One of the questions I get asked the most—next to “what is it you do exactly?”—is “how do I get a good sunset picture?” Luckily, I have a few tips for catching a good sunset, and most of them are pretty easy! Here are a few things to keep in mind:
The Sun Sets in the West
Okay, so this one seems obvious, but there have been times when I have completely envisioned watching the sunset over a lake only to realize the lake/beach in question does not at all face west. Moreover, the sun sets more to the North or more to the South depending on the time of year, so be sure to keep in mind exactly where the sun is setting.
Sun Set Time
Sunset time is usually available online, but keep in mind that the 30 minutes before and 30 minutes after can also have some pretty dramatic clouds.
Watch the Weather
Speaking of clouds, partly cloudy days tend to yield the coolest sunsets—storms can also lead to a pretty dramatic show, but can be a little more unpredictable. In general, clear cloudless days won’t lead to a crazy sky, and on completely cloudy days you might not catch the sunset at all.
Clearings and Elevation
If you can get up high or somewhere clear, you get less of the sky blocked by trees and more foreground. This is good especially for photography, because a strong foreground makes an image a lot more interesting.
Reflections of sunsets are often almost as good as the sunsets themselves, and lakes, rivers and ponds are the ideal spots for this. Different water holds light differently, so there is something new to appreciate every time.
There’s nothing like a sunset from the water, particularly when there’s no one but otter and eagles for miles around. This sunset picture was taken at the Big Island Lakes Wilderness Area in the Upper Peninsula, but watching the sunset from a boat anywhere can be phenomenal.
Hidden in the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, this area off the North Country Trail has some of the best swimming in Michigan as well as the best sunsets if you are willing to brave the Lake Superior cold.
People who ask me for hiking advice, usually about a place I have never been or hiked at– this one is for you!
Step One: Create a Pinterest dream board
Open up your Pinterest tab. Type in some key terms like “wildflowers”, “sunset”, or “Peru”. Scroll for a while. Delete the Peru thing, because you live in Michigan. Get inspired.
Step Two: Open up the AllTrails App
AllTrails will help you find trails in your area and give you a difficulty profile. Scroll through the app and favorite hikes with reckless abandon.
Step Three: Decide how far you’re willing to drive
For me, the limiting factor on a hike usually isn’t difficulty—not because I’m in great shape, but because I will turn around when I am good and ready. No, the limiting factor is how far I want to drive to get a fun new hike. Once I decide that, choosing is usually pretty easy.
Step Four: Get in the car. Battle with the GPS.
Read: Make several wrong turns. Begin to question why you didn’t just go for a quick run and call it a day.
Step Five: Abandon hike entirely. Get pizza.
Ahh yes. Truly the greatest part of a hike comes when you turn off the GPS entirely, abandon all plans for light to moderate workout, and pull into the nearest Little Caesar’s for a Hot and Ready.
Well, there you have it. The perfect hike. Use this information wisely.
So after four years of hard (eh) work on a Bachelor’s of Science in Neuroscience, additional major in Professional Writing, I am graduating! As I have been M.I.A. from this blog, and somehow actually have a few readers to explain myself to, here is a nice wrap up post summarizing the finer points of my undergraduate education and the parts of my life that usually don’t make an appearance on this primarily hiking/travel-oriented blog. Namely, what I “learned” as an undergraduate student.
My first instinct is to say that I’ve learned literally nothing in my four years at a university. I don’t know jack about chemical reactions, and I still can’t write, and I’ve spent four years here and completely achieved my goal of not learning a single thing. In fact, my knee jerk reaction is tongue-in-cheek to say that I am actually much less intelligent than I was four years ago.
But I realized that’s not at all true. I did learn a lot in the classroom. I know about brains, and I actually can write a little bit, and in four semesters of Latin, despite my best efforts to stay completely ignorant to the language, I did pick up a phrase or two.
