Into the Night Once More

I had another chance to go north this weekend to try my hand at a little night sky photography. The last “Super Moon” of the year arrived on Thursday. As a bonus, mid-August is the peak of the Persied meteor shower. So, I planned a shot of the full moon the following night right between the silos of the D.H. Day Barn at the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. I used the Photopills app to determine where I needed to stand and the time I needed to be there to shoot the moon in all its glory above the barn. I was able to reserve one of the last available campsites at the D.H. Day campground and headed north.

In the afternoon, I used the augmented reality feature of Photopills at the D.H. Day farm to confirm that the shot would work. The photo below hints at the problem I would encounter. The wispy clouds in the sky are cirrus uncinus clouds. In Latin that means “curly hooks.” The clouds are commonly called “mare’s tails,” and are precursors of rain.

The sky was filled with mare’s tails. Things weren’t looking good, but I had several more hours before sundown and moonrise.

I decided to watch the sunset from Van’s Beach in Leland, Michigan. While waiting for the show, I snapped some photos of the boats in the harbor. The reflection of a sailboat’s mast caught my eye. I watched the reflection as it morphed with each passing boat.

It became clear that there would be no great sunset show and likely no shot of the moon over the D.H. Day barn. The clouds in the west were headed my way, fulfilling the prediction of the mare’s tails. I took a photo of the entrance to the harbor and then set upon my way, hoping the skies would be clear 20 miles to the southwest.

No such luck. At the D.H. Day farm, the sky was thick with clouds. I determined to go with my plan B, a shot of the Point Betsie lighthouse. Point Betsie was another 24 miles to the south. On the way, I stopped by the beach at Empire. There’s a small lighthouse there in the middle of a parking lot. When I got there, the parking lot was full of revelers enjoying the evening. The night was dark but there was a faint reflection on the water. An 11 second exposure looking into the darkness revealed what was barely visible to the naked eye. 

Finally, I made it to Point Betsie. My goal was to get a shot of the light house with the lamp lighted. The challenge is that the lamp is so bright compared to the lighthouse itself that if you expose for the lighthouse, the lamp gets blown out and has no detail. But, I had a plan.

Every lighthouse has its own “signature.” Some lights rotate, some are stable. Some flash, while others stay lit constantly. The Coast Guard publishes a list of the signatures of every lighthouse and buoy in the country. I knew from the list that the Point Betsie light flashed white for one second every ten seconds. After much experimentation, I discovered that a 3.5 second exposure allowed for a proper balance between the lighthouse itself and the lamp. But the key was not having the shutter open for the full one second the lamp was on. I learned to open the shutter shortly after the lamp lit so that it was on for probably just a half second or less during my exposure. I was helped in getting a proper balance by the moon, which peaked through the clouds, lighting the side of the building. I augmented the moon’s light with a small light panel.

The photo reminds me of an Edward Hopper painting. Hopper, of course, lived and painted for many years on Cape Cod, an area that resembles the Leelanau Peninsula in many ways. His work has influenced many photographers.

Mission accomplished, I drove back to the campground and crawled into my sleeping bag about 1:30 a.m. I was awakened briefly at 3:00 a.m. by the sound of raindrops hitting my tent fly. Never doubt those mare’s tails! 

Nightscape Photography at Sleeping Bear Dunes

Earlier in the week, Friday night looked like it would provide a great opportunity to try my hand at nightscape photography. The long-range weather forecast predicted clear skies, and the moon would not rise until long after the galactic center of the Milky Way would reach its highest point in the night sky. As luck would have it, the D.H. Day Campground at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore had one campsite left for Friday night. So I reserved it and started planning.

I used an app called Photopills to identify possible locations to shoot. The app allowed me to locate a spot on the map and see where the Milky Way would be in relation to it in the night sky. I checked out several locations, finally deciding on three sites that would be close enough that I could cover each of them in one evening.

On Friday morning, I made the three hour drive to Glen Arbor, Michigan, and visited my intended locations during the afternoon. I used the augmented reality feature of Photopills at each site to confirm the position of the Milky Way at the times I intended to shoot. Now all I needed was clear skies.

I had been using three different sources to predict the weather for Friday evening. Two forecast clear skies and one predicted thunderstorms. Turns out, all three were partially right and partially wrong. As evening approached, so did some foreboding clouds.

