Of the 400,000 square miles of tallgrass prairie that once covered North America, less than four percent remains, with most in the Flint Hills of central Kansas. The “crown jewel” of the Flint Hills is the new Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, which is cooperatively managed by the National Park Service and The Nature Conservancy. The gently rolling Flint Hills are rocky and unsuited to farming, so the region’s original tallgrass prairie ecosystem remained intact even as the rest of the Great Plains went under the plow. Historic small towns provide wonderful base camps for exploring the surrounding hills. The preserve is a great location for prairie hikes, and a network of gravel and dirt roads allow for great photography by vehicle, especially around the tiny artist town of Matfield Green.
The weather in central Kansas is generally pleasant—except when it’s not. The clouds are tall, the storms are dramatic, the winds are incessant, the hail can be big, and the tornadoes, well, those are for real and not to be trifled with. If you don’t like the prairie weather, just wait a little while. Some of the best photo opportunities on the prairie happen on the edges of the weather. Just be sure to dress in layers and have a quality jacket to cut the wind or rain and long pants and socks to help keep out chiggers—tiny little insects that love to bite uncovered legs.
I took this photograph for a museum that wanted an image for a huge wall display on America’s Great Plains, so a single exposure from my Canon EOS 5D Mark III wouldn’t do—I needed more megapixels! I used a Really Right Stuff panorama rig to shoot multi-row panoramas that I could digitally stitch together later. For this image, I hiked several miles into the preserve. As the sun set, I shot over 40 images in four rows, methodically overlapped rows using a 50mm lens and a cable release. I feared that the constant wind would keep the moving grass from compositing together properly, but I figured I might as well try. I hiked back to the preserve headquarters accompanied by the wind whispering through the grasses and a herd of bison shuffling quietly past me in the fading light. I realized I no longer cared as much about whether the image would work out. The experience alone was worth it. Fortunately, though, the image assembled just fine!
The Flint Hills rewards those open to its charms. The sensuous shapes and forms of the rolling landscape are beautiful year round, and the prairie grasses always hold subtle worlds of exploration for those willing to crawl around a bit. A rotating parade of wildflowers provides opportunities from spring through the fall, when the grasses finally turn into a carpet of gold as far as the eye can see.
For the best results when shooting panoramas, you need to keep your gear precisely level, and you’re also going to want to prevent parallax shift from shot to shot using a nodal slide. A panning base and nodal slide combo like the Really Right Stuff Multi-Row Pano Elements Package provides the key tools you’ll need (in addition to your tripod) for perfect panoramas. List Price: $380. Contact: Really Right Stuff, reallyrightstuff.com.