Split Rock Lighthouse: Perspectives on Shooting an Icon
In The Subjects We Share, we celebrate the places where our experiences converge, dismantle competition among photographers, and honor the uniqueness of each distinct moment.
The idea that everything has been done before, and that originality is all but impossible, seems to weigh heavily on many photographers. It is hard to stand out and generate unique work when we seem to be drowning in images everywhere we look. On social media, popular destinations are constantly represented, often in similar ways, with images that may be hard to tell apart from each other. A few places are simply so stunning that they keep constantly drawing visitors and photographers, resulting in image fatigue, and consequently in the dismissing of most shots from these locations as cliché or unoriginal.
I decided to look a little closer at one such place in my own state of Minnesota. Split Rock Lighthouse is a popular destination on the north shore of Lake Superior that I myself have visited on many occasions. Recently, on a Facebook photography group, a Minnesota photographer asked for advice on how to create more unique landscape images, and he was promptly advised to “avoid Split Rock” at all costs. Yet many photographers keep making the trip there, either to create their own variations of well-known compositions, or with hopes of creating an image that stands apart from the others. I personally love Split Rock Lighthouse and have spent a decent amount of time shooting there (I certainly don’t avoid it!). Curious to hear other perspectives, I reached out to some of my peers about their experiences photographing Split Rock Lighthouse, what make it special to them, and why they keep going back to it. In doing so, I also wanted to share a collection of images that I feel say something about the place. These images caught my eye, and the first thing that came to mind when I saw them was certainly not “cliché.”
John Gregor lives 10 minutes away from Split Rock Lighthouse, and he still loves shooting there. He speaks about it with passion and a clear appreciation of the value of getting to know a place well:
“The open configuration of the land around the Lighthouse, and the fact that you can get out into the lake and have a clear view in almost every direction, makes this a unique location on the North Shore, great for shooting at any time: sunrise, sunset, and even night skies.”
I think John’s image above represents the type of photograph that requires dedication and patience to capture, as opposed to what may achieve during a brief stop-and-go visit.
“They say light is everything in a photograph, and I believe that is true. But, what is also critical is knowing the landscape and planning to put yourself and your camera where the light will be favorable. Great landscape photographs are usually the result of the photographer being familiar with the landscape, and anticipating where to be and when.”
I wholeheartedly agree with John and have noticed that when I have the opportunity to revisit a location multiple times, my images increasingly tend to capture the sense of the place. The carefully planned moonrise shot (cover image for the article) is also John’s, and he clarifies:
“All of my careful planning could not have accounted for the serendipity of a very clear atmosphere and wonderful pastel pinks that appeared at sunset, that was simply good fortune!”
You can see more of John’s work on his website.
The image below, by Steve Simmer, was one of the images that prompted me to write this article. It is a composition of the lighthouse that is less common, so it caught my eye. Steve is also a frequent visitor at Split Rock and he notes there are always special opportunities for photographers:
“For example: the beacon is lit only a few times a year; there are only one or two days a year when the moon rises over the lighthouse at sundown; dramatic skies or high waves are often unpredictable; some photo points, such as this one, are rarely visited.”
This image reinforces the fact that unique images can be as much about the moment – or some unexpected weather in this case – as about the location or composition.
“This one is the result of my being in the right place at the right time, for an unpredictable event. I had camped here after photographing the lighthouse beacon, which was lit in memory of the Edmund Fitzgerald. The next morning I awoke to several inches of snow. Walking a short distance to this spot, I realized that the new snow had created a rare view. I doubt that Split Rock will ever present itself to me in this exact condition again. That is OK! I was there.”
You can see more of Steve’s work on his website.
Some compositional approaches at Split Rock are a little more common, and therefore perhaps considered cliché by some, such as the puddle reflection shot (of which I have a few myself). But is every reflection image the same? Of course not. Even in a smaller sample pool like this, there are endless ways to be creative and expressive.
