lighthouses

How I Got the Shot: Lighthouse Beams at Fire Island

Fire Island Lighthouse. Nikon D750, Irix 15mm f/2.4 lens. Nine exposures at 1/2 second, f/2.4, ISO 6400.

The Location

Lighthouses are the great sentinels of the sea and their true souls shine at night.

The northeast U.S. has some of the most famous lighthouses in the country. They’re mostly in New England, but here in New York we have a couple of noteworthy examples too, including the amazing Fire Island Lighthouse at the western end of Fire Island National Seashore.

We shot here a few times last fall, including twice with attendees of our New York Night Photography Summit. I created the above image on one of those nights.

Well, perhaps I should say I created this image partly on one of those nights, and partly at my desk at home—because this technique involves a fair amount of post-processing, which is what this installment of How I Got (er … processed) the Shot is all about.

The Shoot

The Fire Island Lighthouse has a rotating beam. When a lighthouse has a rotating light it gives us more opportunities to depict the beams at different widths, depending upon the length of our exposure—i.e., a longer exposure will capture more of the beam as it moves, thereby making the beam appear wider in the image.

So the first thing to consider is shutter speeds. For the Fire Island Lighthouse I experimented with everything from 1/4 to 4 seconds. The 1/4 exposures resulted in very narrow beams of light; the 1/2 exposures were obviously wider, and also (naturally) resulted in fewer beams to stack in post, and both those trends continued as the shutter speeds got longer. Each exposure generates a different interpretation of the lighthouse, so I always suggest exploring your shutter speeds first so you can figure out what works best for you.

You can see in my test shots how the width of the rotating lighthouse beam changes with longer shutter speeds. In these examples, 1/8 resulted in the narrowest beam, 1 second in the widest.

Once I settled on 1/2 as my favorite shutter speed, that determined my aperture and ISO. Of course, shorter shutter speeds at night generally mean you need to push the envelope on the other aspects of the exposure triangle—shooting with a wide-open aperture (f/2.8 or wider) and a higher ISO (3200 to 6400). These combinations will generally allow you to capture bright beams of light as well as adequate detail in the lighthouse structure and the foreground.

Another image of the Fire Island Lighthouse from the same night. This one is composed of 1/4-second exposures, which resulted in the narrower beams of light. Nikon D750, Irix 15mm f/2.4 lens. 20 stacked frames shot at 1/4, f/2.4, ISO 6400.

Once I was happy with my exposure—i.e., beams that are bright but not blown out—I set my camera to burst mode. To prevent camera shake, I used a cable release (the Vello Shutterboss II) to fire the shutter. I kept my finger on the remote’s trigger until the beams did a full rotation around the lighthouse. (If you need to take another longer shot for more detail in the foreground, you can do that as well.)

Once I captured the assets, I was able to blend them in Lightroom and Photoshop to get that multiple-beam effect.

The Processing

Processing all of those raw images together into the final version is not terribly complicated, but involves a few steps and some finessing. So we’ve put together this video to show how I brought the photograph to completion.

In the video I talk about everything from the planning to the execution to how to put it all together in post.

Wrapping Up

If you live near or are planning to visit a rotating-beam lighthouse for night photography, we highly recommend giving this a go. It’s a fun technique that can generate some very dynamic images.

When you do, please share your work! We’d love to see your photos in the comments section below or on our Facebook page.

Note: Did you like that video, and think you’ll like more? Consider subscribing to the National Parks at Night YouTube channel to get notified about all our new videos when they come out.

Gabriel Biderman is a partner and workshop leader with National Parks at Night. He is a Brooklyn-based fine art and travel photographer, and author of Night Photography: From Snapshots to Great Shots (Peachpit, 2014). During the daytime hours you'll often find Gabe at one of many photo events around the world working for B&H Photo’s road marketing team. See his portfolio and workshop lineup at www.ruinism.com.

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