Lighthouses and Piers: Ten Tips for Coastal Photography

March 19, 2013  •  Leave a Comment


Lighthouse and Pier in Grand Haven, Michigan. Grand Haven Lighthouse and Pier, Michigan Growing up in Southwest Michigan, I was always intrigued by the rugged lighthouses and piers dotting the Great Lakes shoreline.  As a young boy, I wondered about the construction and durability of the piers; massive structures standing strong in churning lake waters.  

Grand Haven, Michigan. NIKON D300,f/9 @ 80 mm1/30ISO 200

How did they ever set the support pilings in the deep moving waters? Once built, how could these structures possibly withstand the constant pounding of waves, winter ice storms and the shifting sands of the shoreline.

In my late teens, I came to strongly associate the South Haven and Grand Haven, Michigan,  lighthouses with family times at the beach, romantic walks with my girl friend (now my lovely wife, Anita) and the best of times spent in the great outdoors. Experienced with loved ones, the vivid sunsets and pier silhouettes remain as some of my warmest memories. Lighthouse and Pier at South Haven,  Michigan. South Haven Pier and Lighthouse #2, South Haven, Michigan

South Haven, Michigan. NIKON D300,f/18 @ 24 mm1.6sISO 200

While all of these early thoughts remain, I have more recently come to appreciate pier structures as powerful visual elements in coastal photography. Although pier structures take on many shapes and forms, all provide a sense of scale on vast expanses of shoreline and water. 

Extending from the sandy beach into the ocean or a lake, pier structures draw the viewer’s eye right into churning waters and the dramatic wakes of waves. A longer gaze leads to the distant horizon, often shrouded in clouds and signs of impending weather. Pier 60 at dawn. Clearwater, Florida coastline. Pier 60 Pink Dusk 1 pano

Pier 60, Clearwater, Florida. NIKON D300,f/9 @ 38 mm1/8ISO 200

Beyond these engaging visual cues, every pier is uniquely situated on a distinctive stretch of waterfront. Navy Pier (Chicago) and the Pier 60 (Clearwater, Florida) stand as busy gathering places, housing bustling food establishments and entertainment.  Other piers are less traveled, supporting silent lighthouses and breakwaters.  

Dusk is especially intriguing, with the sunset afterglow and a the promise of a pleasant evening ahead on the pier.  On the other hand, landscape photographers look forward to next morning's dawn, offering the hope of "golden hour" light and quiet scenes sans the crowds. 

Pier 60, Clearwater, Florida. NIKON D300,f/16 @ 28 mm13sISO 200

Weathered pilings and support structure of Pier 60 in Clearwater, Florida. Pier 60 Structure Lighted Ventura Pier reflections at dawn. Ventura, CaliforniaVentura Pier Just Before Dawn, Ventura, California

The Gulf coast before Hurricane Katrina, Biloxi, Mississippi. Biloxi, Gulf Coast Before Hurricane Katrina, Quiet Pier 1

Tips and Techniques for Photographing Piers and Lighthouses

1.     To avoid the appearance of “leaning” lighthouses and "tilting" vertical posts, keep the cameral perpendicular to the ground. This is especially important when using a wide angle lens.  Photoshop can be used to correct lens distortion in a photograph, but this process generally necessitates heavy cropping of the image.

2.     Use a bubble level (attached to camera flash shoe) or “virtual horizon” camera display (a very nice feature on some newer model DSLR cameras) to ensure a level horizon line.

3.     Use a lens hood to prevent or at least minimize ocean water overspray onto the camera lens.

Ventura Pier, Calfornia, NIKON D300,f/16 @ 95 mm8sISO 2004

4.     Frequently check lenses and lens filters for overspray, condensation and fogging.

5.     Experiment with different exposure times to capture varying depictions of water movement.  Long time exposures  (1/2   second and longer) can be quite effective in showing the blurred motion of cascading surf, whereas short exposure times (1/500th of a second and faster) will “freeze” the image of crashing waves. 

Gulf coast before Hurricane Katrina, Biloxi, Mississippi, NIKON D70,f/25 @ 55 mm0.6s

6.     Avoid getting salt water on your tripod legs, as it can quickly fuse tripod fittings and telescoping legs. If you “must” go into tidal pools and wet beach areas with your tripod (as I am often prone to do), be sure to thoroughly rinse the tripod with fresh water immediately after the shoot.

7.     Use a graduated neutral density filter (.3, .6. or .9) to darken bright sky area , creating more consistent exposure levels from the foreground to the distant background in the scene.

8.     Seek to capture dramatic lighting conditions most likely present at  dawn, dusk,  and the “golden hour, ”  using cloud filtered sunlight as available.

9.     Experiment with the use of a circular polarizer to reduce or eliminate glare on the water and to darken the sky areas of the image.

10. Set camera for the optimum white balance mode, taking into account color temperatures of artificial pier lighting and sky conditions.   This is another area for experimentation and frequent reference to the DSLR display. VIDEO: Ventura Pier, California

VIDEO: Setting DSLR white balance in pre-dawn light at pier with artificial light. Ventura, California

All of these years later, I am still drawn to lake and ocean waterfronts, piers and lighthouses.  Photography adds another dimension to waterfront visits, allowing us to bring home a small two-dimensional visual reminder of the shoreline.  Now, if we only could only capture the distinctive scent of seawater, the endless sound of crashing waves and the touch of wind ... 

South Haven lighthouse and pier at sunset. The Great Lakes, Lake Michigan, Michigan. Orange Sunset at South Haven Lighthouse #1, Lake Michigan, Michigan




South Haven, Michigan. NIKON D300,f/8 @ 195 mm1/250ISO 400


For more on coastal photography, see:

 Natural Coastline Shift: Big Beach, Maui, Hawaii


Marcus W. Reinkensmeyer


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