How to Hunt for Snowy Owls in Traverse City

Owl clear things up: I’m talking about camera hunting, not gun hunting. We’re only shooting photos here. So WHO thinks finding a snowy owl sounds like a hoot? After my recent hunt, I have to say…it’s for the birds!

Okay, okay, I’m done being punny.

Some snowy owl background

They spend their summers in the Arctic hunting mostly rodents. If the rodents have a bumper crop, the snowy owls tend also to have a bumper crop, which means lots of young owls spread out after they leave the nest. When this happens, snowy owls might be seen in places that they’re rarely seen. In the winter, their migrations are widespread, and they’ve been spotted reliably in northern Michigan for the past several years. They’re pretty territorial about their hunting grounds – especially as they get older – so you might only see one covering a pretty big radius. They’re no strangers to daylight, either; they’ll hunt anytime they can find food. Snowy owls like to hunt in open places, and will often do so right from the ground. This means that when they travel from the Arctic down to Michigan, they might end up at un-photogenic locations like the airport, or the ballpark, in addition to prettier places like open fields and the dunes. And they are happy to sit on a fence, or light post, or the ground for a long time, watching and listening for signs of edibles in the area.

What does all this mean for owl seekers?

It means that you drive slowly by fields – along US-31 south of Traverse City seems to be a good place – and you watch for a big white blob. You use your telephoto lens or binoculars to confirm whether you’ve spotted your bird of interest. (Even large hawks are exciting to find when you’re on a fruitless mission to spot one of these giant Arctic visitors.) Maintain a respectful distance once you confirm your sighting. If you approach and the owl flies off, don’t approach again. Aside from being rude and potentially endangering these beauties with bad human behavior, snowy owls have been known to dive bomb humans. I have no interest in being attacked by a bird with wingspan rivaling my own. Last, be patient. I struggled with this. I am happy to hike miles into the wilderness to capture a specific scene, but I am not happy sitting in a car hoping that one of these birds catches my eye. Some people spend hours circling an area they’ve previously spotted these owls, and will await their return. This is key to good photo opportunities. I am not a birder. I do not have that patience.

Shooting tips

  • Take a variety of lens lengths with you if you have them. These guys might end up waaaay across the field from you, or they might perch relatively near on a building that you happened to be parked at. (Yep, not glamorous: look on telephone poles, buildings, fence posts, snow plow piles…)
  • Shoot with a fast shutter speed – at least 1/your lens length if you’re on a full-sensor body, even faster if you’re on a cropped sensor. You don’t want your hard-earned owl photos ruined by lens shake. (I shot all of these with at 600mm on a cropped sensor to give me a little extra reach. I also shot all of them at no less than 1/1000s shutter speed.)
  • Use a tripod. I didn’t, but it’s solid advice. I missed some good opportunities because I lost the owl in my herky-jerky-ness. The owls don’t seem to move too erratically – they’re making a beeline for prey – but at 600mm, any wiggle in your arms translates to a big swing in your viewfinder. The tripod will eliminate some of that, and will also allow you to slow down that shutter a bit if you want.
  • Shoot on burst mode. Again I didn’t, but I should have. As a landscape photographer, I am a single-shot gal. It would’ve been wise to press and hold the shutter while the owl was active to get a variety of images.
  • Aim to have the owl facing into your frame. Your images will be more compelling if your owl looks like s/he’s interacting with other elements in the frame.
    Watch for good contrast in the light. It will be hard to resolve details on these guys if you shoot them backlit, unless you blow out the background – not ideal. Position yourself when possible so that the owl is catching more light – or is lighter – than its surroundings.
  • Really, be patient. These cool creatures might sit for long periods of time before doing something. Hang out with your bird. Marvel at its grace and fierceness. Be in awe of its strength and beauty. And be ready. Your photos will be more engaging if you capture the owl in action as opposed to what it does most, which is look like a spotty lump of snow 😉
    Got any other tips? Share them with me on Facebook or Instagram. Happy hunting!

