Clouds of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula

Fall Calm at the Basin

Living full-time in Michigan’s Eastern Upper Peninsula since the spring of 2007, I have become more aware of the photographic opportunities presented by clouds, especially lake effect clouds. In this article I demonstrate how to predict the occurrence of potentially dramatic lake effect clouds in this region. And how to use them, and other clouds, in beautiful compositions possible in all four seasons. Above all I aim to inspire other photographers and trigger their creative imagination for wherever they may travel.

As cool air passes across Lake Superior, Lake Huron, or Lake Michigan beautiful clouds form over the lakes and are carried inland. Where they go depends on wind direction. The wind direction that brings cool air to the region most often is northwest, and the clouds are generated over Lake Superior. But west or southwest winds can sometimes form lake effect clouds over northern Lake Michigan or northern Lake Huron, which can be carried to Lake Huron’s Northern shoreline and inland from there. Typically these are winds that originate further to the northwest in western Ontario and/or Manitoba, and cool air from Canada is curled counterclockwise to the far Eastern Upper Peninsula. But cool air can also curl from Manitoba, go east across Wisconsin and curl counterclockwise and move up northern Lake Michigan to Lake Superior, bringing lake effect clouds from Lake Michigan to the Lake superior Shoreline. Cold winds can go north, bringing lake effect clouds north, which seems extremely unlikely because cold winds come from Canada. But it happens rarely – on satellite radar you see the clouds forming over northern Lake Michigan and streaming to Lake Superior.

Lake effect clouds are generated by cool air passing over the relatively warm water of a very big lake, so most lake effect clouds occur in the fall, as cooler air typically descends upon the region when the Great Lakes are still relatively warm. But nice clouds can be generated in the winter when a blast of artic air passes over unfrozen deep water. Nice clouds can also be generated in the region at any time of year when 2 air masses collide (warm or cool, moist or dry), which often creates a moving line of showers. And again, the direction of the wind determines where the clouds will go. Almost always the general direction is from west to east.

So there is a unique region – the eastern half of the Upper Peninsula, where you can have lake effect clouds from three different Great Lakes and typical clouds formed by colliding air masses. Bottom line: You can target these clouds and use them in landscape compositions. I will show you how.

Fall Shorebird Reservoir

The image above and the one at the beginning of this article were taken minutes apart and yards apart at the same flooded location. What goes into finding such situations? It starts with scouting for peak (or close to peak) fall color, which can arrive to a specific area of the Upper Peninsula anywhere between September 25 to October 2o, depending on the progression of color during a particular season and how close the area is to one of three Great Lakes – Lake Superior, Lake Huron, or Lake Michigan. Peak color arrives first to inland areas (away from the Great Lakes) and last to areas along the Great Lake’s shorelines.

I found this inland area three days before, when there was a white overcast sky and wind rippled the water everywhere. But I noted that the trees were approaching peak color in some areas along the shorelines, and using my imagination, I saw there was a possibility for nice reflection images during the right conditions. The area is located to the south of Lake Superior so I hoped for cooler air from the north or northwest to slowly bring lake effect clouds to the area on one of the upcoming days. I needed a forecast that called for periods of calm during the day when I went there. Note that three things need to happen simultaneously to make both images possible: near peak (or peak) color, nice clouds, and calm conditions. That combination does not happen often.

I drove the 2 hours it took to get there knowing that I had a good chance to use reflection of clouds and fall color as foreground elements, along with whatever else I could find – stumps, shoreline, etc. If, on the morning I decided to go, there was a slight change of the forecast (which happens often) and the wind speed was then predicted to be 6+ MPH instead of calm I would not have gone there. Instead I may have targeted another situation where reflection was not an element. Note: On the morning I departed I checked satellite radar to make sure I saw the formation of lake effect clouds, and movement of those clouds to the target area, and made sure calm winds were predicted for the day.

Some years, upon the approach of fall color to the general region, a large weather system produces fierce winds for a few days: 50 MPH+. All shoreline fall color photography is then ruined for that year, as well as most fall color photography elsewhere. But all is not lost. The end of October and beginning of November can have shoreline tamaracks at their golden peak, as shown further below.

Lake Superior Fall Shoreline Bedrock

One day that I drove to the Munising area to target Picture Rocks National Shoreline fall color (above) I prepared in a similar way as outlined for the two previous images above. I scouted for color and found it was a few days before peak. Within the next few days (before color got past peak or potentially got blown down) I needed a day with lake effect clouds from Lake Michigan, driven by the cold wind that originates in Manitoba and curls counterclockwise to pull clouds north from Lake Michigan to Lake Superior. Fortunately it happened. I made sure I saw the clouds arriving to Lake Superior on satellite radar the morning I left. The south wind bringing the clouds also prevents waves from arriving to the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, making kayaking to the area easier, and it keeps the water near the shoreline relatively calm, so I could see under the water. My polarizing filer reduced reflection off the water surface, allowing me to use underwater rocks as a foreground element.

