West Branch Falls (West Branch Yellow Dog Falls on Google Maps) are in the north half of the McCormick Wilderness, part of the Ottawa National Forest. The area is in one of the most isolated parts of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, northwest of Marquette, in the southern part of the Huron Mountains. (yes, you read that correct).
Camping in the wilderness is amazing. There are no amenities and no established campsites, other than if you sometimes see where others have camped. I prefer to follow leave no trace and make sure no one can tell where I camped. There is a good chance you won’t see another person while in the backcountry there. One of my favorite parts of Michigan.
The wilderness area is off-trail hiking for the most part however there is a trail to the falls. It’s about 1 ½ miles from the north trailhead. Getting to this trailhead can be tricky and somewhat of an adventure.
There are a few ways to reach the trailhead but this is the easiest. Take County Road 550 (Big Bay Road) about 22 miles north from Marquette towards Big Bay. Two miles before Big Bay, turn left on County Road 510. Drive southwest about 3 miles where you will stay on the paved road but it becomes Triple A (AAA) Road. 510 veers to the left going south. Go west on Triple A Road for 14 miles (passing the Eagle Mine), until it intersects with Ford Road. The road is paved until the mine entrance (makes it easier now, but not better IMO) and this is where directions get trickier. You won’t see many signs helping you out, mostly snowmobile rout signs.
Stay on Triple A road which will now be dirt but a decent road. You will come to a sometimes sandy road to the north, this is Anderson Crossing I believe. I’ve never seen a sign here. Keep going west on Triple A. Just past the crossing the road will curve to the south (left) and a little further Triple A turns back to the west (right), stay straight, which is Ford Road. Again, I’ve never seen a road sign. The trailhead is about 2 miles from here.
On Ford Road you will pass a backwoods home and a sign that asks you to go slow (if it’s still there). When you start getting 2 miles from the last intersection start looking for a 2-track road on your left. If you veer to the right and back west on Ford Road, pass a house and start going uphill you missed the 2-track.
If you found it congrats! If is been raining you might have to drive through a large water hole. I’ve driven my Ford Escape through it no problem. A couple hundred yards down the 2-track ends with a sign for the McCormick Wilderness area, a board with maps and a registration station. You know, in case you get lost back there. J
Start hiking down the trail to the right of the Wilderness sign until you reach the small river. Then hike off trail, uphill and upstream to the falls. Also if you want you can cross the river and when you get to the next branch of the river you can hike upstream to Bulldog Falls, or Yellow Dog Falls. Which is confusing because there is another waterfall back on road 510 called Yellow Dog Falls or Yellow Dog River Falls. It depends on the map, what you read and who you ask.
Now, you can get to the north trailhead from Highway 41/28 along the Peshekee Grade (County Road 607, Huron Bay Grade) that leads to the south trailhead of McCormick. I’ve done it but the drive was slow and not easy on the car. Don’t expect any road signs but expect very rough dirt roads. A high clearance truck would make things much easier.
1. Get close. “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough,” a quote attributed to famous war photographer Robert Capa. Getting close helps you to isolate your subject, or main subject, and shows the viewer exactly what you want them to see. If you can’t physically move closer for whatever reason, but try to, then grab that telephoto zoom lens you might have. Another bonus is this also helps your camera meter with the subject you are going for by isolating that subject. (Trust me)
2. Fill the frame. Like getting close, make sure your subject is very dominant in the frame. Like real close on faces, don’t worry about cutting the top of someone’s head off sometimes. I don’t give this photo tip or getting close because you should always do it, as space for the subject to “breath” can convey a nice mood. But most beginners error the other way and have too much going on in the photo and the main subject gets lost. Getting close and filling the frame can help.
3. Avoid Clutter, especially edge clutter. This goes along with the first tip. If there is too much going on in a photograph (and not a reason for it to be) it creates clutter. This can make it hard for the viewer to focus on the main subject. Or the subject even gets lost. This leads to #3.
4. Keep your backgrounds simple. Just like clutter around your subject or at the edges of the photo, cluttered backgrounds can be quite distracting. I realize sometimes its unavoidable. But remember to also look past your subject and into the background so see what could be distracting. Branches or poles sticking out of a person’s head or neck (this is common), a washed out bright area, or maybe some unwanted people. Most the time the background is either distracting or for the most part unnoticed. Work toward the latter.
5. Use the rule of thirds in your compositions. Sure this rule can be overused, I’m guilty of that sometimes. However it’s something most beginners don’t do in my experience. So divide the frame horizontally and vertically into thirds and put your subject, or something important, where the lines intersect. By moving things away from always being centered you can sometimes give photos more drama and they can be visually more interesting.