Undaunted and certain that “this too shall pass,” I set up at my first location (the old cannery in Glen Haven) around 11 p.m. I could see some breaks in the fast moving clouds, but soon the rain began to fall. I jumped into my car and headed to my next location, hoping that the sky there would be clear. Within a few miles I was in the midst of a thunderstorm, so I pulled over to the side of the road to wait it out. It didn’t take long for the storm to pass. Within 10 minutes I was on my way again.

My second location was the bridge over the Crystal River on Country Road 675. People who have kayaked the Crystal know this bridge as the location where you “shoot the tubes,” the culverts that allow the river to pass under the road. Getting out of the car, I was pleased to see that the sky had cleared. I quickly donned my reflective vest and set some reflective triangles along the road to warn approaching cars that I was standing on the bridge with my camera and tripod.

The biggest challenge of photographing stars is getting them in focus. There are a couple of methods of doing so. The first one failed me completely. That method involves placing the brightest star in the middle of the camera’s LCD screen and magnifying it to allow you to focus. Sounds great, but on my LCD screen all I saw was darkness. On to method two – relying on the “hyperfocal distance.” The hyperfocal distance is a spot at which everything halfway from the camera to infinity will be acceptably in focus. I knew that for the focal length and aperture I was using the hyperfocal distance was 16 feet 6 inches. But how do you focus in the dark? I set my camera 16 feet 6 inches feet from the back of my car, shined my flashlight on my bumper and focused on it. And then I was in business.

There it was, just as Photopills had predicted, the Milky Way!

Having found success on the Crystal River, I moved on to my third location, the Carsten and Elizabeth Burfiend farm in the Port Oneida Rural Historic District. Carsten Burstein bought 275 acres in what became known as Port Oneida in 1852, when the government opened the land up to settlement. I was interested in photographing the farm’s granary, corn crib and shop.

I lit the buildings with two small LED light panels. Both were set at their lowest output and placed on light stands far away from the scene. To the naked eye, they provided little illumination, but to the camera, with its 8 second exposure, the lights provided about as much light as would a one-quarter moon.

Having met with success at my second and third locations, I headed back to the cannery in Glen Haven, unsure of whether the Milky Way would be positioned well to get the picture I wanted. After all, it had been nearly three hours since I originally had planned to shot there. While it is not the shot I had planned, it still worked out pretty well.

I was pleased with the evening’s success. Several years ago, I had tried my hand at photographing the Milky Way, but my equipment wasn’t up to the task. I recently purchased a “fast” lens that has a much wider aperture. That made a significant difference. The night provided everything I hoped for. . . and more.

Shortly before calling it a night, at 2 a.m., I checked in with a woman I had met earlier in the evening in the parking lot at Glen Haven. She had come north from Saint Joseph, Michigan, when she learned there was a chance to see northern lights. “Any success,” I asked. She said that indeed she had seen them. “In fact,” she said, “they are out there right now.” I looked off to the northwest and all I saw was a faint glow along the horizon. “That’s them,” she said, and she showed me some photos she had taken earlier in the night with her cell phone. So I set up my tripod and aimed it at the horizon, taking a twenty second photo. Sure enough, there was the faint glow of the northern lights.

The color wasn’t visible to my naked eye, but there on the back of my camera was the telltale green glow I have seen before. I switched from a wide angle lens to by telephoto.

I crawled into my tent about 2:15 and was up and out again at 5:30 a.m. to catch a different glow as the sun rose on Sleeping Bear Bay.

“Woodland Studies” Update

“Woodland Studies,” an exhibit of six of my photos, opened today at the Glen Arbor Arts Center in Glen Arbor, Michigan. The exhibit will run until April 13. The exhibit can be viewed online at https://glenarborart.org/events/exhibit-woodland-studies/. That page also has a link to a video of a conversation about the exhibit that I had with Gallery Manager Sarah Bearup-Neal. I have also embedded that conversation below.

[Note: “Woodland Studies” is no longer available on the Glen Arbor Arts Center website. You can see the photos in the exhibit on my website by clicking here.]

I am grateful to the Glen Arbor Arts Center for hosting this show and especially to Sarah Bearup-Neal for guiding me through the process of preparing my first exhibit.

