Beyond The Campfire was created to encourage readers to explore the great outdoors and to observe it close up. Get out and take a hike, go fishing or canoeing, or simply stretch out on a blanket under a summer sky...and take your camera along. We'll talk about combining outdoor activities with photography. We'll look at everything from improving your understanding of the basics of photography to more advanced techniques including things like how to see photographically and capturing the light. We'll explore the night sky, location shoots, using off camera speedlights along with nature and landscape. Grab your camera...strap on your hiking boots...and join me. I think you will enjoy the adventure.

The Dark Horse Region

The Dark Horse Region
A View into the center of the Milky Way

Sunday, January 30, 2011

It's Harder than it Looks

Wildlife photography, I discovered, is much more difficult than one might think.  Not only does it require some specialized equipment, but it requires a great deal of patience and time.  This past year or so I started to explore this type of photography in more depth taking the relatively easy tweety birds at the feeder approach.  I don't know...that just didn't seem adventurous I began to expand my territory and that's when I discovered just how difficult it really was. Often, while I was waiting for something to appear, I kept wondering how the pro's were able to get those great wildlife shots...close up.  It wasn't that I didn't see anything was just that everything I saw was too far away to take effective wildlife photos...even with my relatively large 500mm lens.

I quickly came to the conclusion that luck played a big part of it.  On one such occasion, luck played a big roll in one of the best wildlife shot's I've taken to date.  I arrived one spring day at Shanty Hollow Lake well before sunup and paddled my canoe to the upper end, about three quarters of mile, hoping to catch the sun rising over the lake.  After the initial morning program played out, I tried a little fishing eventually drifting  into one of the many coves found on the north end of the lake.  A green heron flew across the cove and sat down  behind some tangled snarls along the bank.  It was maybe 50 yards away, so I cautiously paddled in that direction hoping to get close enough for some photo's.

Green herons are interesting birds...rather small about the size of a crow...and have the ability to extend their neck out about twice its sitting length to grab a tasty morsel in the shallows.  As I drifted closer to the bank, I grabbed my camera from the dry box.  I couldn't see the heron at first then spotted him behind some cover next to the waters edge.  I was about 15 yards away when I started snapping photo's...but eventually was able to close that distance to about 10 to 12 feet.  I was able to follow the heron from that distance for the better part of a half hour.  Oddly enough, he never seemed too concerned that I was there.  Maybe, he just never thought that any threat would come from the water.

A few of the shots were decent but nothing all that great...then he hopped onto a partially submerged log and walked along its length.  A few feet later he stepped out of the shadows into the sunlight and cast his reflection on the surface.  I fired off a couple of shots before his head and neck extended way out in a quick jab where he managed to snare a minnow.  Unfortunately, he turned away from me and I was unable to get the shot.

I drifted a few feet closer and he raised the hackle on the back of his head, squawked, and off he went.  It wasn't until later after I downloaded the images did I discover just how special the reflection shot turned out.  It's one of the best wildlife images I've taken...only because of a bit of luck and being in the right place at the right time.  I suppose what I learned was that luck is simply being able to take advantage of a good opportunity when it arrives.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Seeing Photographically - Framing Light

I once said to a class of high school journalism students, "...the difference between taking a snapshot and capturing photo's that stir the imagination is understanding how to see photographically."  Seeing photographically is a complex and instinctive subject, but one of the most important and often overlooked elements is the understanding of and using composition effectively.

Light is the key ingredient for all photographs, but composition is the frame upon which light is stretched to build those amazing shots.  A simple blog could never fully cover the subject of what follows is a basic primer on a few of the fundamentals.  Using these simple fundamentals help to build the foundation of your photographic skill.

One of the best tools for learning about composition is to use one of those simple point and shoot disposable film cameras.  The only thing you can control with that kind of camera is the composition so you can spend more time concentrating on framing the image as opposed to worrying about the exposure.  Learning about composition is an ongoing adventure, but lets start with one of the most basic of the concepts:  The Rule of Thirds.

