Lake St. Clair is a large shallow lake mid-way between Lake Huron and Lake Erie just north of Detroit. Water from Lake Huron flows into lake St. Clair through the St. Clair River and on to Lake Erie through the Detroit River.
The swift flowing St. Clair River empties into Lake Saint Clair through the largest fresh water river delta in the world. It is a vast marshy landscape unlike any in Michigan. I was so surprised on seeing it the first time that I almost felt I’d been transported to Chesapeake Bay.
The best views of this unique landscape are to be found on Harsens Island, a horseshoe of high ground surrounding a marshy interior. A short ferry ride across the North Channel of the St. Clair river drops you at about the middle of the crescent. A road hugs the coast in both directions. What little development there is on the Island is clustered on the northeast near the ferry. There’s a decent restaurant in the old school house.
The southwest half of the island is encompassed by the Saint Clair Flats State Wildlife Area. The photograph above is a view across the marsh and open water from the southern arm of the island.
Back in the 1800’s, wood was the material choice for bridges in Michigan. Because wood didn’t stand up too well to the elements, covered bridges were the standard. My own town of Grand Rapids had several covered bridges spanning the Grand River.
What must once have numbered in the hundreds, dwindled to a handful of remaining wooden covered bridges by the late 20th century. Most were simply replaced by modern structures spanning crucial traffic corridors. The few that remained were in lightly trafficked rural backwaters that unfortunately also left them exposed to vandals and arson. In my neck of the woods, the Ada covered bridge succumbed in 1979 (but was subsequently rebuilt), and more recently White’s covered bridge was completely destroyed. And they’re not immune to other forms of idiocy, such as when a cement truck driver crossed the Fallasburg covered bridge (pictured above) with a full load of concrete weighing over 30 tons–ten times the rated limit for the historic bridge.
As far as I can tell, the Fallasburg covered bridge is now the oldest and one of only two covered bridges that remain in service in their original locations in Michigan. The other is Langely covered bridge that crosses the Saint Joseph river in southwest Michigan.
I arrived for this photograph on a perfect summer afternoon with blue skies and puffy clouds. The Fallasburg covered bridge is bordered by a beautiful park, so there is almost no modern development marring the scene. I tried a number of vantage points but liked best this location with the arrowroot and lily pads in the foreground. The bridge angles slightly to to the southwest, so in summertime the afternoon sun glances across the northern side. In full sun the slight overhang of the bridge created deep shadows, so I waited for a thin white cloud to cover the sun and soften the shadows.
On a recent and rare sunny day in west Michigan I took to the Lake Michigan shore suspecting that the conditions were right for getting photos of ice built up on the Lighthouses of Saint Joseph and South Haven. A December thaw, that had kept the lake’s surface from freezing, was followed in January by a week of bitter cold temperatures and strong winds. Both the Saint Joseph and South Haven lighthouses are far out on their piers and in such conditions dramatic ice formations build up on the lighthouses and the catwalks that lead to them. The ice is most beautiful when it is fresh, since it tends to melt quickly during the frequent winter thaws we have in southwest Michigan. Here are a few of my favorite shots from that day.
While in South Haven I shared the pier for some time with photographer Jodi Byers. She was kind enough to snap and share a photo of me at work. Walking on the ice covered piers can be hazardous, but if you look closely you may be able to see that I’ve strapped a pair of 6 point crampons onto my boots to give me dependable purchase. I wouldn’t walk on the ice with them!
I was recently traveling in the Thumb of Michigan and had stopped late in the day at a grocery store in Caseville. When I approached the checkout counter, I were puzzled to see that the store staff had abandoned their posts and were gathered at the front window.
Someone came and checked me out, and, as I left, I saw what had drawn their attention: the most intense rainbow I have ever seen! I grabbed my camera and snapped some pictures, but the setting was hardly scenic. So I got in the car and went on my way towards Port Austin.
My route must have perfectly matched that of the weather, because, as I went, the rainbow went before me! After 10 minutes I came to Sleeper State Park, so I pulled into the parking lot and excitedly ran for the beach with my camera.
I was able to take photos of this rainbow for 15 minutes–including a dash back to the car to grab a wider angle lens. After taking more than a hundred shots framing the rainbow every way I could think of, I spent the last five minutes just relishing the view as the sun descended in the west. On the outside I was calm and still, but inside I was totally channeling YouTube sensation YosemiteBear.
I’ve created a lot of new panoramic images in the last couple of years. These aren’t just cropped from a standard image. Instead I shoot a series of overlapping images and then combine them in Photoshop. This creates a very high resolution image that captures far more detail than a cropped image would. You can see a gallery of my panoramic images on my website.
I thought I’d share a few tips for creating your own:
Use a tripod and make sure it is level. I use a tripod for virtually every photograph I take. In addition to assuring that the camera is absolutely still during the exposure, I find a tripod helps me be more thoughtful and deliberative in my work. When shooting a series of images for a panorama, it is important that the tripod be level–otherwise your images will line up in an arc instead of a straight line. My tripod has a built-in bubble level, but you can also purchase one as an accessory.
Use a tripod head with a panoramic base. My ball head has an independent lock so it can rotate in the horizontal direction while the rest of the camera remains firmly locked. This assures that the overlapping images will be closely registered.
Level your camera too. My camera has a wonderful display that I can use to make sure it is level across the horizontal plane. Again, you can also purchase an accessory bubble level for this. For shooting panoramas it’s okay if the camera is tilted forward or back, but you want the horizon level.
Shoot in manual mode. You want your exposures to be identical in all of the overlapping images. The only way to do this is to set both the aperture and shutter speed manually. I first take test shots of the scene in aperture priority mode to find the ideal exposure, and then I switch to manual exposure using those settings.
Overlap your images approximately 25 percent. Take a series of shots, rotating your camera so that they overlap by about 25 percent. Frame your images with a little extra space on all sides, so you have some wiggle room when it’s time to crop the final composite.
Be careful with polarizing filters. I use a polarizing filter on most of my images. This filter cuts glare on reflective surfaces and enriches the colors. But you have to be careful with panoramic images, since the effect on the blue sky is most pronounced at a 90 degree angle from the sun. It can create an unnatural looking gradient from dark to light blue across the picture when shooting a long expanse of sky.
Blend the images in your favorite software. I use Photoshop for the vast majority of my panoramas, but there are lots of other options. Some are freeware or shareware, and some are far more sophisticated and expensive. You’ll have to do your own research on this!
Crop to a standard size. My favorite proportion for panorama is 3:1. I also have used a 5:2 ratio and 2:1 ratio.
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.