6. Light, watch for good light, wait for good light. With sunlight the best light of the day starts a couple hours before sunset and in the morning up to a couple hours after sunrise. High noon tends to be the worst light to shoot in (but sometimes we don’t have a choice). The time of the year also effects these hours. In later fall, winter and early spring the sun stays much lower to the horizon. At least in more northern areas like where I live in Michigan. Also, don’t be afraid to shoot on overcast days. The same subject will look quite a bit different in that flat, even light. Overcast days are also better for waterfall photography early and late in the day in my opinion.
7. Shoot into the light. When I was young I remember being told to “always take photos with the sun to your back.” Maybe you did as well. I’m here to tell you don’t be afraid to shoot into the light. The sun, car lights, other artificial lights, can give your images more drama shooting into the light. Playing with highlights and shadows can create all kinds of cool looks with a subject.
8. Don’t be afraid to raise your ISO. Now I realize this isn’t always true based on the camera you have and how old it is. And if it’s a full frame camera (better high ISO, less digital noise). IMO there really is only one reason to raise ISO, to get a faster shutter speed for freezing motion. Possibly your motion trying to hand hold a camera without a tripod. But more for shooting subjects like sports. If you have blurry and/or dark sports photos in low light (not bright sun) then try raising the ISO.
9. Shoot more candid photos then posed photos. See my last blog post on this topic.
10. Always have your camera close and ready. Most of us have a nice camera on our phones these days. Remember, If you say to yourself, “I should be taking a picture of this”, you are right! And not just selfies. LOL!
11. Ok you are going to hate this one. READ YOUR CAMERA MANUAL! If you are just starting out down this photography rabbit hole you probably don’t have a grasp of all things exposure, depth of field, and the like just quite yet. But as you learn it’s important to know how to make all these changes on the camera you have. Even if you don’t understand them yet. Do you know how to change your ISO? Do you know how to change the autofocus mode? What does this button do? J You will also learn what you can set and mostly not worry about anymore or things you may never even use on your camera.
A few more tips for shooting with camera phones.
Clean the lens. Really, look at it right now. I bet you have fingerprints on the lens.
Hold the phone steady like a camera instead of one handed like a phone.
Zoom with your feet if you can. As good as the camera phones are the digital zooms are awful.
Try Snapseed to edit photos. (My favorite photo app)
On an iPhone, tap and hold the screen for an autofocus point and to adjust the exposure.
These tips are geared for those just starting out and not wanting a bunch of technical info yet. If you use a few of these tips I bet your photos will be better. They won’t make things perfect as there is much more going on and photos can still not turn out the way you want. But, this is a start. As always if you have any questions hit me up.
There have been times I’ve been sent on photo assignments by a newspaper to capture someone going about their job or daily life, but when I get there the first thing they say is the dreaded, “what do you want me/us to do.” Ugh!
Or I’ve been at a school, maybe photographing some kids working on an art project or science experiment and a well-meaning teacher or mom says, “Look at the camera and smile.”
Noooooooooo, I just spent 20 minutes working to get the kids get used to me being there so they would ignore me and do their thing!
As a photojournalist or newspaper photographer unless I am shooting a portrait the goal is to capture people doing what they do despite the camera being there. To tell a story, their story, or help show the story to the readers. Sure just having a camera pointed at people can often change their behavior, but it usually doesn’t take long for them to mostly forget about the camera and just do their thing.
I have never, or very few times, told my kids to smile at the camera when photographing them. Just shooting as they do what they are doing. Its something I recommend you give a try. Your photos will have more life to them, more emotion and hopefully more meaning while telling “your” story. Sure posed, looking at the camera photos have their place, but those can get old and boring. Plus you have the advantage of access and being with your kids all the time. They will ignore the camera fast and while I could get some real nice candid photos of your kids you are there for almost ALL the moments. Get a shot of those candid moments and you won’t be disappointed.
When I used to teach a beginning photography class at Schoolcraft Community College I would always get asked, “what do you like to take pictures of?”
My first gut reaction was usually that I wasn’t sure. But my actual answer was along the lines of, “things I have never photographed before.”
That was one of the reasons I liked being a newspaper photographer. And when I started my career, at The Northville Record and Novi News, I was the only photographer so I had to shoot all the photo assignments. Sure some of those assignments were quite dull, like city council meetings, but I enjoyed most of my assignments.
In addition, I have always liked and played sports so naturally I gravitated to photographing many different sports for the papers. Early in my photo journey I would have said sports where my favorite subjects to photograph. (And I still love high school football photo assignments.) I enjoyed working to get nice action photos, but I also really liked the emotion of sports both on and off the field or court. I challenged myself to show what it “feels” like to play a sport. Small fraction of seconds of these young athletes giving their all, winning and losing.
I often had the chance to photograph things I had never seen or been involved in before. Big news stories, small slices of life, house fires, flying in a bi-plane, documenting a women’s prison or a day at the state police academy, on and on. Trying to show the readers what is was like to be in these places. Over 30 years I have photographed the same or similar things many times, yet the first time was always my favorite.
