Points North: Photographing the gales of November

Nov 26, 2020

For most people, November isn’t a great time for a day at the beach. But Ludington photographers Todd and Brad Reed aren’t most people. They dream of capturing Lake Michigan at its gnarliest.

The Reeds say a lot of their success comes from having a game-plan in place, before they ever step foot outside. Brad calls it previsualization.

“Laying in bed the night before a storm when we can’t sleep, we’re thinking about where on the beach is going to be a good spot,” he says. “We’re building pictures in our head. That makes us much more efficient when we get out and we’re doing the actual shooting.”

Brad compares the experience of storm photography to extreme skiing in the mountains.

“It’s the same kind of rush shooting a true Lake Michigan gale," he says.

Magic light

The father-son team met this particular storm on the beach at Grand Haven State Park, where forecasts were calling for waves of 15 feet or more. They hoped to capture some giant waves crashing over the lighthouse on the end of the pier.

But they need what they call “magic lighting” when that big wave hits. That’s what makes the detail, the contrast, the highlights and the shadows pop.  Brad says it is like the difference between TV in the 1980s and HD TV today.

“If we get that storm light where it’s raining, it will look instantaneously—with no tricks, no Photoshop—it will look like a modern day HD TV,” he says.

Brad Reed (right) and IPR's Dan Wanschura. Reed says he’ll be drained from the adrenaline rush of shooting a Lake Michigan storm.
Credit Todd and Brad Reed Photography

One of the things that is most striking about Todd and Brad is the shear size of the lenses they use. While they’re busy photographing the storm as it comes in from Lake Michigan, other people take photos of them and their gear.

Out on the beach, Todd, the father, sets up right at the edge of the water. He estimates the winds are gusting up to 45 miles per hour. In these conditions they want to be as close to the water as they can safely be.

“The reason for that is if we can get to where the water is already wet, we don’t tend to get sand blasted because that sand is wet, it’s not blowing as much in the air,” he says.

Experiences, not just pictures

It takes a couple hours for the lighting conditions to improve. By the middle of the afternoon, "magic light" is reflecting off the water and back up on the side of the lighthouse.

“The tips of the waves, the white parts of the waves, are starting to glow,” observes Brad. “It’s really good right now.”

But it only lasts a few minutes, which is just long enough for the Reeds to snap a few shots.

“We got a big wave with it” says Brad.

A few surfers brave the 40-plus mile per hour winds to try to catch some Lake Michigan surf during a November storm in 2015.
Credit Todd and Brad Reed Photography

All told, the Reeds take nearly 800 photos. Not all of them will end up in their gallery, but some will. Brad believes storm photos are popular with customers because not many of them get to see Lake Michigan's raw force.

“Most of our visitors come in the summer, and so they’re not here when the lake gets that way," he says. "They just can’t imagine that it can look that way."

After spending about five hours at the beach in gale force winds with their cameras, the duo packs up and heads home. Todd says the images they are after are more than pictures. He calls them "experiences".

"We try to make images that people can step right into, that they feel like they’re there,” he says.

This story originally aired on November 19, 2015.