Photo of the Week – December 17, 2015

Before and after sunrise…

Back in July, a small group of us got up early to do some prairie photography.  We were attending the Grassland Restoration Network workshop in northwestern Minnesota and wanted to catch the sunrise at The Nature Conservancy’s Bluestem Prairie.

We arrived at the prairie before sunrise, split up, and walked off in different directions, searching for photo opportunities.  Not far into my hike, I found a monarch butterfly roosting on a milkweed plant.  It was cold and wet and not able to move.  The sun wasn’t up yet, but there was nice color in the sky where the sun would appear in just a few minutes.  That sky glow provided enough illumination and color for me to take a few good photos of the monarch before I moved on to see what else I could find.  Before I walked away, I made note of the location so I could circle back later if I had time.

Monarch butterfly on common milkweed. TNC Bluestem Prairie, Minnesota.

5:51 am.  The sun was nearing the horizon, but not quite up yet.  The light in this photograph is just reflected from the pre-sunrise glow behind me.  Nikon 105mm macro lens.  ISO 640.  F9, 1/25 second.

About twenty minutes later, the sun was up and I was wandering back near where I’d seen the monarch earlier so I stopped to see if it was still there.  It was, and the rich golden light from the sun was hitting it squarely.  I took some more photos .

Monarch butterfly on common milkweed. TNC Bluestem Prairie, Minnesota.

6:13 am.  The sun is up and is a bright orange color, providing a rich orange/gold tone to both the butterfly and milkweed plant.  ISO 400, F11, 1/100 second.

These are just two of the images I shot of this butterfly that morning, but they are a good pair to use for comparison.  Both are nice photographs.  The first is a little flat, but has just enough color and definition of detail to make it work.  While not as flashy as the second photo, it accurately depicts the subtle beauty of the pre-sunrise world.  The second photo literally sparkles in comparison – every hair, scale, and droplet of water reflects the bright golden sunlight coming from the big orange sun behind me.  The details are much more defined, and it is a stronger visual image.

I’d guess that in a poll, most viewers of these two images would say they like the second better, but I bet there are a few of you who prefer the first.  (And if I hadn’t shown you the second, most of you would probably think the first is a very nice shot.)  I like them both, and am glad I took the time to circle back and get the second set of images.

In photography, light is nearly everything.  Composition is subjective, and it’s always interesting to see how different photographers frame the same scene.  The ability to recognize and use various lighting conditions, however, is what separates good photographers from the rest.  I can’t draw worth a lick, and I stick to very simple and safe color combinations in my clothing because I don’t have any aptitude in those regards.  I can see light, though, and am very grateful for that.  It makes the world a really interesting place to look at and photograph!

Using the Light When the Light is Right

I have a pretty great job.

I love my work for many reasons, but a big one is the freedom I have to take photographs when opportunities present themselves.  Photography is an important part of conservation work, and my photos are used in many places – including this blog, print and online publications, and even things like notecards and thank you gifts for donors and board members.


The Niobrara River flowing through the Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska.  I captured this image during a brief 15 minutes of sunlight during an otherwise overcast couple of days.

Because good photos are so important to our work, I often take a few minutes (or longer) in the middle of a work day to slip away and photograph something – especially when the light is pretty and/or we find something interesting like a bull snake in the middle of the road.  I owe my co-workers a great deal for their extreme patience and forbearance in this regard.  Not only are they understanding of my tendency to wander off in the middle of jobs, they have also gotten used to the fact that they could be the subject of a photo at any moment.  (Thanks to all of you!)

Last week, I helped with a bison roundup at our Niobrara Valley Preserve.  I did some actual work during part of the day, but also found time to photograph bison, staff and volunteers helping with the roundup – and even a few other things like colorful leaves and a cute little cricket.  Because this is normal behavior for me, no one thought much of it.  Or at least they didn’t say anything, which was polite of them.

field cricket TNC Niobrara Valley Preserve. Nebraska.

I found this little cricket when I wandered away from the roundup for a little while.

Smooth sumac leaves in autumn. TNC Niobrara Valley Preserve. Nebraska.

The overcast skies on the day of the roundup made landscape photography difficult, but there wasn’t much breeze and close-up photography worked ok – especially during brief moments when the sun was behind a thinner area of clouds.  Smooth sumac leaves were starting to fall, but I found a few still hanging on.

In addition to making time during the work day, I had two other opportunities for photography while I was up at the Preserve.  The first came on the night before the roundup.  I didn’t get to photograph anything in the afternoon or evening because I didn’t arrive until after dark.  However, as we were getting ready for bed, I was admiring the bright moon hiding behind some thin clouds.  I pointed them out to Evan, one of our Hubbard Fellows and a talented photographer.  After a brief discussion, the two of us headed out to see what we could do with the light.  We didn’t get back until after midnight…

Norden bridge at the TNC Niobrara Valley Preserve. Moonlight, clouds, and stars.

Norden bridge at the TNC Niobrara Valley Preserve. Moonlight, clouds, and stars.

Niobrara river at the TNC Niobrara Valley Preserve. Moonlight, clouds, and stars.

Niobrara river at the TNC Niobrara Valley Preserve. Moonlight, clouds, and stars.

Here's Evan's version of the moon over waterfall.

Here’s Evan’s version of the moon over waterfall.  I chose to make the scene kind of dark and moody but he chose to make his brighter.  It’s always fun to see how different photographers interpret the same view…  I really like the way he framed the image so the hole in the bottom right of the image counterbalances the moon in the top left.

Norden bridge at the TNC Niobrara Valley Preserve. Moonlight, clouds, and stars.

Norden bridge at the Niobrara Valley Preserve. Moonlight, clouds, and stars.

The second opportunity came on the morning after the main roundup.  Some of the staff was sticking around to help with vet work on the bison calves, but I needed to head home to catch my daughter’s cross country meet, so I was planning to leave after breakfast.  The sky had been overcast all the previous day and all that morning, but as I was packing my gear, I noticed a small break in the clouds.  It looked to me like it just might provide a few minutes of morning sunlight, so I stopped packing, grabbed my camera, and headed up the hill.  Just as I’d hoped, the sun did pop through the clouds and I had almost exactly 15 minutes of light before it disappeared again behind what looked to be a never-ending mass of dark clouds.

TNC Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska.

TNC Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska.

TNC Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska.

TNC Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska.

TNC Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska.

As I started wandering up into the sandhills, the light started to fade, so I just had time to take a couple quick shots.  This isn’t my favorite photo from the day, but it does showcase the beautiful immensity of the Nebraska Sandhills landscape.

The old photographer’s adage is “F/8 and be there”, meaning that camera settings are much less important than making sure you’re in the right place at the right time.    I’m incredibly grateful that my job allows me to “be there” when the light and other conditions line up, and that I’m allowed to just grab my camera and go shoot.  It also doesn’t hurt to work in beautiful places.

I often feel like I’m getting away with something, and that eventually I’m going to have to get a real job.  Boy, I sure hope not!