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Winter Photography on the North Shore by Mike Chrun

I love photographing on the North Shore; and, without a doubt, winter is my favorite time of the year to be there. The moods of the lake are more extreme; the winter light is more dramatic; the snow and ice add to the beauty; and the area is less crowded and less hectic than in the busier vacation times.

Times & Places

It differs from year to year, but there is a rhythm to the winter season. Although storms occur year-round on Lake Superior, starting in mid-November photographers really start counting on them. Although, this past season was disappointing. This link on windfinder.com is one I monitor:
https://www.windfinder.com/forecast/west_lake_superior_buoy

It gives a forecast of 10 days out for wind velocity, wind direction and temperatures at a buoy set in the middle of the lake southeast of Grand Marais. More than three days out, the forecast is quite unreliable but it gives you an idea of what to expect. Up to three days, it is quite accurate. Wind gusts forecast for over 30 mph and wind directions from NE and E to SW mean big waves will probably build. I also check the National Weather Service forecast for Two Harbors one or two days before I finally decide if a trip might be worth it.

My two favorite places for wave photography are Split Rock Lighthouse and Grand Marais. I generally get the waves breaking in front of the lighthouse at Split Rock, but the really dramatic photos can be taken across the bay to the right of Ellington Island.

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Stoney Point, Black Beach, Tettegouche State Park, Sugarloaf Cove Nature Area, Father
Baraga’s Cross and Temperance River State Park are other favorite wave hunting spots. These areas can be Goggled for exact locations.

At Grand Marais, again, you have the lighthouse for dramatic shots, but the shore all along the campground offers great opportunities. Very noticeable this year is the higher water level of the lake. Waves are reaching higher, but they have also eliminated some favorite spots to set up.

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Most years after the storms of November and December, the ice formations along the shore draw photographers. If there has been a storm with freezing temperatures, it’s a time when great beauty can be found as at the mouth of the Baptism River in Tettegouche State Park. To get an idea of how high the waves can be, the point I am standing on is a good 15 feet above the lake.

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One of the pleasures of photographing the North Shore in the winter is never knowing what sort of ice magic you will find. Anywhere you can access the shore, these natural art wonders can be found —  provided there hasn’t been a warm spell.

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Any of the mouths of rivers in the state parks are prime ice formation spots. In addition, Stoney Point, Black Beach, Father Baraga’s Cross, Sugarloaf Cove Natural Area and Artist’s Point and the Grand Marais campground are worth checking out. Large resorts like Blue Fin and Lutsen let you wander their shoreline and Highway 61 north of Grand Marais has a stretch where you can easily see ice formations on trees and bushes as you drive along.

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It’s a long way to Grand Portage, but Hollow Rock never fails to disappoint. In the right light, it is wonderful at any time of the year; but never more so than in the winter. I have never gone on the property of smaller resorts other than Hollow Rock. It’s one of the most photographed spots on the North Shore, and I have never heard or read of photographers being asked to leave because they weren’t guests. I suspect this is because photographers have boosted their business greatly.

If your timing is right and you’re really lucky, you can combine both wave shots and the making of ice art as I did this day at the Grand Marais Campground. Of course, I also had to endure two municipal workers looking at me from the warmth of their vehicle as though I were crazy. It’s tough to claim you’re not a bit off when you’re standing on ice with the temperature below freezing and the wind gusting to 30 mph and trying to keep spray off your lens. Winter photography isn’t for everyone, but I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed myself more.

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Speaking of crazy enjoyment, inevitably in December of every year, some photographers head to the North Shore because conditions are right for “sea smoke.” When the lake water is relatively warm, because the temperatures are 10 degrees below zero or lower, this weather phenomenon can occur. You also need calm winds and clear skies to get the full effect. At sunrise, the sea smoke is at its peak and, as the air warms, it starts dissipating. With even a light wind, the direction can be critical. There have been dramatic photos taken of the drawbridge in Canal Park in Duluth with the fog being blown out over the lake and the sun rising behind it. In four trips to photograph sea smoke, I’ve never gotten those conditions as the wind was blowing the fog onto the shore. So I’ve continued up the shore, and my first stop has often been the famous fisherman’s shack at Stoney Point. I like the photo but any sunrise color had been covered by the fog.

