Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Pigeon Point Lighthouse Fresnel Lens assembly Time-lapse

I was fortunate enough to be able to document the historic removal of the First Order Fresnel Lens for the first time since it was installed in 1872 at the Pigeon Point Lighthouse. I was part of a documentary crew that proposed to the State Park to record the contractors from the International Chimney Corporation and their three sub-contracting lampests as they carefully removed the lens and then re-assembled it inside the historic Fog Signal Building at Pigeon Pont to be on display for the Public.

But first I was surprised after work on Friday 11/11/11 to hear at 7:30 P.M. that the crew was going to turn on the light one last time to see if it still properly worked! I quickly scrambled to get my equipment and position myself just south east of the tower on the boardwalk overlooking a big sea cove at night. It was only on for a few minutes and they did not stop the rotation so a low ISO stills were out of the question. I had to boost the ISO up to 6400 and open my 18mm up to f/4 at 2 seconds in order to capture the 24 beams of light slowly rotating around the lighthouse. I set my intervalometer to 1 second intervals and just shot untill I had a few hundred frames. The clouds were just amazing as we're the waves and a few stars. I even captured the front door opening and closing as well as a photographer trying to capture the scene with a flash (LOL)! We also witnessed a airplane streaking through the sky! I the ran down to the western point to capture the other angle of the tower as the moon was rising over the coast. I turned on my living room lights and opened my curtains to perfect the scene. The beams are somewhat washed out from the moon and the smaller f/8 aperture but the clouds roll through the scene just fantastically! In retrospect, I wish I had lowered the ISO to 3200 and kept the aperture wide open. You can see the First Order Fresnel being turned off and the automatic beacon remain on (it was never turned off) and then shortly after the tower lights go off as well as if to signify the end of an era.

I told the State Parks that I could not only document the event as a second camera assistant, but that I could record a time-lapse photography of the dis-assembly as well with my Nikon D90 camera. At first I said that I would just shoot the dramatic cambling down of the lens panels or just zoom in on the lantern room from the ground, but when the experienced company that had done many lighthouse restorations said that they have seen cameras set up inside the upper ceiling of the lantern room that I knew I had a great opportunity. I had a Sigma 15mm fisheye diagonal lens that would be able to see the whole lens from a short distance. Retrospectively, I wish I rented an even wider lens! I also had a flexible leg tripod that I could wrap around the "lantern spider" joists that support the cone shaped roof. The crew actually put a 2x4 beam between two joists and the crew secured the beam with wires. I had already introduced myself to the crew when I was asked to bring up a ladder from the hostel that I manage, and that is when I met James Dunlap, a lampest sub-contractor with his company called Lighthouse and Lens Restoration. He was very nice and he must have told the other two lampests about me because when I met them they had heard about me as I have lived here for almost 15 years. Capt. Kurt Fosburg of Superior Lighthouse Restoration was a very focused and talkative lampest who kept the crew focused on the details at hand but somehow got lots of good natured heckling from the older crew. Also, Jim "Woody" Woodward of The Lighthouse Consultant, LLC who has worked on hundreds of lighthouses and was originally trained by a United States Lighthouse Establishment serviceman! They were all very nice and helpful, but all of them had never worked with a time-lapse photography sequence, so they were not sure why the camera I had set up had been taking their photo every 18 seconds. I figured that 18 seconds was a enough time to fill up one of my 8MG SD card by the time they were done on the first day after starting at about 3:15 P.M. on Saturday, November the 12th. The sun would set at 5:00 P.M., so I had only an hour and 45 minutes to shoot that day. It turned out to be a good interval at 24 frames per second. I had to leave the tower that day, but asked to crew to tell me when they were done, so I could take down my camera but leave the tripod in place for the next day. They misunderstood and removed the whole thing and even recorded some shots on the way down. The positioning was more based on where the position of the sun was, than the area where they were going to start removing the lens panels, but it turned out to be just perfect! I had positioned the camera in the perfect spot to see the crew use the block and tackle to lift the upper catadioptric prism lens panels out of the lens one by one right in front of the camera. I had to guesstimate the approximate view of the scene by angling the camera lens to the best position I thought would capture the whole scene. I chose aperture priority at f/8 to have the best of all worlds depth of field. If, I could go back in time I would have moved the curtain in the right-hand scene, but this was the first day and I was being as respectful as possible to the State and the crew. I actually nailed the centering of the scene on my fist day, but the second day I had to guess where the tripod had been positioned and although I got the horizontal about the same as the first day, the vertical was just a bit to the left of where it had been and is a noticeable error. The second day I was able to remain in the tower all day because I was filming for the documentary with a small hand held HD video camera. I am the one in the yellow hard hat. One of the most amazing things you will notice is the shadow of the tower moving through the scene like a sundial! I did not record during the lunch break, but that would have been boring for the viewer.

The assembly in the Fog Signal Building at Pigeon Point took place the following weekend into Monday the 21st of November after the lampest had meticulously cleaned and repaired each panel with the tools of their trade. We got to see finger prints from the original manufacturers on the putty that held the hard wood shims wedged in between the prisms and the frame as well as original notes in French. The lens was built in Paris, France by the Henry-LePaute company. It was originally built for the first Cape Hatters lighthouse in the 1850s and served there for about twenty years until it was removed and shipped up to Staten Island, NY where the U.S. Lighthouse Service headquarters was located. It then was shipped around the horn of South America to San Francisco, where it was boated down to Pigeon Point by a lighthouse tender. The whole dramatic history of the lens is documented in a book titled: The lost light: the mystery of the missing Cape Hatteras Fresnel light by Kevin P. Duffus. The location of the camera position had several options, but I chose to place the tripod on top of the model lighthouse display because it afforded a different view and it was the most stable location. The Fog Signal Building was built in 1899 as a replacement for the original building built in 1871. It is built of solid redwood on a slab foundation, but it also shakes every time the front doors are opened or the wind picks up just a tad. I also knew the crew was going to be using the rafters to move around workers and the lens panels and this would contribute to shake. I probably could have placed the tripod on top of one of the old air tanks, but that would have been a bit precarious. I changed the intervals to 15 seconds and was able to change the memory cards out without removing the camera. I did remove the camera after the first day was complete, but left the tripod in place with some tape to make sure it did not move its position. At the last second, I chose ISO 200 as I had done before up in the tower, because I believed the light levels would be good enough avoid blur on people moving around. I was wrong, but you can not see this in the time-lapse. You can see it on individual photographs, so in retrospect I should have chosen ISO 400. The lens went up in two days and 3 memory cards later I was able to also change the last 60 shots to a 1 second interval so the whole crew could pose for the last 2 seconds of play. I developed it at 30 frames per second to speed it up a bit. It turned out perfect. The U.S. Coast Guard contacted me the day after an article in the San Jose Mercury mentioned my website. They want a DVD of the time-lapse for educational purposes. My time-lapse will be a part of a documentary but I may also sell a DVD to help raise funds for the restoration of the tower. The sooner we raise about 7-9 million, the sooner the tower can be restored and the quicker the lens can be returned to the tower! Go to to donate.