Photo of the Week – October 19, 2018

Dotted gayfeather (Liatris punctata) seeds at our family prairie last weekend.

This is the season of flying fluffy seeds.  Asters, thistles, blazing stars, milkweeds, and other late season flowers are sending their seeds into the air, a few of which might actually land in a place where they can germinate.  Each of those seeds is attached to a filamentous structure, variously called a pappus or coma, depending upon the species of plant.  Those fluffy structures catch the wind and allow the seed to travel many miles, in some cases – though most land within a few meters of their origin.

Seeds that can float on the air are a nice adaptation for plants, but they are also attractive photographic subjects.  Over the last week, I’ve photographed the seeds of common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), dotted gayfeather (Liatris punctata) and tall thistle (Cirsium altissimum) in some local prairies.  Here are a few of those photos for your Friday enjoyment.

Common milkweed seeds lined up inside their pod, nearly ready for launch.
A common milkweed seed temporarily hung up on big bluestem.
The coma of this milkweed seed got stuck and was drifting lazily in the breeze, having become separated from its seed.
Tall thistle seeds.  Many of these get eaten by insects before they get a chance to fly away, but at least one of these managed to escape – so far.
Dotted gayfeather seeds, backlit by the autumn sun.

Photo of the Week – March 16, 2018

Ok, here’s a little nature puzzler for you.  In today’s post, I’m including three photos from 2017 that have something in common.  Are you sharp enough to figure it out or will you need someone to point it out to you?  (Hint, the answer is not that they are all animals, live in prairies, or have legs and eyes, though all of those are true.)

These red beetles are often found feeding on milkweed plants.
This speedster was photographed in the Nebraska Sandhills.
This beetle is one of many insect species that often feed on the pollen of sunflowers.

Given the level of expertise within this blog’s readership, I figure someone will come up with the answer a few minutes after I post this.  If you think you know the answer, please put it in the comments section.  I’ll keep an eye on the comments and reply when someone’s got the answer I’m looking for.  Have a great weekend!

(If you are subscribed via email and just read posts from your email messages, you might have to click on the title of the post to see it in a web browser and view the comments.)

Photo of the Week – January 12, 2018

Tomorrow, I’m leading a photography workshop; something I rarely do.  I’m looking forward to the workshop, but always feel a little funny teaching photography for a couple reasons.  First, photography is a very individual activity, by which I mean that every photographer interprets the world in their own way.  Because of that, trying to “teach” someone how to be a photographer seems like kind of a crazy thing.  As a result, I’ll be talking very little about the interpretive part of photography, and concentrating mostly on the mechanics of how cameras work and how to use that knowledge to create art.  Then I’ll try to provide a lot of examples of what’s possible with photography, hoping to inspire people to develop their own vision.

Bugs (in the broad, non-scientific sense) and flowers are subjects I feel comfortable with.  Landscapes, wildlife, and other subjects are much less in my wheelhouse.

The second reason I hesitate to lead workshops in photography is that I feel pretty limited in my own knowledge.  After all, I spend most of my time on my knees, photographing tiny bugs and flowers, and I’ve learned how to do that using the few pieces of equipment I happen to own.  I suppose I know more than the average person, but I don’t feel like I have the kind of broad knowledge of camera equipment or techniques  held by many photographers I admire; people like Michael Forsberg, Clay Bolt, Piotr Naskrecki, and Joel Sartore.  Also, when I stray from my narrow range of expertise, I tend to make a lot of mistakes.  That seems to happen particularly often when I attempt night time photography.

The latest example of my night time photography foibles came during the trip Kim and I made to the Niobrara Valley Preserve over the holiday season.  The weather was very cold while we were there, but I braved the temperatures one night and went out to photograph in the light of a half moon.  I worked along the river, mostly, shooting starry scenes with the river and silhouetted trees in the foreground.  Because of the moonlight, the stars weren’t really popping in the photos, so I decided to switch and shoot the moon instead.  I wandered over to “the chute”‘ a locally famous waterfall on the Niobrara River, right near the Norden Bridge.  Because of the sub-zero temperatures, much of the river was frozen, but the water pouring over the falls was still ice free, and there was fog (is it really called fog in those conditions?) coming off the falls and rising up toward the moon.  It was a magical scene, and I worked for about an hour to capture images of it.

