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Step Up to the Scene

Gain a little elevation and a new perspective.

July 25, 2013 Landscapes / Wildflowers

Nature celebrates summer best in the prairie. Acres of preserved prairie lands come into their own as they progress from unassuming meadows to sweeping grasslands. And in a good year for summer rains like this one, the transformation is magical.

Standing in my favorite preserve in the predawn light, the prairie and I are wrapped in fog. It saturates the seed heads of big bluestems, soaks the leaves of coneflowers and monardas, and collects in the basin-shaped leaves of cup plants where small birds will drink before the water evaporates. The mist moves around me as I walk along a familiar trail that's now a green corridor of tall plants.

Goldfinches and wrens wake up, surprised to see someone here so early. They flit in to inspect me before they sip from the cup plants. And as the rest of the prairie world awakes, my head spins from the musky perfume of the tallgrass prairie.

In late July, native flowers flourish and grasses grow higher than a bison's eye. The knee-high spring and early-summer plants are hidden after their turn in the sun. Now prairie giants tower over them and me. Big bluestem grass, cup plant, compass plant and prairie dock reach up six to eight feet tall. If I stepped off the path, I'd disappear just like the spring flowers.

Today, most prairies are beholden to benefactors who've preserved or restored them. The prairie lands that once reached from the forest edges of Indiana to the foothills of the Rockies and rolled from Oklahoma to the Canadian prairie provinces have been reduced to pockets of what scientists call one of the world's most-endangered environments.

Standing in this 60-acre remnant, I can imagine it going on for ever. And I think about how the original tallgrass prairie shaped the lives of the Native Americans who understood it and the settlers who traversed it before most of the prairie grasslands gave way to the plow.


MAKING THE PHOTOGRAPH (Techniques for Photographing Landscapes)

SUBJECT: Tallgrass prairie at sunrise [including wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) and grayheaded coneflower (Ratibida pinnata)], Indiana

CONDITIONS: Clear, calm, 55 degrees F

EQUIPMENT: Nikon D3, 20-35mm lens at 20mm, tripod, ball head, electronic cable release, polarizing filter, three-step aluminum ladder, hot-shoe bubble level

EXPOSURE and SETTINGS: 1/4 sec at f/22, ISO 400; Aperture Priority mode, Matrix meter, Manual focus.

TECHNIQUE: A joy of summer is watching the sun rise on a tallgrass prairie. Like I have many mornings in this preserve, I walked in before dawn and waited for things to happen. This morning, a light fog drifted around me in subtle waves. I could see the individual droplets suspended in air. When I moved my arm in a slow, sweeping motion, I made an eddy of mist that curled around and behind it.

I got to the prairie long before sun up for two reasons: in case the sky lit up before or at sunrise and to scout for a scene or subject for first light. I had been watching this patch of wildflowers along the edge of the trail for a week. The bergamots and coneflowers had finally grown tall and thick enough to be a potential foreground for a wide-angle, horizontal composition. But from my eye-level perspective, all I saw was a wall of flowers and a dense thicket behind them. I needed to gain some elevation.

That's why I carried in a small aluminum step ladder. It would give me a higher vantage from which to examine the big scene, not just the foreground in front of me. I chose a spot at the edge of the trail where the patches of flowers looked even on my left and right. I dropped my pack, unfolded the ladder, found a stable place for it and set my fully-extended tripod next to it. Then I climbed to the second rung with a hand on the tripod to steady myself.

Now I could see over the foreground flowers and across the tops of all but the tallest plants up to the hedgerow of trees. I climbed down, got my camera with the wide-angle zoom which had a polarizer on it, hung it around my neck and I climbed back up. I looked through the viewfinder and searched for a pleasing way to frame the scene. I had to move the ladder a foot to the right and to the right a little more. Once I thought the position would work, I placed the tripod in front of the ladder, attached the camera to the ball head and fine tuned the tripod's placement a little more to the right, so I would include more coneflowers.

I wanted to accentuate the foreground flowers while I showed their surroundings. So I zoomed the lens out wide and tipped the camera down until they were comfortably framed. By gaining some elevation and tipping down, the foreground plants gained space in the composition. They occupied about half of the frame. That made them the prominent foreground element while the middle ground and background in the top half of the frame gave them a sense of place. Next, I leveled the camera using the hot-shoe bubble level, an accessory I've carried for years (even after the newer cameras included a virtual-level feature).

Once I was happy with the composition that included lots of foreground and middle ground and just a bit of background and sky, I attached the cable release, stopped down the lens to f/22 for the most depth of field near to far, focused on the flowers about one-third up from the bottom of the frame, and clicked a frame. I checked the camera-back monitor for the composition and depth of field. And then I waited.

It was still twenty minutes until sunrise. This gave me time to climb down and look around for other subjects I might work when first light passed. I found dew-drenched spider's webs, wet flowers with sleeping bumblebees on them and a few more patches of flowers in their prime. It was easier to walk around and find good things when I was without a pack and tripod.

The sun was reaching the horizon, so I climbed up two steps on the ladder. As the sun streamed across the scene, I adjusted the polarizing filter. Since I was at a nearly-ninety-degree angle to the sun, its effect was noticeable. I spun it and it wiped glare off of wet foliage, cut through some of the fog and brought out colors everywhere. These were changes that only a polarizer would make -- nothing in Photoshop will do it. That's why it's the most-used filter in my bag.

I tweaked the focus, clicked a frame and checked the histogram. I added one-third of a stop of light with the exposure compensation function and the histogram looked good. Then I made more photographs while I kept on checking and adjusting the exposure as the sun climbed.

The small ladder made a big difference in how I composed a pleasing photography. For a place like the prairie, it was an accessory as important as a tripod or a polarizer. Stepping up helped me step into the scene.

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