Subject Spotlight: Portland Head Lighthouse

January 16, 2022  |  Cape Elizabeth, Maine

One of my favorite subjects (and that of many other photographers) to photograph in Maine is Portland Head Lighthouse in Cape Elizabeth. Standing majestically atop the headland at the entrance to the main channel into Portland Harbor in Casco Bay, the lighthouse was completed on January 10, 1791, after being commissioned by George Washington in 1787. Located in Fort Williams Park, it's a popular attraction for tourists, and is frequented by locals for its walking paths and spectacular views of the bay.

The sky glows pink and orange just before sunrise at Portland Head lighthouse.

Late Summer Morn at Portland Head

Portland Head Lighthouse stands watch above Casco Bay as waves wash over the cobblestone beach in Fort Williams Park, Cape Elizabeth, Maine.

I visit often, usually for sunrise. It's so calming to start my day watching the sun come up over Casco Bay, listening to the sounds of the waves crashing on the rocks, the sea birds with their calls, and the low rumble of the diesel engines of the lobster boats that often make their way past the lighthouse at that time of day. The photograph above was captured on a September morning, just before the end of summer. It was one of those perfect mornings that was cool, but not cold, and the tide was on its way in. The clouds were plentiful but just enough to catch the color of the rising sun, and not so much as to blot all of the color out. I hadn't planned on getting wet, but this wave came up further than the previous waves and I soon found myself knee deep in the water! I did manage to capture this photo, with a slow shutter speed allowing the water to blur slightly as it washed over the cobblestones on the beach.

The sun rises through the clouds as Portland Head Lighthouse stands watch over Casco Bay o

Shining Through

The sun breaks through the clouds on an autumn morning at Portland Head Lighthouse. Portland Head Light was commissioned by George Washington in 1787, with construction completed in 1791. It is one of the most photographed lighthouses in the world.

I captured "Shining Through", above, in November of 2017. I made my way into the cove just north of the lighthouse and scrambled over the rocks to a perch on one of the larger rocks, so I could try and stay dry. I had originally headed to a spot at Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse in South Portland, about 10 minutes away, but decided that the way the sky was setting up, as well as the position of the sun, meant that Portland Head Light was going to be a better subject for the color I anticipated seeing. The break on the horizon meant as the sun came up, the heavy cloud cover would light up and bless me with a a soft glow of pink and orange.

I use filters on my camera quite a bit to help manipulate exposure and get different effects with the movement in the scene. For this photo, I used a neutral density filter, essentially a darkened piece of glass, to cut down the amount of light entering the camera, resulting in a longer exposure which allows the water to blur as it recedes around the rocks. It helps create a painterly look that contrasts nicely with the hard edges of the rocks.

Portland Head Lighthouse on a winter afternoon.

Winter Sunset at Portland Head

Waves wash over the rocky shoreline at Portland Head Lighthouse on a winter afternoon in Cape Elizabeth, Maine.

There's something magical about the coast of New England in the winter, with the waters of the Atlantic Ocean washing over the rugged, rocky shoreline, covered in snow. The above photo, Winter Sunset at Portland Head, was captured on a January afternoon after a recent snow. The soft pink glow in the sky contrasted with the white snow creating a soft, beautiful scene, albeit a bit chilly!

Sea smoke rises from the curface of Casco Bay on a bitter cold winter morning at Portland Head Lighthouse.

Winter Morn at Portland Head Light

Sea smoke rises from the curface of Casco Bay on a bitter cold winter morning at Portland Head Lighthouse.

Then there are winter mornings, like New Year's Day, 2018. We had been trapped in a deep freeze unlike any I'd ever seen. This was the Maine winter I'd been warned about when I moved in 2016! On this morning, the temperature was a blistering cold -14ºF, with a -24ºF wind chill. It was easily the coldest conditions I'd ever photographed in. I'm shocked my gear performed as well as it did! In the photo, you can see the reason I opted to venture out - the fog rising off the water, known as "sea smoke" only happens when the air temperature is much colder than the water temperature. It creates an ethereal look to the seascape and if you want to capture it, you have to brave the cold!

Portland Head lighthouse reflected in a tide pool as waves crash on the rocks.

Tidal Reflection

A tide pool reflects Portland Head Lighthouse as waves crash over the rocky shoreline in Cape Elizabeth, Maine.

During the late summer months, when hurricane season is in full swing, Portland Head Light is a great subject for when a storm is at sea. "Tidal Reflection", above, was taken when a hurricane was at sea, churning the waters of Casco Bay. I decided to venture down into the cove just south of the lighthouse to try and get a different vantage point than usual. This little puddle on the rocks formed the perfect reflection of the lighthouse, and capturing the crashing wave over the rocks was the icing on the cake! One of my favorite images of this lighthouse.

Water from Casco Bay washes over Cobblestones as Portland Head Lighthouse stands on the rocky shoreline.

Portland Head Cobblestones

The cobblestone beach near Portland Head Lighthouse is awash in the waters of Casco Bay on a summer evening in Cape Elizabeth, Maine.

The same cove I photographed "Tidal Reflection" from served me well for "Portland Head Cobblestones". No storm at sea this time, just some waves washing in over the cobblestone beach. This was taken near sunset, with the warm glow of the setting sun lighting up the lighthouse nicely. The wash of water through the cobblestones made them rattle softly- such beautiful, natural music! I love getting down in this area of the park, as it's a different vantage point than most photographs you see of the lighthouse.

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