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).

River Day

I’ve been working along the Central Platte River in Nebraska for close to 30 years now. Despite that, I’ve actually spent relatively little time in the river itself. As a grassland ecologist, most of my time has been focused on nearby prairies. The river sustains the groundwater beneath those prairies and it draws the sandhill cranes and geese that provide an annual soundtrack each spring. It’s much more than that, of course, but those are the attributes I’ve paid the most attention to.

The Central Platte River is a shallow braided river. At this time of year, it is a combination of exposed and barely submerged sandbars – all slowly moving downstream. Nikon 10.5mm fish eye lens. ISO 320, 1/200 sec, f/22.

During the last couple weeks, my college-age son John has been bugging me to take him out to splash around in the Platte. Last week, we found some time on a hot afternoon and enjoyed a couple hours in a quiet stretch of river – wading through channels, squishing through mud and sand, chasing toads, and more. It was so much fun that we couldn’t keep it to ourselves and we made another trip a couple days later, bringing Kim, Calvin and Atticus with us.

The boys had a great time playing on one of the sandbars – building sandbars, making mini river channels through the sand, and generally enjoying the day. Nikon 12-28mm lens at 12mm. ISO 320, 1/400 sec, f/10.

While the boys had noisy fun on a sandbar and Kim enjoyed some quiet time on another (far away) sandbar, I meandered around with my camera. As I did, I wondered why this kind of river exploration is such a rare part of my nature-based activities. I spent much of my time in a backwater channel (connected to the main channel only at the downstream end) where tiny fish and tadpoles zipped around much slower snails and other aquatic creatures. Killdeer and spotted sandpipers patrolled nearby, and red-winged blackbirds noisily let me know when I was too close to a nest on the higher, more vegetated islands.

This backwater wetland was full of life, including fish, tadpoles, snails, birds, frogs, and more. Nikon 12-28mm lens at 12mm. ISO 320, 1/800sec, f/13.
Little pools like this one were full of snails and tadpoles, along with other aquatic life. Raccoon tracks around the edge showed that this pool was well known by local predators. Nikon 10.5mm fish eye lens. ISO 320, 1/250 sec, f/18.
Another photo of the backwater wetland. Nikon 10.5mm fish eye lens. ISO 320, 1/250 sec, f/18.
Arrowhead (Sagittaria sp) in bloom. Nikon 10.5mm fish eye lens. ISO 320, 1/200 sec, f/18.
These snails were left high and dry after water levels receded from some parts of the backwater channel. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 320, 1/125 sec, f/18.
Killdeer were running all around the bare sand, making lots of noise and (I assume) keeping an eye on eggs or chicks nearby. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 320, 1/400 sec, f/9.

Woodhouse’s toads were regulating their temperatures by sitting in shallow depressions in the wet sand. After I startled the first one out of its hole, I got better at spotting them before I got close enough to make them nervous. By slowly approaching them and staying low to the ground, I even managed to get a couple photos of them.

There were several Woodhouse’s toads in the backwater wetland, partially dug into the wet sand. They were firmly ensconced in their shallow depressions, coming out only if I got too close as I walked past. Nikon 10.5mm fish eye lens. ISO 320, 1/200 sec, f/18.
This clever toad took advantage of a deer track in the sand and just nestled into that. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 320, 1/250 sec, f/13.
I didn’t see this toad until it hopped away from my feet and into some shallow water where it let me take a few photos of it. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 320, 1/160 sec, f/13.
Water from as far away as the Rocky Mountains passes through the Central Platte on its way to the Gulf of Mexico. On the way, it provides drinking water for much of Nebraska, supplies irrigation water to many thousands of acres of crops, sustains groundwater levels beneath prairies and meadows, and – by the way – is important habitat for many fish, wildlife, and invertebrates. Nikon 10.5mm fish eye lens. ISO 320, 1/200 sec, f/22.
A fallen cottonwood leaf, partially buried in the wet sand. Nikon 105mm lens. ISO 320, 1/250 sec, f/22.

It won’t come as a big revelation to most of you that rivers are a fun place to explore. It’s not exactly a revelation to me either, but it’s certainly an opportunity I’ve not taken advantage of very often. Hopefully, I’ll be a little less neglectful in the future. If I forget, I’m guessing the kids will remind me…