Still, the most important lessons I learned in my four years working on my Bachelor’s Degree I did not learn in the classroom.
The best lessons I learned in the real life part of college, the part where you slowly start to become an adult. Or rather, you realize “adult” is just an arbitrary word.
The best lessons I learned over the last four years came hard and slow, in lows and highs. They did not involve scantrons, or textbooks, and they weren’t always crystal clear, and honestly still aren’t.
My freshman year I volunteered in a nursing home, writing the stories of people with alzheimer’s and dementia so that they could read their own memories even if they couldn’t remember. That taught me what loneliness looked like, and the importance of small gestures. Loneliness is not knowing your family, your friends, your own stories, and only really knowing you’re dying. That’s what loneliness looks like.
Shortly after, I went to work in the Emergency Room. I learned a lot of lessons in my three months there, but the most important thing I learned is death is indiscriminate. It applies to older people with heart conditions who have taken bad falls, yes, but also the six year old you made a rubber glove balloon for the hour before. Indiscriminate. Almost simultaneously to this lesson I realized that the medical field wasn’t one I wanted to work in.
Working several jobs while taking classes taught me about balance, and working as a writing tutor for freshman I learned that a lot of times writing isn’t really the thing first year students need the most help with.
I learned that sometimes you need to skip class to help people, and sometimes you lie without a second thought to protect them.
On a study abroad, I learned how to work the train system in the UK and that sometimes people just aren’t going to like you. I also learned that the same tense situations that lead to bad blood for some people can make best friends of others. We also learned unequivocally that in a heist of 11 girls, I am one of the two who breaks off to shit talk the others.
I learned that you can absolutely change who you are and that you aren’t the words anyone choses to describe you— you pick your own words.
I learned that you can do a bad thing but not be a bad person.
I got some of the best advice I’ve ever received—
“you deserve to be loved the way you want to be loved.”
I learned that not only is being kind more important than being pretty, but being kind is more important than being smart or right.
I learned to shake things off, and how to really, actually take criticism.
I learned how to take a fall, and failure, and how to turn the other cheek.
I learned that better or worse are usually an opinion; there is only different.
I learned that there are no good people or bad people, and that we are all only a sum of our actions. I learned how to apologize and be really wrong.
I learned that other people will surprise you, and never to underrate or underestimate the importance of good friends.
I learned the power of images, and words, and actions.
I learned how to write; I learned I am still learning.
I learned I know nothing at all.
And all of this is a lot more important than conjugating latin verbs and memorizing chemicals.
I’ll leave you with this photo, and a promise to never take myself too seriously:
I’m writing this a little tongue-in-cheek partly because that’s my default, and partly because I’m bummed, and hanging on to a good sense of humor helps keep my head up.
I’m a big plans kind of person—long elaborate plans or short weekend ones, color coded planner and all that jazz. I had plans for this spring break (that glorious week when college students get to not be in class and maybe go do something fun) but alas, I have fallen ill.
Really, actually sick, not just a cold or a stomach bug. I have mono—one of those fun persistent American college diseases that is a bi-byproduct of sharing drinks and food with everyone you know and living in an actual petri dish. You can google it if you want, it’s pretty gross. I’m pretty much out of commission, can’t really get outside, missing class and work sick. And I hate that, because I had plans to be at work those days, and be at class, and I had plans to not spend my one free week on the couch worried about all the class I missed. And as much as it sucks that I’m missing out, here’s where it doesn’t:
Things just don’t always go as planned. You can write something in your planner in ink, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen, and you have a lot less control than you think you do. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; just a fact.
Sure, I knew this before I got mono, and had some minor plans foiled in a minor way, but at the end of the day pulling out plans B and C is always a good learning experience.
I am so very lucky to have my health—mono sucks, sure. And I’m out of commission for a bit, sure. But I am going to better in the next month or two. I can walk, and run, and two weeks of being really sick is still only two weeks. That’s more than a lot of people can say.
