Photo of the Week – March 22, 2018

It’s always inspiring to hang out with other conservation photographers, especially when they’re really good at what they do.  As I mentioned in my last post, I recently spent an early morning in one of our crane viewing blinds and got to see a whooping crane right out in front.  My two companions that morning were Michael Forsberg and Melissa Groo, both of whom are incredibly talented and accomplished wildlife photographers, as well as passionate and effective advocates for conservation.

Also?  They have really really big lenses.  Like, intimidatingly large lenses.  And when there is a whooping crane hanging out on the other side of the river from you, a big lens is sure handy.  As a result, you should check out both Mike and Melissa’s individual Instagram accounts to see the photos they got from that morning.  I know Mike has already posted the amazing shot he took of the whooper stretching its wings, which turned out looking like a white angel in the midst of a dull gray mob of birds.  I don’t think Melissa has posted any photos yet from that morning, but she did post a shot of the same bird in a nearby field from a few days before.  (Check out their other work as well, you’ll be glad you did.)

Melissa’s lens was so big, you can’t even see Mike or his lens, which are right on the other side of her.

Good for them.  Seriously.  They had the right equipment for the job on that morning and were able to capture powerful images they’ll use for good purposes.  Me?  Not so much.  I spent my morning capturing the “atmosphere” of the morning, and enjoying my overall good fortune.  After all, I was hanging out great people, and looking at one of the few whooping cranes left in the world, along with four or five thousand sandhill cranes.  I was doing just fine.

The closest sandhill cranes were quite a ways from our blind, and the whooping crane was near the far bank of the river.  It’s not in this particular photo, but even if it was, you probably wouldn’t be able to see it!

With my cute little 18-300mm lens, I concentrated on capturing the overall feel of the morning, rather than individual birds.

Am I jealous that when I go out to take pictures, my entire photography kit, including the vehicle I’m driving, cost less than one of the lenses Mike and Melissa were shooting with?  Well, maybe just a little bit.  But mostly, I’m glad they’re successful enough to afford those lenses.  This is what they do, and they need to have the right tools for the job.  There are only about three or four days a year when I wish I had a longer lens.  The rest of the time, I’m usually looking down toward my feet for photo opportunities, not across a broad river channel, and I’m perfectly happy with that.  After all, it wouldn’t make any sense to have all conservation photographers capturing the same kinds of images, right?  Somebody has to chase little bugs around prairies, and I’m more than happy to help fill that role.

Speaking of photos near my feet, I’ve had a couple opportunities to practice my own brand of conservation photography in the days since my whooping crane morning.  I had a very pleasant walk through one of our recently burned prairies a couple nights ago.  Then, yesterday, I enjoyed an hour or so photographing prairie plants on what might be the last frosty morning of the winter.  Until my favorite subjects (bugs and flowers) start becoming more available, I’m feeding my appetite with whatever else I can find.

The prairies we burned a couple weeks ago have been popular feeding spots for hordes of sandhill cranes looking for underground invertebrates to feed on. Did I photograph those cranes on our burned prairies? No, I just found and photographed a dainty little down feather one of them dropped.

The brown scorched leaves of this shell leaf penstemon plant might give you the impression that it’s dead, but it will actually thrive this coming season because the cattle grazing in this burned prairie will help suppress its major competitors – grasses – growing nearby.

This penstemon leaf reminded me of a fish…

A frosty sunflower seed head. Lincoln Creek Prairie, Aurora, Nebraska.

Indiangrass seedhead and frost.

I’m incredibly fortunate to be able to incorporate photography into my regular job.  It’s something I’m passionate about, and something I feel is critically important in order to help people understand and feel connected to nature.  I don’t often travel far from home to photograph nature, but I’m sure glad others do.  For example, I’ll likely never get to see the Arctic or Antarctic regions of this world, but I feel a strong connection to those places because of the photographs of people like Paul Nicklen.  In my own small way, I hope I can provide that kind of connection between people and the prairies I love – despite my tiny little camera lenses…

A Quick Guide to Close-Up Photography (Macro Photography)

I’ve had a number of requests to post something on techniques for close-up photography (macro photography).  To keep long technical details out of a short blog post, I’m presenting some basic tips here and providing a link to a more detailed PDF document for those interested in it.

Carrying a camera with a good macro lens is a fantastic way to explore prairies.  I notice things I wouldn’t otherwise see when I’m looking for close-up photos because my mind has developed a search image for small objects.

This tiny katydid nymph is sitting on cutleaf ironplant. I never would have seen it if I hadn't been carrying my camera and looking for small things to photograph.

Rather than looking for specific subjects (such as dragonflies or violets) I try to look for things that are well-lit and have interesting colors/backgrounds/patterns.  Early in the day, I often work the edges between shadows and light, trying to find flowers or insects that are catching the warm light but have shadows behind them.  On bright overcast days, everything is evenly lit and saturated with color, so I look for appealing patterns and colors – but just about any subject is fair game.  I rarely pull my camera out on bright sunny days unless I’m documenting something.  The light from a bright mid-day sun is just like the color of the sun – harshly bright and colorless.

This Canada wildrye seed head is reflecting beautiful golden early morning light.

Close-up photography doesn’t require a lot of equipment, but an SLR camera with manual focus and aperture control, a good macro lens, and a tripod are all necessary items.  Slow shutter speeds (the amount of time the camera’s shutter is open) allow small aperture settings, which helps maximize depth-of-field (the amount of space, front to back, that’s in focus) – something that is very important when focusing in on small subjects.  In order to shoot with slow shutter speeds, it’s impossible to hold a camera still without a tripod.  It’s also difficult to use slow shutter speeds on windy days, so calm wind is a close-up photographer’s best friend.

This photograph of ice along a creek was taken at a shutter speed of 1/6 second - much too slow to hand hold (especially with shivering hands). A tripod was a must for this photograph.

The most important – and often overlooked – aspect of a close-up photo may be the background.  When photographing an insect or flower, photographers tend to focus solely on that subject and forget about what is behind it.  An errant grass leaf or stem has been the downfall of many otherwise very nice photos.  An experienced photographer is always conscious of what’s behind the subject, and knows how to make slight adjustments to the position of the camera to create the most interesting (or least distracting) background possible.

A bumblebee on pitcher sage. I positioned my camera to get the blurred sunflowers in the background as texture and context.

I’ve been lucky to have opportunities to share my photos with others through multiple avenues – magazines, books, slide presentations, and now this blog.  I enjoy being able to show people animals and plants they might not otherwise have seen on their own.  It’s also educational for me because I can’t identify many of the subjects at the time I photograph them, but a good photograph allows me the opportunity to research both the identification and ecology of those species later.  I’ve learned a tremendous amount about prairies just by photographing its small citizens.  If you enjoy photography but don’t own a macro lens, I encourage you to look into getting one – it’s a ticket into a whole new world.

For more photos and tips on macro photography, click to see a PDF of more detailed guidance (macro photography 2010) or a short article I wrote on the same subject for NEBRASKAland magazine back in 2007 (Macro-June2007).