20-Foot Custom Tripod Used to Capture America’s Fading Lighthouses

When photographer David Zapatka grew up in Rhode Island listening to the foghorn from a nearby lighthouse, it instilled in him what his wife describes as an “obsession.”

Zapatka is on a mission to document the disappearance of American lighthouses and has currently photographed 193, all at night.

At one time there were over 1,600 lighthouses dotting the coasts of the United States, now there are just over 800.

Sunken Rock, New York
Sunken Rock, New York | David Zapatka
Stamford Harbor
Port of Stamford | David Zapatka

To capture the unique structures, Zapatka uses an array of methods and equipment. Most unusual is his 20ft tripod that a friend welded for him so he could wade through the water while taking a 20 second exposure.

“We have successfully photographed about 15 lighthouses that would otherwise be unachievable without this fantastic tool,” Zapatka says of the Frankenstein tripod.

The tripod in use.
The tripod in use.

20 foot tripod

“It was a game-changer for the project, and although we looked pretty crazy assembling the giant tripod while launching it from boats, the results are quite amazing.”

tripod in action

Plymouth, MA
Plymouth, Massachusetts | David Zapatka
Race Rock, New York
Race Rock, New York | David Zapatka

Despite the huge tripod, Zapatka says the photography is the easiest part of the project and finding each lighthouse is what takes the most time and energy.

“It is imperative and respectful to seek the right permissions from the right people to gain their trust and access before arriving on site,” Zapatka said. PetaPixel.

“After getting permission, researching satellite images, tide and navigation charts, lunar schedules, and finally short-term forecasts helps determine successful shoots.

“In a number of cases, I did my due diligence before arriving on site, but a fog bank set in. It can be frustrating at times, and that’s also why it took nine years to photograph just 193 lighthouses.”

Big Sable, Michigan
Big Sable, MI | David Zapatka
Sankaty, Nantucket
Sankaty, Nantucket | David Zapatka
    Fort Gratiot, Michigan
Fort Gratiot, Michigan | David Zapatka
Watch Hill, Rhode Island
Watch Hill, Rhode Island | David Zapatka

Photo material and methodology

Before each shot, Zapatka presets his 10-year-old Nikon D4 to ISO 2000, an exposure time of 20 seconds and the white balance is 3200K. His Nikkor 14mm f/2.8 is always set to f/2.8.

“The location of the shot determines the final parameters and more often than not it is directly affected by the ambient light remaining long after sunset. I use ISO as the only variable and manually focus on the blinking beacon,” he explains.

For lighting, Zapatka uses a Lite-Panel Bi-Color 1×1 LED on a stand.

Point Judith, Rhode Island | David Zapatka
Hendrick's Head, Maine
Hendrick’s Head, Maine | David Zapatka

Zapataka says that all of his photographs are single images without “Photoshop composition”.

“I take pride in creating old-school latent photographs that are composed and lit in the field,” he says.

“I’ve never added stars to any photos, and what’s pretty much in front of my eyes at the location is what’s in the final edit.

“I closely follow the Associated Press style guide for ethical photojournalism, even though I’m only a client for myself. I firmly believe that good photography should be achieved by using a smart approach in the field.

Montauk, New York
Montauk, New York | David Zapatka
Fire Island, New York
Fire Island, New York | David Zapatka

Then there’s the matter of his 20-foot-tall homemade tripod he uses in the ocean.

“The biggest hurdle for successful tripod images is bottom composition. You never know what’s beneath the surface, and hopefully it will be flat and sandy,” says Zapatka.

“Rocky and hilly bottoms are a nightmare when trying to adjust the tripod, and on a number of shots I had to give up using it.

“It’s often trial and error on a place floating in the dark near a historic lighthouse.”

Point of Turkey, Maryland
Turkey Point, Maryland | David Zapatka
    Ladies Delight, Maine
Ladies’ Delight, Maine | David Zapatka

Zapatka is involved in lighthouse preservation and is president of Plum Beach Lighthouse in Rhode Island. The United States Lighthouse Society (USLHS) even donated a 20-year-old 22-foot recreational vehicle to help drive them to distant lighthouses.

“Since most filming takes place late at night, being able to avoid traveling long distances on unfamiliar dark roads is a nice safety feature,” he explains.

“Many lighthouse foundations allow me to stay on their properties overnight, and there’s nothing more appealing than climbing into the bunk after a successful shoot and falling asleep to the flickering light of the lighthouse. round.”


The other kit includes a climbing helmet with headlamp, personal flotation device, miniature emergency position indicator beacon, ice cleats and a pair of waders.

Zapatka has published two books about headlights which are available for purchase here. At the time of publication they are sold out but more will be available in mid-October.

Picture credits: All photos by David Zapatka.

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