Land And Sky

Tips for getting dramatic photos in the wide-open expanse of the American prairie
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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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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 24×30 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,