Sara Kassien is not a photographer. She was in the right place though on Sunday, August 2nd, driving home from work when the storm that had wrecked Glen Arbor swept over Traverse City.
“I saw all these other people pulled over,” she remembers. “I’m like, ‘That’s a good idea, I should do that.’ I followed the crowd.”
She snapped two pictures with her iPhone and posted one on Instagram. It shows the front edge of the storm over East Bay. She says the cloud looks a bit like a mushroom.
“It’s the rain coming and it’s honestly like a wall,” she says.
Lots of people have now seen that photograph. She submitted it to Bob Campbell, the author of the new book Storm Struck: When Supercharged Winds Slammed Northwest Lower Michigan, and he put it on the cover.
Sara Kassien has no plans to become a photographer. But that moment, when she caught that storm front, is the kind of moment professional photographers wait for, for hours and hours.
Brad Reed 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.
Brad and his father, Todd, own a photo gallery in Ludington and have published numerous albums of their work. They keep their trucks loaded up with camera gear so they are ready to go at a moment's notice.
Last week they met a November storm on the beach at Grand Haven State Park. Forecasts were calling for waves of 15 feet or more. The father-son team 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 Reed 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.
One of the things that is most striking about Todd and Brad is the shear size of the lenses that 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 Reed, 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 long enough for the Reeds to get a shot.
“We got a big wave with it” says Brad.
They spent about 5 hours at the beach in gale force winds with their cameras. Todd Reed 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.
Brad says he’ll be drained from the adrenaline rush today. But that’s okay because with nearly 800 photos to sort through, he’ll be sitting for a while.