I remember photographing the electronic music festival in Detroit for the first time. (Know as D.E.M.F back then, Movement Detroit now) It was amazing! The energy of the crowd and artists, the amazing access to them both, access to the stages and photos everywhere. When I look back at those photos from that first year they are not as good as the past few years but that first year was still my favorite.
Many photographers thrive on shooting things for which they already have a love or an interest in. No difference for me and that was (still is somewhat) mountain biking. I raced mountain bikes for almost 10 years and of course I carried the camera along the way. I remember someone, I forget who it was, giving me this great compliment, “Bryan is the best mountain bike photographer you have never heard of.”
This was pre-internet the way we live with it today and no social media documenting our lives. I never promoted myself as a mountain bike photographer. That was a mistake for sure, but that’s another story. I had a staff newspaper photographer job and when my shift was over, despite enjoying shooting people mountain biking, I lived for riding and racing mountain bikes myself.
I stopped racing and I stopped shooting bike photos for a while. I never quit riding though and the last few years I’ve been shooting more mountain bike photos again. Especially of my son who rides and is quite good.
What I’ve really focused more of my photographic heart on lately is outdoor and landscape photography. Not just the big, popular scenes, although I do those, but just what I find interesting as I travel around northern Michigan. I have always been into the outdoors and camping and in the last several years I made it more a priority. Every October for the last 5 years I have been going camping in the UP of Michigan. Being in the woods and getting away are my main focus with photography being second. This has let me work on a more relaxing type of photography and I’m quite proud of what images have come out of these trips.
I still love mountain biking but being alone in the north woods of Michigan’s UP and along the Shores of Lake Superior, I don’t quite know how to describe it. Just feels right. I love photographing the UP and there is always something new. Even places I’ve been to a bunch of times.
I hope to continue making more of these images. That’s where those that follow me can come in. I’m shooting less and less newspaper assignments these days (sign of the times I suppose) which frees me up to be in nature more (still a stay at home dad as well) however making an income as a photographer has decreased.
So if you know of anyone who might find my nature photography inspiring enough to purchase a print that would help me to keep moving forward. Please send them my way. Or if you just want to follow along and let me know if an image I make moves you, or maybe you want to know more about an image you see, lease ask. That interaction would be great as well! I recently turned 51 years old and I’m looking forward to where my photography leads me now.
If you sign up for may mailing list (in the sidebar) before April 30th there will be a 40% off code for prints in the print store.
I don’t often pre-plan photos, even when setting out on a hike to a specific destination. Probably because of my start and continuation as a newspaper photographer. In that realm my job was to make an interesting of what I see while there and try to tell a story in that photo. (More on that in another blog post). Take the photo above as an example. I received a nice compliment from another photographer on how it was a well thought out and executed photo. The thing is, I never planned or thought about this photo, it just happened.
I have been to this semi-secret location before, alone and specifically for photography. I fell in love with the spot and wanted to take my family the next time we were camping in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. When I’m camping or spending time with my family, shooting photographs is never my priority. I’ve tried making both family and photography a priority at the same time and it just doesn’t work. For me anyway, I need to be alone to create, to go where the light, location or urge takes me. That doesn’t often fit into a family schedule plus my kids can get bored easy waiting around for a photo to come together.
We hiked out to the spot, luckily Lake Superior was fairly calm and the weather was warm, so we swam out around a cliff and into the caves. Just to hang out as a family and enjoy the day in the late afternoon. We all played in the water, explored, had a snack, laid on the warm rock and shot some photos. The only time I have ever been in the caves was October and at that time of the year the sun sets further in the west relative to the location. This was late August and I noticed the sun might just set where I could see it through one of the cave openings like I had seen in other photos. I was as far back in the cave as I could get helping my daughter with a photo composition. My camera was already on a tripod making images from inside the cave when I realized there would be a nice sunset shining through the left opening. As the sun moved lower in the sky I photographed my kids walking around and then asked everyone to sit in that spot before the moment was gone. It was then I knew I had our best family photo to date.
I just asked my daughter to go sit with them, double checked the exposure, set the self-timer and ran to sit down with them. (I didn’t have my remote trigger) I tan back to the camera to make a 2nd photo and that was that. The kids were over sitting there for a photo and off doing whatever.
Sometimes in photography it’s just a matter of being ready, (as in knowing your camera controls well) so when the right location, light, composition and a bit of luck come together you can make a nice photo.
BTW, I exposed mostly for the sunlight hitting the rocks just inside the cave. Doing this full well knowing the sky would be somewhat overexposed and more of the inside of the cave underexposed. I knew I would “burn” down the highlights and “dodge” the shadows to bring the scene closer to what my eyes could actually see. I will discuss this dynamic range more in the future.
Till then, that’s for looking and reading. There are a few more photos below from our cave adventure.
Photo tip: Learn all the controls on your specific camera. Get the manual out (i know, I know) and know how to change and adjust everything. Even if you don’t yet know why you would adjust something. Then as you learn you will know where on your camera to make the changes.