A light in the dark

Location: Loop Head Lighthouse, County Clare, Ireland

Date & Time: 07.12.2013, around 8.30pm

The Equipment and Settings:

  • Canon 5D Mark III
  • Canon 24mm f/3.5 TS-E
  • RAW, WB ‘Sunlight’, Exposure ‘M’
  • ISO 1000
  • 10 seconds @ F4.0
  • 9 exposures stacked in camera (multiple exposure setting)
  • Gitzo Tripod & Induro Pan & Tilt Head

History of the Lighthouse

The first signal fire lit up the Loop Head headland in 1670 from the top of the lighthouse keeper’s cottage which is still standing on the grounds today. The current lighthouse was built in 1854, converted to electricity in 1871, automated in 1991 and opened to the public in 2011.

I had photographed the lighthouse many times before: Under blue skies, at sunset, from afar and up close. However I always thought lighthouses look their best in the night. After all, they have been built to light up the dark and standing under a lighthouse at night, watching the beaming light glide over the water is something special.

How I Shot It:

To capture the essence of this lighthouse at night, I used 9 single exposures to create the final image. The main challenge is the main beacon of the lighthouse that moves around and would cast its light directly into the lens once on each rotation which would cause massive flare and overexpose the image beyond recovery.

To avoid this, I exposed while the beacon was shining the other way and stopped the exposure before it reached my location. Another possibility would have been to cover the lens, but after a few trial runs with both techniques starting and stopping the exposure proofed to be the more practical solution.

Each exposure lasted for around 10 seconds, that makes a total exposure time of around 90 seconds and if you include the waiting to let the light of the beacon pass the image was around 2 minutes in the making. The short star trails that this long exposure also created are an added bonus.

Choosing the correct ISO, f-stop and exposure time for scenes like this is often trial and error but ISO 800-1000 and f 4-f 8 is a good place to start. On this occasion, I based the exposure on the main building: if this was exposed correctly the rest would fall into place. I also deliberately allowed the light source at the top of the tower to be overexposed to accentuate the power of the light. Using a lens that is capable of tilt, like the 24mm I used here, is obviously very helpful as you don’t need to worry about choosing your f-stop to create enough DOF. I also used the shift function of the lens to keep the lighthouse and adjoining buildings straight. Personally, I find few things more annoying than images with the leaning tower of Pisa syndrome, especially in night shots where the wide angle view that is usually chosen accentuates the effect even more.

To create the final image, you can either stack the single exposures in your processing software or let the camera do the job. Many cameras are now capable of multiple exposures, just like in the good old days of film. This has the advantage of being able to review the final result in the field and it also saves on office time.

[REWIND: The Star Trail: Night Photography by Ben Canales]
Overall, I spent some 90 minutes on location and walked away with an almost finished image. Some might say there are more impressive night shots of lighthouses out there and they are right. But this image has been done in camera without working with various layers and spending hours in Photoshop. In post processing, all I had to do was adjust WB, shadow/highlights, blacks/whites and contrast in shadow and highlight areas. Am I happy with the outcome? Yes and no. It’s a good shot (and one of my best selling prints) but I will return sometime to do a re-shoot with some proper star trails.

Loop Head, Sunset
The lighthouse in its wider setting at sunset on another day

Night photography seems to be a new trend and it is indeed a lot of fun and a way to push the creative boundaries of the photographer and the technical boundaries of the camera. Get out there, bring a hot coffee and enjoy the darkness!

CREDITS: All photographs by Carsten Krieger are copyrighted and have been used with permission for SLR Lounge. Do not copy, modify or re-post this article or images without express permission from SLR Lounge and the artist.