Northern Michigan: Behind the Lens with Color Tour Photographer Todd Z

Northern Michigan: Anyone who saw the aerial photography shots of Northern Michigan's fall colors in the 2011 October issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan's Magazine, was probably as blown away as I was. Titled "Splashes of Color," the story captured the vibrancy of a Northern Michigan autumn with a myriad of photographs bursting with oranges, yellows, reds and the contrasting blue-greens of lake waters. While we can all enjoy the colors from ground-level, it was the view-from-the-top that gave these photos such impact. I got the chance to interview Todd Zawistowski, the man-behind-the-lens of these incredible shots, and learn what it's really like to have the bird's eye view.

LP: One thing that really stands out to me about Traverse Magazine is how consistently beautiful the photography is, and, I have to say, the photographs you shot for October's 2011 issue, "Splashes of Color," are exceptionally gorgeous. How did this compare to a normal photography shoot for you?

TZ: [Laughs] Shoots are usually a lot longer in comparison. Traditionally when I do the color tour, it's not a one day shoot. It takes one day to scout, to go out and see what the colors are, and then the on-location shoot lasts up to 5 days. The aerials were a morning shoot, probably about three hours total because it's expensive to go up and fly. But, that was the fun stuff.

LP: Had you ever shot from an airplane/helicopter before? Were there any unexpected challenges?

TZ: I had done aerials with Jim, the pilot, before. We did a cover over North Manitou, the islands, maybe five, six years ago.

There are definitely challenges because you're flying, and in an older plane. It's from the 1940's or 1950's and has a cloth, or linen, exterior. We actually had a weight problem to start the shoot. It's a float plane, and Jim couldn't get the buoys to lift off, couldn't get it up into the headwind. So he's sitting there rocking it, trying to get the plane to lift off, but it's a little underpowered. We pulled back into the dock and threw about 40-50 pounds off, some bags, some ropes, not the life preservers! It was kind of funny, I had to get out onto the buoy while the prop was still rotating, out by the arm of the wing, and I had to jump from the wing to the dock and pull the boat in. Definitely not a normal shoot, but it was a lot of fun, although the prop going around made me a little nervous.

LP: Did you have to change anything from how you normally shoot landscapes?

TZ: Yeah, absolutely. Because the speed of the plane and the shakiness of the plane I had to set a higher shutter speed. I use a stabilizing lens, but the plane was so tight, I couldn't reach around and get the other lens, and I could barely take the long lens and put it out the window.

There's actually a funny story about how tight this plane is. I was in the co-pilot seat, and all of a sudden I accidently hit one of the foot runner flaps, which would have made the plane go down. Jim's a pretty relaxed guy, and he just goes "Hey Todd, watch your feet on those flaps, you could send us down." All I could say was "Sorry, sorry, sorry!"

I had to use a polarizer, a thick piece of almost translucent glass that gets rid of a lot of glare in the sky, because we were almost level with the sun. Based on the coatings on it, you lose two stops of light coming into the camera, so I couldn't shoot with the same definition that I'm used to. I usually shoot with a smaller aperture on regular landscapes, a traditional landscape technique, so I had to kind of open up so as not to under expose the film. It's very technical up there. You could almost pull it off midday, but then it's too bright. It's an old film technique, using a polarizer and using a slower speed of digital film. I'm still using film ideas, I shoot still photography like it's a piece of film. You have to, otherwise you're going to come back with a lot of bad images.

LP: I've seen aerial photography before, but what impressed me with your photos was the clarity and vibrancy of color. How were you able to capture that?

TZ: Traditional aerials are big, encompassing larger areas. Photographers get up a lot higher, up to 1,000 feet, and as a result lose some of the intimacy in their shots by trying to show too much. We shot this spread a lot tighter, from about 500 feet. I tried to zoom into a part of a waterway, taking points, parts of the lake. We were that close. The result is the aerials aren't as aerial, in a way.

The time of day affected the shoot, too. We took off from the lake at first light. It was actually iced up in the morning so we had to swing the plane into the sun to de-ice it in the sunrise. With the early morning light you get a little shadow, giving the photographs definition and contrast. A circular polarizer helps to deepen the colors, as well.

LP: How did you know where to go to get these shots? Were the locations or angles your idea, the pilot's?

TZ: There's no public use land around a lot of these lakes, it's all private land, limiting access points. The only other option is to go by boat, but going by boat the shorelines all look the same and you lose the effects of topography. By getting above, you can see the topographical changes, especially the Chain of Lakes as they flow from one to the other. Jim lives in Skegemog at the bottom of the Chain of Lakes, which do a series of two horseshoes or an "S." He knew to start there and follow the four to five miles of small waterways and little channels, springs literally, to the other lake.

Jim's also a photographer, so he'll canter the plane or tilt the wing out of the way, slowing the plane down to about 50 mph, which is slow for an airplane. Usually you're flying at 110 mph and feeling the g's, but he'll intentionally slow it down so you're actually able to get nice shots.

LP: Did seeing these views from above as opposed to the shoreline change your perspective at all, as a photographer or simply as a Northern Michigander?

TZ: Once you get over this area it's just amazing. I kind of take it for granted, but once you get above the water, there's just so much color contrast. If you go downstate you do not see that, the river effluence. It's just browner, unless you go out in the middle of Lake Michigan. As a whole our lakes are cleaner up here, it's amazing. The perspective is amazing, you just need to be above it [Laughs].

Missed the October issue and want to see these amazing photographs for yourself? Get your copy here!