My Favorite Photos of 2021

The year is drawing to a close and it is time to look back and select my favorite photos taken in 2021. I prefer to call them my “favorite” rather than my “best” photos. I am still learning the craft and the art of photography and still trying to figure out what “best” means. But, each of these photos is among the most personally satisfying photos I took this year.

Let’s begin with this photo of a thorny stick rising out of the snow. I was standing in the middle of a stream taking a photo of snow covered rocks when I looked and saw this stick on the shore. The contrast between the severity of the thorns and the softness of the snow made this image for me.

It was a cold morning in March when I took this photo on the Boardman River near Traverse City shortly before sunrise. The subtle purple and orange colors pulled me into the scene.

Early one Saturday morning, I took my camera downtown Grand Rapids. I rarely shoot in the urban environment, but this particular morning I just needed to get out with my camera. The light and shadow and the lack of any people in the scene reminded me of a painting by Edward Hopper. Hopper’s influence on photographers was highlighted in a 2009 exhibit by the Fraenkel Gallery and in “Edward Hopper and Company,” the book that accompanied the exhibition.

One of my favorite places to photograph is where the land meets water. I am drawn to the sound of moving water and to the reflections of the trees in the water. I used a slow shutter speed in this photo to smooth out the water in Honey Creek and accentuate the reflections.

I had the chance to visit Cape Cod this summer and was struck by the beauty of the salt marshes. I spent several mornings at the Sandwich Marsh and was grabbed by the color palette of greens, blues and purples. This shot too reminds me of Edward Hopper, who, of course, lived and painted on Cape Cod.

Our second week on Cape Cod, we stayed on the Brewster Flats, the widest expanse of tidal flats in North America. At low tide, we could walk out nearly a mile before coming to the ocean’s edge.

As I walked along the Houdek Dunes Trail this fall, the ferns had already turned brown and had begun to curl. I wasn’t sure there was a picture until I got in close and found this shot. I liked the shallow depth of field and contrast.

I traveled to Sleeping Bear Dunes 16 times in 2021, at least once in every month except December. My practice is to leave home early enough to make the three-hour drive in time to arrive an hour before sunrise, hoping for a beautiful morning glow. I have stood on the culvert where Shalda Creek flows underneath Bohemian Road many times waiting for that glow. That’s where I took this photo in November. This photo brings to mind that last few sentences of Thoreau’s Walden: “Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.”

The reflection of fall foliage in a beaver pond on Shalda Creek made this image among my favorites. For me, the image has an abstract quality that I like.

This is one of my “U-Turn,” photos. I was driving home from Sleeping Bear when I passed this lone tree in a farmer’s field. I turned the car around, got out and set up my tripod to capture the scene. Landscape photographers gush about the light around sunrise and sunset. But in the late fall and winter, when the sun is not so high in the sky, mid-afternoon light can work just as well. The low angle of the light in this photo creates the shadows in the furrows and the deep, long shadow of the lone tree’s trunk.

I planned this shot even before I arrived in downtown Detroit during the first couple of days of December on a business trip. I had seen the American Coney Island on a similar trip two years ago. I remembered that the scene would be near my hotel and so I took along a small camera and travel tripod. I was fortunate to have some rain that reflected the light on the sidewalk and fortunate to have a lone diner in the restaurant. This is yet another image that reminds me of the work of Edward Hopper. Nighthawks in a coney island?

I came across this gathering of roots three years ago when visiting the Teichner Preserve on Lime Lake near Maple City, Michigan. I returned four or five times over the past three years looking for the right angle to get the compelling image I wanted. I finally found it on my second visit this year. I call the image “Gathering Place.” The image speaks to me about community. I have been asked whether I warped this image to make the trees spread out from the middle. I did not. Nature did. The trees on the very left of the image hang out over Lime Lake. I suspect that in a few years the trees on the left will succumb to the waves that eat away at the shoreline and then fall into the lake.

I am grateful that “Gathering Place” was selected by the editors of Lenswork Magazine for publication in its annual edition of “Our Magnificent Planet,” and will be included in “Woodland Studies,” an exhibit of my work this winter at the Glen Arbor Art Center.