    My Favorite Places for Fall Color in Northern Michigan

    The calendar has ticked over marking the official arrival of autumn. The proliferation of fall color isn’t yet upon us, though, so now seems like a good time to address a question I keep getting asked: “Where’s the best place to see fall color in northern Michigan?” While there are some obvious answers to that (the scenic drive in the Sleeping Bear Dunes, M-22, M-119, and almost all winding seasonal roads), here is a brief list of my recent favorite stops on a northwestern Michigan fall color tour:

    Seven Bridges Natural Area, Kalkaska

    Being near to my former home, this area holds a special place in my heart. In addition to a few (not seven) bridges over the braided waters of the aptly named Rapid River, this spot features a colorful meadow and a tiny waterfall. The views are not far from the pull-off, so this stop is great for a roadside break, or for those who aren’t up for a big hike but want big rewards. A bonus if you’re in the area: head toward Kalkaska on Valley Road and enjoy the Rapid River valley views, complete with a couple of old barns. Be sure to hit Rugg Pond on your way!

    Grass River Natural Area, Bellaire

    Another place I hold dear, the Grass River Natural Area is home to some beautiful wetland trails. Boardwalks twist through cedar and sedge – the former’s deep greens setting off the latter’s warm ochres. Later in the season, the larches turn golden and really stand out against the cool tones of the Grass River, which meanders through.

    Sabin Pond, Traverse City

    At first glance, Sabin Pond appears to be a one-trick pony. But don’t just stop at the overlook at the Boardman River Educational Center. Hike the trails behind the center, heading toward the bridge on Cass Road. Trail views include multiple winding staircases, varied boardwalks, pond overlooks, winding paths through the wetlands, and a couple of small creek crossings. If you’re up for more, the trails on the north side also feature some nice views of the river as it spills out of the dam, as well as a photogenic bend in the adjacent Jack’s Creek.

    High Rollaways, Buckley

    This place used to be much harder to find, but recently the park service has erected helpful signage pointing the way to this spectacular view. A short walk (or a longer one – though still short enough – depending on where you park) delivers you to commanding views over the Manistee River. If you’re up for a hike, head toward Baxter Bridge for a trek through mixed hardwoods. Before you get to the bridge, there’s a quaint footbridge over a small, clear creek as well as additional river views.

    Deadman’s Hill, Elmira

    Another place with a short walk to an impressive overlook. This time viewers are rewarded with views of the distant, meandering Jordan River valley. Maples line the short trail at the top, and a nice mix conifers and hardwoods adorns the valley floor.

    Cedar Run Natural Area, Traverse City

    Of all the places on my list, this one may not live up to my personal feelings toward it. It’s a favorite place of mine: if you go, treat it with love. The trails are still in the works, so take caution. In addition to a relaxing dock on Cedar Lake, Cedar Run Creek runs through the natural area. There’s a foot bridge over it nearish the beginning, and some other trail crossings farther into the hike. There’s also a small bog along an old rail bed, which doesn’t sound nearly as pretty as it is. Tucked in a low-lying area, the bog offers some stellar reflections.

    This is not an exhaustive list, and very well might leave out other cherished views, including some in my own fall photo gallery. Do you have a favorite place for fall colors? Tell me all about it!
    Plan on visiting any of these places this fall? Share this list on Facebook, and take a friend. After all, it’s best to share the cider and donuts you’re sure to get while you’re touring!

    5 Great Sunrise Locations Near Traverse City

    5 Great Sunrise Locations Near Traverse City

    Of course anywhere overlooking the water is a great place to watch the sunrise in Traverse City, but if you’re looking for something special, perhaps these will do the trick. They’re five of my favorite places in or near Traverse City that offer interesting sunrise views:

    Clinch Marina, downtown Traverse City

    Directly across from Union Street in downtown Traverse City, Clinch Marina makes a classic sunrise setting. I’ve never been completely alone while shooting sunrises here, but I’ve never had to shoot around other visitors, either.

    Cedar Lake, DeYoung Natural Area – Cherry Bend Rd

    Cedar Lake is a beautiful turquoise-water lake nestled in the DeYoung Natural Area just northwest of Traverse City. You can access the trailhead via the TART, or you can park at the DeYoung barn. A short walk along some picturesque-on-their-own boardwalks brings you to a fishing pier on the water.

    Harbor Park and Elmwood Marina – Greilickville

    If you want to get out of Traverse City for your sunrise shot, but still want classic TC views, consider setting up for your morning photo outing in Greilickville. The harbor park offers some great options, and so does the adjacent Elmwood Marina.

