Photos of the Week – June 19, 2020

Because a few people have asked about it recently, I wanted to remind everyone that the recording of the basic photography workshop I presented a few weeks ago is available at this link. Speaking of online presentations, there are a couple more upcoming talks you might be interested in. The first is on July 1 at 12:30pm Central Time. Jacob Fritton will be talking about The Nature Conservancy’s work with Nebraska farmers and others to find ways to irrigate crops as efficiently and sustainably as possible. This is obviously a key conservation topic as we try to increase food production in the face of shrinking freshwater resources. Using existing crop land efficiently also means less pressure to tear up more prairies to grow row crops. Learn more here.

A second presentation you might find interesting will be on August 5 at 12:30pm Central Time. It will feature a panel of Conservancy land managers talking about why land management is needed and answering questions about various stewardship topics. I’ll be part of the presentation too, and am looking forward to the discussion. If you’re interested, you can learn more about it here.

A backlit cup plant leaf (Silphium perfoliatum). 105mm macro lens. ISO 320, 1/80 sec, f/25

Returning to photography techniques, one of the topics I stress most when helping people with photography is light intensity. Cameras have a really difficult time dealing with mid-day intense sunlight. In the middle of a bright blue-sky day, sunlight is so strong that it creates a much broader range of tones (from dark shadows to bright highlights) than can be captured by a camera’s sensor. As a result, it’s hard to make good photos because no matter how you set your exposure, you either end up with distractingly dark shadows or washed out highlights (or both). Early mornings and late evenings provide lower intensity (and more colorful) light because sunlight passes through more atmosphere before hitting the earth. That usually creates much better conditions for photography than an overhead sun on a clear day.

Sometimes, however, it’s necessary to take photos when the sun is high and bright. Or, sometimes, you might just feel like taking photos, even though the light conditions aren’t perfect. That’s the situation I found myself in last weekend. I really wanted to get outside, so despite the strong late morning sun, I took my camera for a walk across town at Lincoln Creek Prairie. I found lots of interesting subject matter for photography, but because of the intense sunlight, I spent a lot of time on a subject I often lean on in those conditions – backlit leaves. In today’s post, I’m sharing three of my favorite photos from that trip.

Spider exoskeleton on a backlit compass plant leaf (Silphium laciniatum). 105mm macro lens. ISO 320, 1/320 sec, f/16

Close up photos of leaves that are illuminated from the opposite side provide a great view of the intricate vascular system of leaves. Even more importantly, those leaves glow beautifully as the light passes through them. If I can fill the frame with glowing leaf, I escape the negative issues associated with intense sunlight because the range of light intensity across the leaf is well within the camera’s ability to handle. If I can’t fill the frame with leaf, I often look for leaves with shadows in the background because those shadows will be so much darker than the leaf that they’ll just look completely black. Another trick is to just include another glowing leaf in the background.

If I’m really lucky, I’ll find leaves with an invertebrate sitting on the opposite side. If I can get all the angles to work out – and if the bug or spider doesn’t flee before I get my tripod set up – I can sometimes come home with beautiful silhouette images.

A silhouetted spider on a backlit leaf of showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa). 105mm macro lens. ISO 320, 1/80 sec, f/25.

Here are a few specific tips for photographing backlit leaves on bright days. First, try to find leaves that are large and relatively flat. In addition to the species shown in the above photos, I often seek out leaves of stiff goldenrod (Solidago rigida) and wild grape (Vitis riparia) – but there are lots of other options too. Flat leaves tend to work best because you can set your camera up in a way that the entire leaf is perpendicular to your lens. That reduces the depth of field you need to get most of the leaf to be in focus. I also try to find leaves that are fully illuminated (not broken up by shadows from other leaves). Once you find your subject, use a shutter speed fast enough to counteract whatever breeze might be blowing – but use as much depth of field as you can (big f/stop number).

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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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