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Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Land And Sky


Tips for getting dramatic photos in the wide-open expanse of the American prairie

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Culver's root glows in the light of the morning sun, Wolf Road Prairie, Westchester, Illinois. Using glancing light to make colorful flowers pop out of the landscape is a simple, but effective technique for the broad, flat expanse of the prairie.


Prairie blazing star in the fall, Spears Woods, Willow Springs, Illinois. Spring and summer flowers get a lot of attention. Keep going back to spots where you see colorful flowers because in autumn many blooms are transformed into a glowing gold color.
When the beauty of nature and chaos collided, it created the prairie. Virtually endless, extending for hundreds of miles with scarcely a tree, it was reported by many of the first explorers as the most beautiful landscape they had ever seen. Others who first set eyes on the prairie, those who had lived all their lives amongst the dense woodlands of the original 13 colonies, named it "The Barrens" for its starkness, but also because they erroneously thought that the soil was infertile because it couldn't grow trees. There's mention of adventurers who rested with their horses only a few yards off the trail in towering prairie of big bluestem grass and went completely unnoticed by other travelers. The prairie, as it once was, was a celebration of flora and sky. Sadly, those days are long gone, but beautiful remnants still exist throughout the Midwest that give us a glimpse of the past. I photograph the many prairies of the immediate Chicago, Illinois, area.

Unlike the West, which has some extraordinary geology, the prairie is known for its ever-changing displays of wildflowers that continue from mid-spring through early autumn. And after the plants go dormant in late fall, the prairie remains rich with warm hues and textures throughout the winter. Full of color and bursting with life, the prairie is a breathtaking place. But getting photographs that convey the full experience of these vistas can be exasperating.

The ups and downs of a mountain landscape inherently give a perception of depth in the image with little or no effort, but prairies are often flat, and in your picture, even flatter. Suddenly, your three-dimensional world has been collapsed into a pancake. This is the primary challenge.

To further complicate matters, prairies are, by their very nature, diverse and chaotic. Unlike a mountain, no one thing jumps out and screams, "Photograph me!" Creating visual order from chaos is a critical dilemma. To photograph a prairie is to test your true ability as a photographer. Here are some techniques that I use regularly.


In the golden light of morning, wild quinine, stiff coreopsis and leadplant overlook a foggy fen, Elgin, Illinois. Early morning is one of the best times to bring out the beauty of the prairie.
Shoot Early In The Morning
1 Thirty minutes before sunrise, plan to be in position with a shot composed to catch the color of the predawn sky. After the colors fade, you should have time to prepare for the moment when first light hits. Evenings provide great light, but that's about it. In the morning, the prairie has personality and atmosphere, with the gifts of fog, dewdrops and spider webs, gently varying light, increased animal activity, the calmest air and no people—an escape from reality.

Chase The "Glancing Light"
2 When the sun is less than 30 minutes above the horizon, low glancing light kisses the tops of flowers and stalks of grasses. Plants, once lost among the beautiful chaos, now leap in the air to express their individuality. Go directly to the sunlit areas of the scene. Completely ignore the shadowed sections. Situate your camera so the rays stream in from the side. Sidelighting combined with delicate highlights and soft shadows will give your subjects shape, form and visual separation, and intensify the perception of depth in your picture. Keep your eyes to the viewfinder and compose for the highlights. Glancing light has the power to transform any subject into a thing of beauty.

Live In The Viewfinder
3 Explore the prairie through your viewfinder by keeping the camera at your side, not stashed away in your backpack. If you "live in the viewfinder," you'll see the world in two dimensions, emulating how the final flat image will be perceived. Viewing the world through the unique perspective of your lens will help you discover compositional possibilities that you wouldn't have found otherwise with your own eyes.

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