Here is one of the three images I brought back from more than an hour photographing ice and water in the moonlight.  All three photos were taken with a Tokina 12-28mm lens at ISO 800, f/4, and a shutter speed of 6 seconds.
The log in this scene has been stuck on the same ledge for several years now. I keep waiting for a big water event to wash it away…

Unfortunately, my mind must have been as frozen as the the ice I was (carefully!) walking around on.  I completely forgot to change my aperture settings on the camera from the wide open settings I’d been using for star photos to settings that would give me more depth-of-field.  And because it was dark, I had a hard time focusing anyway, and didn’t notice how out of focus many of my foregrounds were.  This led to a lot of almost great photos with blurry images of rocks, ice, and/or water in the foreground.  Out of that entire hour, I ended up with three images that were fairly sharp all the way across – only because I was far enough from the foreground for it to be sharp.  Anything with a nice close waterfall in the foreground and starry sky in the background turned out to be junk.

This was my favorite of the three decent shots, mainly because there was something interesting in the foreground (though I had a couple others with that ice formation much closer to the camera that would have been spectacular…)

I sometimes make mistakes photographing bugs and flowers too, but night time photography always seems to give me big problems.  In fact, one of my biggest recurring issues with bug/flower photography is tied to night photography… I very often forget to reset my ISO after shooting star photos the night before and end up taking grainy photos of flowers with an obscene ISO of 2500 or so.  I’m telling you – night time photography is out to get me.  I’d like to think I’ll get better at it if I do more of it, and I’ve been making an effort in that regard, but so far, not much luck.  Fortunately, there are lots of bugs and flowers to photograph during the daylight hours, so my ego hasn’t completely deflated.

Gee, this wasn’t a great advertisement for my photo workshop tomorrow, was it?  If you’ve signed up and are reading this, I promise I’ll do my best to make it worth your time.  The good news is that the workshop happens during the day – not at night!

Photo of the Week – December 28, 2017

Kim and I spent a few days at the Niobrara Valley Preserve this week, something that has become an annual holiday tradition for us.  As always, it was beautiful, peaceful, and we were alone in a big wild place – the three components of a perfect getaway.  We saw plenty of wildlife, including multitudes of eagles and deer, as well as flocks of meadowlarks, robins, tree sparrows, and grouse.  In addition, tracks of many other animals were abundant in the recently-fallen snow.  I kept hopeful eyes out for mountain lion tracks, but didn’t see any – though I did have a strong sense of being watched one night, while out photographing night scenes under a half moon.  It wasn’t just the cold temperatures that made me shiver a little.

A skeletal stick frames the rising sun over the frosty Niobrara River.

I spent one particularly nice hour or so exploring the partially frozen river one morning, and was able to get some photos before heavy overcast skies took over.  The temperature was hovering around zero, but it was nevertheless a pleasant calm morning.  I enjoyed the solitude and sunrise and then walked back up to a hot breakfast before Kim and I headed out for a longer hike.  Here are a few photos from my sunrise walk.

Tracks of some kind of water bird on a sand bar.  The individual toe prints were approximately an inch long, maybe a little longer.  
Slushy ice floats down the Niobrara River as the sun comes up.

I wish you all a wonderful and happy new year; something I’m very much looking forward to myself.

Snow and Light

We finally got our first measurable snowfall (4-5 inches?) of the year here in east central Nebraska.  I took my camera for a walk at our family prairie yesterday evening, enjoying the way a little snow really transforms a landscape.  I found and followed tracks of coyotes, mice, birds, and deer, and flushed flocks of meadowlarks and tree sparrows.  As the sun started to drop quickly toward the horizon, I wandered through one of the areas we grazed particularly hard last summer, enjoying the broad expanse of whiteness, punctuated by scattered plants poking up through the snow.

Heath aster (Aster ericoides) protrudes from a tiny mound of snow.

I spent the next half hour mainly lying prone on the snow, tripod legs splayed flat to the ground, photographing heath aster and sideoats grama plants, and having a great time.  As you look through these photos, you’ll be able to see how the quality and color of the light changed as the sun approached the horizon.  Shadows became much less stark and more blue in color, and the plants and snow both reflected increasingly golden-orange light from the setting sun.

Sideoats grama (Bouteloua curtipendula)
More sideoats
More heath aster
Final sideoats photo, as the sun was right at the horizon.

The opportunity to watch sunrises and sunsets is a big perk of living on the Plains, where we get an unobstructed view of the sun from horizon to horizon, without pesky trees or mountains in the way.   On many nights, the combination of a low sun angle, expansive sky, and scattered clouds can provide spectacular views.  Other times, however, the best way to appreciate a setting sun is to turn and look in the opposite direction at the changing colors of light and shadows.