    Sabin Pond, Traverse City – Cass Rd

    One of my all-time favorite places to drop in during the fall color change, Sabin Pond (south of Traverse City at the Boardman River Nature Center) is also a great place for the sunrise. It’s tucked between a couple of ridges, so reflections are easy to come by, too.

    Boardman River, South of TC – Brown Bridge Rd

    A little farther afield, the Brown Bridge Quiet Area (head south of TC on Garfield) is one of my go-to places, especially in the winter when the light can easily filter through the trees. There is hiking access on both sides of the Boardman River – either off Brown Bridge Road or Ranch Rudolf Road – but you can also spot some nice views directly from the road (Brown Bridge Rd).

    How does this list compare to your favorite sunrise spots? Contact me if you have sunrise suggestions!

    Summer Storm Photography – Old Mission Peninsula

    Summer Storm Photography – Old Mission Peninsula

    I’m not a true storm-chaser or adrenaline junkie, but when my friend texted me about an incoming line of storms minutes before my weather alerts went off, I knew something “good” was brewing. I looked into the storm’s details, and decided it was safe to attempt to photograph its arrival. I parked at a popular pull-off on the Old Mission Peninsula north of Traverse City with lots of other curious folks, and waited. The morning sky was flat, hazy grey far longer than I expected. Based on the radar, the storm appeared to be sitting directly above us. Then, the western horizon darkened, the still air stirred, and the edge of a shelf cloud reached down into the vineyard (figuratively – there was nothing like a tornado here).

    17mm f/6.3 1/50-sec iso 400
    Photo: Shelf cloud over vineyard, Old Mission Peninsula in northern Michigan
    The foot of a shelf cloud steps down on a vineyard overlooking Traverse City’s West Bay
    I’d like a print!

    The temperature dropped 15 degrees (from 83 to 68F), and fat raindrops screamed down from the heavens. Not able to face into the winds without coating my lens in water, I turned east and discovered rich texture in the just-passed clouds.

    17mm f/5.6 1/60-sec iso 400
    Photo: Dark clouds and fierce winds appear after the arrival of a summer storm in northern Michigan
    Dark clouds and fierce winds appear after the arrival of a summer storm
    I’d like a print!

    Deciding I’d like to capture those cauliflower clouds over the bay, I hopped in my car and headed south to the East Bay boat launch. The storm had moved too quickly for that, but I still delighted in the photo opportunities provided by the dancing rain on Lake Michigan.

    16mm f/5.0 1/100-sec iso 200
    Photo: Large raindrops splash in Lake Michigan's blue waters after a summer storm's arrival
    Large raindrops splash in Lake Michigan’s blue waters after a summer storm’s arrival
    I’d like a print!

    I never know whether to expect a summer rain to make things intensely humid after it passes, or for it to clear the air. In this case, the front swept the haze away, leaving a brilliant summer afternoon in its wake.

    iPhone 5S
    Photo: Summer flowers and bright blue skies over the Empire Bluffs over Lake Michigan
    A classic summer view of the Empire Bluffs perched over Lake Michigan
    I’d like a print!
    If You Don’t Like the Weather…

    If You Don’t Like the Weather…

    One of my favorite things about northern Michigan is the variation we get in our weather. We have glorious snowfall in the winter, and long hot days in the summer. Add the explosion of blossoms in the spring and the fireworks of fall color, and each season has something that makes it “my favorite.” On either end of winter, we sometimes experience the whole summer-winter shift in one week. And some days – usually in the late spring – we experience huge shifts within a day.

    At the end of May, we hiked some trails south of Frankfort that deposited us on the Lake Michigan shore. A continuous breeze drove waves crashing onto the sandy beach, but the temperature was comfortable.

    Photo: Lake Michigan Waves Crash Under Moody Skies
    Lake Michigan Waves Crash Under Moody Skies

    After a while, we ascended the bluffs and watched as a small storm front took shape over Arcadia.

    Photo: Moody clouds organize into a storm front over Lake Michigan
    Moody clouds organize into a storm front over Lake Michigan

    Rain fell in curtains, obscuring our view of a large sail boat on the lake. Thankfully, winds from the south blew the system toward Frankfort, and we happily stayed dry – though the temperature took a dive.

    Photo: A storm front drops rain over Lake Michigan in Frankfort
    A storm front drops rain over Lake Michigan in Frankfort

    Less than an hour later, we walked down a sunny boardwalk to the beach in Elberta, greeted by cheerfully clear skies warmed by the gleaming sun.