Lake Superior Fall Shoreline Puddles

On the same day, as the clouds continued to stream in, I walked the shoreline to find a variety of compositions – with the goal of using the clouds, fall color, greenish water color, and rock formations in a balanced way, so no particular element dominates the frame. Above, the group of colorful puddles caught my eye as a foreground element. Note that the darkness of clouds combines with the direction of the brightest light from the sky to determine the shade or tone of the green water. It varies considerably. I used a polarizing filter to reduce glare off the water, helping to reveal that green and the rust red under the puddles.

Lake Superior Fall Shoreline Pool

Same day. I adjusted my circular polarizer to the midway point between full polarization and no polarization to have slight reflection of the clouds in the foreground puddle, and also reveal some color below the surface.

Bedrock Puddle

Exploring a different area of Lake Superior shoreline just outside of Pictures Rocks shoreline I found this scene – on the next year. I had one day when the conditions lined up the same way as they did for the three images further above. After that fierce wind for days blew all the color down. I used a polarizing filter to reduce glare off the water and reveal color under the surface of the lake and under the puddle.

Fractured Clouds Fall Pond Reflection

The image above (and the next three) were taken when northwest cold winds slowly drifted lake effect clouds from Lake Superior to inland ponds and lakes of Alger county – to the south. Before driving to leave for each situation I made sure I scouted to know the progression of color at each location – I took notes. On the morning I left I made sure calm winds were predicted for the morning and I saw lake effect clouds arriving to each location on satellite radar. Again, 3 things to happen simultaneously: near peak (or peak) color, nice clouds, and calm conditions. Note that I never use a polarizing filter when I want to capture a pure reflection.

Wetmore Pond in Fall

Fall Pond Reflection

Cauliflower Clouds

Mud Lake in Fall

The end of October and beginning of November can have yellow/golden tamaracks of the Eastern Upper Peninsula at or near peak color. They can be used in a nice composition if fierce winds do not blow most of their needles down. Scouting for the progression of color at specific locations is required, just as it was for fall color of maples, oaks, birches, etc. In the image above west southwest cold winds formed lake effect clouds over northern Lake Michigan and northern Lake Huron near the Straits of Mackinac, and they were slowly streaming toward this location on a calm morning during peak tamarack color. I saw that on satellite radar and by walking less than 100 yards to look at Lake Huron from my front lot. I knew of the possibility for this scene for over a decade, which is less than 20 minutes from my home, but the right combination never occurred until last October. I had very good luck that day, with about 20 seconds of slightly hazy low morning sun from behind my position, lighting the scene nicely, and providing nice contrast to the clouds.

Mud Lake Tamarack Reflection

This image was taken 3 days earlier at the same lake, from a different perspective. I isolated a section of color and its reflection, during a moment of brighter skies from behind my position. But on this calm morning the lake effect clouds streamed in from Lake Superior. I saw that on satellite radar and by walking to my dock overlooking the cove on my back lot. I also saw dead calm conditions on the cove, which is necessary for attempting a reflection image. Note: Hip waders were required to get into position here and for the next 7 images.

Tamarack Pond Marsh

Lake effect clouds from northern Lake Michigan and northern Lake Huron near the Straits of Mackinac slowly drifted to the pond above on a calm evening.

Tamarack Pond Reflection

Here is the other side of the same pond about 45 minutes later, from a different perspective, with sunlight coming from the left.

Beautiful Sleet Storm

About 1/2 hour later the last clear light of the day (before sunset) illuminated the eastern part of the pond because the western sky near the horizon was clear. And the dark clouds let go, as pictured in the sky just behind the far tamaracks. I expected a rainbow to appear, because the sun was behind me and a little to my left, but for some reason I was unlucky. About 10 minutes later a shower of sleet, coming from behind me and to my left, forced me to leave, and I learned why there was no rainbow. I needed rain for a rainbow, not sleet.

