Photo Techniques


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.

A crab spider waits for a fly to come within range of its long front legs.

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.

Black-eyed susans in restored prairie at The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.


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.

Star photography is an extreme example of the necessity of a tripod to hold a camera steady for long exposures. The shutter was open about 2 minutes for this shot.

My current equipment includes the following:

– Nikon D300s digital camera body

– Tokina 12-24mm wide angle lens

– Nikon 28-300 lens

– Nikon 105mm Macro lens

– Gitzo tripod with Kirk ballhead

This bobolink was shot with a 300mm lens on a tripod.



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.

The golden early morning light on this caterpillar and the prairie clover stem its on is what makes the shot work.

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.

11 thoughts on “Photo Techniques

  1. David H. Meyer November 14, 2010 / 10:16 pm

    I just saw your tent photo with the stars behind it. I love it!

    • Chris Helzer November 15, 2010 / 6:19 am

      Thanks! I had to try the shot several times to get the light balance right between the stars and the flashlight in the tent. To get the tent to be lit fully, I actually opened the shutter on the camera, ran inside the tent, flashed the light around all the walls, shut off the flashlight, ran back out of the tent, and closed the shutter on the camera. Glad no one was watching…

      (I just completely ruined the otherwise placid-looking photo, didn’t I…?)

    • Danelle Haake July 6, 2011 / 10:57 am

      I love the photo too. It was even better once I dusted off my monitor to get rid of all of the ‘extra’ stars!

  2. Priscilla September 19, 2011 / 11:43 am

    Brilliant photos! I’m delighted to find your blog–and love to hear the photo tips. (As soon as my book is done, a month from now, I’m going to focus more on photography.) I identify with the experience of being turned into a naturalist by the camera. One has to get quieter, more attentive to the sensory details of nature. The camera turns me into a lover too, portraying others with loving attention. But I’m delighted to find your blog also because I’m in your watershed–Boulder Creek flows into the South Platte–and I also help people connect with the native plants and animals of this place. Which means I love prairie grasses. Your photos of them are stunning.

    • Chris Helzer September 19, 2011 / 2:07 pm

      Thanks Priscilla. I appreciate the comments and questions. Yep, it’s a great way to explore the world…

  3. Clara July 30, 2012 / 9:28 am

    Love these pictures, just got a canon rebel and i can’t wait to start figuring all the setting outs! You’re a amazing photographer.

  4. Julie Malake January 20, 2015 / 9:43 pm

    Glad I stumbled on your site! I will be visiting the cranes this spring so I was looking over related info. I live near the Mississippi River, where the Friends of Nahant Marsh tend a small plot of restored prairie, so I do have a love of grasslands. I also love images of beauty, which are very abundant on your site. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Tom P January 26, 2016 / 1:11 pm

    Off topic but here is the question. Have done a post on how to photograph people on field trips. Too often on nature pages I see pictures of groups – all from the back. Or a simple line up the crowd for a group photo. Are there any angles and arrangements that you find informative and pleasing? We all could use some thoughts on this type of photo. Thanks, Tom P.

  6. Chris Helzer January 27, 2016 / 7:39 am

    Hi Tom, I don’t feel like I’m very qualified to address this question. I don’t see myself as a people photographer, and don’t feel comfortable giving advice! You can see the kinds of group photos I take during events in this post from 2014… I usually use a wide angle lens and try to get close to the group so I can see people up close but also capture the whole group and some context around it. Sometimes, it’s nice to get low to the ground for those photos too, especially if there are clouds (or trees) above that are interesting.

    • Tom P January 27, 2016 / 8:11 am

      Thanks Chris! Wide angle lens, whole group, context, low to ground, background. That’s a very good start. Humans are strange subjects to photograph :)

  7. Laura Domyancich June 23, 2017 / 2:25 pm

    Hi Chris, Have you ever used trail cameras or a type of remote camera to photograph a landscape over a season? If you have experience documenting a landscape during restoration (and doing so remotely), I’d like to hear about your equipment and experience. Thanks!


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