do lighthouses look like at night? If you haven't seen them for yourself, check out some of these great images of lighthouses doing their nocturnal work--

Here's Portland Head Light, Maine, on Flicker by Matthew Paulson.

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, North Carolina, was captured here by a National Park Service photographer. The long exposure picked up the background stars and made them slightly elongated as they moved across the sky during the time the camera shutter was open.

Jennifer Oakes captured the fog-reflected beams of Point Cabrillo Lighthouse, California (Flicker). Notice there are no stars in the background. It was probably too murky and misty to see them. You need tiny water droplets, such as fog produces, or a lot of dirt in the air to really catch the beams. A misty evening makes them effulgent like this. At sea, the mariner wouldn't see this effect. The beams would just be flashes.

Here's Sherwood Point Lighthouse in the Great Lakes, pictured on Wikimedia Commons. Those exterior house lights wouldn't have been in use back the lighthouse's heyday. The lighthouse beam is surely more powerful than the house lights, but they'd still be seen some distance away as ambient light.

This UK lighthouse was photographed by Phil Downs. This is what a lighthouse looks like at night, no gimmicks or special effects, even by nature. (Nature doles out extreme grandeur sparingly, you know!)

The Cape Neddick "Nubble" Lighthouse is a favorite with shutterbugs. Above is a great photo that appears on http://www.inside-york-maine-vacations.com/nubble-lighthouse.html. 
While it does look as if a software program saturated the color and blackened the sky, I can believe the full moon would be so big--the moon does look bigger near the horizon than high overhead (an optical illusion)--and the red beacon seems about right. You may wonder, who needs a lighthouse when you have the moon??!! Well, mariners in the age of sail did use the moon. They did calculations for a ships' position called "Lunars." They used lots of math, almanacs, and a good nautical clock called a chronometer. It might be easier to use a lighthouse, we think. (However, a lighthouse can't give an exact position like navigating instruments can.)

I am partial to this shot of Block Island's old North Lighthouse, by Michael Blanchette. It looks like a master photographer was at work here--someone patient and well-equipped so that the beacon and night sky was captured in all its glory. Maybe this photo is enhanced--the Milky Way looks a bit too cloudy...or perhaps those are real clouds. I'm not sure. But it's a wonderful photo. Would I see this if I visited the old North Light on a clear night. Not likely. I've been there on several clear nights. It never looked like this. But I can imagine it so....  Can you?

Grab your camera and go lighthouse-ing some night. See what you capture.

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