    What’s your favorite thing about Michigan or where you live? Email me and we’ll commiserate.

    How to Capture Lightning

    How to Capture Lightning

    Photo: Lightning and a starburst light up Lake Michigan and the Frankfort Lighthouse
    Lightning and a starburst light up Lake Michigan and the Frankfort Lighthouse
    I’d like a print!

    It’s storming here, which has inquiring minds wanting to know how to photograph lightning. There are a few ways, including the use of a lightning trigger, but if you don’t want to invest in specialty equipment, blocking ambient light is your best bet. You’ll need a stable place for your camera, like a tripod, and some patience. If you don’t have an ND filter, set your camera with the smallest aperture you can (like f/22), the iso as low as it will go (like 100), and then meter the scene so that you can get the longest shutter speed possible without over-exposing. This will depend entirely on how much light is available. Then simply trigger the camera repeatedly during the lightning event until you capture a photo you like.

    Another option is to attach an ND filter to the front of your lens. The stronger the filter, the longer the exposure you can get. This will also allow you to play around more with the depth of field you prefer. You may be able to do 1-minute or longer exposures, increasing the chance that you’ll get multiple strikes in an image. Even the use of a polarizing filter will block out some ambient light, giving you a bit more exposure time than just using a small (f/22) aperture alone.

    The above image was shot at f/22, 4-sec, iso 3200, with no filters. The light was fading, so I could have opened my aperture and dropped my iso to get a properly exposed image with a 4-second shutter speed, but I wanted the starburst over the lighthouse. I shot image after image, until I captured this one.

    Be safe, and have fun! Have questions? Join the lightning photography conversation on Facebook 🙂

    Northern Lights and Quiet Nights at the Sleeping Bear Dunes

    Northern Lights and Quiet Nights at the Sleeping Bear Dunes

    Above, stars millions of miles away burn through the clear night sky, and the Northern Lights dance wildly. Considering the energy that creates these events, it should be chaotic and loud. But, down low a hushed rumble growls as a freighter trundles off in the still waters of the Manitou Passage. A gentle breeze plays with the grass atop the windswept sand dunes. The alarming cry of a single loon punctuates the peace. It’s not absolutely silent, but it is absolutely serene – perhaps even divine.

    Two images hand-blended: 11mm f/2.8 30-sec. iso 3200 (for sand), 13-sec (for sky)
    Photo: Northern Lights glow vividly over the shifting sands of Michigan's Sleeping Bear Dunes
    Northern Lights glow vividly over the shifting sands of Michigan’s Sleeping Bear Dunes
    I’d like a print!
    Two images hand-blended: 11.5mm f/2.8 65-sec. iso 2000 (for railing), 20-sec (for sky)
    A Sleeping Bear Dunes boardwalk meanders under a starry night sky alive with dancing Northern Lights
    A Sleeping Bear Dunes boardwalk meanders under a starry night sky alive with dancing Northern Lights
    I’d like a print!

    The core of the Milky Way will be rotating farther around in the coming months, eventually falling back out of view in the early autumn. I’m excited for more wonderous nights under those stars. In the meantime, there’s more from this night’s outing in the night photography gallery, and I’ll be adding more soon!

    Choosing Photo Groupings

    Choosing Photo Groupings

    “My all-time favorite city is Leland. I love Lake Michigan sunsets, but I also love Lake Michigan’s vivid blue.”

    A sweet client emailed me with interest in an 8×10 Milky Way photo, but in further emails, she described some of the things that she loves most about northern Michigan, and asked for my input. I love this area, too, and have a veritable art gallery – in a variety of media including framed prints, gleaming metals, and canvas wraps – displayed in my home to prove it. Interestingly, I don’t have a single 8×10 hanging. Instead, I have several 20x30s, a few 24x36s, a couple 16x20s (though those are older, and I wouldn’t choose that size now), a couple panoramas, and scads of 11x14s. So when this lovely lady inquired about my help, I put together a grouping that would make me happy if it were on my walls.


    She sent me a photo of a room in her house, and I created a to-scale mock-up of a 20×30 flanked by two 11x14s. This set-up shows frames with 2-inch mats.