Unless it ends up being three to four weeks. Then I’m going to go The Shining level crazy. Send help.
I’m building immunity—now that I’ve had mono, I’m immune to it! Whoo-hoo! Okay, this is a dumb one. I’ll take it off this list.
I’ve got such great friends and family. Seriously, thanks guys—for bringing me not one, not two, but 32 protein shakes, for sitting with me in the ER till 3 am, for listening to me complain ad nauseam, for picking up my shifts at work. Also mom, here’s that shout out you’re always after, love you, thanks for driving me around and hanging out with me.
I now understand karma. I’m not really a “knock on wood” kind of person, but I am not kidding when I tell you not three days before I got sick I was bragging to several people not only about how I hadn’t been sick in years, but how I hadn’t had missed a shift at work (my teaching job, not the tutoring one) ever. Now I’m not superstitious, but that might have been a bad call.
So yeah, being sick is no fun, and I’m missing out on lots and messed up my schedule for a bit, but I’m still really really lucky. All that’s left to do now is make up for the work I missed and try and get back to 100%.
The Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is one of my favorite places on earth. It’s got clear blue water, rivers and forests, some of the best beaches in the world, and of course, the dunes themselves.
In the summer, the water is warm enough to swim and the beaches fill up. Fall sees the leaves change color, and by winter most tourists have filtered out, and the park becomes a snowshoe and cross country ski play ground.
Sunset from over Lake Michigan from Overlook 9 in July, looking like something out from Planet Earth.
The same overlook in the winter, with South Manitou Island obscured by snow and fog, small human for scale.
Overlook 9, basking in that post sunset purple glow.
Looking down into the water from the tops of the Empire Bluffs Trail in August, Lake Michigan looks practically tropical!
The Manitou Islands from Pyramid Point, a short mile hike up to a bluff over Lake Michigan.
Otter Creek flows into Esch Road beach on a still, cloudy day in October. In the summer, this beach is teeming with people, but as soon as September hits the crowds filter out.
The flowers in early June at the top of the Empire Bluffs Trail on a cloudy day.
The North Bar Lake Overlook in fall, winter, and summer– in the fall, spring, and summer you can take the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive out to this overlook, but in the winter you have to cross country ski or snowshoe.
At Point Betsie, the wind kicks up turquoise waves.
Colors change out over the D.H. Day Farm, looking out from the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive.
Winter and windy vibes out over Lake Michigan.
Empire Bluffs looking bright and hot in late August.
2017 has been an eventful year for me. I had the opportunity to experience some really amazing things, from interning at the Kellogg Biological Station to playing around in the Blue Ridge Mountains and Glacier National Park. Social media tends to give the impression that all things—travel, our personal lives, camping—are always fun and easy, not ever super embarrassing.
I assure you this is false. For every awesome experience I had, a tent leaked, or I ended up leading a group friends down the wrong trail, or I made myself look like an idiot. (Okay, the last one happens more often than not.)
So, in order to fully appreciate 2017 in all her beauty and grace, I have complied a list of my most ridiculous, humiliating, and funny travel/outdoor stories and misadventures from 2017.
The time we ran for a flight
On the way back from a family trip to Whitefish, Montana, my dad, two younger sisters, younger brother and I all found ourselves running through the Salt Lake City airport to try and catch a flight back to Detroit.
Our previous flight out of Portland had been delayed, and we had about five minutes to make it across the airport once the plane landed to catch our next flight. We looked ridiculous (but like, relatable) running through the airport, and even more ridiculous when we ended up making the flight and all high fiving each other, but I don’t think I have ever been happier to be anywhere in my life than I was to be on that plane.
The time we could not find the trailhead, so we got lunch instead
In early January 2017, my sister Claire and I went out to go find and snowshoe the Brown Bridge Quiet Area near Traverse City, Michigan, but for the life of us we could not find the trailhead. Both Apple and Google maps sent us in the wrong direction, and I couldn’t figure it out from the map I had saved to my phone.