Merry Christmas everyone!

Photo of the Week – December 15, 2017

I haven’t done much photography lately, and that always makes me cranky.  I spent a couple days at the Niobrara Valley Preserve this week, but between the short day length right now, a busy meeting schedule, and cloudy/windy conditions, I didn’t even get my camera out of the bag.  This morning, I just couldn’t stand it anymore, so my camera and I took a short walk in one of the small prairies here in town.  I needed to be on a conference call, but I managed to multi-task fairly effectively – participating in the call with my cell phone and earbuds while photographing dead flowers.  My colleagues are pretty understanding…

The first photo I took this morning was of sensitive briar (Mimosa quadrivalvus).  There was one lone seed still hanging on inside the spiny pods.
A light overnight frost was being systematically melted as morning sunlight crept across the prairie.  However, by finding plants that were just being illuminated, I could take a few photos before the frost disappeared.  In this case, the sun had just reached this roundheaded bushclover (Lespdeza capitata) plant, but the background was still in shadow.
The frost was quickly melting off of these aster (Aster lanceolatus) seed heads.
Birds, mice, and other creatures have already stripped all the seeds out of the sunflower plants in the prairie – including this stiff sunflower (Helianthus pauciflorus).

By the time my conference call ended and I headed back to the office, my hands were cold, my knees were wet, and I felt better about the world.  Even in the winter, prairies can provide inspiration and solace to those who go looking for it, including photographers with cabin (office?) fever.

Photo of the Week – November 16, 2017

Most of us don’t think about ants very often unless they’re marching across our kitchen counter (or up our leg).  That anonymity isn’t their fault, it’s ours.  Ants play major roles in ecoystems, and their biomass in prairies can rival that of bison, so if we’re not paying them sufficient attention, that’s on us.

Ants on upright prairie coneflower (Ratibida columnifera) – The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska

I took the two ant photos in this post at the Niobrara Valley Preserve back in June of this year.  As is usually the case, I spotted the ants only because they happened to be crawling around on some flowers I was looking at.  Ants are often spotted on flowers, especially those that have easily accessible nectar that helps satisfies ants’ attraction to sweets.  While they don’t usually do much good as pollinators, ants might provide some protective services for plants by helping to keep herbivores away.

Ants spend most of their time underground, of course, where it’s easy for us to forget about them.  When they’re not in their tunnels, they still aren’t all that visible unless we’re looking for them.  Regardless, they are major predators in prairies, collaborating with each other to take down prey much larger than they are.  In addition, ants are scavengers, major forces in nutrient cycling, and important seed dispersal agents for some plant species.  Ants can also steal food and workers from each others’ colonies, “herd” aphids and harvest their honeydew and meat, and are themselves an important food source for other animals.  We should probably stop ignoring them.

Golden early morning light shown on this ant as it crawled down the stem of an upright prairie coneflower plant.

Most prairies probably have around 30 species of ants living in them, which is more local diversity than is found in grassland nesting birds, which we pay infinitely more attention to.  In addition, if we lost all our grassland birds tomorrow, it would be sad, but I’m pretty sure it would have much less impact on prairie ecosystems than if we lost our ants.

Let’s try to keep them both around, shall we?

 

Here are some previous posts I’ve written about ants if you feel like reading a little more about them:

https://prairieecologist.com/2011/01/03/the-density-of-ants-in-prairies/

https://prairieecologist.com/2015/05/20/ants-in-the-sun/

https://prairieecologist.com/2015/08/18/killer-thistles/

Photo of the Week – October 5, 2017

I had a few minutes after a meeting yesterday to walk through a restored wetland in our Platte River Prairies.  I didn’t really have any preconceived notion of what I was looking for – I just wanted to explore a site I hadn’t visited for a while.  There weren’t many flowers still blooming, but the golds and browns of autumn vegetation were still mixed with quite a bit of green.  Recent rains had raised the level of the stream flowing through the site, as well as the groundwater-linked wetlands adjacent to it.  I pulled my muck boots on over the decent jeans I’d worn for the meeting and wandered out into the wetland.  Here are a few of the photos I got from my brief walk.  I hope you enjoy them.

Water flows over a small beaver dam, split and rippled by multi-colored vegetation.
Swamp milkweed seeds lined up and waiting to make their jump.
A beggarticks (Bidens sp) plant in water surrounded by floating duckweed.