    We started with her favorite Fishtown (Leland) right in the middle, a warm beach scene on the left, and classic Lake Michigan blues on the right.


    A second option included two warm sunset scenes, and some afternoon glow at Esch Beach.


    She liked the idea of the symmetry offered by the warm dune grasses surrounding Otter Creek, so I showed her that.


    And we ended up settling on this grouping: the symmetrical beachy scenes with a simpler – but similar – Otter Creek sunset in the center. The tones go well together, and the moods match. A peaceful trio perfect for a bedroom.

    However, she also wanted a print of the Fishtown sunset, maybe paired with a smaller image, though she was concerned whether this could work. Though it wasn’t for a bedroom, I thought the idea sounded promising, so I tossed the disparately sized images together on the bedroom wall so she could see for herself. This of course wouldn’t show how they would look with living room furniture, but it shows how the images look together at their right sizes on a wall. After viewing a few pairings, we decided that Fishtown (11×14) looked best with a golden scene (8×10).


    The whole process took place over email, because she lives quite far from northern Michigan, but it was wonderful getting to know her a bit, and helping her make choices she knew she’d like. This process can be achieved over the phone, but is easiest in person (preferably while sharing coffee!). So, if you’re stuck deciding which photos will look best at which sizes, and which ones could maybe go together, contact us! We’re happy to help you choose.
    (PS – She’s waiting on frames, or I would include some “after” photos, too!)

    Fishtown at Night

    Fishtown at Night

    For several weeks I’ve had half-formed plans to make some photographs in Fishtown, and I finally made the trip Saturday evening. The sunset wasn’t much to speak of, which didn’t upset me greatly, because the light is still hitting south of the Leland River, so my view of the show wouldn’t have been great anyway. We watched twilight settle from Van’s Beach, and then ventured over to the Fishtown boardwalks under the light of the moon.

    Two images hand-blended: 11mm f/4.5 15-sec. iso 1250 (for sky) iso 320 (for structures)
    Photo: Fishtown/Leland, Michigan under a moonlit, starry night
    Fishtown sparkles under a moonlit, starry night
    I’d like a print!

    The moonlight would’ve been enough to illuminate the historic buildings along the river, but several business also have exterior lights turned on. This meant that I had to combine a couple of images for the final photo, and I also had to correct for the various colors of the town’s lights. Still, it’s obvious that Fishtown is charming under any light!

    I look forward to exploring the area as spring brings more foliage. In the meantime, look for twilight on Van’s Beach to show up soon in the complete landscape gallery. This photo is already available there and in the night photography gallery 🙂

    Traverse City Sunset Serendipity

    Traverse City Sunset Serendipity

    After keeping an eye on the weather for a few days, I had decided that last night’s sunset would be worth making a photo-trip for. I had planned on visiting Leland. As the day progressed, the skies clouded over in an unremarkable way – which is to say: in a way that doesn’t catch sunset light very well. And then one of my go-to sunset prediction sites indicated that the sunset would be mediocre at best. I decided to stay home.

    But I had spent all afternoon pining for the fjords keeping an eye on the light, so whether they’d be good or not, I was primed to make some images. A little after 7PM I told my husband I’d be heading up the Old Mission Peninsula for a sunset after all. As I began the journey north, the sky was just not very inviting. The best light in the west had passed, but the eastern sky held some promise. After some aimless meandering, I charted a course for the Greilickville Harbor Park.

    It ended up being the perfect place. The nearby marina shielded the bay from the afternoon’s breezes, largely preserving the cloud reflections. Using a 10-stop ND filter, I was able to shoot fairly long exposures, further smoothing the water’s surface. The tough part was finding interesting compositions, but I ended up with a few photos that I’ll keep, including this one that straddles the Elmwood Marina (left) and the mouth of a small creek (right).

    11mm iso 100 f/5 20-sec
    Photo: Rocky breakwalls jut into the smooth waters of West Traverse Bay at sunset
    Rocky breakwalls jut into the smooth waters of West Traverse Bay at sunset
    I’d like a print!

    I’m happy I took the camera on a little adventure. Though my original expectations of the day were tempered, I captured some great reflections of a sky that had more texture than I had anticipated. I’ll be adding more images from the outing to Facebook and Instagram, so I encourage you to check there so you don’t miss them! And of course, there are lots more colorful landscapes in the sunrises and sunsets gallery.