Divide your image into a tic-tac-toe grid with nine squares covering the scene.  In the middle you will see four points where all the lines intersect.  These points are important subject position locations within the frame.  You see, in order to generate more visual appeal, your subject should be placed somewhat off center.  These four points provide a good position reference.  You will also notice that your image is also divided into three separate sections both vertically and horizontally.  Generally speaking your image should also be divided into thirds with the foreground material located in the bottom third, middle ground in the middle third, and background in the top third.  You can of course use any number of variations on that theme, but the idea is to break apart your image to create a visually appealing composition.

Along those same lines of thought, framing your subject also generates strong points of interest within a scene.  Almost anything can be overhanging tree limbs, fences, barn doors, clouds...even light and dark get the idea.  Just think a little creatively and let your imagination take control...the idea is to look for those things that help define the subject.

When you are out photographing, think in terms of angles...or in other words, don't always shoot from eye level.  Kneel down or sit low to the ground or rotate the camera.  Simple things like that will often give your composition a fresher look.

In an earlier blog entry I wrote about Simplicity of Purpose...or simplifying your composition by making sure that everything in your image is there for a reason and contributes to the overall effect.  It does not mean that an image may lack for complex detail, just that it tells one story.

Creative composition is vital to being able to capture memorable moments.  The trick is to look for the key elements and then place yourself where you can capture the moment effectively by placing the subject inside the view where it generates a high level of interest.

One of the biggest mistakes novice photographers make is when they shoot sunsets or sunrises.  By their dramatic lighting, all of us are attracted to those events, but I can't count the number of times I've looked at photo's of a great sunset that was made mediocre because of the composition.  Most of the time the sun is placed in wrong location...square in the middle of the picture...and the horizon splits the image down the middle.  Shots like that rarely work well.  Usually what you want to do is offset the sun area to one side...remember the tic-tac-toe grid...and then raise or lower the horizon somewhat.  Shooting over water offers great reflections and sometimes you can split the image down the middle in those circumstances...but those are rare exceptions.

Composition, like so many other standard rules of photography, is always open to interpretation.  Two of the most important things you can do is ONE: Learn about as many of those rules as you can...and TWO: Never be afraid to break them.


Saturday, January 22, 2011

Adventurous Nature

I was talking to someone the other day who asked me if I was a big outdoorsman...she had stumbled onto my blog site.  Well...I'm certainly bigger than I used to be, but I must admit I don't get out as much as I used to.  I suppose age and other obligations do deplete not only my ability to get out, but the available time to do this thing called 'work' tends to interfere with all the things I'd rather be doing.  Even so, I still find time for some adventure and throwing in a photo trip or's just more compressed and maybe not quite as adventurous as what I did in my younger days.

Speaking of my younger days, this week I discovered a website many of you probably already visit called Hulu that offers full episode viewing of old television programs and movies.  I've enjoyed watching some of my old favorites.  My generation grew up at the beginning of and during the golden years of the television explosion.  I suppose that gives us a unique perspective on the medium.  Can't speak for others, but it just seems to me that the old programs were a lot better than most of what you find on television today.  There are exceptions of course as programming today tends to be more sophisticated and have more of a biting edge to it...they're also way to explicit in my opinion. Even so, the science and nature programs available today do a good job of not only entertaining, but educating the ordinary viewer with outstanding footage and insight.

When I look back on those early days I realize just how influential many of those programs were to the development of that adventurous nature I seemed to have over the years.  Take for instance one of my favorites of all time 'Sea Hunt' staring Lloyd Bridges (Beau and Jeff's dad).  The main character was guy named Mike Nelson who ran into all kinds of underwater scuba diving adventures.  This program played an important roll inspiring me to take up scuba diving once I was old enough to make that choice for myself...(my parents would never have allowed such a thing...heaven forbid I might actually drown or maybe even have too much fun or something).  And how many of you remember  'Rip Chord'?  A great adventure show where the two main guys sky dive into all kinds of dangerous exploits.

