Portland Head Light – Cape Elizabeth, Maine

Portland Head Light is a historic lighthouse, widely regarded as the most beautiful in New England, located in Cape Elizabeth, Maine. The lighthouse sits at the primary shipping channel into Portland Harbor, within Casco Bay in the Gulf of Maine. This channel is very active, or at least was while we were there. Portland Head Light is the oldest lighthouse in Maine, having been built in 1791. The automated light and foghorn are operated by the United States Coast Guard with a maritime museum on-site in what is now known as Fort Williams Park.

Construction on Portland Head Light started in 1787 on orders by George Washington while the government was in its infancy. The lighthouse was built by Jonathan Bryant and John Nichols, who kept the budget low by scrounging materials from nearby fields and shores and dragging them by oxen. The federal government was formed in 1789 while the lighthouse was still under construction. Around this time, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton informed the builders that funds had not been appropriated to finish construction. By 1790, $1,500 was appropriated by Congress, and thereafter completed in 1790 with its first lighting occurring on January 10, 1791. Originally, whale oil lamps were used for light. In 1855, the oil lamps were replaced by a fourth-order Fresnel lens, which was later replaced by a second-order Fresnel lens. In 1958, an aero beacon was installed. The modernization of the lighthouse was completed in 1991 with the installation of an aero beacon.

The Portland Head Light has a very rich history. It was later involved in the American Civil War, and has been modified numerous times over its history. Because of its historical significance, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places on on April 24, 1973.

This only begins to scratch the surface of the Portland Head Light’s history, which has had entire books devoted to it! I recommend reading this page on its history, which contains more in-depth information.

Please click the photo for best viewing (larger and in lightbox mode). From there, you can purchase prints by clicking the shopping cart at the top of the screen. You can also navigate to the 2,000+ other images in my photo galleries from there! 

Weekend in Maine

We did a weekend trip to Maine to visit Acadia National Park, flying out late Friday and flying back early Monday morning on a red-eye to avoid missing any work. As opposed to staying in Acadia National Park the entire day Sunday and driving back to Portland in the wee hours of the morning, on Saturday we decided to do Sunday afternoon and evening in Portland, staying in a hotel by the airport. We got unlucky with this decision, as the weather was beautiful in Acadia National Park on Sunday, but was stormy in Portland.

Still, I wanted photos of the Portland Head Light, so we headed to Cape Elizabeth around sunset. It was too stormy for there to be a sunset, but I figured the blue hour sky combined with the ominous clouds would look cool. I normally go for ideal conditions when shooting landscapes, but I figured the stormy sky worked well with the subject here since coastal lighthouses see a lot of storms. Granted, stormy skies don’t show the beauty of this particular lighthouse, but it’s fitting, nonetheless.

Fortunately, I packed my camera poncho (I always remember this, but never my person poncho!) so I had no issues shooting in the rain and wind. The stormy sky ended up working in my favor, as the light beacon from the lamp in the lighthouse was more prominent thanks to all of the clouds. Unfortunately, I had limited time to shoot out here, as a member of the Coast Guard approached me and informed me that the lighthouse had closed for the day. I didn’t know lighthouses “closed.”

White Balance

One thing you might notice about this photo is that it’s really blue. Part of this is the camera picking up blues in the “blue hour” sky that our eyes can’t see. You’ll notice this in your own photos taken after sunset. Part of it is that the sky was that the sky had a blue look that evening.

I know photographers differ on this, but I’m a firm believer that color is a creative decision, and this includes white balance. My personal preference for most shots is to go slightly warm, and this is almost universal. I also typically focus on the colors of objects in the scene, instead of the lighting in the scene when trying to adjust colors. I find myself frequently trying to neutralize lighting, especially artificial lighting…which is probably a mistake on my part. (For Disney fans, a good example of this would be Pirates of the Caribbean–it has very deep red and orange lighting, I almost always skew towards removing this color-cast in favor of the colors present in the actual pirates.)

I started adjusting white balance that way when editing this photo, before taking a step back and realizing that the photo lost a lot of its impact when made warmer. The warm colors in the subjects are already accurate here (notice that the yellow lamp is yellow and the red roof of the lighthouse is red), so warming it further only accentuated them and made the sky less interesting. In this shot, the cool blues make the shot “feel” stormy and cold, which is exactly how it was that night.

I guess this is sort of me “thinking out loud” as a reminder to myself (and anyone else who might do the same) that sometimes you shouldn’t try to neutralize the lighting in a scene, and sometimes a scene can benefit from being cool.


Photographed with a Nikon D600 and the Tamron 24-70mm f/2.8 Lens. I used the Tamron for this shot primarily because of its hood, and even then I had to clean rain drops off it between shots. As far as editing goes, the fog and clouds reduced the contrast of this scene, so I increased that and applied a fairly heavy curves adjustment. I didn’t increase the exposure or bring out the shadows like I normally would, as I thought it looked better with a moody, dark look.

I also reduced the default noise reduction, as I think the little bit of noise here gives it a cinematic feel…or maybe it reminds me of other, older film photos I’ve seen of lighthouses? Not really sure. I did not add artificial noise to this scene (I hate that), this is just the natural noise from the camera and sharpening that is normally removed by my default settings in post processing.

Your Thoughts…

Have you visited Portland Head Light? What do you think of color here? Hearing from you is half the fun, so please share your thoughts in the comments!

12 replies
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  3. Julie Ann
    Julie Ann says:

    Great Photo!
    I have lived in New England all my life, never heard of a light house “closing”! Who knew??

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  5. Dave
    Dave says:

    I absolutely love this photo. Prior to reading anything, one of my first thoughts was that you nailed the white balance. The blue not only makes the photo jump off the page, but it makes you feel the wind and cold. Looking at the beach, it appears your composition is crooked but the water confirms it is not. I really like that you’ve (re)kick-started this blog in addition to DisneyTouristBlog… I enjoy both and appreciate your non-Disney TRs and photography as well. On another topic, do you have an opinion on the Tamron 70-200mm 2.8 for Nikon? I need a lens in that range and can’t justify/afford the Nikon version. I love my Tamron 17-50 and noticed you using a Tamron on your FX camera.

    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      I’ve used the Tamron 70-200 without VC, and while it’s sharp, the issue I have with it (at least the one I used) was the lack of VC. It’s really needed at those focal lengths. They now have one with VC–I’m sure that’s a better option, but you might want to read some reviews.

  6. Dustin
    Dustin says:

    Very cool. Love the rich history associated with this location. Enjoy reading the technical process behind the look and feel of the shot. Really helps follow along with the entire shot from start to finish not just enjoying the finished shot not fully understanding how or why you made the choices you did with it. Thanks,

    I didn’t realize the lighthouse closing meant you couldn’t be around it anymore. Seems like it should have just stopped you from going inside but still able to walk around the photograph the surroundings. Sounds like a very long but fun weekend with 2 red eyes. Hopefully you were not too drained on Monday.

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