The Great American Midwest

Tips for getting exciting and dramatic imagery from the prairies and woodlands of the central United States
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Capturing great photography in the Midwest often means getting up close for more intimate landscapes. Shooting in forests and woodland areas, especially in the fall, presents opportunities for images with stunning color. There’s no better time to head out to the forest than when the sky is gray because the even, gentle light results in colors that pop. Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is a boon for nature photographers—its intact wilderness stretches for miles along the Great Lakes coastline and offers a mix of wetlands, woods and wildflowers.

To find those out-of-the-way locations, take a tour sponsored by the National Audubon Society or The Nature Conservancy. Since midwestern hot spots aren’t as well known, this can give you a quick way of learning the area better.

I’m spoiled. I’ve had the fortune to photograph the pristine and spectacular—from the canyons of Zion National Park to the mountains of Glacier National Park to the fall color of New England, as well as the winter landscape in the nation’s crown jewel, Yellowstone National Park. While truly rewarding, this photography is a piece of cake compared to photographing in my native habitat, the Midwest. To the casual photographer, landscape photography in the Midwest is an oxymoron. The workshop advertising pages of outdoor photography magazines aren’t exactly flooded with trips to the Midwest. It’s all the more impressive, however, when one finds beauty in the more subtle and smaller pockets of the diverse natural landscape of the Midwest.

Successful landscape photography in the Midwest requires harder work and diligence than the allegedly more glamorous areas of the country. Most of this work begins without a camera. So let’s get to the meat and potatoes. Here are some tips on making your midwestern landscape photography a bit easier and more successful.

Tip 1) Know The Ecosystems And Visit Often.
There are four main ecosystems in the Midwest that lend themselves to good landscape photography: 1) woodlands and forests; 2) tallgrass prairies and savannas; 3) the Great Lakes; and 4) wetlands. Go out and experience these ecosystems at different times of the year and learn the intricacies of the habitat. They won’t scream “Photograph me!” like a 14,000-foot peak, so visit these ecosystems as much as you can. By becoming intimately familiar with a place and returning often, you’ll learn when various lighting conditions and environmental factors can come together for rewarding photographs. Following the next tip will assist you with this one.

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Tip 2) Do Your Homework.
As much as we’re dependent on any number of factors that are beyond our control, there are several steps that we can take without a camera to make our midwestern landscape photography more successful. Read photography books, art books, field guides, geology books and literature on the midwestern landscape. Return to these sources often. My favorite midwestern photography subject is the tallgrass prairie.

I carry Tallgrass Prairie Wildflowers: A Field Guide to Common Wildflowers and Plants of the Prairie Midwest (Falcon Guide). This is an invaluable tool. The Audubon Field Guides provide abundant information, too.

Take naturalist-led tours of the local systems. Expert-led excursions sponsored by groups like the Sierra Club, the National Audubon Society and The Nature Conservancy cut down on learning time. These leaders are a fantastic source of information. Call various stewards of the prairies and find out if there have been any prescribed burns. If so, the wildflowers will explode. Go beyond the science and read literature and art books. These are great sources of inspiration for my photography!

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Tip 3) Look For The Intimate Landscape.
You’ll have to learn to look for intimate landscapes. This is probably the most important tip that I can give you. The Midwest is choked with skyscrapers, strip malls, farms and subdivisions. With this come power lines, cell towers and other incidences of technology and civilization. Airplane traffic is a killer. Ansel Adams certainly didn’t make any images of the grand landscape of the Midwest, and you won’t find the petrified tripod holes that are common in the national parks and great western landscapes. Most midwestern landscapes are subtle and found in small pockets.

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I recently photographed a small jewel of a prairie right next to a Dunkin’ Donuts. Thus, photographing in the Midwest usually requires shooting closer scenes, close-ups and midrange scenes because the horizon lacks exciting backgrounds. Eliot Porter has a marvelous old book titled Intimate Landscapes. Check it out of the library and study it. I rarely include the sky in any of my midwestern photographs.

Tip 4) Photograph In Overcast Light.
As mentioned above, one of the ecosystems of the Midwest is the forest. Since there’s so much forest shooting in the Midwest, one needs to know how to photograph in overcast light to make the subject matter look good. Photographing the forest in sunlight generally leads to poor photographs because of the distracting hot spots and shadows. Autumn color and wildflowers look best in subdued, even light. So when the sky is gray and the wind is low, get out to the forests. Even more importantly, get to the forest in a light drizzle. The colors will glimmer and pop!

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Stumbling on a special photo op may be tougher in the Midwest than in the West or East, as most of the landscapes are more subtle, like these tallgrass prairie wildflowers in Somme Prairie Grove, Illinois. The Midwest is full of hidden gems, including The Ridges Sanctuary, Wisconsin; Konza Prairie, Kansas; and Gooseberry Falls State Park, Minnesota.