Greg Lundgren’s reflection shot above is, in my opinion, a perfectly executed example of the familiar Split Rock reflection image, and one that looks a lot easier to achieve than it really is. Greg’s narrative corroborates my thoughts:
“Many photographers have used puddles in their compositions of the lighthouse. The trick is finding just the right one among the hundreds of possibilities on a given day. Part of the attraction of "puddle reflection" shots is the thrill of the hunt. Since you can't fully assess the reflection possibilities from just eye-balling a puddle, these types of photo shoots require a lot of getting down to ground level and experimenting with a variety of angles.”
I am sure a lot of us can relate. I have spent long stretches of time laying down next to these puddles, fussing with an inverted tripod, my lens an inch from the water. There is just no way to capture a good shot like this, without slowing down and carefully evaluating what you are seeing and doing. Greg is not afraid to come back to locations like this; he actually prefers it:
“I like to shoot at so-called "cliché” locations, because when I make a print and hang it on a wall, people will immediately recognize the subject and have some emotional response, because of this familiarity. Then they look again and maybe see something unique in my specific rendition”.
You can see more of Greg’s work on his website.
Another approach to creating unique images, is to seek out truly unique perspectives. Christian Dalbec has taken that approach at Split Rock to the extreme, rarely setting up a tripod on dry land like the rest of us do.
“The funny thing about Split Rock Lighthouse is that when I started photography I told myself I would never even go there, because it’s over shot and over populated. I saw it everywhere on social media. It was not long, however, until I broke that commitment. A lighthouse at the top of a 184’ cliff, only 20 minutes from my house, how could it not become a destination?”
With past experience in scuba diving, it was not long before Christian acquired a water housing for his camera and took to the waves of Superior itself.
“Now, after extensive exploration of what lies beneath the surface at Split Rock, I’ve found the reefs that produce waves that make fantastic shapes below the iconic lighthouse.”
Developing and using other skills (like snorkeling) to complement one’s photography, and taking the time to thoroughly explore a place that others may dismiss, is the ultimate demonstration of a slow approach.
“After studying the surfers on Lake Superior and many shore break and wave videos, I’ve learned safety and maneuverability in Lake Superior’s wild seas. Which puts me in an opportunity to create the image seen above. It was a February Northeast wind and snow storm, with eight foot waves.”
You can see more of Christian’s work on his website.
I have also photographed the Lighthouse a few times and have found I prefer to shoot Split Rock in winter, particularly when it is absolutely frigid out. When the temperature drops into the double digits below zero, the sea smoke creates an ethereal atmosphere that accentuates the lighthouse, enhancing the sense that it floats above the sea. One time, it was so cold that one of the cylinders in my car started misfiring on my way there, but I kept driving (and made it!). I also broke a leg on my tripod as soon as I extended it (I also attribute this to the cold). But, I still enjoyed one of the most peaceful sunrises I have experienced, without another soul in sight. Admittedly, this solitude may be another reason why I prefer to visit such a well-loved destination when it’s brutally cold!. The image below is a 2-minute exposure during one of those mornings.
For more of my work, please visit my website.
All the images above strike me as quite unique, individual expressions that tell a different story about this place. Increasingly, I see advice that to “be original,” photographers ought to avoid shooting at popular locations altogether. While I understand where this perspective is coming from, it seems overly simplistic and potentially counter-productive. It places value mostly on how work is perceived, rather than the artists’ personal experiences. If your goal is to be perceived as creative, and you follow advice to avoid certain destinations, this may prevent you from experiences you would otherwise enjoy. In this case you may just miss out on some personal and artistic fulfillment. Seriously, I suggest everyone shoots whatever they enjoy shooting! This may or may not include popular locations.
Of course, if someone is going to these places to “check them off their list” or to exactly emulate another image they’ve seen, it’s a whole different situation. Trying to copy another person’s experience is futile, and will likely result in uninspiring images. But if you love a place, why avoid it simply because others love it as well? Maybe you walk away with a shot that you think is too typical, or maybe something magical happens – but if you practice the principles of valuing the experience first and foremost, you will still have gotten something out of it. Ultimately, whether you’re at a popular location or off the beaten path, it’s all about how you approach it, and what it means to you.