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Eye for the Storm

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The Grand Haven South Pierhead Inner Light gets a good dose of what Todd and Brad Reed call "magic light" during a November storm in 2015. (credit Brad Reed)

For most people, November isn’t a great time for a day at the beach. But 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.

Host / Producer: Dan Wanschura
Editing: Patrick Shea, Peter Payette
Music: Podington Bear

DAN WANSCHURA, BYLINE: What is your dream day at the lake? For me, it’s something like: sunny skies, warm sand between my toes, calm waves lapping up on the shore, throw in a cold beverage.

Well, for some people, their dream day at the beach looks different. Way different.

Beth Price
Despite the harsh conditions, Ella Skrocki of Empire, Michigan gets says the Great Lakes are her favorite places to surf. (credit Beth Price Photography)

People like Ella Skrocki, from Empire, Michigan. In fact, days when most of us would actively avoid the Great Lakes, Ella seeks them out.

(sound of wind)

ELLA SKROCKI: We're kind of a wild bunch here on the Great Lakes because we get really excited to go trompse through waist-deep snow to get to a half-decent wave in the middle of the wintertime.

WANSCHURA: As we heard last episode, this is the windiest time of year on the Great Lakes. And that means big waves.

SKROCKI: The gnarlier day on Lake Michigan or throughout the Great Lakes…typically the better surf.

WANSCHURA: I interviewed Ella in a beach parking lot as she geared up to surf Lake Michigan. A thick neoprene suit, gloves, boots, a hood – layers of dedication.

SKROCKI: Now I just gotta squeeze my arms in here. Are you going to join me?

WANSCHURA: No, not today. Maybe next August.

SKROCKI: Yeah, mid-July maybe.

WANSCHURA: Ella spends hours studying radar and weather forecasts pinpointing the best spot to jump in the lake.

SKROCKI: Great Lakes are definitely my favorite place to surf. I've been in tropical paradises in bikinis, and it's awesome and wonderful. But the days like this when it's windy and rainy and crazy – it's kind of all part of the adventure.”

WANSCHURA: Then she grabs her board, braces herself for the waves and plunges into the water.

Beth Price
Ella Skrocki catches a wave on Lake Michigan during a late October storm in 2019. (credit Beth Price Photography)

It takes some real grit to battle the weather like lake surfers do. But it’s not just surfers that come to the beach this time of year. Photographer Brad Reed dreams of days like this.

BRAD REED: You know, laying in bed the night before a storm when we can't sleep, we’re thinking where on the beach is going to be a good spot. What’s a new, creative angle we haven’t tried. We’re building pictures in our head. That makes us much more efficient when we get out and we’re doing the actual shooting because we’ve done a lot of the hard part in our head already.

WANSCHURA: This is Points North. A show about the land, water, and inhabitants of the Upper Great Lakes. I’m Dan Wanschura.

Today on the show, we’re sticking with the windy weather theme, digging into our archives for a story about two Michigan photographers – a father and son.

They’ve been braving the harshest Great Lakes weather for years trying to get the perfect shot.

(sound of wind)

WANSCHURA: Brad Reed compares storm photography to extreme skiing.

BRAD REED: The times we’ve skied double or triple black diamond bowls in Colorado, and taken the t-bar up, hiked farther up the mountain with our skis on our back and skied down a bowl, it’s the same kind of rush shooting a true Lake Michigan gale.
WANSCHURA: Brad and his dad Todd, own a photo gallery in Ludington. They keep their trucks loaded up all the time with camera gear, so they're ready to go out at a moment's notice.

(sound of truck accelerating)

Today they're heading south to photograph a November storm at Grand Haven State Park, where the forecast is calling for waves of 15 feet or more.

The father–son team hopes to capture some giant waves crashing over the lighthouse on the end of the pier.

But they also need what they call magic lighting when that big wave does hit. That's what makes the detail, the contrast, the highlights, and the shadows just pop.

BRAD REED: Magic light is hard to describe, but one of the best ways to describe it is hyper definition. And if you took a TV from 1980 and you could compare it to a HD, flat screen today – that is kind of what we would see today. When we get to the beach, it'll probably be very flat and look like a 1980 TV, but if we get that storm light where it's raining and stormy, but then the sun comes out it will look instantaneously – with no tricks, no Photoshop – It will look like a modern day HD TV.

(sound of wind)

WANSCHURA: Y'all set?

BRAD REED: Ready to rock. WANSCHURA: All right.

BRAD REED: That looks cold.

WANSCHURA: It does, doesn't it?

TODD REED: Gotta love it. WANSCHURA: Now one of the things that is most striking about Todd and Brad is just the sheer size of the lenses that they use. While they're busy photographing the storm as it comes in from Lake Michigan, other people there end up taking photos of them and their cameras.

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Dan Wanschura (left) interviews Brad Reed in Grand Haven, Michigan. (Todd Reed)

TODD REED: The sky is beginning to look a lot more like November. This is definitely still brewing, you know. It's really gonna get gnarly.

WANSCHURA: Once out on the beach, Todd sets up right at the edge of the water. He estimates the winds are gusting up to about 45 miles an hour

TODD REED: When the wind gets this strong, one of the things that we try to do is get as close to the water as we can without being in danger. The reason for that is if we can get to where the water's already wet, we don't tend to get sandblasted because that, that, that sand is wet. It's not blowing as much in the air.

(sound of camera shutter)

BRAD REED: Notice the wind just picked up five to 10 miles an hour, just all of a sudden. The waves are already showing that.

(sounds of camera shutter)

BRAD REED: That was the biggest one yet?

WANSCHURA: It takes a couple of hours for the lighting conditions to improve, and Brad is constantly wiping off the rain droplets from his lens, so he's always ready to go.

BRAD REED: Now look how much better the light is now than one minute ago.

WANSCHURA: So what changed?

BRAD REED: Just the clouds opened up and it just got a little brighter and the light is reflecting off the water and back up onto the side of that lighthouse, and then the tips of the waves, the white parts of the waves are starting to glow a little bit.

TODD REED: To me, it's good right now.

BRAD REED: It's getting really good right now.

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A giant wave crashed over the Grand Haven South Pierhead Inner Light during a November storm in 2015. (credit Todd Reed)

WANSCHURA: Then just like that, the magic light disappears behind cloud cover once again. It literally lasted just a matter of minutes.

BRAD REED: You can see how quickly it changes.


BRAD REED: It was really dynamic there for just a few seconds or, a minute and then it died. And it's still beautiful if you hadn't seen what we saw a few minutes ago. But comparatively, this is boring. But at least we got it – we got a big wave with it.

WANSCHURA: Todd and Brad pack up shortly after sunset and begin to make their way back to Ludington. All told they spent five hours out in gale-force winds with their cameras today.

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The Grand Haven South Pierhead Inner Light gets doused by a wave during a November storm in 2015. (credit Brad Reed)

TODD REED: What Brad and I really try to achieve when we're making our imagery is to create experiences. We try to make images that people can step right into, that they feel like they're there and that for us is the high ground of our photography.

WANSCHURA: Brad admits he's gonna be drained from this storm-shooting adrenaline rush today. But that's okay because with nearly 800 photos to sort through, he'll be sitting for a while.