Photo of the Week – September 21, 2018

I spent much of this week in northern Nebraska, attending various events and staying at the Niobrara Valley Preserve.  It rained much of the time, but I caught a break in the clouds Monday evening and happened upon the bison in our east herd as the sun was going down.  I spent about an hour and a half tagging along with them as they moved slowly toward the setting sun.  If you haven’t spent much time with bison, one of the things you notice immediately is how quiet they are.  Apart from some contented grunting, the primary sounds I heard as I accompanied them was the crunching of their hooves in the grass and the sound of them tearing mouthfuls of food from the prairie.  It was very peaceful, and provided the perfect accompaniment to the sun going down over the hills.

Photo of the Week

Last week, I posted some drone photos of the Niobrara Valley Preserve from the air.  The sun popped out of the clouds just as it was nearing the horizon and provided some great light for those images.  As I was packing the drone away, I kept an eye on the sky, and it looked like there might be some nice post-sunset color on the way, so I scrambled up the hill to my favorite sunset spot at the Preserve.  For the most part, I get pretty easily bored by sunset photos, so it takes a pretty spectacular night to get my camera out of the bag.  That night qualified as spectacular.

Image #1. This was one of the first shots I took that night.  Tokina 12-28mm lens (at 12mm) ISO320, Aperture 16, Shutter 1/100.

Over about a 15 minute period, I worked back and forth across the top of a ridge overlooking the Niobrara River, trying various angles and perspectives.  The color and texture of the clouds was fantastic, but I knew the color would fade quickly.  After I got back and sorted through the images, I had a hard time narrowing down my favorites.  Nearly two weeks later, I still couldn’t decide on just one (or even two) shots to share with you.  Instead, I chose a selection of four images from various angles and with different lenses. If you have a strong favorite, feel free to leave your opinion in the comments section.  At this point, I like all of them for different reasons.  I also like about 10 more, but I had to cut something…

I’m presenting these photos in the order they were taken.  If you look closely, you’ll notice that the color tone changed incrementally over the 15 minute period.  You might also notice that each successive photo was taken with a longer focal length.  Part of that was me playing with different ideas, but the color was also receding into a smaller and smaller portion of the sky, so I was matching that with focal length changes.

Image #2. Tokina 12-28mm lens (at 25mm). ISO 320, Aperture 7, Shutter 1/125.
Image #3. Tokina 12-28mm lens (at 28mm). ISO 320, Aperture 8, Shutter 1/80.
Image #4. Nikon 28-300mm lens (at 170mm). ISO 320, Aperture 7, Shutter 1/60.

It’s pretty hard not to take attractive photos at a place like the Niobrara Valley Preserve, especially when the sky does its part to add to the scenery.  One of the hardest parts of working up there is keeping my camera in its bag long enough to get some other work done!

Photo of the Week – June 29, 2017

Monday night, I spent some time exploring the east bison pasture at the Niobrara Valley Preserve as the sun was going down.  The bison have been concentrating their grazing on the east end of the pasture that was burned in March.  Within that patch, most of the grasses have been grazed, along with the wildflowers they like best.  The sky was pretty spectacular, so I spent time photographing the vibrant green landscape and the bright wispy clouds above it.  When the sun was nearly down, however, I noticed the light illuminating patches of woolly plantain (Plantago patagonica), an annual plant that had just finished its flowering season.  I dropped down to the ground and photographed the backlit plants until the sun finally disappeared.

I ended up with two favorite images from those few minutes.  I like them both for different reasons, so I decided to share them both.

Woolly plantain is not a plant most people would call regal or beautiful, though it certainly has its charm.  Because it’s often overlooked, I like that these photos feature it so prominently.  Woolly plantain is a space-filler, a plant that can’t handle competition.  It grows and flowers only when other plants are weakened enough that it can find spaces between them.  A burned patch of sandy prairie grazed by bison creates perfect habitat for woolly plantain, and these photos celebrate the plantain, the prairie, and all of the processes that link them all together.

…Plus, it was pretty dang cool to be lying on my stomach, watching the sun go down over a huge prairie landscape while a big herd of bison grazed in the distance…

Photo of the Week – December 10, 2015

Earlier this week, I mentioned the hike I took at the Niobrara Valley Preserve Monday afternoon and evening.  I carried my camera on the walk but waited in vain for decent photography light.  The heavy clouds started to thin as sunset time neared, but the sun dropped below the horizon before ever popping through.  However, a short time later, as the clouds continued to thin, they suddenly lit up with beautiful pink and purple color.

