Photo of the Week – November 23, 2016

Prairie landscapes are often defined by broad sweeping vistas and big skies.  A wide-angle lens can be great for capturing that kind of huge open landscape.  However, I’ve gotten some of my favorite Nebraska landscape photos when I’ve exchanged my wide angle lens for a telephoto.

Sandhills

Sandhills and windmill in Cherry County, Nebraska.  My zoom lens was set at 122 mm for this shot, just long enough to get both the horizon and windmill in the photo, but still short enough to still show some landscape breadth too.

Using a long lens compresses a landscape and shows off the depth and texture of a landscape in a way that is very different from an image taken with a wide angle lens.  The above photo of the Nebraska Sandhills came after several attempts to capture the immensity of the prairie with a wide-angle lens.  My wide-angle lens showed a lot of the landscape, but it looked relatively flat and unimpressive – especially because there wasn’t anything going on in the sky.  A longer lens brought the distant hills closer and made them more prominent.  It also cut most of the sky from the image, leaving only the interesting parts of the scene.

Sandhills sunrise

In this Nebraska Sandhills photo, a 300mm lens not only compressed the hills, it also made the rising sun look large enough in the image to reflect the way it looked in real life.

Sunrises and sunsets, along with moonrises and sets, can often be disappointing in photographs because the sun/moon looks much smaller in the photograph than it does in real life.  A long lens can help make the orb look more like our eyes see it when we’re there.

Setting moon

What works for the sun also works for the moon.  On this early morning, the moon was going down behind the bluffs at Scottsbluff National Monument in western Nebraska.  (Zoom lens set at 230 mm)

The photo below is one of my all-time favorites from the Niobrara Valley Preserve, and is actually a scan of a slide from back when color slide film (Fuji Velvia!!) was the state of the art in nature photography.  Just as in the windmill/hills photo above, there wasn’t anything interesting happening in the sky, but the light was good (getting close to sunset) and the sideways light provided great texture on the distant hills.  One of the hallmarks of the Niobrara Valley Preserve is that it hosts a convergence of multiple ecosystems, and this photo shows many of them.

Niobrara Valley Preserve

The Niobrara Valley Preserve as seen from a ridgetop north of the river.  The use of a 300mm lens allowed me to include many of the different ecosystem types all in one photo, including tallgrass prairie/oak savanna in the foreground, the Niobrara river and its floodplain, deciduous woodland and ponderosa pine stands, and Sandhills prairie.

If you find yourself standing on a high ridge or hilltop and can’t seem to make the landscape look as impressive on camera as it does in real life, try using a longer lens (or using the zoom on your phone or point-and-shoot camera).  Though it seems counterintuitive, zooming in can sometimes help show off a broad landscape better than zooming out.

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.
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6 Responses to Photo of the Week – November 23, 2016

  1. shoreacres says:

    I wish I’d read this before my three-week trip through the midwest and its prairies. I have it bookmarked now, and will remember it for the next time. That final photo is a stunner.

  2. James McGee says:

    The Chicago Region used to have vast treeless plains on the west side of rivers. I know this because I’ve seen drawings. These vistas are now long gone. They disappear before cameras even made it into the region. From the top of a hill you can see the sweep of trees surrounding areas where restoration is occurring. Instead of landscapes, the prairies in the Chicago Region are more like islands. Hopefully, the prairies of Nebraska will not suffer the same fate.

  3. Ben Courtice says:

    Thanks for this! The tip about zoom lenses explains why some of my photos have and haven’t worked unexpectedly. Will try and take both lenses next time I’m out on the plains here!

  4. Chris Muldoon says:

    I’m not a photographer, but with respect to the first picture (sandhills & windmill) it would have been interesting to see the described difference between your long lens photo and a wide-angle lens photo.

  5. Ned Groelz says:

    Very nice pictures. Just something about the wide open spaces, very hard to capture, but you did a great job.

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