Photographing the Niobrara Valley Preserve

One of the perks of working for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska is that I usually get a couple of business trips a year to our Niobrara Valley Preserve.  The Preserve is located along the stretch of the Niobrara that has been designated as a National Scenic River.  It is the site of an incredible convergence of ecosystems, and the resulting diversity of natural communities and topography makes it a pretty nice place to visit.

This photo was taken at about 5:30pm, or about two hours prior to sunset. The sun was low enough that it wasn't as bright and colorless as it has been earlier in the day, but the absence of clouds still made for relatively harsh light and not much interesting in the sky. This photo is actually two photos stitched together (horizontally) as an attempt to capture the impressive scale of the Niobrara River Valley.

At the same time, the Niobrara Valley Preserve has always provided a kind of paradox for me as a nature photographer.  On the one hand, the landscape is so photogenic, it’s almost impossible not to come away with attractive photos of the site.  On the other hand, there is so much size, texture, and complexity to the site, I’ve never felt like I’ve done it justice.  I often end up taking a lot of close-up photos of flowers and insects because it’s easier to put my head down and look for one or two things at a time than it is to try to somehow synthesize everything around me into a coherent photographic image.

Last week, we had a state board meeting at the Preserve, so I made a quick trip up to participate.  I was on site less than 24 hours this time – and very little of that was free time for photography.  Add to that the fact that the weather was breezy with bright cloudless skies, and the chances of getting good landscape photos seemed pretty low.  Nonetheless, I was determined to try to increase my scant supply of photos of the Niobrara River itself.

I had four windows of opportunity for photography – early evening, sunset, nearly midnight, and early dawn.  Below are some of the photos that resulted from those opportunities.  All of them came from the same ridgetop, which provided both upstream and downstream views of the river.  Repeatedly shooting from that single location, but at different times of day, created an intriguing series of images that really shows the impact of lighting conditions in photography.  And, of course, the photos – though pretty decent – really don’t do justice to the overwhelming beauty of the place.  But it’s what I got.  I hope you enjoy them.  Even better, you should just make your own trip up there and see the site for yourself.

As the sun went down in the evening, I tried to find opportunities for landscape photos, but the shadows created such strong contrast between light and dark that I gave up and just waited for the sun to drop below the horizon. I then played with the reflection of the afterglow on the river itself.

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This was one of the last shots of the evening, as even the afterglow of the sunset was fading.

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Clear sunny skies make daytime landscape photos tricky, but they sure make great starscapes at night. I'd convinced myself I was going to sleep, rather than stay up to take star photos, but I found myself blundering through the dark prairie at around midnight anyway.

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Around 6:30 in the morning, the stars were fading as dawn approached. This photo is nearly the same composition as an earlier shot, yet the "feel" is much different. (This is facing away from the impending sunrise.)

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Before the sun came up, a mellow orange glow grew along the east horizon, providing a counterpoint to the cool blue river channel.

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Before the sun came over the horizon the light was strong enough to see colors - though contrast was low.

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Returning to the same composition as several earlier photos, I utilized what pre-sunrise light was available to me by including a little foreground in the shot. A few minutes after this photo was taken, the sun came up behind me, but because it had to come over a high ridge first, it was already strong and bright when its light first hit the scene. The long contrasty shadows didn't give me anything I could make a pleasing photo out of, so I packed up and headed out for my long drive home.

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is an ecologist and Eastern Nebraska Program Director for The Nature Conservancy. He supervises the management and restoration of approximately 4,000 acres of land in central and eastern Nebraska - primarily along the central Platte River. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press.
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10 Responses to Photographing the Niobrara Valley Preserve

  1. Mel says:

    Chris,
    The “orange” image with the curving river in the foreground is a great composition. Very interesting to look at and I appreciate the contrast between the warm and cool colors. In addition, the star trails image is really worth the effort you put into it. Thanks for staying up to get this and sharing it with us.

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Thanks Mel. There was something about those couple trees on the river bank that drew my eye to the “orange” image. It took a couple tries to find the right angle (based on my height on the slope) that best showed off the river. The milky way was pretty fantastic that night.

  2. Helena James says:

    The starscape photo is magnificient–Glad you stayed up so late. Also, the series showing the effects of different light is very interesting, even to a non-photographer. I really enjoy your blog, and am glad that I somehow managed to sign up to get your posts as emails…effortless!

  3. John Ragsdale says:

    These are beautiful. They are also motivating me to improve my composition and shooting skills.

    Well done indeed!

    John

  4. Ditto on the photography comments … and … I simply must go up and spend some quality time there some day!

    • James McGee says:

      James, When you do visit be sure to canoe down the Niobrara River. What amazes me most about Chris’ photos is the place still tooks the same as when I visited it about 20 years ago.

      James McGee

  5. As usual, I greatly appreciate that you pass on information about prairies and about photography. A little bit like you, my focus shifts between one and the other. To me, your current message suggests there’s never a moment a moment to fall asleep, least I miss something.

  6. Eric Fowler says:

    Why do I have to live so far from there?

  7. Tracey Nelson says:

    Beautiful photos, Chris! I’m glad you aren’t a sleepwalker. Thank you for taking beautiful photos of the preserve, and the stars truly are magnificent! I am so lucky to get to work there. I enjoy every single day. I need to spend more nights out there though.

  8. Tim says:

    As someone stuck living in a city of 100,000+ the night sky photo reminds me of trips to west Texas. Absolutely beautiful photos!!

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