Tip 5) Bring Filters.
While knowing how to make intimate landscape images is a must for successful midwestern landscape photography, there are situations where the grand landscape will present itself with great opportunities, such as at sunrise or sunset on a large tallgrass prairie or over a lake. In those instances, knowing how and when to use a split-neutral-density filter will enable you to maximize your efforts and results. I’ve seen many photographs where shaded areas in the foreground are exposed perfectly, but the sunlit areas along and above the horizon are washed out. This is frustrating since you saw both parts perfectly when composing the image and tripping the shutter.

This is because human eyesight has much greater latitude than film or what a digital camera can easily capture. Using a split-neutral-density filter will enable you to control the exposure process and keep all areas of the image in an acceptable and pleasing contrast range. Since there are no mountains, sand dunes or red rock formations along the horizon in the Midwest, and skies are generally bare without much interest, capturing such warm light along and above the horizon is necessary. In the Midwest, the light will be the main subject, whether it shows itself on trees or clouds.

If you don’t already know, these specialty filters are clear on one half and darker on the other half; they lack color and affect only the amount of light that passes through them. These filters come in varying degrees of densities and are either graduated or hard-edged, meaning the darker area starts at the halfway mark and is either constant or gets darker toward the top up to a higher density. I use one-, two- and three-stop filters, both hard-edged and graduated, depending on the subject matter and light. The hard-edged filters work well on lakes and ponds when you want to place the edge right at the horizon. The graduated filters work better when there are subjects above the horizon, such as trees at the rim of a prairie or meadow.

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I also strongly suggest using the filters that come with an outside holding system. Screw-on filters will mandate that the horizon be in the middle of the image. This limits composition. The hold-in filter systems allow you to move the edge up and down to meet a horizon that’s not dead center. Flexibility is good. Popular companies that offer this type of system are Hoya, Singh-Ray and Tiffen. These filters always should be carried when photographing the Midwest.

Even though we don’t have grand mountains, vast deserts, rumbling oceans or deep canyons in the Midwest, we do have several jewels and subtle gems that are equally, if not more, magnif-icent. You just have to roll up your sleeves and work harder to make successful images. While you may feel like a salmon swimming upstream in the process, following these tips will result in more rewarding Midwest landscape photography!

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Know The Hot Spots

While the Midwest generally isn’t known for its iconic landscape photography, there’s still a wide variety of favorite spots for local photographers. Here’s my short list:

1 The Upper Peninsula: Michigan For Fall Color. This is an easy one. Fall color in the U.P. rivals that of New England. There are many lakes and forests with spectacular color. Try Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park, Council Lake, Bond Falls and Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.

2 The Ridges Sanctuary: Door County, Wisconsin For Wildflowers. Head to this gem in the spring and early summer for a wonderful display of wildflowers. There are many endangered species here so be careful not to damage the ecosystem.

3 Tallgrass Prairies In Summer. There are many wonderful tallgrass prairies throughout the Midwest. Each week during the summer, different wildflowers and grasses bloom. Go early and go often! My favorites are Nachusa Grasslands in Illinois, Chiwaukee Prairie in Wisconsin, Konza Prairie in Kansas, Kalsow Prairie in Iowa and Coyne Prairie in Missouri.

4 Great Lakes. The Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore in northwestern Indiana has a variety of images. There are great displays of wildflowers in the spring. The dunes and lakeshore provide wonderful opportunities. The same is true for Illinois Beach State Park in northeastern Illinois. Minnesota has Gooseberry Falls State Park where you can photograph woodlands, wildflowers, waterfalls and shorelines in all different seasons. The Lake Superior shoreline provides a vast amount of opportunities. Look at Craig Blacklock’s book, The Lake Superior Images, for photographs of the shoreline.

5 Canyons. No, we’re not talking about the red rock country of the Southwest. Sandstone canyons and surrounding woodlands exist in Illinois, Indiana and Ohio. Starved Rock State Park in Illinois, Turkey Run State Park in Indiana and Hocking Hills State Park in Ohio all offer waterfalls, wildflowers, woodlands and canyons that make for year-round subject matter. The waterfalls flow freely in the spring and provide great ice sculptures in the winter.


Essential Gear
great americanLandscapes taken at sunrise or sunset can present exposure problems because of the extreme difference in contrast between the sky and much darker foreground. Grad ND filters help fix this problem by darkening the background. When the light is changing quickly, try holding the filter by hand for greater speed and accuracy. The larger 4×6-inch grad filters available from Singh-Ray make handholding easier. Contact: Singh-Ray, (800) 486-5501,

To see more of Joseph Kayne’s photography, visit his website at