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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

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The morning sun peaks above the horizon to illuminate a large display of foxglove beardtongue, Bluff Spring Fen, Elgin, Illinois. The dramatic, low-angled light lasts only a few minutes, so you often need to get ready in the dark, but the results are worth the effort.
Use "Parallax" To Organize Your Composition
4 To the eye, the prairie is sublime. To the camera, it's pure chaos. The prairie consists of myriad plant life, all competing for your attention. Using Tip 3: Live In The Viewfinder, notice how the flowers move and shift as you move and shift. This effect is known as parallax. Walk around with the camera to your eye and use parallax in search of patterns, shapes and curving or angular lines. Find groupings of flowers or lines of texture to help you organize the composition.

Communicate "Vastness" With A Wide-Angle Lens
5 Most of my prairie shots are made using lenses with focal lengths in the range of 18mm to 35mm (35mm full-frame equivalent). A wide-angle or superwide-angle lens lets you pack more information into the picture and better expresses the vastness, the endlessness of the prairie.

Shoot Close To Foreground Subjects
6 Wide-angle lenses make objects appear smaller. To compensate, push the lens in close—and I mean close—to foreground flowers to make them look big and detailed. When you think you're close enough, get closer. Back off only when you're clearly too close. I'm talking 8 to 36 inches from the closest subject to the image plane.

A line of shrubby cinquefoil in its autumn hues curves toward a distant dune where a lone black oak tree stands, Illinois Beach State Park, Zion, Illinois.
Balance Extreme Contrast With A Split Grad Filter
7 Before sunrise or after sunset, when sunlight isn't directly illuminating the prairie, the sky is much brighter than the land. To balance the extreme contrast, use a two- or three-stop split or graduated neutral-density filter to darken the sky and bring its exposure in line with that of the prairie. Trust me, if used correctly in the field, you won't need to use software plug-ins or process the image in Photoshop.

Make Subjects Pop With A Polarizing Filter
8 Glare kills highlights and blinds us from valuable visual information. Polarizers eliminate this glare. In use, polarizing filters are most effective when light is entering the scene perpendicularly to your camera or, in other words, in side-lit situations. Using this filter will darken blue skies, create a more dramatic separation between the land and the sky, and provide better separation and detail in flowers and foliage. It makes a big difference.

Print Large, And Exercise Precision
9 Landscape images are intended to be printed big to give the viewer the experience of being there. I like 24x30 inches and up. Larger images help communicate details that are minimized by wide-angle lenses, but big prints also show errors in your capture and digital-processing techniques. In the field, use a sturdy tripod and a remote shutter release, and never handhold your split grad in front of your lens; use the filter holder. In the computer, be aware of halos and artifacts resulting from imprecise masks and oversharpening. It helps to feather your selections carefully.

Keep Going Back
10 There are prairies here in the Chicago area that are home to more than 350 forb and grass species. The more prominent displays are usually the most photogenic for landscape photography, with a constant supply starting in mid-May and extending into September. There's so much going on that the secret is to keep going back, week after week, so you don't miss anything. You'll discover new species and be rewarded by unexpected surprises. Keep a calendar so you know when to return next year.

Mike MacDonald makes his home in the Midwest, and he constantly explores, photographs and teaches about the prairie. You can see more of photography and find out about his workshops on his website, chicagonature.com.


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