Tree skeletons in post sunset glow in the 2012 wildfire area at TNC's Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska.
This tree apparently supported a fallen tree or branch for quite a few years – long enough to have molded itself around it.
Tree skeletons in post sunset glow in the 2012 wildfire area at TNC's Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska.
Tree silhouettes against the post-sunset sky.

Not long after the color faded from the sky, the first stars started to appear and the clouds continued to disperse.  By the time I reached the car, most of the sky was clear and the stars were strikingly bright in the sky.  It was only about 7:30 pm, so I decided to extend my hike a little and found a few trees to put in front of the stars.

Starry sky along the Niobrara River.  This pine tree is the same one I featured a few posts ago as I compared three years of photos showing fire recovery.


At the time, I thought the glow on the horizon was the nearby town of Valentine, but now I wonder if it was actually the very last of the glow from the sun.

Listening to coyotes and great horned owls while admiring more stars than anyone could count in a lifetime of lifetimes was a pretty great way to end the day.

Photo of the Week – July 17, 2014

A couple weeks ago, I posted a photo of a sunset from the Niobrara Valley Preserve.  In the post, I talked about having to scramble to get into position for the photo before the color left the sky.  Barely a week later, I found myself in the same situation again…

This time, I was at home in the evening, playing an indoor game with my 13-year-old son.  A rainstorm passed through while we played, and as the storm was moving away, the sky started to light up in one of those Great Plains post-storm sunset spectacles.  Mammatus clouds abounded, along with lots of color and texture.  As my son and I enjoyed the view through the window, he told me I should really be out taking pictures.  I replied that I was perfectly happy enjoying the view with him, and that we were in the middle of a game.  A few minutes later, however, the sky was even more spectacular and, since he was insisting, I grabbed my camera and ran for it.

A sky like that deserved a decent foreground, and ideally, I wanted something that could reflect the light.  I jumped in the car and drove west toward the nearest wetland (9 miles away).  As I drove, I was watching the already-fading color and receding clouds through my rear-view mirror…  After what seemed like an hour-and-a-half, I finally reached the wetland and jumped out of the car.

Post-storm clouds over a wetland at Springer Waterfowl Production Area, west of Aurora, Nebraska.
Post-storm clouds over a wetland at Springer Waterfowl Production Area, west of Aurora, Nebraska.

I had time for about one photograph facing east (above) before the color in that part of the sky faded completely.  However, there was still a little color to the west, so I hopped over to a different wetland pool and tried to set something up in that direction.  I’d pulled on some knee-high rubber boots, which did me no good at all as I waded into thigh-high water…

Last light at Springer.
Last light at Springer.

I managed to shoot a few frames before the light disappeared, and then slogged my way back to the bank and dumped my boots out on the gravel road.  Then I squished my way back to the car and drove back home to have a shower.


Photo of the Week – July 3, 2014

I was back up at the Niobrara Valley Preserve last weekend.  The weather was beautiful, and so were the sandhills.  A few of us went exploring in the late evening, but the sun was hiding behind clouds, so photography wasn’t much of an option.  However, after we got back to headquarters, I glanced up and noticed the entire sky had turned almost blood red!  I grabbed my camera and the closest vehicle and raced up to my favorite vantage point.

The color was already starting fade a little by the time I arrived, so I quickly popped my wide angle lens on and looked around for some foreground to put in front of that sky.  I found a spot, set up the tripod and  ….the camera wouldn’t work.  Ack!!  It took me a few frantic moments to figure out that the lens hadn’t mounted correctly, and a few more to get it off and back on the right way.  By that time, much of the color had left the sky, but there was still enough to squeeze off about three photographs before it disappeared completely.

Here’s one of those three photographs…

Sunset over the Niobrara River.  The Nature Conservancy's Niobrara Valley Preserve.
Fading sunset over the Niobrara River. The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve.

Have a great Fourth of July!

Photo of the Week – January 16, 2014

Here’s a photograph I took a couple years ago while hiking at Griffith Prairie – a site north of Aurora, Nebraska that’s owned and managed by the Prairie Plains Resource Institute.