A Little Calm in a Noisy World

The world seems awfully turbulent and noisy right now, and I don’t know about you, but I could use a little calm and serenity.  In my world, calm and serenity often come from a quiet walk through a prairie early in the morning or late in the evening when the light is soft and the breeze is even softer.  I’ve been fortunate to enjoy a few of those mornings and evenings this month, and I’m hoping maybe a few photos from those tranquil times might bring a little peacefulness into your life as well.

Common milkweed seeds (Asclepias syriaca). Lincoln Creek Prairie.  Aurora, Nebraska.
A stinkbug posing on Canada tick clover (Desmodium canadense). Deep Well Wildlife Management Area, Nebraska.
Grasshopper on silky prairie clover (Dalea villosa). Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska.
Tall thistle (Cirsium altissimum) seeds. Deep Well Wildlife Management Area, Nebraska.
A painted lady butterfly settles in for the night on Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis). Deep Well Wildlife Management Area, Nebraska.
Dew drops. Lincoln Creek Prairie. Aurora, Nebraska.

Peace be with you all, my friends.

Becoming a Rule Breaker (Artistically)

I’ve never had any formal visual art training, notwithstanding my elementary teachers’ efforts to show me how to color within the lines.  When I started getting serious about photography, most of I what I learned was from books and photographers who were kind enough to offer helpful critiques of my work.  In my early days as an insecure nature photographer, I spent a lot of time paging through magazines and how-to books, looking for photos I liked.  Then I tried to mimic those compositions in my own work.  I was also very earnest in my attempts to learn and follow the rules of composition mentioned in photography books and magazines.

One particular rule I remember reading about said that when photographing animals, you should always have them looking in toward the center of the photo rather than out toward the edge of the photo.  For example, compare these two photos of an upland sandpiper (actually one photo that I cropped in two different ways for illustrative purposes).

In the top image, the bird’s eye is near one of the “power points” of the rule of thirds, so it conforms to that particular rule.  However, because the bird is on the right side of the frame and looking toward the right, the photo seems unbalanced.  In the lower image, the placement of the bird on the left side leaves it more space, and most people probably feel the bottom image is the better composition of the two.  If nothing else, the top image creates a kind of mental tension, in which the viewer feels there’s something wrong, or at least uncomfortable, about the composition.

Creating tension or discomfort, of course, can sometimes be a powerful strategy for artists, and can set their work apart from that of others.  As for me, though, I’m not really much of a risk taker when it comes to composition. In fact, I looked back through quite a few of my photos as I was thinking about this blog post, and couldn’t find many where I had intentionally created a visually jarring composition.  For better or worse, my objective is usually to draw people into a natural world they might not otherwise become familiar with, so making them uncomfortable seems counterproductive.

I don’t do a lot of traditional wildlife photography; I spend much more time photographing insects and flowers.  As far as I can tell, the aforementioned rule about having an animal look toward the center of an image seems often to apply to flowers too, which is a fascinating thing to ponder.  As viewers, are our minds projecting an imaginary face onto flowers, driving our expectation of how those flower photos should be composed?  Or is composition more driven by other factors, such as the curvature of the flower stems or the balancing of subject matter?

Consider the stiff sunflower image above, one of my favorite flower photos.  It would look odd (wrong?) if the flower were moved over to the right half of the image, right?  Is that because we ascribe a face to the flower and expect it to look in a certain direction relative to the photo composition?  Or is it just because of the way the curving line of the flower bends pleasingly toward the center in this photo, rather than away into nothingness if it were moved to the right?  Regardless, there’s something important about keeping the flower on the left side.

Now look at this photo of two Maximilian sunflower blossoms (above) I took last week.  The closer flower is the focal point of the image, and its “face” is “looking” toward the center of the photo.  The photo seems pretty balanced this way.  Compare that to the photo below, in which that same focal flower is moved over to the left.  It seems to be breaking the rules, yes?  Both photos have a second blossom in the background to balance the one in the foreground, but the second photo is still a little jarring because of where the face of the main flower is pointing.

Here’s the thing, though…  I think I like the second photo at least as much as the first, and maybe better.  There’s a slight tension in the image that I don’t think is too distracting, but instead makes the image interesting.  It makes me want to see more, to see what the flower sees.  Am I crazy for thinking the second is the more captivating of the two images?

…Good grief, does this mean I’m moving toward becoming a provocative art photographer??

The next thing you know, I’ll be putting horizon lines right smack in the middle of photos solely because the rules tell me not to.  Even worse, I’ll start writing long self-absorbed blog posts exploring the artistic choices I make when creating images…

…oh, wait…

Dang.