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Shooting the Saybrook Breakwater Lighthouse
text and photographs by Jonathan Steele
Situated on the end of a quarter-mile long breakwater, at the mouth of the Connecticut River, stands the 48-foot-high tall Saybrook Breakwater Lighthouse. The Lighthouse, which is on the National Register for Historic Places, is a privately owned building after having been sold by the federal government in 2015. The breakwater it rests on though is still owned by the U.S. Coast Guard who has responsibility for maintaining the light while the lighthouse owners have the responsibility of maintaining the 130 year old historic building.
 Shooting the Saybrook Breakwater Lighthouse - Jonathan Steele Photography

Sunrise at the Saybrook Breakwater Lighthouse

Where the breakwater connects to land is in the borough of Fenwick in Old Saybrook Connecticut. With all the properties in Fenwick being privately held there is no public access to the breakwater by land.

As a photographer if you wanted to photograph the lighthouse you have several ways to do that. You can befriend the owner of the lighthouse, use your own boat or a friends boat to shoot from the water, take one of the several cruises in the area or go to a long lens and shoot from a distance on land. With the breakwater jutting so far out in to the water the latter is usually the easiest. But from where is the question?

I have captured images of the lighthouse from several different locations, both to the west of where it stands and to the east, across the Connecticut River in Old Lyme. From the west the best place to shoot is along Maple Ave in Old Saybrook, also know as route 154. The stretch of road there runs right along the coast of Long Island Sound where no parking is allowed but there is a sidewalk. I usually park at a pull over between Fenwick Golf Course and where Maple Ave. starts to run right along the water (lat/long 41.269879,-72.3635672). I'll then walk along the side of the road to get to where I can view the lighthouse.

From this location you can capture the lighthouse with the morning light behind it and at sunset where the lighthouse will be lit up by the setting sun. As is typical with New England weather you just really never know what you will have there for lighting.

For sunrise scenes make sure that you use The Photographer's Ephemeris (TPE) or an equivalent app to see where the sun will be rising. To include the rising sun in the scene you will want to shoot between late-February and late-March and then again between mid-September and mid-October. In the image shown above, which was captured in late February of 2014, the Sun had already risen out of the frame but was still backlighting the clouds.
 Shooting the Saybrook Breakwater Lighthouse - Jonathan Steele Photography

Sea Smoke at the Saybrook Breakwater Lighthouse

In the winter months when the temperatures drop down low there is always the chance of sea smoke forming on the waters of Long Island Sound. Dress warm, and go for it because mother nature will put on a show for those willing to venture out. The Maple Ave location will be the best for these shots. The above sea smoke image was captured in mid-February and required several images merged together in order to be able to include the sun in the composition.
 Shooting the Saybrook Breakwater Lighthouse - Jonathan Steele Photography

Sunset at the Saybrook Breakwater Lighthouse

Sunset shots can be done at anytime of the year here since the sun will be behind you. What I have found is that as a storm clears, the clouds behind the lighthouse can be very dramatic as seen in the image above. Waiting until just past sunset can also bring in the colors of the Belt of Venus.

In the months of March and September you will be able to capture the Full Moon rising behind the lighthouse. The image of the Super Moon rising above the lighthouse, shown below, was captured this past September. Again, use TPE to plan out the full moon shots.
 Shooting the Saybrook Breakwater Lighthouse - Jonathan Steele Photography

Full Moon rising over Saybrook Breakwater Lighthouse

Shooting from the east requires at least a 500mm lens and can result in some great shots. I have two locations from the Old Lyme side of the Connecticut River I like to shoot from.

The first is from the Old Lyme boat launch. Very easy access. If you are going to launch a boat to get shots from the water this is the place to go. Just note that the currents in this area are very strong. I have seen experienced kayakers take a spill turning from an upriver direction to a down river direction here. The launch is located at the end of Smith Neck Road off of Shore Road or route 156. (lat/long 41.287616, -72.323800). From this location you will be shooting across Smith Island which is a large marshy type area.

From the boat launch area you will not be able to get sunrise or sunset shots that include the sun in your image. If you get there before sunrise you will be able to include the Belt of Venus in your composition. Where as for sunset you can get color on those days when the setting sun spreads it's color along the horizon. My favorite shot from this location is the foggy morning scene with the grassy island and Osprey nests in the foreground.
 Shooting the Saybrook Breakwater Lighthouse - Jonathan Steele Photography

Saybrook Breakwater Lighthouse in Fog

One of the extra benefits of this location is the strong birding possibilities. I have seen Osprey nesting and hunting from here, I have seen Bald Eagles, Piping Plovers, Snowy Owls, and on the rare occasion a Peregrine Falcon along with the more common ducks.

The second location I shoot from on this side of the Connecticut River is the Griswold Point Preserve which is managed by the Nature Conservancy. You can access the Preserve by land during the “winter” months (Labor Day-Memorial Day). During the “summer” months (Memorial Day- Labor Day) access is by water only, launch at the Old Lyme boat launch and come down river. In the “winter” months I park at White Sands Beach on Seaside Lane (lat/long 41.280293, -72.304068) and walk west along the beach to the point. The parking lot at White Sands is town property where you will need a permit during the summer months but not the winters months. Permits are only given to town residents. From the point you can shoot across the river to capture the lighthouse. At low tide there is a small island that you will be able to walk to which will get you closer to the lighthouse. It is highly recommended that you do not go out to the island if you are going to be there outside of two hours either side of low tide. The tides will come in fast and can trap you on the island.

From the preserve sunset scenes will be possible from mid-November through late January. Outside of that time period the sun will set to the north of the lighthouse and you will have to hope for color that spreads along the horizon. It is possible to include the setting moon in your composition but it will always be a tad up into the sky as in the image below. The moon always sets to the north of the lighthouse. Again utilize TPE to see what your possibilities are.
 Shooting the Saybrook Breakwater Lighthouse - Jonathan Steele Photography

Full Moon Setting over Saybrook Breakwater Lighthouse

For me the ultimate scene to capture of this lighthouse comes in the summer time where I’ll be shooting from the west after a thunderstorm has just past, lightning strikes will still be occurring over Long Island Sound, the sun will be breaking through low to the horizon behind me lighting up the lighthouse itself and hopefully creating a rainbow over the lighthouse. Good thing I live close by!

Oh and if you should decide to stop down and shoot this lighthouse, plan on having a scene that utilizes negative space!

Happy Shooting folks!
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