Category Archive: Details in Nature

  1. Moonrise over Higgins Lake

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    Moonrise over Higgins Lake

    I’d begun the day in Michigan’s thumb, and wanted to make it to Higgins Lake in the middle of northern Michigan by nightfall. I knew a full moon would be rising in the East just as the sun was setting in the west. I arrived at dusk, set up my camera on a tripod, and waited. As the evening grew darker I began to worry I’d somehow miscalculated. But soon the moon peaked above a line of clouds that had hidden it.

    I used the highlight warning display on my camera to set an exposure for the moon. As the moon moved higher it also got brighter while the far shore fell into ever deepening shadow. This is my favorite shot of the night–an exposure of 1.6 seconds at f/11 and ISO 100. I had a 1.4 teleconverter mounted on my 70-200 lens to give me an effective focal length of 280 mm. I always leave the color temperature setting on auto on my camera, but chose a daylight balance when I developed this shot so the color would be true to what I had witnessed.

    I returned to the same location early the next morning to capture this shot just before sunrise.

    Sunrise, Higgins Lake

  2. Goatsbeard

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    Goatsbeard or Yellow Salsify

    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.

  3. Circles of Confusion

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    Glistening Lake Michigan

    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.


  4. 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.

  5. Duck Lake Reflection

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    This is the second in a family of images I captured on an autumn day on Grand Island in Lake Superior just off the coast of Munising. Duck Lake is really a small pond on the island, and when I came upon it in mid-morning it was rippled by a gentle breeze and bathed in dazzling sunshine.

    Autumn colors were at their peak and I was struck by the way they were reflected in the water of the pond. I tilted my camera down a bit to include only the water and a line of reeds silhouetted in the shadowed foreground. A polarizing filter helped to deepen the already rich colors.

    This image is very close to the original raw file from my camera. I just made a simple contrast adjustment to make sure I had a full range of tones from deep shadows to bright highlights. Below is a shot that I took of the entire scene. I’ve included this to illustrate what I mean when I say that in order to abstract the essence of a scene sometimes you need to narrow your focus.


  6. Winter Bleached Marram Grass



    As a young boy my family once vacationed at a cottage on Silver Lake in Oceana County. For a kid used to the suburban expanse of Chicago, it was heaven on earth: Fishing, and dune rides, and hiking, and swimming, and boating, and biking, and ice cream, and blueberries, and cherries, and comic books, and puzzles, and games.

    But most especially what I remember is the view. Across the deep blue lake was a vast expanse of open dune, as though the Sahara desert had decided to move to Michigan. It was magical.

    As an adult I’ve returned to the area many times trying to capture something of the essence of those idyllic days. To be honest, I really haven’t been that successful. But I’m more bemused than frustrated by my failures. It is as though the landscape is toying and teasing and beckoning me to always want to come back for more.

    The open dunes have an emptiness to them—even more so in mid-winter when I decided to explore them this time. It was a sunny and mild day for February, and I enjoyed exploring the pure forms sculpted by wind in the sand and snow.

    As I approached the shore of Lake Michigan after a long hike through the winter landscape, I was delighted to come across this echo of summer days. Stalks of marram grass, bleached by the winter sun, graced the crest of a dune on the edge of the ice-free lake.

  7. Bulrushes at Dawn

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    Bulrushes at Dawn

    I had spotted this bed of bulrushes on a small lake near Elk Rapids one evening and resolved to return for the next day for the morning light. I had envisioned a colorful sunrise reflecting off the lake behind the bulrushes, but when my alarm went off at 5:30 it was clear that dawn would be drizzly and gray.

    I’ve learned to resist the temptation to climb back in bed on days like this (though I am always sorely tempted). And so with a sense of grudging acceptance, I headed out without much hope. When I arrived I realized that there was a potential that I had not anticipated in the scene. The peaceful curves of the bulrushes seemed gently embraced by the muted light of the cloudy dawn.

    There is an interesting quirk of human perception at play in this image. The light of the sun can have different colors depending on the time of day and conditions. Most people are familiar with the warm light of sunset. But you may not realize that the light on a cloudy day has a distinct blue cast.

    If you’ve never noticed this it’s because your mind often compensates for the color of the light. You may know that the incandescent lighting in your home has a yellow tone, or that fluorescent lights often cast a greenish hue, but when you are in your home or office you don’t notice this because your mind adjusts your perceptions.

    On this morning the light was blue, but I perceived it as gray. Because I’m aware of this phenomenon, I knew that the photos I took would have the blue cast that my mind was masking. Sure enough, when I developed the images, they had a peaceful blue tone that nicely matched the composition of the image.

    Now I must confess I took a bit of artistic license. The blue of the original image was not as intense as that you see in this print. When I developed this image I chose a color balance that intensified the color. But I did so in order that the final print would invoke in me the calm and peace I felt on a drizzly morning admiring the beauty of a bed of bulrushes in the light of dawn.

  8. Dune Grass and Lake Michigan

    dune grass and lake michigan

    Dune Grass and Lake Michigan

    The beaches and dunes of West Michigan are unique in all the world and a beloved summer refuge for Michiganders. I think that accounts for the popularity of this, my most popular, image. To look at it is to be transported to the halcyon days of summer, a place of beauty, and a time of peace.

    I’m pleased by the success of this image because it shows that I have been able to effectively capture the emotions I experience when I took it. I think this is the primary purpose of my work. My goal is not to simply document a place of beauty, but rather to capture and communicate my experience of it. I don’t so much want to show as to tell.

    Our family had been through difficult days. As winter passed into spring, we were exhausted and emotionally frayed. My son and I decided to spend a few days decompressing in the Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness Area, an isolated expanse of forests and dunes just north of Ludington. Not many seek this place out in early spring, so we occupied it almost as a personal refuge.

    Fortune smiled on us with warm sunny days and cool clear nights. Stress free days in a place of beauty was balm for or souls. I felt the creative impulse and began to explore with my camera.

    I came across this scene and was taken by its simple beauty. The gentle curves of delicate sand reed grass were nestled perfectly in a small bowl of dune. I chose a low angle so that I could isolate the grass against the sand, water, and sky. I think this gives the picture a feeling of repose. A polarizing filter enriched the colors in the water and sky.

    A moderate aperture of f/8 rendered the grass in focus but slightly blurred the background. This helps to isolate the subject and give the photo a feeling of depth.