Dark Ceiling Effect

Above fall lake effect clouds from northern Lake Michigan and northern Lake Huron near the Straits of Mackinac streamed near the northern shore of Lake Huron right where I live. But they were brought in with strong west southwest winds, blowing the white caps off the waves. I used that action and the limestone rocks as foreground elements. I positioned myself at a vantage point as high as possible – on top of some big boulders, so I could create an image with the rows of waves visible. As is the case with Lake Superior the darkness of clouds combines with the direction of the brightest light from the sky to determine the shade or tone of the green water. Examples of the variation of the green are seen in the next 3 images.

Note: I took all images in this article, until the one above, on a leveled tripod. This one could only be done handheld with the strong winds (50+ MPH).

Dynamic Coast – Northern Lake Huron

This is the same coast during fall but the lake effect clouds originated on Lake Superior to the northwest, over 75 miles away. I timed a wave crash against a big rock for an added compositional element. I positioned myself on top of a big rock for the same reason as the image above – to see the rows of waves, but also to see under the water and not have the two big rocks overlap.

Peaceful Confusion

This was the same morning, but I took a different perspective, looking out on the deepest part of Lake Huron from another big rock near the shoreline. I used similar foreground elements – rocks above and below the water, and wave action. I used a polarizing filter to reduce glare off the water and reveal the underwater rocks (in this image and the previous one).

Smack Effect

Here there was a dark sky above my position and in the background sky, and briefly, a bright light from the left. The gentle waves would sometimes peak (before cresting) right at the left rock, producing the lattice-like splash (and a “smack” sound). The splash would be illuminated and contrast the dark background. After some observation before the light appeared I was able to anticipate which waves had the potential for the “effect”. I knew the splash would be illuminated from past experience (years before). I also knew the light would not last long and it did not, but I had 2 good smacks.

Storm Front

Here is the same coast during mid-summer, when lake effect clouds don’t occur. But upon viewing our local radar in the early morning I saw a line of showers moving in from the Straits of Mackinac toward the shore. I went to a location a few hundred yards down the coast where I could take a low perspective (one foot above the water) and used the smaller underwater rocks as a foreground element near the edge of the shoreline while a very gentle wave rolled in.

Agate Wall Evening Shower

This image required scouting, planning, and luck. On previous trips kayaking the Pictured Rocks shoreline I knew where beautiful rock walls would be illuminated by evening light in mid-summer. On this August day radar at dawn showed some weak frontal lines could eventually approach the area from the west, yet winds would remain light and out of the south all day. That wind forecast was important for safety while kayaking the area. I hoped I would get some nice clouds to combine with the colorful rocks and water. I was lucky to be treated with a cloud burst shower in the distance and at the right location, while the low evening clear sun lit up this colorful wall section. Note that this image also required the trial and error practice of handheld photography from a kayak with my equipment: to determine minimum shutter speed, required aperture and ISO – all to ensure good results. I also had to figure out a way to ensure my equipment would stay dry.

Striations

I took this image about 25 minutes before the previous image, at another colorful section about 15 minutes away (by kayak). The shower had not happened yet.

Storm Clouds Over Smartweed

I live on a peninsula which has a cove (pictured here) on one side and open Lake Huron on the other. I did not have to see radar for this mid-summer cloud front. A walk to our dock was enough. I knew where the smartweed was. I needed calm conditions in that location. I used a low perspective off a dock.

Pickford Hay Field

On the last day of spring an unsettled atmosphere of mixing cool and warm air produced nice afternoon clouds. A spring of perfect growing conditions for hay produced this lush hay field surrounding a seasonal winding creek. Slightly hazed sun from behind me to the right lit the scene, providing contrast to the dark sky. I drove by this area often, for years, but never noticed potential for an image until this day. Serendipity happens. That’s why I always carry camera equipment with me in my van, and make sure I have charged batteries.

Hay Bales

One evening in mid-summer Lake Superior lake effect clouds rolled into the farm where I have helped out and have had a big garden for over a decade. I was working to the left of this scene but I took a break upon seeing the dark clouds appear. I stood on top of a piece of farm equipment to get a higher perspective, so the hay bales in the foreground would be isolated from the shed, corn (just right of the shed), and spruce trees. Full sun from directly behind me lit up the scene and provided contrast to the dark clouds.

Cattle Drive

This opportunity was created by mid-day puffy clouds on a late spring day, and free-range cattle retuning from a large pasture to a smaller pasture via a path bordered by fencing on the left and a creek on the right.

Fall Farm Beauty

Collecting the remnant greens of my garden in early November I noticed dark lake effect clouds approaching from Lake Superior to the northwest. The cloudy sky to the south briefly opened up and full mid-morning sun illuminated the pasture (occupied by the same cows) and the bare poplars, providing nice contrast to the dark clouds.

