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The Lighthouse News and History Magazine

So What Makes That Photo Better Than Mine???

By Peter Elbert

The 16th Annual Lighthouse Digest Photo Contest has come and gone. Congratulations to all of the inners and all who entered! So what makes that winning photo better than mine? I have asked that question many times when looking at Lighthouse calendars, books, and collectables, and have actually come up with some answers. I do not claim to be an expert photographer. I know about as much aperture settings and f-stops as I do about spark plug gap settings and turbo charging. Yet just as I am a decent driver, I think of myself as a pretty good photographer.

So what really makes that photo better than mine? Assuming that you don't have access to a helicopter for those amazing aerial shots or a boat for the wonderful water shots inward, the playing field is level. As such, we all have the same subject to shoot in visiting our favorite lights. Granted a quality SLR camera will result in some better resolution in printing (OK, I do know some camera-speak) but here are some other considerations to optimize your photography:

So what's your angle? Most well known lighthouses have already been photographed hundreds or thousands of times. Clearly that is what makes these lights the hardest to shoot with any originality and especially difficult to catch something different that we haven't seen before. Famous lighthouses that are easily accessible like the Barnegat Light in New Jersey or Portland Light in Maine are so breathtaking that it's hard to take a bad picture! Trying to be original is tough because there are only limited camera angles to catch these lights. So my advice is to take the dramatic, but overshot, "postcard" photos first upon arrival at the light, and then get the mandatory family or group snapshot. After meeting these requirements, immerse yourself in truly SEEING the light. Look for and feel the texture of the sun-bleached cement or the wear of the bricks and mortar on the tower. Note the way the lighthouse lens refracts the setting sun. See the contrast of the cupola to the rest of the light, and the majesty of the tower as it looms large against the angle of some of the surrounding structures.

Now capture that unusual angle and make it your own.

Use the elements to enhance your photo. Since we are often at the mercy of the elements, it is up to the photographer to capture the mood, not to set it. A cinematographer can try to capture a mood by creating it. If you've paid for three nights and hope to take some great shots of the Bodie Island Lighthouse on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, what do you do if you get nothing but three days of rain? CAPTURE the mood of the Light in those elements. It can be raw, sensuous, and serene, but will certainly stand out from the typical post-card type shots.

Kudos to Lighthouse Digest for acknowledging various shooting categories such as winter settings and the fog in their features. That should remind us that our cameras don't need be restricted to sunny-day-fair-weather only use.

Use the elements to enhance your photo. (Didn't I just say that?) Although we are sometimes at the mercy of the elements when it comes to weather, we can control other factors. There's a pretty good chance that if you get out on the beach early enough, you'll see a sunrise. And if you wait around long enough as late afternoon turns to dusk, you're going to see a sunset. Both allow the chance to catch something original. I've had the good fortune to see numerous sunrises and sunsets at the Castle Hill Lighthouse in Newport, R.I., and no two are ever exactly the same.

What I have found is there is something amazing about a winter sunset, even without snow. There is brilliance and a warm glow that I don't see other times of the year. I'm not sure why, but take note of it. If you are fortunate enough to capture some unusual clouds or cloud patterns, you can make a rather ordinary photograph extraordinary. The accompanying photograph of the Montauk Point Light in New York was taken during the winter, and the clouds were actually the azure color that you see.

It's also very rewarding to be among the first out on the beach as the newly fallen snow is still white and windswept on the sand, as I found this beach scene at the Barnegat Lighthouse in New Jersey in February, 2010.

Make the lighthouse incidental to the seascape in your photo. As noted on photographing famous lighthouses (or other historical sites) it is sometimes fun to make the object of your photo not the focus of your composition. My photo of the Cape Neddick Light in Maine is a good example of this philosophy. Hey, nice waves! Is that seagull just sitting there on the rocks in the foreground? Wow, the water seems rough and the clouds look threatening. And, oh yeah, there's a lighthouse in the corner of the photo! Nice. Different. Not over done.

Find a lighthouse off of the beaten path. Not only does it evoke a sense of adventure to find a lighthouse that stands as a silent sentinel alone and secluded, but chances are that you might find something that has not yet been captured by others. Often remote or desolate, there is a sense of achievement in even finding these places! Such was our experience at the East Point Lighthouse on the Maurice River in New Jersey

or the Cedar Island Light in New York.

Enhance your photograph without cheating. Adobe Photoshop and Picasa are great fun, but I have always felt it's like cheating when you change a print by using these software applications. It's fun to try new filters and get that professional look (note the Portland Light ith software enhanced printing).

However, I don't feel it's cheating if you convert your color digital image to sepia tones or black and white. It's still YOUR picture, but you are presenting it in sepia or black and white to give it an older look or to enhance shadows and light. Both can have a powerful visual impact. I chose to go sepia with these fishing boats in the Cape May Harbor.

Be aware of the other beautiful seascapes around you. Although you are primarily interested in shooting the lighthouse that you have come to visit, don't lose sight of the amazing and beautiful settings in which you find yourself. Alone on a deserted beach while others slept in Cape May, New Jersey I took these photographs of the morning dew forming droplets on the lifeguard boat and the deserted life guard tower after I caught the sunrise at the Lighthouse. If you look closely at this one you can see the mist still hugging the sand and some early fisherman.

And how cool do these random beach stones look as I found them while trekking out to the Cedar Island Light in New York.

Go digital and keep on clicking! It took me a long time to give up my SLR film cameras. A really long time. I loved the anticipation of opening up my prints after a lengthy trip, and eagerly opened those envelopes packed with glossy Kodachrome memories. But a roll of 36 exposures would run about $8.50 and double prints might cost $11.00 or more! Hopefully the focus on those prints was good and the lighting was perfect. Now, with a 4-gig memory card you can keep snapping away until your index finger tires. And the law of averages says the more you shoot, the more likely that you'll get that perfect shot. So keep on clicking away, and just hit "delete" to rid yourself of the shots you didn't like, then start again.

Be objective. This is probably the most difficult aspect of choosing your best photographs. Inevitably, we tend to associate the onderful memories that we have taken from a lighthouse visit and project those feelings on our pictorial accounts. After some time has passed, go back and look at your photographs as though you were seeing them for the first time. Or as though some one else had taken them. Would that picture on the cover of a lighthouse calendar make you want to purchase the calendar? Or, get a trusted second opinion. (I have found that moms and wives aren't always the most objective

I realize that sharing these suggestions greatly diminishes the likelihood that I will be acknowledged in subsequent issues of the Lighthouse Digest Photo Contest for my personal entries, but I do hope that readers find them helpful and fun. I look forward to tips from other lighthouse aficionados in the months to come.

About the Author: Peter Elbert is a middle school principal, who says he tries to motivate his students by modeling those attributes that he wants his students to aspire to. In par, that is why he submitted this article. We hope you enjoy his perspective on the photo contest as much as we did.

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