They always start with an idea or a map. The destination idea for a photo excursion can come from anywhere, at any time and for any reason. On a recent day, one that I’d set aside for a photo adventure, I was in the process of figuring out where to drive to for making photos. There are numerous small towns nearby, each one with a distinct feel and set of characteristics. Being born and raised in my photo playground, the difficulties are to not duplicate what I’ve already done and to find inspiration in the familiar. It’s a bit like writer’s block for photographers—photographer’s block. My reasoning and photo vibes told me to point my car west and head that direction. There really isn’t a bad direction to go in, but, on this particular evening, I was feeling west. Some reasons for my decision were that Lake Michigan is only 45 minutes away, there are a few interesting small towns and it had been a bit since I’d been there.
Once a location for photos is selected, the game of ‘What Type of Light Will There Be’ begins. On my way west, toward the Lake Michigan-shoreline town of Frankfort, MI, it was looking like I was to be photographing with sun in a cloudless sky. Speaking for myself, I try to plan for optimum light but ultimately do the best I can with the photo cards that have been dealt. Frankfort is an amazing town for many reasons. It’s surrounded and protected by high, tree-covered hills. The downtown has some nice structures and the beach has been a favorite photo spot due to the number of activities, like kite boarding and pier diving, that take place there. It’s a pandemic and there were numerous people in the tourist-rich town so I decided to opt out of Frankfort and slowly backtrack east.
Beulah is a small town situated on the incredible Crystal Lake and it’s the next potential photo location I encountered. My rig with me on this day was the Mamiya 7 medium format rangefinder. This camera is amaaaazzzzzing and I can’t sing its praises enough. Its lenses are silly sharp, it uses 6×7 negatives and the shutter sound is an almost unidentifiable click. Beulah was a much quieter pace. Car parked, doors locked and 120 film loaded, I began my photo walk. This brings me to a Pro Tip: As you go on photo walks in small towns, you may encounter eyeballs from unsuspecting or curious passersby. No need to worry or feel nervous. I tell you this because I used to be apprehensive, sometimes, and when starting out it’s natural. Make sure to not go on private property and obviously show respect and kindness, but you’re out there to make art so do the thing.
Some laps around the town and a few pictures—not too many pictures because it’s medium format and care is taken—I started to make my way to my vehicle. In fact, I entered my vehicle and started it to head home when I looked up. “What’s this?” I thought. A magnificent sight of light, the kind where rays of sun beam down through moody clouds, was traveling in my direction at a respectable rate of speed. There was a boat launch I walked passed earlier so I returned to it in order to take in the clouds and light that were forming. With each passing second, the light was changing and the clouds were becoming more moody. The storm was traveling eastward so I made an image at the lakeside and hustled into my car to catch the clouds and righteous light at the next small town.
While driving, the clouds and light only increased in beauty, and travel speed. My decision to head to the next small town was because it allowed for a tad better view of the sky. As I made my way in to Honor, MI, I couldn’t believe the cloud formation that was taking place. I pulled in to Honor’s Cherry Bowl Drive-In theater to make a picture of their ticket booth. By this time the storm system was wonderfully overhead in all of it’s storm-cloud glory. The only open area I could find to capture the spans of the sky was at a lot for the Benzie County Road Commission. There was a simple building on the lot surrounding by high dirt sides. The location would be perfect.
Honor is a great town and I’ve always imagined photographing it when the light was dramatic. Since this was that evening I walked into center of the road, after CAREFULLY looking both ways of course. I don’t recommend doing this but I did it and was extremely safe about it. After capturing my evening’s photos, I traveled home and was thankful for the light gods to provide me with such a stunning display of storm-cloud wonderment. The lesson with this shoot is to not go home early if possible and to expect the unexpected. It would’ve been easy to bail on the evening’s photos since it was a drive and the light wasn’t great. It ended up being one of my favorite photo excursions in a really long time.