On the horizon

I take a lot of photos of flowers and small invertebrates.  This will come as no surprise to those of you who frequent this blog.  I try to throw in a bison or landscape photo just often enough to keep you hooked, but quickly revert to my fixation on photographs of bees, grasshoppers, flowers, and – of course – crab spiders.  I try to justify my obsession by explaining how important all those little organisms are to the functioning of prairie ecosystems (and they are), but the truth is that I just like close-up photography better than wildlife and landscape photography.  Today, I’m not even trying to hide that from you.  This would be a great time to click away to something else if you don’t want to read a lot of words about photographing little things in nature.

When I first entered the world of close-up (or macro) photography, I remember both reading and hearing about “distracting horizon lines” and being cautioned to avoid including the horizon in the background of close-up photos.  It’s true that concentrating too much on a subject and ignoring what’s behind it is a major issue for macro photographers.  It’s also true that including a bright stripe of sky on top of a darker stripe below can pull the viewer’s eye away from the intended subject of a photo.  However, as with most photography rules, making exceptions can sometimes lead to more interesting images.

Here’s a very nice photo of prairie larkspur (Delphinium carolinianum) in the Nebraska Sandhills.  It was taken in beautiful early morning light and has a nice clean background.
Here’s the same larkspur plant, photographed from a slightly lower perspective so that the horizon shows toward the top of the image.  Now, the image is no longer just a photo of larkspur – it’s a photo of larkspur in a prairie.

Over the last several years, I’ve more often found myself playing around with horizon lines behind my close-up photo subjects.  What I’ve found is that contrast and definition matter a lot.  If the boundary between land and sky is out of focus and very gradual, it can become a pleasing addition to a photo – one that adds depth and context, as well as visual interest.  That’s very different from the starkly contrasting bright/dark line that we’re often warned about including behind close-up subjects.

Adding a fuzzy horizon behind close-up photo subjects is often just a matter of lowering the camera an inch or two.  It’s not always a smart choice, but I’ve been trying to at least consider it as an option when I’m in the field.  If I’ve got a subject that isn’t flying or crawling away from me, I’ll usually start by following the rules to get a safe, traditional image.  Then I’ll lower the tripod slightly and see how that looks.  More and more, I end up liking the second choice better.  It’s a good thing I’ve learned not to follow the rules this bozo espoused in a macro photography guide published on this very blog.  What a dope.

This larkspur photo was taken just a few feet away from the one above.  I think it’s my second favorite larkspur photo. 
This is my favorite larkspur photo.  Not only was the light sublime, the intricate blossoms lent themselves beautifully for this composition.  I also love the way the background transitions gently to sky, providing context for the image.  It was well worth an extra moment or two to shorten the tripod legs and aim the camera a little more upward.

So, go break some rules.  Have fun, take chances, experiment!  Unless any of my kids is reading this.  In that case, follow the rules.  And go clean your room.  As long as you’re living under my roof, young man…

Innovations and Inventions in Prairie Restoration

One of the great things about people who work on restoring (reconstructing) prairies is that they tend to be good at making things up as they go.  Some say prairie restoration is more art than science.  I actually think there’s plenty of science in restoration, but there’s no denying there’s a lot of art as well.  My favorite examples of restoration art are the fantastic machines and techniques people have come up with to harvest, clean, and plant prairie seeds. 

Prairie seed comes in all kinds of sizes and shapes.  That variety makes seeds fascinating to look at and study, but can create all kinds of issues for people trying to get those seeds from plant to the ground in order to make new prairies.  We’ve certainly had some humbling experiences here – including the comedy of errors that was our failed attempt to modify an old John Deere combine so that its augers would move fluffy prairie grass seed from the head to the hopper.  (We eventually sold the remains of the combine for scrap.)

Although our John Deer combine experience didn't work out so well, we've had better luck with our mobile grass seed dryer. This plywood box has a big electric fan hooked up to a 12" perforated pipe that runs along the bottom of the box. We haul the trailer out to the combine and load freshly-harvested seed into it. Then we back it into the shop and plug it in. The seed usually dries overnight. One side of the box then unbolts and makes it easy to unload. This was a team effort, designed by our staff and a local farmer - then built by a boy scout for his Eagle project.

Failures can be educational, but successes are even better.  I’ve been lucky to have some smart people to help me come up with ways to make our restoration work much more efficient and effective.  I’ve also had the opportunity to visit many other restoration sites around the U.S. and have been amazed at the variety of innovative and individual ways others have solved the challenges we all face. 

I learned the trick of burning the silks off of milkweed seeds from friends in Indiana. I've heard it might reduce germination - and we're testing that this year in the greenhouse - but I'm hoping if we spread them thinly enough before burning that it'll work. I hope so - it's fun! (Keep your face away from the heat)

I’d like to celebrate the innovative aspect of prairie restoration by highlighting some of the best tools and techniques that have been developed, but I need your help.  Over the next several weeks or so, I hope to gather up photos and descriptions of some of the unique, beautiful, and intricate ways people have addressed prairie restoration challenges.  Then I’ll put together a post (or maybe several) that showcases the best of what I find.  Hopefully, the result will be both useful and entertaining.

Please send me your favorite examples of tools, machines, and techniques that you’ve invented or modified in order to more effectively harvest, clean, or plant prairie seeds.  Failures and successes are both welcome – as long as they’re interesting.  Email 1-2 photos of each example, along with a paragraph or two of description to prairieinventions@yahoo.com.  Please keep photo file sizes under 2MB.  No guarantees, but I’ll try to use as many of your photos and descriptions as I can.