Comments Off on Lighthouses of the Western Straits
This past summer I had the opportunity to take a cruise of the lighthouses of the western Straits of Mackinac conducted by Shepler’s Ferry. The cruise was guided by Terry Pepper, executive director of the Great Lakes Lighthouse Keepers Association. After passing beneath the Mackinac bridge, we made a brief stop to drop off volunteers and supplies at the St. Helena Island Lighthouse.
From there we cruised past the White Shoal, Gray’s Reef, and Waugoshance Point lighthouses. The White Shoal lighthouse is the only red and white candy-striped lighthouse in the United States. It started out as a beautiful sunny day, but by the time we reached the long-abandoned Waugoshance lighthouse storm clouds had moved in. It seemed like a fitting backdrop for this rather forlorn and isolated lighthouse.
I know this plant as goatsbeard, but it is also called yellow salsify and is related to the edible purple salsify. It resembles a very large dandelion and forms a dry seed head about the size of a baseball. It isn’t native to north America and you’ll most often encounter it on land that has been disturbed in some way, like old farm fields. I came across this one while exploring a Little Traverse Conservancy preserve near Lake Charlevoix.
Since I don’t do a lot of close-up photography, I don’t carry a special macro lens. Instead I took this shot with my Sigma 70-200mm zoom lens set at the longest focal length of 200mm. Normally it wouldn’t focus this close, but I carry a Canon 500D close-up lens that screws onto the front of the Sigma lens like a filter and functions like a high quality magnifying glass. It’s probably the funnest toy in my bag of tricks and I always enjoy bringing it out–especially when it helps me capture a stunning image of unexpected beauty.
When I’m in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, one of my favorite pastimes is to track down remote waterfalls that are off the beaten path. I’d tried to locate Pinnacle Falls on the Yellow Dog River a couple of times without success. But through perseverance I was finally able to track it down last fall.
From its headwaters in the McCormick Wilderness to its mouth on Lake Independence near Big Bay, the Yellow Dog flows through some of the most remote territory in the Upper Peninsula. Its bordered to the north by the exclusive Huron Mountain Club, a vast wilderness retreat for the uber rich.
The Yellow Dog is one of the most pristine rivers in Michigan. In recent years it has been the scene of some controversy as the State of Michigan approved a industrial Sulfide Mine near its watershed–a move vigorously apposed by the Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve.
Finding Pinnacle Falls is an adventure that requires navigating miles of gravel roads and unmarked dirt paths. I’d never found clear directions, so even though I knew I was close a few times, it eluded me in the maze of dirt paths that crisscross the Yellow Dog plains. Finally through a process of elimination I came to a trail head with a small sign that confirmed my destination. A short hike along the ridge of a ravine brings you down to the edge of the river where you then backtrack up stream to the falls. You’ll not find a more beautiful waterfall in a more remote location in Michigan.
One of the things I appreciate about my work is that when I head into the field I never really know what I’m going to find. I usually map out a destination and have some idea of what I’ll find when I get there. But often my pre-conceived ideas don’t really pan out and my best images are unexpected.
I’d risen before dawn to capture some images of the Lake of the Clouds at sunrise. I positioned myself high above the bluff overlooking the lake. The sunrise was beautiful but my photos just didn’t do it justice. I decided to hike down to the shore to get some early morning shots of the lake with the escarpment in the background.
By the time I reached the shore of the lake high overcast had moved in and the sky was a dull gray. My hopes for sweeping panoramas vanished, but I persisted walking the shore hoping to find something worthy of my attention. It was a calm morning and the lake was glassy smooth. The overcast light was perfect for photos of the reflections of the far bank in the water. For this shot I ventured onto a small peninsula the juts into the lake. A line of reeds poked out of the shallow water interrupting the mirrored reflection of the riot of color on the hillside across the lake.
The Tahquamenon River drains a vast marsh that is largely undeveloped and inaccessible. This landscape of marsh grasses interspersed with tamarack and black spruce has an austere beauty that I’ll admit is something of an acquired taste. Because it is so inhospitable to human habitation and so barren of useful resources it has remained almost untouched through all of history. This is true wilderness.
One of the best ways to get an introduction to this landscape is to take a day-trip on the Toonerville Trolley Train and Riverboat. The trip begins and ends with a 5 1/2 mile ride in open coaches on a narrow gauge railway. The train ends at a landing on the Tahquamenon River where you board a ferry that cruises 20 miles to a spot just above the Upper Tahquamenon Falls. A half mile hike takes you to an overlook of the falls–a spot on the south bank that can only be reached in this way.
