Category Archive: Abstracts and Patterns

  1. Creating a Polar Panorama

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    Grand Rapids Festival Polar PanoramaThis past weekend I was showing my work in the art sales tent on Grand Rapids’ Calder Plaza as part of the annual Festival of the Arts. It struck me that the urban plaza surrounded by tall buildings and filled with the trappings of the celebration would make a great location for a polar panorama. I asked permission to set up a tall ladder on the plaza at midday (to minimize shadows) and was told that would not be permitted–but they’d be happy to provide a boom lift for my use!

    So at noon on the appointed day I road a boom lift up about 15 feet above the plaza at a point I had earlier selected for the composition I intended. I set up and carefully leveled my tripod and camera and took a series of overlapping photos as I rotated my camera in a full circle.

    For the first shot I lined up my camera in the direction of the overhead sun and found an exposure of 1/200 second at f/11 retained detail in the bright sky. I set the camera on manual at these setting so that all of the images would have the same exposure. I was using a Canon EOS 17-35mm f/2.8 L lens set at 17 mm with the camera titled for vertical captures so that I could get the tallest nearby building completely in the frame.

    Back in the studio, I opened the RAW files in Adobe Camera Raw. I selected all of the files in the filmstrip area on the left so that any adjustments I made would be applied equally to all the images. The exposure I chose kept detail in the highlights but was overall somewhat under exposed. So I increased the exposure and shadows sliders to lighten the overall image. (Click on the image to see full sized).

    Camera Raw Adjustments

    With the adjustment complete I selected the images in Adobe Bridge, went to the menu bar and selected Tools>Photoshop>Photomerge to create a standard 360 degree panorama. I found that the spherical layout option worked best and I selected all of the options below the source files list.

    Photomerge dialogueThe resulting panorama was a bit more than 360 degrees so I carefully cropped it so that the edges would line up perfectly in the final image. The down side of using the boom lift was that the safety rail and base were included in the images, so I did some quick work with Photoshop’s clone, healing brush, and patch tools to edit them out. I knew I didn’t have to do a perfect job because the bottom of the panorama would be extremely distorted in the final image.

    360 PanoramaThe rest of the process is fairly straight forward. First you resize the panorama to a square. In the image size dialogue you’ll have to check the “resample” box, click on the little chain icon that constrains the proportions,  and then change the width to be the same as the height. The result is a very squished panorama.

    Image Size dialogueSquare Panorama

    Finally, you rotate the image 180 degree so it is upside down and then go the Photoshop menu bar and select Filter>Distort>Polar Coordinates. The resulting image had a faint vertical seam where the edges of the panorama met but a bit of quick work with the healing brush tool fixed that.

    Polar Coordinates

  2. Star Trails over Lake Michigamme


    Star Trail over Lake Michigamme

    I’ve wanted to experiment with star trail photography for some time, but the necessary conditions are not as common in Michigan as in dryer climates. For success you need a cloudless night with no moon in a location with a very dark sky. The stars finally aligned for me recently when I was camping on the shores of Lake Michigamme at VanRiper State Park.

    Lake Michigamme is midway between Marquette and Houghton/Hancock in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The land north of Lake Michigamme is the most remote and unsettled in all of Michigan. I knew the night sky would be as dark as any I’d ever see.

    To capture this image, I set my camera and wide angle lens on a tripod and framed the photograph so that the North Star was centered in the sky. Because the North Star is a pole star, it remains motionless in the night sky while all the other stars appear to revolve around it over time.

    To get a proper exposure, I set the aperture to f/2.8, the ISO to 1600, and took a sequence of 30-second exposures over the course of about three hours. Rather than manually tripping the shutter every 30 seconds, I set my camera’s drive mode on continuous shooting and used a remote cord that can be locked in the on position. It was a cold night, so I climbed in my van and took a nap under a sleeping bag.

    I ended up with 355 individual exposures. In my studio, I opened the raw files in Adobe Camera Raw and made a few adjustments to the images. Only one plane flew overhead during this time, so I removed the streaks it created in a few frames with Photoshop’s spot healing brush.

    I saved the edited versions as jpegs and then opened them in software appropriately called StarTrails. The software builds the image one exposure at a time, and it is interesting to watch the process. I have a pretty powerful computer, but it still took about 20 minutes to create the final rendering using the finer of the two blending modes.

    I made a few final adjustments in Photoshop to create the image you see here. U.S. Highway 41 skirts the north shore of Lake Michigamme, so headlights from the few passing cars did a nice job of highlighting just a bit of the fall colors in the trees. The faint green glow on the horizon is a distant display of the Northern Lights.
  3. Lake of the Clouds Reflection


    Lake of the Clouds Reflection

    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.

  4. Toonerville Trolley

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    Tahquamenon Marsh

    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.

    Upper Tahquamenon Falls

  5. Cattail Stems

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    Cattail Stems

    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.

  6. Crazy Clouds

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    Saint Joseph Squall

    I was recently viewing a collection of “60 Insane Cloud Formations” and was inspired to revisit some of the more awesome experiences I’ve had of cloud formations. I took this shot from the shore in Saint Joseph, Michigan, back in October of 2005. This squall line was an incredible example of a roll cloud. It sped in off the lake like a rolling pin, except that it was rotating forward as it progressed. As it passed over me there was a an intense gust of wind–and then perfect calm and blue skies.