Eventually, we found a trailhead that we thought (incorrectly) was the trail we were looking for, and snowshoed there for about 20 minutes before deciding it was too cold and we were lost. We packed up, and rather than workout, we opted for sandwiches.
The time I forgot my stupid camera battery
I think I reached peak self-loathing when I screwed my camera into my tripod at Torch Lake for sunset, went to turn it on and nothing happened. Because I had forgot my camera battery. On the table. Three hours south. For better or worse, I went without a camera for the remainder of that trip.
I missed out on a lot of photos by not having my DSLR, tripod, and telephoto lens, but I did pick up quite a few things about how to get the most out of a phone camera, and I got to hike a lot lighter had way more room in my pack for extra food.
The time some fisherman thought I wouldn’t know the difference between a bass and bluegill
This one is my favorite.
I was out paddle boarding alone on a small lake near Bellaire, Michigan when I stopped to make small talk with some guys who were fishing. They were probably in their late 20s, and seemed nice enough.
I told them that if you go around the next bend, and then stick to the West side of the lake until it narrows, it’ll open up into a smaller cove that has lots of fish; not many people fish there, because it’s harder to find.
One of the men narrowed his eyes and looked at me. “Were the fish long and fat or short and small?”
I frowned for a second, not really sure what he was asking, until I realized he literally was asking if I knew that they weren’t fishing for bluegill. I tried not to laugh.
Unreal, I thought to myself.
“There are large and smallmouth bass, and there should be some trout too. The DNR stocks the lake.”
The time I ate a fistful of Lake Michigan pebbles
I knew this one was going to be embarrassing long before I got anywhere near the water. My friend Kasidy and I had decided to try out Lake Michigan surfing through Sleeping Bear Surf and Kayak.
I took one look at the nine foot boards, the two-foot surf, and the line of rocks just beneath where the waves were breaking, and could see exactly where this was going. We had a great day— both of us ended up getting up for more than five seconds at a time, and I took some of the least graceful falls of my life.
The best part of this was when I was sitting out in the water, straddling the board, I turned into a small—and I do mean small—wave. The wave pushed the board up under me and smacked me clean in the nose, cutting me off mid-sentence. Real cute.
Doing that stupid Dune Climb again
There is no hike in the world I have as deep a resentment for as the Sleeping Bear’s Dune Climb. It’s only about four miles out to the Lake and back, and it’s a sort of inaugural, very “Michigan” hike, but four miles up and down over hot sand is kind of the worst.
This spring, early enough that we thought maybe it would still be cool out (wrong), my good friend/roommate Hannah and I went out to tackle the hike and “initiate” her to Michigan. Han is an Illinois native, but she’s spent the last four years living in the good old mitten state.
Nothing super eventful or particularly embarrassing happened, I just included this because I want you all to know how much I hate that hike.
The time we couldn’t find parking in Glacier
There’s a pretty clear lesson here, and it’s two-fold. The first part is that you’re better off visiting national parks in the off-season; the second is do your research. When visiting Glacier National Park, my family spent almost two hours aimlessly driving the crowded Going-to-the-sun Road after trailhead parking in the Avalanche Lake area was too full—we got up earlier then next day, getting into the park at 7am instead of 11am, and had no trouble at all and the park nearly to ourselves.
The times we didn’t see stars at dark sky park
This was a regularly occurrence for my friends and I in 2016 as well as 2017. There have been several occasions where we have trekked out to the Headlands International Dark Sky Park and had clouds and no sky at all.
Clearly, we haven’t really learned any lesson here, because we keep doing it, but we always have a good time up on the beach.
The time we almost literally died
(This is an overstatement.)
This August, when on an early hike through Glacier National Park, my father, sister and I spotted a grizzly across the Lake from us. There were a few other people at the lake, and the bear was probably a hundred yards away, which was really too close.