Sunrise at Griffith Prairie - Hamilton County, Nebraska.
Setting sun at Griffith Prairie – Hamilton County, Nebraska.

I like the image, in part, because it shows what that evening looked and felt like as the sun dropped to the horizon.  What you see in the photograph is pretty much what my eyes saw.  However, it does NOT look like the image that came out of my camera.  I had to use image-processing software to alter the image so it looked like it did in real life.

In this image, I set the camera so that the grass would be correctly exposed, knowing that the sky would be overexposed (too bright).
For this image, I adjusted my camera’s settings so that the grass would be correctly exposed (not too bright or dark), knowing that the sky would be overexposed (too bright).

A camera’s sensor makes photographs by capturing reflected light from a scene.  However, a sensor is not able to record the same range of light (from bright to dark) as the human eye.  The same is true with film.  That means that in the above image, although my eye could see all the colors and details in both the sky and the ground, the camera was unable to capture both.  Either the sky was going to be bright and washed out or the ground was going to be way too dark.  Neither of those was an acceptable option to me.

In this photo, I set the camera to capture the sky as it looked, knowing that the ground was going to be very dark.
In this photo, I set the camera to capture the sky as it looked to my eye, knowing that the ground was going to be very dark.

I ended up shooting the scene a couple ways, figuring I’d try to fix it later.  I later used the second image (the one with the really dark ground) as a starting point and used Adobe Photoshop to lighten the ground and bring out the details and colors my eye saw but that the camera couldn’t capture.  There are two ways to look at this.  The first is that I used the tools at my disposal to make the image match what I saw in real life.  The other is that I essentially lied to you by altering the image that came out of the camera.

If you don’t like what I did and feel like I lied to you, consider this…  Nearly every photo you’ve seen in any printed form has been manipulated, regardless of the era it was printed in.  Old time black and white photographers spent hours adjusting the tone of various parts of their photos as they created prints.  When you take a roll of film or a batch of digital photos to get printed, the printing machine makes automatic adjustments to the images as it prints them – or the technician can override those with his/her own adjustments.  There is really no escaping the fact that photography is art, and that much of the artistic interpretation takes place after the photo is taken.

While photography is art, I’m a scientist trying to share my experiences in the natural world with others, so I feel an obligation to represent things accurately.  That puts me in an interesting position.  Do I avoid processing photos in order to show the viewer exactly what my camera captured – even if that image doesn’t accurately reflect the image I saw in real time?  Or do I manipulate the photo to make it look like it did in real life, even if that necessarily means I’m putting my own translation of reality into that image?

I’m not sure there’s a right answer, but I generally choose to process images and attempt to show you what I saw through my eyes.  I want you to see the same prairies I see in the hope that you will better understand and appreciate them.

Here’s the final version of the image one more time.  Do you like it more or less, knowing what went on behind the curtain?

The final version of the photograph one more time.
This is the same image of Griffith Prairie shown at the beginning of this post.

Working Outside My Comfort Zone

A Brief Photo Journal:

Late last week, I found myself driving through the middle of the Nebraska sandhills as the sun was getting low in the sky.  I decided to stop and check out a small federal wildlife management area to see if I could find anything to photograph.  I had noticed the sign for the site on previous trips, but had never taken the time to drive up the winding road to see what it looked like.  This seemed like as good a time as any to give it a try.

As it turned out, the place was kind of a mess.  In the middle of the twelve million acres of beautiful, ecologically-intact sandhills prairie, this refuge was dominated by invasive species such as narrowleaf cattails, reed canarygrass, and smooth brome.  The area had obviously been farmed in the past, and had apparently not recovered gracefully.

The mess
The mess.  A lot of non-native plants around a wetland.  Oh, and the light was drab and it was really windy.  If you look hard, you can see a couple native grass plants here and there.

I wasn’t sure this was going to work out as a photography location.  A big open-water wetland surrounded by invasive plants?  To make things worse, the sun was behind a big dark bank of clouds, and the wind was howling at about 35-40 miles per hour…  On the other hand, there wasn’t really time to get anywhere else before dark, and there was a promising-looking thin slice of blue sky between the cloud bank and the horizon.  I decided to stick around and see what happened when the sun reached that sliver of sky.

The site looked very different when the sunlight burst through the clouds.
The site looked very different when the sunlight burst through the clouds.