Now here's another good any of you remember 'The Whirlybirds'.  What a great show about a couple of guys who flew into and out of all kinds of adventures using a helicopter.  No I never took up skydiving nor did I ever learn how to fly a helicopter...not that I didn't want to...just never had an opportunity to pursue those things, (and I haven't been scuba diving in quite some time).  I guess there are some adventure quests best left to the 'Walter Mitty' hopes and dreams most of us have tucked away someplace.

What was important was not so much that I did or did not pursue those kinds of adventures...what really counts is the ideals and spirit of adventure that were nurtured because of them.  I probably would never have taken up hunting and fishing or hiking and canoeing..even photography.  I more than likely would have never  attempted competing in triathlons at the age of 40, nor would I have thought about or enjoyed those two summers as a lifeguard and swimming instructor way too many years ago to admit to.  The idea of jumping ship after three years of college looking for adventure by joining the United States Coast Guard and getting involved in search and rescue operations crashing through twenty-five foot breakers along the Oregon coast would never have happened...nor would time spent maintaining an old historic lighthouse.

Those old adventure shows from years ago were not the only things that nurtured the desire for adventure in my life, but they certainly must be included in the conversation because they created a visual point of reference that a young mind grasp onto...and dreamed about doing.

If you just stop and think about it though, one thing my generation...the Baby Boomers...learned how to do was to dream out the unknown...and challenge ourselves.  Those traits have served our generation well as we became the most productive and innovative generation in history.  We didn't just use technology, we invented it.  We stretched our imaginations well beyond the ordinary and challenged the status quo and reached for...well..the moon.

Even though I've slowed down as I've gotten older, the dreams of adventure from my youth still resonate in my heart.  I may never again be able to pursue those things at the same level I once did, but the desire still burns to get out and explore.  Maybe that is why I started this I could experience again and share many of those memories with the few people who may actually visit these pages.

You know...I've only just slowed down a bit...I ain't dead yet...there are still plenty of adventures yet to chase after and I hope to share more with you as time goes by...I hope you join me.

(Would love to hear about some of your own adventures)

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Post Processing - A Little Goes a Long Ways

Ansel Adams would have loved Photoshop...I'm sure of it...He also would have loved the computing power we have at our disposal today.  It was amazing what he accomplished in a darkroom.  Just image what he might have accomplished had he been exposed to the various photo enhancing capabilities we have today.

I always strive for and promote 'In the field photo technique'...there is no substitute for a correctly exposed image...(probably a habit from my film days).  Although no photo enhancing software can save a badly exposed or composed image, almost every digital image can benefit from a little bit tweaking.

Through trial and error I've developed a workflow that seems to work well for me.  About all I do is make minor adjustments to the levels (lights - darks - midtones), a bit of color correction/saturation, contrast, and sharpening...and not all images are treated the same.  The time it takes me to complete the process is in most cases is less than a minute and not more than two or three.

Today's photo editing software are marvels of computing power and open the windows to some incredible techniques if properly used.  My take on it is to keep it to a minimum and using the least amount of correction required to bring out the texture, flavor, color, and character of the moment.  I don't really have space to go into techniques and such in this blog...just wanted to touch on the subject

How you approach post processing depends a great deal on what format the image was taken...RAW or JPEG.  Don't expect a long description of both because I couldn't do it justice anyway...but JPEG is a type of compression algorithm that reduces the size of the stored image...then re-expands it when opened.  RAW simply stated captures and stores more information allowing for more extended post processing.

What's the difference?  Well...there's actually a lot of difference if you start looking closeup and become a pixel peeper...but in reality, a well composed and exposed JPEG image will look just as good as an image taken in RAW format that has undergone extensive post processing.  JPEG images may not quite contain enough pixel information to blow the image up to large sizes where as RAW images will probably work better for those types of prints.  But...RAW images are harder to work with and require RAW converter software before you can do anything with them, plus they take up lot more storage space...(By the way, RAW images by themselves look like crap and require significant post processing to turn them into a finished picture).

I know some photographers who shoot strictly in RAW while others shoot only JPEG.  I do mostly JPEG but will from time to time shoot in RAW.

Anyway...don't think the image that comes out of your camera is in its final form...a little bit of tweaking goes a long ways.

