1. 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.

  2. South Haven after Sunset

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    South Haven Lighthouse

    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.

  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. 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.

  5. Frozen Waterfall


    Frozen Waterfall

    Frozen Waterfall

    I was recently exploring the many frozen waterfalls and ice caves near Munising, Michigan and the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. I was particularly amazed when I came across this blue green curtain of ice across the mouth of a deep cave. I had been to this location this past fall, and there wasn’t even a waterfall. The stream that flows here must be seasonal–probably flowing primarily in the spring. The deep caves in the cliffs in this area were probably scoured out when torrents of water rushed over the cliffs from the melting glaciers at the end of the last ice age.

    This image faithfully represents my experience of this place. But since the human eye can experience a much greater range of brightness than can be captured with a camera, viewed on a screen, or printed on paper, I had to use a special technique called High Dynamic Range (HDR) photography to create it. There are basically three steps to HDR photography. First, I had to take three different exposures of the scene: a dark one exposed for the snow so that the highlights would not be overexposed; a medium one exposed for the waterfall; and a light one exposed for the cave so that there would be detail in the shadows.

    The second step in HDR photography is to use software to combine these three images into a single image that encompasses the full range of all three exposures. You can do this in Photoshop, but most people use a programs specifically designed for this. I used Nik HDR Efex Pro since it integrates nicely into my Photoshop workflow.

    This combined, or High Dynamic Range photograph, captures the complete range of tones from bright highlights to dark shadows in the original scene. But there is no computer screen or paper that is able to display this vast range of tones. So the third step in HDR photography is to use software to translate the HDR photograph into an image that can be viewed on a screen or printed.

    There are many different strategies for this tone mapping or compression step and HDR software often has a bewildering array of controls to generate images that range from the very natural looking to the bizarre. Early in its evolution HDR photographers seemed most enamored with the strange effects that could be generated with this technique–but I prefer a more natural look. I think of HDR photography as one more tool to help me capture the amazing beauty of the natural world.

  6. Beaver Island Horizon

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    Beaver Island Horizon

    I recently made a 30×45 canvas print of this image–a truly immersive experience!

    Beaver Island is the largest island in Lake Michigan. Most people visit the Island in the summer months after taking a 2 hour ferry ride from Charlevoix.

    The ferry docks in a protected harbor fronted by the village of Saint James, the only settlement of any size on the Island. A little over 600 hardy souls call the Island home year round, but vacation homes ring the island. I visited in mid-August—peak season for Beaver Island—and found the village pleasantly busy and no problem leaving civilization behind as I explored the rest of the Island.

    A well-developed network of roads provides easy access to most of the Island, though only a couple of miles are paved. The interior of the island is flat and covered with second growth forests and marshes—with a few sizeable lakes scattered about. No dramatic dunes are to be found here, though the north and eastern shores boast many miles of pleasant beach. Only a small portion of these are open to the public, but when I visited I often had them to myself.

    Beaver Island’s isolation and relatively modest development appeal to those who crave a simpler life. I soon found myself relaxing into the pace of island life. I spent many hours at the lovely beaches admiring the crystal clear water and clear views to the horizon. I became fascinated by the play of sunlight on the bottom of the lake through the rippled water.

    This image transports me to those relaxing days.

  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. D.H. Day Farm


    D H Day Farm


    The Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore has been a refuge for me for decades.

    Early in my career I was a middle school science teacher. Believe me—I needed to get away from it all on weekends! In just a little over two hours I could be in the middle of this vast expanse of natural beauty. And more often than not, I could have it almost to myself since it gets little traffic outside of the summer months.

    The barn and other outbuildings of the D.H. Day farm are an icon of this region. They were originally built in the 1880s and 1890s by David Henry Day, a young man who settled in the area in 1878 and became a wealthy entrepreneur. Though still privately owned, they are maintained in historic condition under an agreement with the National Park Service.

    I’ve taken many photos of this scene over the years, but I’d never been fully satisfied with the results. People viewing my work often remark that I must be a patient man. That patience expresses itself as a willingness to spend a long time in a location waiting for the right conditions. But it also involves a willingness to return to the same location over and over again until you encounter the extraordinary.

    My patience was finally rewarded on the morning I took this photo. I arrived before sunrise planning to catch the first rays of the sun gracing the tops of the barns. By chance an early morning fog circulated through the nearby meadows. The sun remained hidden behind nearby Alligator Hill longer than I anticipated, and I feared the fog would dissipate before it crested the ridge.

    But the extra time allowed me to scout a perfect location on a gentle rise north of the barns. I set the aperture at f/11 to bring the foreground in focus, and was rewarded with this lovely image.

  9. Upper Tahquamenon Falls

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    Tahquamenon Falls


    Upper Tahquamenon Falls is one of the most iconic landmarks in Michigan. The water is stained brown from tannins leached from the vast expanse of cedar swamps that form its headwaters. As the water crashes almost 50 feet into the deep pool beneath, it foams and boils giving it the nickname “Root Beer Falls.”

    This is a very popular spot and the infrastructure is designed to handle crowds. Paved paths and cleared overlooks line the bluff overlooking the falls. Boardwalks and stairs lead to decks with scenic views above and below. Finding a time when the light is ideal for photography can be a challenge. Generally mornings are best since the falls face east. Since it’s down in a gorge, deep shadows are an issue on sunny days.

    On this fall morning the sky was brightly overcast. The scene was illuminated by a gentle diffused light that was perfect for the circumstances. I took my picture from one of the overlooks and framed it to eliminate the dull sky.

    A well-developed infrastructure isn’t always a bad thing. If, like me, you find yourself developing a thirst watching all of this foamy water rush over the falls, there is quite a good brewery just off the parking lot. They’re open year-round since this is also a popular spot with snowmobilers.

  10. 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.