The Birches of Houdek Dunes

On Saturday, I hiked in the Houdek Dunes Natural Area, north of Leland, Michigan. One of the interesting features of Houdek Dunes is the presence of very old white birch trees. Birch trees are a transitional tree in the succession of the forest. You generally see them in parts of the dunes where the forest has begun to take hold.

The trails at Houdek Dunes pass through a mature forest of beech and maple trees. But, in the valleys of the dunes are white birches that are over 100 years old. That is extraordinary for a birch tree.

Time, however, catches up with these old birches and more and more you are likely to see them lying on the forest floor.

The innards of a fallen birch tree decay before its bark. Strewn throughout the forest you see the white remains of a once stately tree.

Of course, the rotting tree provides nutrients to the soil and other vegetation in the area.

And, while the forest is now composed primarily of beeches and maples, you will see an occasional young birch tree fighting to establish itself in the understory.

The birch tree below is my favorite along the trail. Clearly past its prime, it shows evidence of the struggle to compete in the forest. Barren of leaves now, a standing skeleton of a tree, its roots once grabbed for the soil and a branch reached out to find the light among the surrounding red pines. I visit this tree each time I return to Houdek Dunes. I suspect that one of these days, I will find that branch lying on the ground, another victim in the story of forest succession.

For an earlier post on the birches at Houdek Dunes click here.

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! 

Going Abstract at Townsend Park

I recently discovered the trail at Townsend Park in Cannonsburg, Michigan. The trail passes through red pine forest on rolling hills. The canopy of the towering trees makes for a relatively clean forest floor, with good sight lines for photography. I visited the trail three times this week and took several photos from this spot.

I attended a workshop recently where one of the presenters discussed multiple exposures and photo montage images. On my visits to the trail this week, I experimented with both. This is a multiple exposure. After taking the first exposure, I shifted the camera to the right for the second.

This next image is a five-shot exposure. I had the camera on a tripod, angled 10 degrees to the left. After each exposure, I angled the camera back to the right 5 degrees.

The next photo is a 3-shot image. After each exposure, I shifted the camera up and to the right a little bit.

For the last image, I created a photo montage from these two images:

I opened both images as layers in Photoshop, with the leaves as the base layer. I then adjusted the blend mode of the trees to get the following image:

I am looking forward to experimenting more with these techniques and exploring the creation of images that are more abstract than my usual work.

Tulip Time

In Michigan, we are in that period between winter and spring when the weather can’t figure what it wants to do. In Grand Rapids over the last three weeks we have had only 18% of the total possible sunshine. On 13 of those days, we had less than 10%. I have been out and about with my camera, but the world is pretty brown right now. So, I bought myself some tulips and have been photographing them on the kitchen table. I have made some photos every day. Here’s a sampler.

The inside of a tulip is a magical place.

Even as they pass their prime and begin to wither, the tulips have a special gracefulness and beauty.

Winter Redux

Winter insists on sticking around, much to my delight. Yesterday, I drove up to the Leelanau Peninsula. The forecast was for snow – less than an inch – and blowing wind. I got a little more than I bargained for. There was snow mixed with sleet and considerable wind for most of the three-hour drive. Upon arriving at the coast of Lake Michigan, I decided to backtrack to the forest in the Betsie River Valley where the trees would protect me from the bitter wind.

The Betsie River Valley is not an area I have explored much, although I canoed the length of the Betsie River over a four-day period about 25 years ago. Driving over snow covered country roads, I came upon the Borwell Preserve at Misty Acres on the road that runs along the line between Manistee and Benzie Counties.

The Preserve, which is owned and managed by the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy, includes 360 acres of hardwood forest and a farm that is home to a small herd of sustainably managed Belted Galloway cattle. There is a convenient parking area and a short loop trail that runs along the top of a ravine through which a creek makes its way to the Betsie.

The hike begins at the parking lot. Two tenths of a mile along the trail, it splits into a half mile loop.

The windblown snow stuck to the north side of the trees in the forest making for a beautiful walk.

One of my goals for the trip was to find some photos to blend together in a photo montage, something I learned about at a recent photography conference. In the field I felt as though I came up empty, but when I got home and looked at the photos on my screen I saw the potential and created this photo montage by blending a straight shot of the trees in the forest with an intentionally blurred image of yellow leaves that are still hanging on, waiting for spring.

Silver Lake Sand Dunes on the First Day of Spring

On Sunday, which was the first day of spring in the northern hemisphere, I visited the Silver Lake Sand Dunes. The dunes are 1.5 miles wide and 3 miles long, comprising around 1,875 acres between Lake Michigan and Silver Lake. The dunes are a state park divided into three areas – a natural area for hiking sandwiched between a section for off road vehicles and a section for commercial dune rides. I was fortunate that neither section for vehicles was open, so I could explore the dunes in peace.

I arrived shortly before sunrise. I had not been looking forward to the steep climb through sand to get to the top of the dune, but found that the sand was still frozen and the hike was not a matter of two steps forward and one step sliding back through the sand. I was thankful that it was so easy going.

The moon was low in the sky as I reached to top. While there was no snow on the dunes, in some areas there was a thick layer of frost, which gave a ghostly shine in some parts of the dune.

Early morning on the dunes is lovely as the sunlight strikes the peaks and works its way into the shadows.

The way the sunlight plays on the dune is wonderful. It can be dark and moody or light and soft,depending on which side of a dune you are standing.

One of the fun things to photograph in the dunes are the trees that were once buried by the sand but have now been revealed by the work of the wind. I came across a ghost forest that I don’t believe had been exposed on either of my previous visits.

In my past visits, I had never seen a wall of dark sand as in the photo below. I think this occurs because the sand is frozen and not shifting. I will be interesting to see how this wall is transformed once the thaw comes and the wind can have its way.

I hiked for close to three miles in the dunes and got to a point where I could see the forested land to the south of the park. I look forward to venturing back later this year and having another crack at photographing this beautiful place.

Here are links to photos from my two earlier visits to the sand dunes in 2018 and 2020.

“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.