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No one knows the ins and outs of Maine’s lighthouses quite like the band of Maine-based photographers chasing those iconic images.

The best time to get to the lighthouse, Jack Milton says, is an hour before sunrise or just after the sun sets. “Or go during a big storm,” he says enthusiastically. Milton is not talking about ideal sightseeing situations, he’s describing a photographer’s approach to capturing Maine’s 65 lighthouses at their most captivating. To do so, he and other Maine-based photographers say, is to experience some necessary inconveniences, like visiting predawn (that’s 3:30 am in the spring and early summer) or during bone-chilling winter evenings, with no one but each other for company.

At minimum, the reward is a view that feels fresh.

“Lighthouses are very popular,” Milton says. He could go stand in the same place where thousands of people have stood. But walking out (carefully) onto slippery rocks or arriving when the weathermen are calling for a high surf advisory suits him better. “I am not against taking that same shot. I would just rather get something different.” 

But always with a glimpse of the lighthouse itself. Lighthouses, he says, are alluring subjects for several reasons. Their verticality provides a contrast between the horizontal aspect of the rocks and horizon. Architecturally, they tend to be varied but always beautiful. “And also they are symbolic of man’s interaction with the sea, symbols of warning and protection and the presence of humans in an otherwise wild and uncontrollable landscape.”

Increasingly, the competition to capture a different view has gotten tougher. It used to be that when Milton drove out to Portland Head Light—perhaps Maine’s most famous lighthouse and Milton’s personal favorite—before dawn on a Saturday morning he’d be alone out there.

A late summer sunrise at Spring Point Ledge Light in South Portland. Photo by Jack Milton

About five years ago, that started to change, courtesy (mostly) of social media. Now, he says he’s guaranteed to see one other photographer, and if the conditions are right, “you are guaranteed to run into 10 other photographers.” There’s a snowball effect. If they get enviable shots, they are likely to post them on Instagram within a few hours, “and that encourages other people to show up the next time.”

Like that time, Milton,  a former photo editor for the Portland Press Herald, took his fifth trip down to York to nail the moon rising behind Nubble Light. “There were more than 80 photographers there,” Milton remembers. “There were vanloads from Brooklyn.” The moon rose above Nubble and began its move across the sky. “And then they got right back in and went back to New York.”

The crowds were likely there because of Ben Williamson, a photographer for Down East magazine who teaches year-round workshops throughout the state on how to make extraordinary landscape photographs. Williamson has only been shooting for seven years but the former bartender quickly made a name for himself in Maine. In 2016 he was hired as director of photography at Down East and won first place in the Maine Photography Show (for a gorgeous shot of Spring Point Ledge with sea smoke rising over the breakwater). His work has been featured on a U.S. Postal Service first class stamp (waves and rocky coast, but no lighthouse).

A few years ago, Williamson put out an invitation on social media for people to join him at Nubble Light to try to capture the moon rising from Long Sands beach. “Probably 30 showed up and the next year there were 200,” Williamson says, “from Brooklyn and Boston. That is what social media can do.” Is it hard to have so many people milling around? “I could see if you had not gotten the shot and you were there with everyone it could be frustrating. A lot of photographers prefer a solitary experience.” He already had the image he wanted, and for him, now there was something fresh. “I thought the scene of all the people was just interesting.”

Williamson likes shooting in winter best, for the solitude and “drama” of the weather. All told he has photographed about 20 of Maine’s lighthouses, focusing extensively on about eight for reasons having to do with accessibility and beauty. But he’s got some on his bucket list, like Seguin Island’s Light Station. That’s not an easy one to get to, high up on an island 2.5 miles from the mouth of the Kennebec and Popham Beach. He’s kicking himself, though, for not getting there before the old fresnel lens (a rarity) was replaced with an LED lighting system. The quality of the light changes with the LED he said. It’s brighter, whiter, colder and not nearly as alluring. Marshall Point Light in Port Clyde, another photographer’s darling, was recently outfitted with an LED-type optic system. “It used to be really photogenic at night,” Williamson says.

Every landscape photographer in Maine seems to have a role model, especially when it comes to making one of Maine’s lighthouses look brand new even to those who live nearby. For Williamson, it’s the father and son duo Bob and Dominic Trapani, who work with the Coast Guard’s Aids to Navigation Team (Bob is also the executive director of the American Lighthouse Foundation in Rockland). Both are photographers and have likely photographed more of Maine’s lighthouses than anyone else in the state, Williamson said. He’s in charge of picking the shots for Down East’s annual lighthouse calendar, and Dominic Trapani shot about half the images in the 2020 edition.

For Dave Dostie, who works for the state government by day and moonlights as a photographer during lighthouse hours (early and late), Williamson himself is a serious influence. “Ben is phenomenal,” Dostie says. Both are self-taught, and like most professionals deeply attached to an app called The Photographer’s Ephemeris. They all call it “TPE” and National Geographic calls it “head and shoulders above the crowd.” Plug in a location and it will give information about where the moon and sun will rise in relation to that location. For a moonrise, one of Dostie’s favorite subjects, it’s invaluable. “You can determine, based on where the lighthouse is, where you need to be standing to have a perfect alignment as the moon is rising.”

It’s all very strategic, revolving around tides (an incoming one with big waves makes for good drama) and even wind. Williamson tracks cloud patterns on satellite. The more that’s going on in the sky and on the surface of the water, the better. If you’re visiting one of Maine’s lighthouses and see a group of photographers staking out territory with their tripods; congratulations, you’ve come at a good time.

So is the goal making it into a calendar like Down East’s? Or the cover of 95 North? Those are wins for any photographer. But for Dostie, shooting weddings and events are a lot more lucrative. There’s no profit in his landscape work, yet. In truth though, all that scrambling around in the cold and the dark gets him something much more ephemeral than money. “It just enriches my life and my hope is that by capturing a unique image, it also enriches someone else’s life. That is kind of what my ultimate goal is.”

PRO TIPS

Maine’s 65 lighthouses are always stunning, but we asked the pros for some tips on getting the best possible photographs of them.

TIME IT RIGHT
Go an hour before sunrise or stay an hour past sunset. That’s when the sky is at its most interesting. Midday sunshine feels great on your face but your photos won’t be nearly as good.

CHECK THE WEATHER REPORT
The more drama happening in the sea or the sky, the better. Look at satellite reports to see if clouds are expected; they add interest.

DON’T FORGET THE TIDE CHART
The combination of a particularly high tide (we have big tide differentials in Maine, and the biggest are called King tides) and wind combination can give you that waves-crashing-on-the-rocky-shore look you want.

ENCOUNTERING HAZE—STICK IT OUT
One of our pros tells us that he got a spectacular shot just as the haze was lifting.

DOWNLOAD AN APP
The Photographer’s Ephemeris can help you pinpoint exactly where the moon or sun is rising (and what phase the moon is in) so you can plan your angle. It’s not free ($9.99), but every photographer we walked to said they couldn’t live without it. “It really allows me to understand my surroundings and where to be,” says Maine landscape photographer Dave Dostie.

LOOK FOR CONTRAST
If there is some greenery at the base of the lighthouse, that helps it pop in a photo. And the most common seaweed you’ll see on the rocks around a lighthouse, rockweed, counts as greenery (with tones of yellow that really show well in photos).

TAKE A TOUR OR A WORKSHOP
Ben Williamson teaches workshops on the coast (visit benjaminwilliamsonphotography.com to learn more) or hop on a boat with Coastal Maine Photo Tours to get closeup views you’d never have from the shore (207-594-1224 or coastalmainephototours.com).

Mary Pols is the editor of Maine Women Magazine and 95 North.

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