Surf Photography in Michigan

Surf’s Up!

Michigan is a funny place; if there’s a way to have fun doing something—no matter the weather— it’ll be done. Recreation-wise, it’s a one-stop shop playground: four seasons and infinite terrain from sand dunes to woods and rivers. Water provides a host of activity potential since the state is surrounded by the Great Lakes.

Surfing Film Photography
Leland, MI
Camera: Mamiya 7

In the northwest lower peninsula of Michigan, when the wind hits strong and from the southwest, it becomes a surfers’ mecca. Combine the invisible thrust of wind with seemingly infinite water and it becomes simple to see why it makes sense.

Frankfort, Mich.
Camera: Canon 6D

There are certain spots that are more mecca-like than others. Frankfort is the area that immediately comes to mind. It’s situated on Lake Michigan and if the wind is aiming right, surfers of all kinds will descend upon the beaches there to take advantage.

Underwater currents and lake structure are positioned in such a way where a good wind can turn into sizeable waves perfect for surfing. It’s not as if people are shooting barrels or dropping into mega waves. They’re not bad though and since the next closest spot for surfing would be the west coast or spots along along the east coast, the proximity is nice.

Frankfort, Mich.
Camera: Canon 6D

One other thing: it doesn’t matter what time of year that wind hits, surfing in Michigan is a year-round activity. That’s hardcore. November? Sounds nice. February with a negative-degree wind chill? Let’s hit it bruh.

Portrait of a Surfer

As a photographer, I’ve often envisioned—as a photographer may tend to do—a scenario when I pull up to a wind-struck beach. The gusts are mighty, surfers are surfing, and I approach one for a portrait. In my vision, I situate my strobe and softbox perfectly to provide the pleasing light that captures a Michigan surfer in his or her element.

Frankfort, Mich.
Camera: Canon 6D

Now for reality. The wind was kicking into Frankfort, from the southwest, at something more than 20 miles per hour. As predicted, surfers are already there getting into the water to make the most of it. As soon as I turn off the ignition and prepare to photograph, I realize, there’s no way I’m subjecting my strobe and softbox to these types of conditions. I’ll be lucky if I don’t have a Sahara’s worth of sand in my camera bag let alone use a softbox in gale force winds.

Luckily, I’m comfortable with natural light. This day was straight high sun, with no clouds, and it was probably 1:00 p.m. or 2:00 p.m. No matter.

Pro Tip: A high-contrast light, like sun with no clouds, can be difficult to work in. Worry not: all you have to do is find shade of some sort and you’re all set. With digital, there’s some room for exposures that aren’t perfect, I get it. Here’s the thing though, if every there was a situation where a really good exposure was needed, this would be it. You can’t make the shady areas too dark or the bright areas to bright. What you want is to have a balance of the two. Do this by checking your camera’s histogram so that nothing is too extreme on the exposure. This allows you to bring out detail in the shadow and not lost the highlights.

Frankfort, Mich.
Camera: Canon 6D

Making my way through stinging sand toward the beaches of beautiful Lake Michigan, as good luck would have it, a surfer had just exited the water before making his way toward the pier for another round of waves. I approached him for an impromptu portrait session, and he was game.

I situated him in a way so that his face would be completely in shade; this causes the sun to almost be perfectly behind the subject. Despite not using a softbox, I’m thankful I didn’t have to subject my lighting equipment to an influx of sand and I actually like the light quite a bit.

A Perfect Day at the Beach

The term street photography is lofted about quite a lot. Here’s what it is: Street photography doesn’t have to be a ‘street’. ‘Street’ can be anywhere. That’s the beauty of it. To me, the ‘street’ in street photography is wherever you’re at. It’s the environment in which people are found in the area you’re in.

Frankfort, Mich.
Camera: Canon 6D

For me, on this day, it was the beach. I left Frankfort beach and the shores of Lake Michigan, feeling like I’d captured a fantastic portrait of someone getting outside and maximizing sport and life. I drove home feeling good about the images I made of surfers and the Lake Michigan scene and I hope you too are able to appreciate whatever surroundings you’re in as you make images of your surroundings.

Frankfort, Mich.
Camera: Canon 6D

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