Friday, January 14, 2011

A Trophy of the Heart

Something unexpected happened on that foggy September morning a few years ago.  For many years fishing from a canoe became a way of life for me.  I've probably paddled hundreds if not thousands of miles over the years and caught a lot of fish in the process.  When I first moved to Kentucky from Oklahoma, I left my trusted, and worn out old canoe behind.  It wasn't long before I replaced it with a brand new Old Town Camper...and she's a beaut and a delight to paddle.

I must admit it was difficult to leave my ancestral home where countless hunting and fishing adventures played out over the years.  Even so, I looked upon this rich new land of Kentucky with anticipation and soon began to scout for new opportunities.

For two seasons I randomly did a bit of hunting and found time to work in some fishing, but it just wasn't the same.  I guess I missed those week-long deer camps in the pine covered Kiamichi Mountians of Southeastern Oklahoma...and floating down the Baron Fork in Oklahoma's portion of the Ozarks, or those morning fishing trips to Old Beggs Lake...and not to forget those freezing mornings on some wild and crazy waterfowl hunting trip...but I suppose I missed my old hunting and fishing buddies most of all.

By Kentucky season three, I vowed to do more fishing to shake loose from the doldrums that had crept into my life.  Most of the hot and muggy summer came and went and I barely wet a line.  Then September arrived and with it a change in the weather as the first hints of Fall began to linger in the air.

With fresh aromas of autumn brewing, memories of days from by-gone years stirred me into action and I loaded my canoe on top of my now beginning to age Jeep, tossed fishing gear in the back, and headed out early one morning.  My destination was Shanty Hollow Lake, which is about a forty five minute drive from my home.  It's a beautiful little lake about 600 acres or so in size...ideally suited for canoe fishing...with clean water and isolated by steep heavily wooded hills.

As I drove toward my destination I passed through cave country hills and marveled at the ghost like valleys and small farms, and barns that filtered through the morning fog.  I arrived moments after official sunrise, but the sun would take another thirty minutes or so before it climbed over the tops of the surrounding hills..  A thick fog floated across the lake and filtering through the haze I could see the first vestiges of fall colors in the trees.  There was no wind at all...just a magnified sense of anticipation that wafted from lingering memories of similar mornings past.  Before I shoved off, I simply stood on the edge of the lake and surveyed the scene.  It felt good to once again experience one of life's small pleasures.  As I slid away from the bank, the sounds of the morning provided an uplifting, calming spirit.

I tossed a line here and there seeking out those hidden recesses where the big bass lie...but alas the fishing was slow.  It didn't matter.  I was drawn to the peacefulness that reigned over this time and place.  As I drifted through the fog, noble emotions I thought long since dormant began to rekindle into flame.

The morning played slowly away and while the final layers of the mist dissolved, I paused in the middle of the lake.  No wind had yet stirred the surface of the water...just the ripples from my canoe and paddle.  I gazed across the skyline of trees now accented against a blazing blue sky.  It was then I once again realized how good it was to experience life from the heart.

No matter where home may be called, by finding time to grasp those moments, in some small way I discovered that a part of Kentucky already existed within me.  Historically, I will always be a native of Oklahoma...but because of this morning...Kentucky truly became a part of me...and I became a part of Kentucky.

I returned home with a renewed spirit equipped with a trophy like no other...not one that can be displayed on a wall...but one much more rewarding...for you see, what I discovered during that rendezvous of time and place was something that stirred deep within.  It was a trophy won from the heart...a gift you might say from my new home...Kentucky.


Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Lighthouse

Many years ago I experienced an adventure I would never trade for anything.  I spent four years in a very distinguished service:  The United States Coast Guard.  Most of that time was spent at the Umpqua River Lifeboat Station in Winchester Bay, Oregon.  One of the many responsibilities we had was caring for the Umpqua River Lighthouse.  The following is a recent story I wrote for
Sherri Elliot,,  for their 2010 symposium celebration.