Lake Huron Shoreline First Snow

After the tamaracks have lost their needles in early November a wet sticky snow can coat the trees of the northern Lake Huron shore area. After the snow maker system passes off to the east lake effect clouds can slowly drift to the area, driven slowly by cold gentle northwest winds from Lake Superior. Conditions must be calm for the snow to stay on the branches.

I knew of the possibility of this scene unfolding because I am very familiar with this location, which is within 5 miles of my home. I knew of the foreground element of the underwater rocks. And the line of the beach and trees. I imagined the snow and clouds. This process of finding elements and imagining complementary elements, and then waiting for the right weather circumstances, at the right time of year, to bring it all together, became a mainstay of my approach to landscape photography.

Scotties Creek South

The same set of circumstances made this image possible, but I did not imagine this scene before the dark clouds and snow transformed it. I was certainly inspired by finding it.

Lake Huron Feeder Spring

The conditions that made this image possible (and the 2 previous to it) are rare. Usually wind knocks the snow down or it rapidly melts. So I take advantage of those days by also visiting a few locations near home where natural springs form little creeks that enter (feed) Lake Huron.

Snow Plastered

On this calm morning extremely dark storm clouds formed after a night of wet snow. A brief moment of full early morning sun from the left lit the snow. This was a day where waking up to see nice clouds, snow and calm conditions prompted me and my wife to visit many pre-scouted areas where we imagined the possibilities and be on the look-out for unexpected nice scenes.

First Day of Spring

At our location in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula winter typically holds on for the first few weeks of spring. But at our peninsula tip wave action from the deepest part of Lake Huron usually keeps the nearshore water open. So ice piles continually build and change form, offering a variety of foreground compositional elements when lake effect clouds form.

Power Coast – north shore of Lake Huron

Fierce winds, dark storm clouds, rough waters hurling ice chunks – a look down the beach from our front lot.

Winter Beauty of Northern Lake Huron

I took the above image on a calm cold early morning in February (-20 degrees F). It was calm at night so the water around the ice piles at our peninsula tip froze but open water in the background formed dark lake effect clouds and snow over the deep water. Blue ice becomes more blue when most of the clouds are dark. A bright portion of the sky illuminated the snow, providing nice contrast.

Storm Ice Sculpture

A January heavy snow storm, with strong wind and high waves, formed this unique ice sculpture at our peninsula tip one year. It is a big limestone rock with bushes growing out of it. I monitored mornings for lake effect clouds so I could use them as a background for the sculpture. Lake effect clouds form in winter over that water because it is the deepest part of Lake Huron. On very cold nights the temperature of that huge body of water remains warm relative to the cold air, so clouds form. They are at their best in the early morning and often dissipate by 11 am. The same phenomena produced the very dark clouds in the image previous to this one.

Lake Huron Morning Blend

During one winter large ice piles formed along the coast of the southwest facing section of our peninsula, so I stood on top of an 8 foot high frozen pile right at the edge of the water to get a good perspective for this image. Only there could I see under the water close to me and reflection of the sky beyond that. So I could “blend” the foreground into the reflection. It was a very still morning and lake effect clouds formed as very cold air entered the area in the early morning, not long before I took this image. So the calm water did not freeze, as it would have under a longer period of very cold conditions. I have never seen this unique set of circumstances before or since I took this image.

Beavertail Bay Sunset

When cloud and atmospheric conditions form a good sunset or sunrise on our peninsula there is almost always a vantage point where I can take a good reflection image if the water is calm. That’s a big if. This is a late July sunset. I almost always find the best color in the clouds after the sun has gone below the horizon – within 10 minutes. The same is true for sunrises – but between 10 minutes before sunrise and sunrise.

Beavertail Cove Sunrise

A mid-May sunrise from my dock.

Beavertail Cove Sunrise 2

Storm Sunset

The edge of a late August storm hit the setting sun.

Sunset Splash

I had this opportunity because it was right in front our property along the north shore of Lake Huron. I knew there were dark clouds that evening but a glance from inside our home to the west revealed some strong orange light appearing just before sunset, so I checked things out and was surprised. I positioned myself on top of a rock so I could time an illuminated crashing wave against the dark background of the water. I was able to take a variety of similar images for about 2 minutes. I knew the opportunity for this type of image existed but I never traveled very far to look for it because the chances of it happening are so rare.

The clouds of the northern Great Lakes are not as spectacular as clouds of the Great Plains during summer, but the seasonal beauty of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, when combined with those clouds, can create beautiful landscape imagery. Hopefully this article can inspire other photographers and provide a framework for success when they use the power of their creative imagination.