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Two Harbors is where I have taken the majority of my winter fog photos. Conditions can be quite trying, but the reward is there when they come together to form surreal images.

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Generally, by 8:30 or 9:00 the fog starts to disappear by the shore and it’s as though it has moved out over the lake as in this shot over Burlington Bay in Two Harbors. You can see how bright, sunny days can be a problem photographing in the winter. You can be dealing with a lot of contrast. In addition, the low winter sun can be a factor, especially if you are using a wide angle lens. Whenever I can, I try to get some sort of an element in the foreground of a landscape to give depth to a photo and to draw the viewer in. After the “sea smoke” shots in Two Harbors, I can generally make it to one more destination before the fog ceases to be an element.

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And that spot is the most photographed object on the North Shore, Split Rock Lighthouse.
This shot was taken at about 5 below zero around 10:00 in the morning. Within 15 minutes, all of the fog in front of the lighthouse had disappeared. Again, using a wide angle lens I got down low to get the ice and water into the foreground and hopefully add some depth.

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Every year is different but generally sea smoke days aren’t to be found by the time February comes along. Temperatures are moderating, but the lake continues to entice photographers. The winter light is one reason, and days when there is a cloud bank to the east with clearing towards Duluth are nature’s gift to photographers. Here at the mouth of the Temperance River is an example of the dramatic light. One problem with this type of light with snow is trying to avoid having the snow and ice over-exposed as it is on the point. I don’t feel it’s that much of a factor here, but it’s why I stopped shooting JPEG as with this photo and have switched to RAW. There is more data to work with so processing can lessen the extremes. This photo was taken in 2015, and the year before conditions probably were very different. By mid-February in some years, the lake is frozen but hardly still and the winter light is still magical.

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One can see how the ice has been piled up outside the Grand Marais harbor by winds pushing it onshore. Inside the harbor, the ice froze quite smoothly and even at this late winter date, the sun has a warmth to it because of the angle. Even though the chances for dramatic weather shots have lessened, one can always find subjects to use up the pixels in your camera.

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Here a variety of rocks that were tossed up on ice, and maybe frozen in place for weeks, are on the verge of being set free by the warming temperatures. The mouth of the Temperance River and Sugarloaf Cove are wonderful areas to see how the wind and waves have combined to create arrangements of colorful stones just as they combined to sculpt the ice.

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By March, even on the North Shore, one can sense the end of winter. The waterfalls which usually are frozen solid on the surface by January, are starting to break loose. Not sure why, but I’ve never been satisfied with my shots of those waterfalls at that time of the year. One reason may be the snow is usually old and dirty looking by then. Another may be that, because of the tannin in the water, the yellow of the river against the snow and ice gives the photo a generally ugly tone. One thing I’ve started to experiment with is to convert those unsatisfying photos into black and white. Here is a shot taken from the bridge over the Cascade River of that series of those iconic falls. The conversion and a vertical crop salvaged a picture, at least for me, that did not please me at first.

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Camera Settings

As I keep learning about photography, the more I realize how much I don’t know. If only I had listened to my wife when she first urged me to give up my old film camera. I would have had nearly 10 more years of education in the School of Digital Photography. I’ve already discussed how I now shoot RAW. Started last spring, and if I had only listened to our very talented camera club member, Peggy, I would have had about 2 more years of education in that branch of the digital school. Post processing is another area where I’ve changed my views, as is camera settings.

This winter I’ve finally gotten off lazily using Auto for White Balance. For shooting snow on cloudy days, you want the cloudy white balance setting. Otherwise, the snow will have a grayer, less pretty color to it. With RAW, it can be fixed in processing, but the consensus is to get it as precise in the camera as possible. With auto white balance, most sensors are putting in18% gray.

Generally, for winter photography I shoot ISO 200 or 400. On a dark day shooting waves, I might go as high as 1600 to freeze the wave action. Only on a trip this past winter did it finally dawn on me to shoot in a burst for waves as you try to capture it at its dramatic peak.