(Photo's courtesy Sherri Elliot -


There was a quiet symmetry and slow rhythm to the nightly dance of light that played out high on the bluff that over looked the Umpqua River bar. Listen closely and a subtle but distinct growl seemed to reverberate from within the hollow confines of the old lighthouse. I never really knew why…maybe it was vibrations from the motor and drive shaft that supplied motion to the brass gears of the prism dome that rotated high above…maybe it was simply how the wind wrapped itself around the breadth of its tower creating a resonance of sorts that caused the hollow shell to vibrate. Maybe it was just my imagination, but the rumble seemed to keep time with the slow rotation of the one red and two white beams of focused light as they cut through the mist during their orbit around the compound.

I was much younger then…I guess it’s been the better part of 37 years ago now. I was 21 at the time, coming from the heart of Oklahoma the closest I’d ever been to a real lighthouse were pictures in a book. Maybe that was why I was so captivated by it. Even so, it doesn’t matter where you come from…there is something magical and endearing about a lighthouse.

The good Lord knew what he was doing back then by placing me in Winchester Bay, even though I did not fully comprehend the significance of it at the time. As a result, the few short years I spent on the Oregon coast as part of the U.S. Coast Guard Station, Umpqua River became the defining years of my young adult life…and my time in and around the Umpqua River Lighthouse became one of those iconic experiences that still affect who I am today.

That old structure became a safe haven of sorts offering a brief respite from the everyday grind we endured as crewmembers of the Coast Guard Station. That grind was characterized by hours and hours of cleaning, painting, and scrubbing, broken by an occasional stint on bar patrol riding the waves on the now retired CG44303 and 331 surfboats and even less often actually performing some kind of search and rescue operation. Oh…we were busy enough with the bar patrols and SAR operations especially during the summer months…but when we were not involved in one of those adventures…well, we scrubbed and painted just about everything that could be scrubbed and painted…multiple times…and then we did it again.

When the chance to break away from that routine became available, I was quick to latch onto it and Friday clean up chores at the lighthouse offered one of the best opportunities. I actually looked forward to that time and tried to keep that fact a secret as I jealously wanted to share very little of it with my fellow crewmates.

While there, I would often read some of the old entries in the lighthouse log books…mostly ordinary things like ‘swept the floor and stairs…oiled the gears’…things like that…making numerous mostly routine entries myself. I’ve often wondered what ever happened to those old log books.

Sometimes, I would hurry through my clean up chores so I could spend time simply looking out to sea from the heights of its tall structure. On clear days you could see about as far as your imagination would allow you to go. On those cold, dark, and damp days, I’d simply watch the light cut through the mist as that great lens would rotate slowly behind me slicing the damp air with its red and white beams. There was a peaceful atmosphere that permeated those heights, an atmosphere that is best experienced up close, as words can do little to describe the actual feeling. Needless to say, over time I began to believe that old lighthouse was a friend of mine…someone who didn’t care if I had messed up that week…always welcoming…always warm and refreshing…always providing something new to experience. I really looked forward to those few random opportunities to visit that place.

Often, when I had some free time, I would drive up the hill at night and park beneath the lighthouse to watch its choreographed performance. I found it rather calming. Dusk was the best time as the mist would gather and the beams would begin to glow. It was almost like the old lighthouse was using those beams of light to point toward something…as though it was trying to speak to anyone who wanted to listen…

”Come and see…” it would say...”Let me tell you of the adventures I have seen.”

Many times I have wondered what stories it could tell if indeed it could speak to us. One thing for sure is that it helped inspire a young man to dream of grand adventures.

I spent many hours on watch at the old lookout tower that at the time was situated just on the north end of the parking area in front of the lighthouse. During the long night watches, I can still vividly remember observing the magical light show as the red and white beams cut through the mist…and yes that growl…that constant, low volume rumble that seemed to groan from within was always there…a kind of song that was part of the symphony of light, sound, and the aroma of the pine scented mist that played out every night on that hill. It is a good thing that our minds capture such things for they become so much more than reflections of times past...they become reflections of who we are…Even so, I choose to save the best of those memories for myself.