We booked it out of there pretty darn quick. The bear probably wasn’t interested in us, and bears don’t really seek out humans, but grizzlies are fast, huge, and not something to mess with.
The time I sunburned exactly one shoulder
I love kayaking, and being on the water period, and because of that I always end up staying out longer than I really planned to. On this particular occasion, my dad and I were out on Torch Lake one morning, and decided to paddle South to the mouth of the Torch River—about a 6 mile trip.
I realized about halfway back that not only did I forget sunscreen, but because we headed back around noon, the left side of my body had been facing the sun the entire trip. I’ll leave the burn lines to your imagination.
The time we got followed
This misadventure is less fun, but still important.
Last March, my friend and I were hiking at Tahquamenon Falls State Park, when some men, probably not much older than us, caught up to us at an overlook started whispering to each other and looking at us. We didn’t think much of it at first, and quickly moved onto the next overlook to give them some space, thinking that they were waiting for us to leave. Rather than stay at the overlook a normal amount of time, they immediately followed us, continuing to whisper and look our way.
Maybe they weren’t talking about us, and maybe they didn’t mean to follow us, but sometimes you just get a bad vibe, and better safe than sorry.
I pointed out their behavior to Estee and we turned and went back to the previous overlook. They followed again. At this point, we turned and walked quickly back to the car, the two men following us the entire way. The parking lot itself was crowded with other hikers and tourists, and they went to their own car. We hung out there for a while, waiting for them to drive off first.
There’s a lesson here, and it isn’t about us being paranoid, or about how women shouldn’t hike because it’s too dangerous. If you are a male, and you are interested in a female in any setting, be aware that while you may think behavior you exhibit is harmless, it can still seem threatening. This is not an attack. I’m telling you this because if you are actually interested in someone, you should respect them enough to not want them to feel threatened and behave accordingly.
As a general rule, talking to someone is 100% less threatening and creepy than following them.
The time I let the 15-year-old drive
On our way up to camp at the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, my brother reminded me that I promised he could practice driving once we got off the highway. He had had his learner’s permit for a while, and was objectively already a pretty good driver.
I handed him the wheel, and started going through our trail plans for later in the day.
“Hey when do I turn?” Joe asked.
“Um, it should be a right at the next intersection.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah, totally,” I lied.
So while I was deep in a trail guide, Joe made a right onto some small, flooded seasonal road. We hit a pothole and I looked up.
“Are you sure this is right?” he asked.
“Let me see the map.” It sure looked like this road got us where we wanted to go, and I was fairly confident my car could handle it.
We drove down the sketchy seasonal road for about five more minutes before it narrowed and I had Joe turn around and head back to the highway. After that, we abandoned iPhone directions and stuck to the Michigan road map.
The time I almost got frostbite
The original misadventure, and the first post I wrote, was probably the dumbest thing I did all year.
Rather than drive to the shoreline at the Headlands Dark Sky Park, Estee and I opted to walk a mile in. We had been out in the cold hiking all day, and weren’t too worried about the temperature. Nevertheless, we piled on a few blankets and extra layers.
Lake Michigan was frozen and beautiful, and the sunset was one of the best I’ve ever seen. My mistake was forgetting that once the sun goes down, the temperature drops quite a bit. That, and letting snow melt into my boots, soaking my socks. (I had a spare pair. Soaked those too.)
I didn’t realize I couldn’t feel my feet until I stood up and we started to pack up for the walk back. Then my feet started to burn—not just tingle, and not even feel cold. My feet felt burnt, like I had accidently stepped in the campfire. Burnt and bruised—It hurt to walk, and we had a good mile to walk back to the car.
Lucky for me and very lucky for my toes, we ran into a nice couple who offered to drive us back to my car. I was in pretty bad shape; Estee had taken both my bag and hers, and was helping me walk; we were happy for the ride.
In hindsight, it’s kind of a funny story, though at the time I was mostly just embarrassed that I hadn’t planned better.