The light, when it finally appeared, was worth the wait.  The low angle of the sun bathed the whole scene in beautiful orange light.  Now I had to get past my purist snobbery about native vs. invasive plants and force myself to think only about light and composition.  Sure, the landscape was covered with invasives, but the light was wonderful and there were interesting photographs to be made.

Invasive narrowleaf cattails, which surrounded the entire wetland (with a reed canarygrass understory).  But they WERE really pretty in that light!
Invasive narrowleaf cattails surrounded the entire wetland (with a reed canarygrass understory). But they WERE really pretty in that light!

Because of the wind, everything was whipping around like crazy, so I had to bump up my camera’s ISO and open up the aperture (apologies for the photography jargon) in order to freeze the action.  The tradeoff, of course, was a shallow depth-of-field, so the backgrounds of my photos were all out of focus.

More cattails.  I was holding the big one on the left still with my hand...
More cattails.


Even on this relatively small wetland, the wind was strong enough to whip up some pretty big waves.
Even on this relatively small wetland, the wind was strong enough to whip up some pretty big waves.

As the sun approached the horizon, the light intensity eventually dropped to the point where I could no longer get the shutter speed I needed to freeze the blowing plants.  To compensate, I pointed the camera toward the setting sun (don’t try this at home, kids), and tried to silhouette a few plants against that light, which allowed me to use a faster shutter speed.

Pointing toward the sun to take advantage of the light intensity and freeze the blowing plants.
Pointing toward the sun to take advantage of the light intensity and freeze the blowing plants.


Look!  A native plant!  (Not that it matters, photographically...)  Canada wild rye silhouetted against the setting sun.
Look! A native plant! (Not that it matters, photographically…) Canada wild rye silhouetted against the setting sun.


Color in the sky as the sun disappeared.
The clouds were very pretty as the sun hit the horizon.

Overall, I’m pretty pleased with the photos I got from that twenty minutes of light.  At the very least, it was good for me to get out of my photography comfort zone.  For one thing, I don’t usually attempt landscape photography in 35 mph winds!  I also need to get better at embracing the beauty of an area even when it is ecologically degraded.  First of all, it’s important to photograph those kinds of areas to showcase the conservation challenges we face.  More importantly, if I only photograph places that are in great shape, that really limits the places I can take my camera!

Last light.  Time to hit the road.
Last light. Time to hit the road.

I probably won’t come back to this particular wildlife area anytime soon.  There are plenty of other sites in the sandhills that are more interesting and attractive as photographic locations.  On the other hand, I’m not sorry I stuck around last week.  It was a good reminder that beauty can be found anywhere, even in the middle of a bunch of invasive weeds.

Photo of the Week – August 12, 2011

As the sun neared the horizon during my evening prairie walk in Missouri last week (see last week’s Photo of the Week post) I had to be more selective about what I tried to photograph.  The low light intensity and the light breeze that was kicking up made it difficult to photograph flowers or insects – or anything else that moved or swayed very much. 

I found two last opportunities before I gave up and headed back to the hotel.  The first was a close-up photo of a compass plant leaf that was backlit by the sunset. The initial challenge was to find a leaf that was positioned so that I could set up the camera with the lens parallel to the leaf (which allowed me to get the whole leaf in focus).  I also needed the leaf to have shadows behind it so that the background, as seen through the spaces between the lobes of the leaf, would be dark and uniform in color/texture.  Once I found an appropriate leaf, I played around with exposure until I found the right balance between light coming through the leaf and the shadowed background.  Fortunately, the leaf was low enough to the ground that the light breeze didn’t move it too much.

A compass plant leaf lit from behind by the setting sun. Taberville Prairie, Missouri.

The second shot was simply a silhouette of a compass plant against the setting sun.  By shooting right at the sun, and not caring if the foreground went fairly dark, I was able to use a fast-enough shutter speed to freeze the slightly swaying compass plant.  The trick was to find an exposure that preserved some color in the sky but also enough detail in the foreground to make the photo interesting.  I was able to do a little correction in Photoshop to accentuate both, but in order for that to work, I still had to capture both the light and detail in the original photo.

Compass plant silhouette against the sunset. Taberville Prairie, Missouri.

It was a great evening.  Thanks again to the Missouri Department of Conservation for the invitation, and to Len Gilmore and Matt Hill for the tour of Taberville Prairie.  I look forward to going back sometime to see more of the beautiful prairies in southwest Missouri.