Capturing Winter: A Michigan Challenge

Historically, winter has always been the least inspirational for me as far as photography is concerned. I've never had the best motivation when temperatures drop below freezing (or below zero for that matter) and I don't usually allow myself the opportunities to break that mentality. But overcoming difficulties are often rewarded, and that's something I've learned about winter photography this year. I'd like to think I make growth at a balanced rate, year to year, but this year feels different. I'll be taking a look back at my work over that last few months - analyzing the conditions of the environment I dealt with which helped shape the images I've been able to capture. Through all its challenging qualities, there are a plethora of opportunities for winter photography in Michigan.

Let's go back to January. I know - A Michigan winter starts well before January, but for the sake of keeping this post from getting too long, I'm keeping it to a small number of adventures. I've lined these sections of my time with galleries you can click into so you can view each image at full-screen.

Back in January, we had one day where ice accumulated on every surface. Rain the day before, followed by a huge drop in temperature the next night caused some beautiful, though dangerous conditions for anyone leaving their homes. I knew this was a day I should not waste. I packed up and made my way down to Michigan Beach - a common first stop for me as it's close to home and usually has changing landscapes keeping my interest high from day to day over winter. What I found was a fantastic array of subjects that had a new reason to be photographed. Ice on things that don't normally collect ice in large quantities is intriguing, with or without a camera. While fun, this day was a gimme. Of course I wouldn't have trouble finding a subject when everything around me had a fresh coat of paint.

The real challenge begins when everything around you looks the same as it did the day before, and every day before that; the only real difference being the time of the day for the right light. That was my next focus a couple weeks later. Again, I made my way back to Michigan Beach, but at the later golden hour of the day. I found scenery that took me away to some far away place - as if I was in the Alaskan tundra or Icelandic coasts. The shadows of each rock and ice chunk dotting the snowy coast created a texture for the otherwise golden, sun-kissed landscape on Lake Michigan. The explosive waves crashing like a vehicular collision, spraying water in the air high enough to catch the beautiful sunset light, was just what I needed to make an image to capture the energy of the evening. Conditions were right; and I seized the opportunity.

Fast-forward one month into February, and you'll find me at Petoskey State Park. I'd given myself the challenge, again, to find what makes the right time of day the key factor in portraying a landscape, intimate or otherwise, more special than any other time of day. Again, the sunset light would be my support. I arrived ready and hoping to capture a large sweeping landscape over the frozen bay; and in fact, I did take a long exposure wide-angle image, but it was not my favorite of the day. I put away the wide angle lens. I enjoyed using it, but the sun was setting and I was noticing the incredible light being cast all around me. The snow, which looked like desert sand, showed me a brand new landscape that I had to hone in on. With the 70-200 lens, I grabbed three images that proved to me once more that timing was everything. The sunset and windy conditions made these images possible. That golden snow, whipping up with force, glowing as it twisted up above the crests of ice. On the right, a single flowered plant, wilted and cold, surrounded by an ethereal snow-blanket at its base, swirling round and round, doused in magenta sunlight.

And finally, we come into March. This month has been incredible for me. Two trips out at the end of the month have given me experiences I can never forget. First we have the evening of March 20th. I took to Fisherman's Island State Park in hopes to test out a new ND Filter for long exposures over Lake Michigan as the sun set on the icy shore. I made it about 3/4 of the way into the park before the ice on the road became too erratic and dangerous to drive on. I parked on the side of the road and began walking along the shoreline, waiting for a landscape to draw me in. What I found instead grabbed me for the rest of the evening. About 100 yards into Lake Michigan, sitting on a jagged piece of ice, was a beautiful, lone, Snowy Owl. I could barely make out its shape, but I knew that irregular form on the ice had to be something other than ice. I put away the wide angle lens again, and pulled out the 70-200, zoomed all the way in, took a shot, and zoomed all the way into that to confirm my thought. Indeed it was the Snowy Owl I've not yet been able to photograph ever before. I very slowly, carefully, made my way out to the furthest point on the ice I felt comfortable with; making sure to be low to the ground, minimizing my movements to keep the owl from feeling threatened. I made it about 50 yards in and stopped. I could not, and would not, go any further. I was happy with the view it was allowing me to have. I took a short series of images I was content with, and decided I had what I liked, and began to back off. As I was leaving, the owl flew from sight, back toward the way I came, soaring along the ice and water closely. I got back to my vehicle with the joy of a child with a new toy, but the day wasn't done. The owl perched itself, yet again, on the ice directly behind where I'd parked, as if to tell me it was okay to try again. So, I slowly crept out another 50 yards or so; sitting low on the ice to take a few shots, and backed off again. I felt an incredible feeling of honor - to be able to photograph a creature as noble as this. Another day I can never forget.

The second day out in March yielded me some great intimate landscapes. I was able to make it out to North Point Nature Preserve just as the pre-dawn light was emerging. I was reaffirmed again that timing is everything. I parked at the end of the road, quickly got my gear out and on my back and took some steps out onto the ice. It was still dark, but that would last only a few more minutes. The light gradually became brighter and brighter, bringing with it incredibly warm, magenta tones in the sky. Before the sun actually arose over the horizon, I used this opportunity to find a subject and frame that sky behind it. The combination of a pink and purple sky with blue ice always pleases me. First shot of the day was a wide-angle vertical image of an ice structure sticking out of the field of ice on Lake Michigan. I really enjoy the texture brought out on the face of that ice. Next, the line of trees in front of a graduated sky changing from that emerging purple to the soft blue. Looking closely, you'll notice the reflective ice beneath those trees splashing just a bit more color into the image. The crooked tree of the third photograph is fighting the balance of the image adding a wicked level of interest as its branches twist and flare up and out. The next image showcases the clouds catching all the beautiful color with one tree and a bird flying by - not a noise to be heard, but a powerful sight to be seen. Then, moments later, the sun broke over the ice. I found another subject to place within the light. A lone tree off in the distance, growing where you'd think it could not, it caught the sunlight within its branches, ready for its warmth. The light touched the tops of the ice on the landscape, leaving the lower and closer ice forms in shade.

So, this is three months of growth. From icicle-laden trees, to snowy owls, to powerfully colorful snowy landscapes. I've learned that getting up and allowing myself the time to be in position before the light changes is critical to making sure I'm there when the magic happens. I've also learned that you don't always need the wide angle and the long exposures to take breathtaking landscape images. I was in that mentality for quite a while - and though you do get some really creative, inspiring images that way, you can get some striking shots with a longer focal length for landscapes as well when you've got the right conditions for your environment.

Now, we're looking into Spring. I'm excited for warm days, flowing creeks and rivers, and green grass, but I'd be lying if I said I'm not excited for next Winter's opportunities too.

#growth #development #sunset #sunrise #landscape #intimate #close #wideangle #magenta #sky #tree #nature #owl #birds #wildlife #snow #ice #lakemichigan #michigan

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David Sargent Photography © 2021

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