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The Artist and the Technician

Finding a photographic balance of art and technology.

September 2, 2014 Landscapes

Late summer is prairie time. After a long growing season, the plants of the tallgrass prairie are at their grandest. Midsummer flowers have bloomed and faded. Now late-season forbs and prairie grasses tower above them, dwarfing resident white-tailed deer and the occasional hiker. The scent of the grassland hints less at the perfume of perennials and more at the musky fragrance of mature foliage.

Big bluestems at sunrise.

The biggest contributor to the deeper aroma is big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), a grass that reaches nearly ten feet tall by now. It's the signature plant of the tallgrass prairies that once swept from Indiana to Colorado and stretched from Oklahoma to Canada. Before white settlers pushed West, prairies covered 170 million acres of our country. Soon farmers turned under the tall grasses with cold-steel plows. City dwellers paved over the richest soil on the planet. And now less than one percent of the original grassland remains. Scientists call it one of the most endangered ecosystems on the planet.

Named for its stiff blue-purple stalks, this prairie grass was and still is vital to prairie birds and animals for food -- its seeds and foliage -- and for shelter since it grows in dense thickets. As the sun comes up on this prairie preserve not far from home, I can imagine how easy it would be to get lost in dense, endless acres of bluestems. What an education in prairie life that would be.


MAKING THE PHOTOGRAPH (Techniques for Photographing Landscapes)

SUBJECT: Silhouetted big bluestem stalks (Andropogon gerardii), Tallgrass prairie, Indiana

CONDITIONS: Clear, calm, 60 degrees F

EQUIPMENT: Nikon D3, 80-200mm lens at 80mm, tripod, electronic cable release

EXPOSURE and SETTINGS: 1/1,000 sec at f/6.3, ISO 800; Aperture Priority mode, Matrix meter, Manual focus, electronic cable release

TECHNIQUE: I had spent the last three mornings in this restored prairie photographing first-light compositions. This morning, I heard Sandhill cranes in the marsh a half mile away just as the sun rose. I quickly changed from a wide-angle zoom lens for scenics to the longer zoom, though it was woefully short for birds in flight. Still, I hoped the big birds would lift off and fly my way at tree-top height as I'd seen the 40 or so resident cranes do before. I was using the Aperture Priority exposure mode, so I changed the f-stop to a wide aperture, chose a faster ISO, pointed at the clear sky, clicked a frame and checked the histogram for exposure.

But the cranes took another route to their day-time feeding grounds. A disappointed sigh redirected my eyes to the sun coming through the big bluestems around me. It was a good subject, but you'd be surprised how fast the sun lifts off the horizon at dawn. Without time to change lenses, I chose a waist-high perspective and made this composition.

The camera and lens settings were ready for flying birds, not landscapes. But they were just right to make the sun large and out-of-focus, the grasses sharp in the foreground, soft beyond and frozen from any movement. I could see that result when I checked the camera-back monitor after I clicked a frame. I checked the histogram and made an adjustment of the exposure-compensation to add a few more stops of light. Now the exposure wasn't too dark since the sun was in the frame and it had tricked the light meter. I started clicking and the sun kept climbing.

Many of us have been in similar situations when our plans changed quickly from the composition we envisioned to what made itself too obvious to ignore. Having a quiet, open mind and a good familiarity with our equipment makes it easier to make a new composition when conditions evolve. Maybe the quiet mind part sounds new-age Zen, but it's true. It's just as true as the importance of understanding of our gear.

We have to be both artist and technician in the field. The artist sees it, the technician knows how to make the equipment work to get it. But I won't go into what wonderful images have escaped me when I fumbled the settings.

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