From time to time we would be asked to provide tours of the lighthouse. As I was one of the few people at the station who could type at the time, I was often assigned office duty filling out daily reports and such and standing the comm-watch so when someone came in and asked for a tour, more often than not I would take them myself…not all the time mind you, others performed that roll as well…but I didn’t mind doing it when I could. Usually those tours involved an older retired couple on vacation or maybe some middle aged couple…rarely anyone close to our own age, except on rare occasions. One day a car pulled up next to our main building down in the harbor and a middle-aged couple stepped out. Many of my crewmates for some reason didn’t like giving tours and they tended to scatter rather quickly…and prematurely as it turned out on that occasion. Right behind the man and his wife their two daughters stepped out…and I must admit, they were both rather stunning. That was the best lighthouse tour I ever had the good fortune to perform…much to the jealous chagrin of several fellow crewmates.

There probably isn’t a day that goes by that the experiences that came into my life back then are not in someway reflected in who I am today. I learned a great deal about life during those few short years and the old lighthouse was an important part of it. I venture to wonder what life would be like now had I not been exposed to those days. It is good for the soul to do such things…remember dormant adventures by removing rustic memories from the old “trunk of recollections” and bringing them into the light again.

Should we ever lose all or part of the old lighthouse I suppose all those memories would still be there…but it would never be the same. Twenty-five or thirty years from now we may find ourselves asking why such a thing was ever allowed to happen.

The old lighthouse has always functioned admirably with a sense of grace, strength and purpose, but what seems most important today is simply its aesthetic beauty. The lighthouse may have over time lost its ability to serve the same purpose for which it was originally intended. I suppose it really doesn’t need to. In reality, it actually serves a more important purpose now…and that is to remind us of who we are.

It’s one of a kind Fresnel prism lens that has served so well for so many years, can still serve a common good by helping us to remember the significance of the lives that have revolved around it. It serves as an anchor in time, a point from where we can not only look back and revisit from where we have come, but look forward to where we want to go. Its beams hold within their glow the stories of times past, gliding on the currents of life that still reach across time…offering a safe haven where future stories may be archived.

Like lighthouses of olden days whose beams served as a beacon of warning, those beams can also serve as a warning to current and future generations…a warning about not letting go of old values, about not throwing away the things that cannot be replaced…about seeking wisdom before we act…about clinging to the things we hold dear and remembering that the most important safe havens are often found in the heart. It is good to know that the old lighthouse is still there, still reminding us of whom we are and encouraging us to build new memories on the way to the future.

My life would not be the same without the connection it has to that old lighthouse for through the years I’ve come to understand more clearly a few things I wished I would have understood more closely back then. Even today, in the half-light of a misty morning far removed by time and place… I can still hear the rumble of that old lighthouse as it speaks to me across the vacuum of years gone by.

I am forever thankful for having known you…my old friend…grateful for the memories…strengthened because you were a part of my life, and for a brief moment in time you provided an uncertain, searching young man a point of reference from the past…so he could face the future with confidence and purpose. It’s comforting to know that you still hold a part of my history cast onto your beams of light as dreams of grand adventures…dreams that still echo across time.

Keith R. Bridgman

USCG Station Umpqua River
1973 - 1975

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Looking for Mood

Most of you probably know by now, one of my favorite places to photograph is the Tallgrass Prairie area of Northern Oklahoma.  Over the past five or six years I've probably made in excess of twenty-five individual trips to the preserve often arriving before daylight and staying until after sundown.  This area may be one of the most under utilized scenic areas for photographers in the country.  That suits me just fine as on many of those excursions I was practically the only person there.  The prairie is not a place that can be effectively photographed from the gravel road or scenic overlooks. It is best observed up close by hiking into the interior and spending time amongst the arroyos and rolling hills.

I am often asked why I spend so much vacation time and effort returning over and over to the prairie...'Don't you have enough photographs?'  I used to try to answer in some profound way...but I no longer even try...instead my answer is more often, 'Well, I can't explain it'.  I've also been asked a number of times what I look for when photographing that area...and what I look for just in general when I head out on a photo shoot.  That's a tough one to answer as well, because there are so many variations.  The best answer I can give is to simply say I look for opportunities that generate a mood.