Since then, I’ve been more careful about the cold, but even more so about the wet; it’s one thing to be cold, but being wet can lead to hypothermia and frostbite a whole lot faster.
Got any misadventures, or just adventures from this year? I’d love to hear them! Write in the comments below or shoot me a message. Wishing everyone a safe end to 2017, and a great start to 2018! May you avoid all frostbite.
And I learned a lot— I learned about ISO, aperture, shutter speed, exposure. What I learned more than all of the technicalities is that a lot of photography, rather most of photography, is not about the camera. It’s more about the light, the rule of thirds, angles, editing, and luck.
A nice camera like a DSLR will give you a higher quality image, more creative freedom, and the ability to shoot in low light, but that doesn’t mean that your smartphone can’t crank out good images. They say that the best camera is the one you have with you, and I tend to agree.
I have used my phone to take pictures when I didn’t have access to my camera (the time I forgot my camera battery), or brought the wrong lens, or didn’t have time to pull my camera out of my bag.
Learn the Rule of Thirds
The rule of thirds is the idea of dividing a photo, or any art, into thirds in order to make it more aesthetically pleasing. This applies in a few ways. It can apply to the placement of the horizon line—you could have 2/3 of a photo be sky, or 1/3. It can apply to foreground as well in the same way. The rule of thirds also applies to photo subjects as well— you can shoot to have a subject take up about a third of a photo, or sit at a certain third. Usually, I tend to go either for dead center or off to one side.
In the photo above, shot on an iPhone 5s, I placed the horizon line in the top third of the photo, and centered the canoe, with roughly one third of the image on either side of the canoe.
Look for Light
Lighting is one of the best things about photography and I will stand by that statement—any subject can be interesting in the right light. I took this photo on the aforementioned old iPhone, with a cracked screen, but it did the trick.
About an hour before sunset, the “golden hour” rays light up the conifers, the water, and the rocks and made for a good photo despite the lack of DSLR.
Straighten Your Horizon Line
See that line, where the sky meets the sea? STRAIGHTEN IT. This is my single biggest photo pet peeve—lopsided horizon lines. This photo doesn’t have nearly the same effect with the horizon line askew.
Learn What Editing Can Do for You
This one is an old photo, from well before I got a “real” camera and knew anything about photography. Through Adobe Lightroom, my editing tool of choice, I was able to make this photo more striking than before.
On this particular photo I…
Decreased the luminance of the blue in the sky, which intensifies the blue
Used the “sharpen” tool to increase pixel definition. The sharpen tool is can sort of “fake” a higher quality when it comes to smartphone photos
Decreased the “lights” and increased the “darks”. This takes parts of the photo that are overexposed and darkens them, while lightening up parts that were in shadows
Straightened the horizon line (see previous)
In hindsight, I think that the red jacket is a little too bright, and the buildings have a blue cast, which I could remove in Lightroom by selectively decreasing the saturation of the color blue or purple.
Go Easy on the Filters
On the subject of lackluster editing, check out the number I did on this circa 2015 photo of a field of poppies. Crooked horizon line (ew I hate it), the red is a little intense, and the blue of the sky is obviously the Instagram filter “clarendon”.
As a rule now, I try and keep my edits minimal. If I am going to increase vibrance or put a certain cast on a photo, I only do so about approximately 10-15%. Any more than this and generally a photo will look hyper-edited.
For this photo out a plane window near Salt Lake City, I leaned over my youngest sister and took exactly one photo. It could’ve turned out better, and I would’ve like to have taken multiple shots, but sometimes you just play with the cards you’ve been dealt.
Overall, none of these are steadfast rules, just suggestions based on my limited experience. If hyper-edited is your style, go for it! Experiment some. Some people are purists, who don’t edit photos at all—more power to them! Some people like wild horizon lines, and the rule of thirds isn’t really a rule at all. Plus, at the end of the day, I’ve still got a lot to learn.