WHY I PHOTOGRAPH PRAIRIES
Carrying a camera in the prairie forces me to change the way I look at my surroundings. As a scientist and land manager, I tend to walk through prairies with a critical eye, primarily paying attention to things like invasive species and ways in which our management or restoration strategies are working (or not).
With a camera in hand, however, I become a naturalist. I stop to watch the crab spider sitting patiently on a flower, waiting for a bee to come just a little closer. I stand stock still, waiting for a grasshopper sparrow to come back to its favorite perch, upon which my camera lens has been focused for the past 10 minutes. In short, I notice things I wouldn’t otherwise take to the time to see.
I also become an artist when I carry a camera. I start looking at the way the light is hitting the prairie rather than for any particular subject. I pay attention to the patterns of color in a clump of flowers rather than trying to identify them or see how they’re responding to a recent prescribed fire.
In other words, photography makes prairies fun for me.
It’s important to have good equipment, but a “good” camera doesn’t make great photos by itself, and you don’t need a $5,000 camera to take spectacular photos. That said, there are some basic pieces of equipment that everyone should have if they’re serious about photography.
- A camera that allows interchangeable lenses and manual control of aperture and shutterspeed.
- A range of lenses that allow you to take the kinds of photos you want. A wide-angle lens for landscapes, a macro lens for close-up photos, a medium-length zoom for people photos and general photography, and a long lens for wildlife.
- A good solid tripod. Many of the best photos are taken in lighting conditions that require shutterspeeds slow enough that hand-holding a camera will lead to blurry photos. In addition, a tripod forces the photographer to take more time to frame the photo, usually leading to better photos.
- A remote trigger release. When using long exposures (slow shutterspeeds) camera shake is the enemy of good photos. Using your finger to push the shutter button will shake the camera, so the use of a remote cord or other device to trigger the shutter without touching the camera is essential.
My current equipment includes the following:
- Nikon D300s digital camera body
- Tokina 12-24mm wide angle lens
- Nikon 18-70mm zoom lens
- Nikon 105mm Macro lens
- Sigma 100-300 zoom lens
- Gitzo tripod with Kirk ballhead
TIPS AND TECHNIQUES
The most important photography technique is to learn how to see and capture light. Early morning and late evening light has more color in it than mid-day light. If the sun appears white, the light reflecting from your subjects will also be white. If the sun is a warmer color, however, so will be the color reflecting from your subjects – which usually makes better photos.
In addition to color, the angle and direction of light is important because of the interplay of light and shadow on and around your subject. There is no right way to use light and shadow to make good photographs, but it’s essential that you recognize and use those patterns purposefully.
Finally, the intensity of light is important. When the summer sun is directly overhead in a bright blue sky, photography is very difficult.
There are a lot of great resources out there to help you develop your skills. My favorite instructional books are those written by John Shaw – an excellent photographer who has a clear and concise way of explaining complicated subjects.
I wrote a short piece on macro photography for NEBRASKAland magazine that you can see here. Macro-June2007.
See an audio slideshow of prairie photos and an interview of me by The Nature Conservancy here. http://www.nature.org/photosmultimedia/markgodfreyselects/interactive-media-mark-godfrey-selects-grasslands.xml