I have taken over 8,000 photos in 2021. Yet, selecting a dozen favorites was not that difficult. The good ones stand out to me. Most of the images I took are pretty underwhelming and can be chalked up to learning the craft and art of photography – training the eye and developing the skill to capture what my mind’s eye sees. That might be discouraging to some, but to me it is all part of paying my dues. As Ansel Adams said, a dozen significant photographs in a year is “a pretty good crop.”

Here are links to my favorite images of 2019 and 2020.

Upcoming Exhibit: “Woodland Studies”

I am excited to share information about “Woodland Studies,” a small exhibition of my photographs that will open at the Glen Arbor Art Center on January 7, 2022. The details can be found by following this link. If you happen to be on the Leelenau Peninsula this winter, stop by and have a look. If you can’t make it, the photos will also be available for viewing online at the link above.

[Note: “Woodland Studies” is no longer available on the Glen Arbor Arts Center website. You can see the photos in the exhibit on my website by clicking here.]

I am grateful to the Glen Arbor Art Center for hosting this exhibition, the first of my work. I have enjoyed working with Gallery Director Sarah Bearup-Neal and have learned a great deal in preparing the prints for exhibit.

Another Color Show

The fall colors in northern Michigan are past their peak, but I was still treated to a beautiful color show yesterday at the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. This first photo, taken where Shalda Creek crosses Bohemian Road, reminds me of the final words from Thoreau’s Walden Pond: “Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.”

Shalda Creek snakes through Sleeping Bear just south of Good Harbor Bay and pours out into the bay. Shortly before it does so the beaver have built a dam creating a pond in the forest.

As I passed by, I noticed the reflection of the golden leaves in the still water of the pond and stopped to take these photos.

Driving home along Indian Hill Road in Benzie County, I pulled over to take this photo of a lone tree in a plowed field.

Chasing Fall Colors

The fall colors have been late in coming to Michigan this year. I am guessing that we are still a couple of weeks away from peak colors in southwest lower Michigan. I drove north yesterday hoping to find nature’s brilliant display. I can report that the area on my route from Cedar Springs north to Thompsonville put on quite a show. But as I reached the Leelanau Peninsula, it remained pretty green. That’s good for the tourist industry on the peninsula, as leaf peepers will continue to be drawn to the area, extending the season. It was not a bust, by any means. There were pockets of color, harbingers of what is yet to come.

I began the day in the field below the iconic D.H. Day barns near Glen Haven. I waited in darkness for the sun to rise and light up the clouds from underneath. That never quite happened, but the image below was still worth the wait.

I found some dramatic red colors on Tucker Lake, beneath Miller Hill.

I hiked along the Crystal River for a bit and came upon salmon spawning on a gravel bed. It was amazing to watch as the dominant male chased off other males and the females prepared to lay their eggs.

This trout stood still long enough for me to capture a semi-decent photo.

Here’s a dash of color I found along Bohemian Road (CR 669) near Shalda Creek.

The weather was interesting, with intermittent rain showers and sunshine. I took the photos above in my rain gear, holding a large umbrella over my tripod and camera. Rather than hiking in the occasional rain shower, I stayed close to my car and visited a few of the historic farms in the National Lakeshore.

The Bufka farm is near the northern boundary of the National Lakeshore, along M-22. It sits down in a valley below the highway. The farm was established in the 1850’s by Joseph Bergman, an immigrant from Germany. Bergman built a log cabin that still stands today and can be seen in the photo below (the building farthest to the right). Charles Bufka purchased the 200 acre farm in 1880 and, over time, built the buildings (other than the chicken coop) seen in the photo. Upon purchasing the farm, he also built a house. The cabin was converted to a chicken coop in 1940. More information about the Bufka farm can be found here, on the National Park Service’s website.

I visited the Ole and Magdalena Olsen farm on Kelderhouse Road in the Port Oneida Rural Historic District. Ole Olsen was brought to North America from Norway by his grandparents in 1869 when he was 14. His grandparents settled in Sarnia, Ontario. Ole went to live with his uncle in Northport, on the Leelanau Peninsula. But soon his uncle and his family left to stake a claim in Minnesota under the Homestead Act, leaving Ole alone in Northern Michigan. In the early 1870s, Ole worked in the logging industry. In 1875, her met and married Magdalena Burfiend, whose father, Carsten, owned a 275 acre farm on what was the most valuable land in Port Oneida. With the help of Carsten Burfiend, Ole and Magdalena purchased their farm in 1877.