I took the trip on a beautiful fall day when the color season was near peak. Tamarack are a unique tree that is both coniferous and deciduous–their needles turn golden and are shed in autumn. Black Spruce are tall, straight, and narrow and often have a dense cluster of deep green branches at the crown. Though both trees have a scruffy appearance, they seem to thrive in northern marshes. I was looking forward to getting some shots of this remote landscape from the train. Until it started moving…
I had anticipated the train going clickety-clack down the track, so had turned on the vibration compensation of my Tamron 24-70 f/2.8 lens. What I soon discovered was that train seems more to heave to and fro through the landscape–probably because the tracks are laid on marshy soils. Soon I was feeling frustrated and bored as it became clear I would never be able to capture a sharp image.
After stewing for a bit it dawned on me that I could change tactics. Instead of trying to get sharp images, why not go with the flow and try for artistically blurred photos. So I turned off the vibration control and set the aperture to a small f/16. The resulting shutter speed of about 1/4 second was long enough to give my photos a impressionistic rendering caused by the gyrations of the train.
For the rest of the ride I clicked away happily every few seconds–without even looking through the viewfinder! Of the hundred or so photos I took, perhaps a half dozen were keepers. They’re my favorite images from the day.
I’m a sucker for patterns. Recent findings in psychology show that we are hard wired to identify order in the chaos that so often surrounds us. So when I stumble on a pattern in nature I get a little frisson of pleasure–like I just solved a puzzle.
I came across this bed of cattails in a marshy area in the Wau-Ke-Na preserve of the Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy. I stumbled on this gem of a preserve when exploring the back roads of Allegan County between South Haven and Saugatuck. It’s a wonderful mix of forests, meadows, and wetlands with an extensive trail system. Huge areas have been planted in native prairie grasses . When I visited there was a lovely self-guided nature trail that introduced many of the plants and insects that call this place home.
I framed this photo to emphasize the pattern of the vertical stalks, but included a few gracefully arched leaves as a reminder that the order you find in nature is seldom rigid. I chose a relatively large aperture of f/5.6 to defocus some of the background clutter.
This photos is also a reminder that you can find compelling images at all times of day. Harsh noon-day sun backlit the leaves and, along with a polarizing filter, enriched the colors. When I first developed this image I reduced the color saturation to make it more believable. But then I decided that it was these deep rich colors that I saw through my lens and that took my breath away on first sight, so I share them here in their full glory.
This shot had been on my wish-list for some time and I finally made it happen last fall on a quick trip I made to southwest Michigan. A number of Lake Michigan lighthouses have retained their catwalks, but few are lit as nicely as South Haven’s. The catwalks were originally designed to give the keepers access to the lighthouse during stormy weather when it wasn’t safe to walk on the pier. But on a calm night they have a peaceful beauty.
It’s a bit hard to see on this small image, but each of the lamps in this photo is surrounded by a starburst of light. This is another dependable phenomenon caused by specular highlights in a photograph (see the previous post on circles of confusion). In this case the starbursts are caused by the tendency of light to bend (diffract) around edge of the aperture in a lens. Since apertures are made of overlapping blades, the diffraction is uneven and causes the starburst pattern.
The diffraction effect is most pronounced at small apertures (because the ratio of the circumference to the area of the circle is larger). The number of blades in the aperture of your lens will determine how many rays are in the starbursts, so there is lots of room to explore this effect with different lenses and different apertures. You’ll also find the effect is more pronounced at longer shutter speeds. I took a series of photos of this scene as dusk faded into night, and the starbursts became more pronounced as the light in the sky diminished. For this shot my exposure was 25 seconds at f/11.
It was late afternoon and the sun glistened on the rippled surface of Sleeping Bear Bay. I wanted to capture the simple essence of the peaceful scene, so I chose a low vantage point and framed a row of dune grass against the twinkling lake. The bright reflections are called specular highlights. Since my point of focus was the grasses in the foreground, I knew these out of focus highlights would be rendered as glowing circles of light.
Light passes through a lens in a cone shape. When an object is in focus, the points of the cones of light coming from the object fall on the image sensor. When an object is out of focus, the points of the cones of light fall in front of or behind the sensor, so the light falling on the sensor is a circular cross section of these cones. These “circles of confusion” are usually just rendered as an unfocused object, but specular highlights are rendered as glowing circles.
The size of the circles of confusion are influenced by the aperture of the lens. If you chose a large aperture like f/2.8, the cone of light is wider and the circles of confusion are bigger. If you chose a small aperture, the cone of light is narrower and the circles of confusion are smaller. This is why more of your photograph appears to be in focus (you have greater depth of field) when you choose smaller apertures.
I took a series of photos of this scene, varying the aperture from a large f/2.8 to a very small f/22, and sure enough, the size of the circles caused by the specular highlights varied dramatically depending on the aperture. My favorite, and the image you see above, was shot at a moderate f/8.0.