The Morton Arboretum is an outdoor museum of woody plants established in 1922 by Morton Salt magnate, Joy Morton. Situated on the rolling Valparaiso Moraine in northern Illinois and bisected by the DuPage River, the grounds encompass 1,700 acres of magnificent natural systems. There’s a restored 100-acre prairie, oak and black walnut woodlands, savannas, winding streams, lakes and marshes—and all of it is accessible on nine miles of paved one-way roads and 14 miles of hiking trails.
The Arboretum experiences the diverse weather patterns typical of northern Illinois. Springtime is wonderful, with many wildflowers and flowering trees, but bring rain gear, as showers are common. With summer, everything dries out, and days can be quite hot and humid with calm winds.
An occasional thunderstorm can produce beautiful cumulus clouds. Although hiking is restricted to trails, bring waterproof footwear, as some low areas can be quite wet.
Fall is the best time, with moderate temperatures and usually dry weather. With such a variety of trees, autumn color just explodes. Winters can be very cold, with lots of snow and temperatures at zero or below. Layered clothing, hand warmers and lithium batteries are a must.
Since the arboretum has a variety of natural settings and photogenic subjects, lenses from wide-angle to long telephoto are useful here. Additionally, a sturdy tripod and a selection of filters are a must.
Use a circular polarizer to remove the spectral highlights from the foliage, sometimes water glare and, of course, to deepen the blue sky. Try to stay at right angles to the sun so the deepening effect is even across the image. Also, be careful not to remove all the reflection from the water’s surface, which often picks up wonderful blue and green hues from above.
A 24mm wide-angle works great for landscapes around Lakes Marmo and Crabapple, while a 100mm to 200mm 1:1 macro lens is great for close-up work on small flowers, fungus and tree bark. The possibilities for images of the miniature world are endless.
Don’t forget warming filters 81A and 81B on overcast days. Test each filter by holding it in front of the lens as you view the composition to tell which will give the best effect. A focusing rail also helps dial in sharp focus when you’re at 1:1 magnification.
For longer shots, you’ll want a telephoto zoom to capture distant close-ups and more intimate scenes. A long lens with image-stabilization technology is great to have while hiking.
Be on the ready to capture the occasional deer, coyote or raptor. Image-stabilizing lenses in the 80-400mm zoom range are amazing, as shutter speeds as low as 1⁄60 sec. can be shot handheld at the 400mm focal length.
As the Arboretum is an outdoor tree museum by definition, fall is the best time to visit. If possible, plan your trip for during the week, as weekends can be crowded, especially during the autumn festival in October.
During good years, the red maple- and sugar maple-covered trails are aglow with yellows, oranges and reds. Visit Lake Marmo, where a giant Freeman maple, a hybrid from Europe, exhibits striking green and red marbled leaves like no other. Small fire-red maples can be found there also. Leaf portraits abound.
Late in October, frosty mornings add a special touch to the landscape, the dying leaves gilded by nature’s paintbrush. Nowhere else can a photographer find such a diverse collection of woody plants all in one area. Plan to arrive by 7:00 a.m. to catch the best morning light, and spend a couple of days hiking the trails. Contact: The Morton Arboretum, www.mortonarb.org.
Whenever you plan on spending a day or more at a particular location, remember to bring along rechargeable batteries, especially if the weather is cold. Batteries drain faster in cold, and you don’t want to run out of power right when you need it most.