I took just a few photos on the Olsen farm, including this photo of the foundation for the barn.

The photo below is of the pig pen on the Olsen farm. Someone had placed a row of apples from a nearby tree on the window sill.

The photo below is of the farm buildings on Carsten Burfiend’s farm, with a lovely splash of color in the background.

As I left to return home, I drove by the Tweedle Farm on Norconk Road, south of the town of Empire.

Before driving home, I took one more photograph, a panoramic shot of the trees along Aral Road in Benzie County. While the colors had generally not reached their peak in the areas I visited, there were still areas of resplendent displays of fall foliage. Rain or shine – and I experienced both – it was well worth the trip.

A little early morning fog

I drove north to the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore earlier this week. It is a trip I take regularly. My drive takes about 3 hours. The anticipation builds as the first hints of morning light begin to reveal the conditions. The last three times I have made the trip, I drove through areas of fog, giving me hope that my destination would be shrouded with interesting atmosphere. On my previous two trips, the fog dissipated about 5 miles from the lakeshore. But, Tuesday a low fog hung on for me.

Noticing that the fog lingered in open fields, I decided to start photographing in the Point Oneida Rural Historic District. I started at the Pete and Jennie Burfiend farm. I have taken photos of this old granary at all times of the year. Enamored of its simplicity, I am drawn back time and time again.

Up the road from the Burfiend granary is the Martin and Allay Basch Farm. Fog engulfed the fields on both sides of the farm buildings.

Continuing on Baker Road (formerly known as the “Back Road”), I came to a clearing that overlooks the wetlands along Kelderhouse Road and took this panoramic shot.

Off to the side of the clearing was this tangle of poplars.

The clearing also overlooks the Carsten and Elizabeth Burfiend farm on Point Oneida Road. The Burfiends homesteaded the land, which sits on the bluff above Sleeping Bear Bay, in 1852.

I ended my morning shoot photographing the Tucker Lake wetlands along S. Westman Road. This area has frustrated me in the past, as it was just a little bit beyond the reach of my 70-200 mm lens. I recently upgraded to a 70-300 mm lens, which enabled these shots.

The Sandwich Salt Marsh

We recently spent a couple of weeks on Cape Cod visiting family. That gave me the chance to explore a different type of landscape than we have here in West Michigan. The Cape and West Michigan have much in common, with their sandy shores, dunes, and bodies of water that reach the horizon. But, of course, there are some key differences. Michigan promotes the Great Lakes as “unsalted and shark free,” and the Great Lakes do not have tides.

I was delighted to visit the salt marsh in Sandwich, Massachusetts. The marsh is twice a day flooded by salt water as the tide comes in. I was smitten with the marsh. The rich green of the marsh grasses and the oranges, purples, and magentas of the dawning light created a palette of colors that were hard to resist. I went back several days in a row.

A boardwalk passes through the marsh taking one from the parking lot, over a low dune to the beach on Cape Cod Bay.

Homes and cottages in the town of Sandwich line the shore of Cape Cod Bay and the edges of the marsh.

I was struck by the texture of the marsh grass and the sensuous curves created by the tidal waters as they carved their way through the marsh at high tide.

Thank heavens for clouds

Landscape photographers generally aren’t excited by cloudless, bluebird skies. In composing the “grand landscape,” an empty sky is negative space that most of the time adds little to the composition. I have seen a lot of bluebird skies this spring and early summer. But on Tuesday, I was treated to some great clouds.

I hiked the Sleeping Bear Point Trail in Glen Haven, Michigan. The main trail travels 1.9 miles up and down over the sand dunes. After the initial climb, you drop down to an area known as the ghost forest.

The ghost forest has the remains of trees that were buried by the dunes and that have now been exposed as the dunes shifted.

After completing the trail I headed off to other parts of the Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore. While shooting at the Thoreson Farm, I noticed the clouds building off to the west and headed down to the shore of Sleeping Bear Bay in time to catch a thunderstorm coming ashore. In the distance, a great lakes freighter made its way through the Manitou Passage under a roll cloud.

The roll cloud extend across the sky.

The storm spawned several waterspouts like this one.

I continued taking photographs until I thought better of standing on the shore amidst the lightning.

Grateful for the dramatic skies, I headed back to my car and the safety of lunch at the Good Harbor Grill.