    South Manitou Storm

    I was on South Manitou Island, in the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, when I encountered this example of a shelf cloud. The leading edge, which you can see in the distance in this photo, was perfectly smooth and shaped like a wave. Behind was the most turbulent sky I’ve ever witnessed. I don’t have this photo on my website, but a shot I took looking straight up into the turbulent sky has been a fairly popular image. I was able to take pictures of this advancing front for a full half hour–and then the dam burst and I had the most exciting hike of my life back to my campsite.

    Lelanau Sunset

    I witnessed these mammatus clouds at sunset over Leelanau county. I was driving the back roads of the county when I first saw the formation and looked for a place to pull over safely with a clear view of the horizon. They were initially backlit and gray, but as sunset approached they were transformed into an awesome inferno.

  7. Standing Wave

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    Standing Wave


    The far western Upper Peninsula is home to two of the wildest and most scenic rivers in Michigan: the Presque Isle and Black Rivers. The Presque Isle is protected within the southwest reaches of Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park. The Black is at the heart of the Black River National Scenic Byway. Both rivers flow over a series of dramatic waterfalls as they rush toward Lake Superior.

    As I explored the east bank of the Presque Isle River, I encountered a section of rapids flowing in front of a row of trees that were brightly lit by the late afternoon sun. The autumn colors and blue sky were reflected in the water rushing by. I focused in on a standing wave in the rapids.

    A standing wave is created when water rushing over an obstacle in the river flows into a depression and then crests just behind. I chose a moderately long shutter speed so that the water rushing by would be blurred while the wave would remain more sharply defined. A polarizing filter helped enrich the colors of the scene.

    Although I took quite a few photos of this scene, this first shot was most successful—not an uncommon experience for me.

  8. Dune and Sky

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    Dune and Sky

    Spring is one of my favorite times to explore the dunes of West Michigan because you encounter forms that have been created over months and have not yet been trampled by the crowds of summer. As I hiked in the Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness Area on an early spring day I was arrested by this sensual curve.

    The strong, shadow free light of mid-day lent itself perfectly to this exploration of line and symmetry. A polarizing filter deepened the sky and enhanced the contrast between sky and sand. I think of this image as my homage to Edward Weston, a photographer who often explored the surprising echoes of the human form you can find in nature. My wife, who is a writer and loves word play, calls this my dune nude.

    I took this image the same day as “Dune Grass and Lake Michigan.” It strikes me that many of my most successful images are fraternal twins—brothers and sisters born on the same day but not sharing an identical genetic heritage. More, I think, than could be attributed to mere chance. I believe this comes from a wonderful resonance between extraordinary circumstances and my own heightened awareness. I live for those days.

  9. Stones in Shallow Water

    Stones in Shallow Water

    Stones in Shallow Water

    Grand Island is in Lake Superior just off the coast of Munising. It shares the geology and natural beauty of the neighboring Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. The entire Island is a National Recreation Area devoted to non-motorized sports. I was on a color tour in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and timed my visit for the last day of the ferry season.

    I came across this collection of stones in shallow water on Mather Beach on the island’s west coast. The sandy beach is interrupted by bedrock shelves that have been smoothed and polished by the ages. I was intrigued by the incredible diversity of color in these stones, and fascinated by the play of the rippled sunlight on them as it shone through the crystal water of Lake Superior.

    I’m often asked if these colors are real. The simple answer is yes, all of those colors were in the photograph when I took it and this image is faithful to my memory of the experience. The fact that it has been very popular also indicates that I have successfully shared that experience with others.

    But this is also a good time for me to explain that my goal is to create an image that is faithful to my experience and expresses itself to its full potential. I shoot my images in raw format and develop them for printing in Adobe Camera Raw and Photoshop. A great deal of craftsmanship is involved in this process.

    As I developed this image, I noticed that the colors were not as intense as I remembered them. So I did increase the vibrance to more faithfully evoke my memories. I believe the resulting image is more “true” than if I had failed to do so. I would never add colors that were not in the original image, nor would I do something tacky like cloning in a moon. But the idea that a photograph somehow represents a reality unmediated by human action is a fiction.

    Pablo Picasso once said, “art is a lie that makes us realize the truth.” I’m with Pablo on this one.

  10. Ice Mosaic

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    Ice Mosaic

    Ice Mosaic

    Sunny winter days are rare in West Michigan. So when a day dawned bright and clear in late February, I headed to the shore to take advantage of the rare opportunity. My destination was Pere Marquette beach and the south breakwater of Muskegon. I could not anticipate the breathtaking sight I would encounter when I arrived.

    In winter, ice often builds up along the shore in a series of dune-like ridges. Along the water’s edge are volcano shaped blowholes. Beyond is usually an area of floating ice shaped like cannon balls or giant icy lily pads.

    So imagine my surprise when I encountered instead a wide expanse of perfectly crystalline ice stretching along the shore as far as the eye could see. In the gentle swell the ice twinkled in the light and made a mesmerizingly musical tinkling. I took a few shots trying to capture the entire experience, but soon realized to capture its essence I’d have to narrow my focus.

    This photo is abstract in two distinct senses. Most commonly we think of the word as an adjective referring to a style of art that emphasizes lines, colors, and generalized form rather than representation. Clearly this piece fits in that tradition. The most common response to it is “What is that?”

    But abstract can also be used as a verb, meaning to draw out, remove, or consider the general qualities of something. This is a form of abstraction I often employ in my work. Sometimes to abstract the essence of a scene, you have to narrow your focus.