Most of the time now I shoot Manual mode. I do cheat a bit by taking one shot in Aperture mode; looking at the image; and then adjusting. I still don’t look at the histogram that often, but I do compensate for exposure, sometimes overexposing by 2 EV with sun on snow, down to 1 or 2/3 EV on cloudy days. Using center point metering, I will make sure the point is on a dark element in the photo. Metering on the snow will make the camera under-expose and that also causes the snow to look grayer than a person would generally want.

Tripod

For the classic winter landscape, I have gotten much better about using a tripod. This shot was taken at Two Harbors last winter: just after sunrise, – 10 F, and a south wind that was noticeable. The light was such that a tripod was needed. In such conditions, I will shoot on a two-second delay. With cold hands, it is easy to move the camera depressing the shutter, even if it’s on a tripod. The two-second delay saves me from fumbling with my cable release. It’s not fun trying to do that in freezing temperatures.
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Even in good light, a tripod is used. Wanting the ice chunks in the foreground meant having to get down low. I’ve found it’s harder to hold the camera steady and level by hand at my age, so the tripod is needed. Using a tripod also slows me down and the composition is thought about longer rather than pointing and shooting and going on to the next shot.

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Taking Care of the Camera

This is another area where my education has continued. As a matter of fact, the more I’ve learned, the more I realize I’ve been very fortunate not to have damaged a camera or a lens on my winter photo quests. I’d often take my cold camera into a warm setting without realizing the possible damage that could occur with the moisture condensing on the lens and camera body. Now, I put the lens cap on and immediately put the camera in the camera bag and make sure I zip it shut when getting out of the cold. As much as possible, let the camera warm slowly.

In the field, I try not to breathe on the LCD screen. If I get moisture on the lens, I always use a lens cloth to gently wipe it off before it freezes. When handling or carrying the camera, especially with bulkier mittens, I make sure I have the strap firmly in grasp and keep the strap around my neck as much as possible. After losing a camera several years ago at Interstate Park when my tripod toppled over, I make sure the tripod legs are spread and on a stable surface. If the tripod legs are extended, I’m very careful to make sure the tripod is tilted slightly back, balancing the tendency for the camera to fall forward. Finally, I make sure I have an extra battery with me.

Safety

There are precautions to be taken when photographing winter landscapes, especially on the North Shore. To get to many of the favorite spots there, photographers have to go over uneven ground, snow and icy rocks. Without a doubt, a good pair of ice spikes are a must. I use Kahtoola MICROspikes and would never think of going out without them again. They are pricey at $70 at REI, but it’s a small cost to protect your body and your camera from being damaged in a fall. Along with the spikes, I always make sure I have a hiking pole in the car in case I need it.

I often photograph alone, but make sure I check in with my wife periodically during the day. Cell service can be spotty along the shore, but, generally, there are very few spots where you would be alone for long in a mishap. If the weather is really, really cold or if it is getting late in the day, I make sure I don’t venture into an isolated area like down to Sugarloaf Cove or out on the rock shelf at Gooseberry State Park. Those are areas where you could get into trouble.

Obviously, you want warm clothing and good footwear, but two things that are vital are protection for the face and good gloves. Frostbite can happen very quickly, so I make sure I have a neck gaiter to pull up over my face. Generally, I wear heavy mittens with a liner that I can keep on when putting the camera on the tripod and taking the photo.

Finally, I feel the safest thing I can do is to avoid driving on Highway 61 in the snow. I have taken many photos while it’s snowing around Chisago County. This is one of the few from the North Shore. Even though a light snow can add to the mood, that highway is not one I want to drive when it’s snowing. I’m confident in my own abilities, but it’s a highway where, inevitably, a certain percentage of the drivers push the limits. There’s always another day on the North Shore for photography. Although it’s not for everyone, it truly is a treasure for photographers to enjoy. Once you get hooked on it, you can’t wait to get back, especially if it’s winter.

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4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ken Noyes #

    Great article with a lot of good info and pics. I will need to check out the windfinder web site. Thanks Mike.

    Like

    February 6, 2018
  2. Becky J. Woods #

    Mike, great photos and great article filled with advice for the novice or expert alike. Thanks for sharing your knowledge and experience. – Becky Woods

    Like

    April 8, 2019

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