For a photographer, mood is determined by several factors..the most important being the quality of light.  Light alone though isn't always enough.  For light to be effective in generating mood it must be combined with an effective composition and interesting subject.

An area like the Tallgrass Prairie can never truly be captured in a single photograph.  What I've discovered is that a collection of related images viewed together does a better job of conveying the essence of this amazing landscape.  On any given trip into that area, I always try to capture what are called 'Establishing Shots'...or shots that captures the basic nature of the landscape.  I don't stop there...but I begin to look at it more closely and focus in on the smaller things that define the larger landscape.  Those include the common things like wildflowers, birds and wildlife...but they also encompass things like contrasting colors, shapes, form, and the action of wind and water.

Speaking of wind...there is a lot of it on the prairie which makes for ample opportunities to capture its effects. I often will use a small aperture and slow shutter speed and allow the wind to blur the movements of the grass.

What I try to avoid doing...not always taking those cliche shots.  Cliche shots are those images you've seen a hundred times...time and place may be different...but the basic shot is pretty much the same.  Not all cliche shots are bad, it's just that I try to be a bit more creative.  Even so, I still struggle with avoiding doing so as it is easy to snap away and end up with hundreds of shots that all look alike.

I also often head up that way with a specific agenda in mind.  On one trip I may concentrate on morning or evening shots.  On another trip I look for birds or wildlife...and on still another I concentrate on wildflowers or related subjects.  Many times the weather does not cooperate so I try to remain flexible and adjust accordingly.

One thing I pretty much always do is to shoot early and late in the day.  Depending on the lighting condition, photo's taken in the middle of the day tend to be flat and ordinary.  Most of my middle of the day shots I use just to document potential locations for future early or late opportunities.  Having said that, sometimes middle of the day shots can be quite effective, but that requires a good combination of bright colors and/or contrasts of color or light.  Overcast days oddly enough are often great days to shoot the area because of the soft even light and especially if there is any kind of  texture in the sky.

In summary...the Tallgrass Prairie is a location filled with visual emotion expressed through many moods.  As a photographer, my job is to capture the changing moods of the landscape through the effective use of light...and then present the image in such a way that it generates an emotional response in the viewer.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Where what once was...still is

I've written a number of articles and stories about Oklahoma's Tallgrass Prairie.  I've also taken thousands of photographs of the area.  Some might say there's a bit of obsession involved.  Maybe so...but, I prefer to think of it as...well, let me try to explain.

Most people have never heard about the tallgrass saga, and most probably aren't aware that there are three distinct prairie regions in North America.  First, there's the short grass prairie which encompasses the western sections of the plains states.  It is characterized by short scrubby grasses...a hot and dry climate...and higher elevations found along the landscapes that reach eastward from the Rocky Mountains.  Then there is a thin ribbon of an area called the mixed grass prairie where the climate begins to change and a blending of the short grass and tallgrass area begins.  Finally, there is the tallgrass prairie.

The tallgrass region at one time was perhaps the largest eco-system in North was a massive sea of tallgrass species that grew taller than a man and stretched from southern Canada, across the eastern Dakota's, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and into Texas almost to the gulf coast.  It stretched across southern Minnesota, almost all of Iowa and a good part of Illinois and northern Missouri, and there were even isolated pockets in Kentucky and Arkansas.

Three forces helped to create and sustain the tallgrass prairie:  1. The climate with hot summers, cold winters, and good moisture.  2. Millions of American Bison (buffalo) roamed across the area which grazed the grasses low, disturbed the soil, and dropped tons of fertilizer. 3. Fire...which burned across the grasslands often for days or even weeks clearing thousands of acres and preventing the encroachment of brushy plants and trees from choking out the grasslands.

The tallgrass prairie saga today is one of loss and restoration for between 1840 and 1890, in less than one generation, over ninety percent and in some areas as much as 99 percent of the tallgrass prairie was destroyed.  This destruction took form in multiple ways when civilization discovered the rich fertile lands.  The tallgrass region was plowed under, replanted with crops, fenced off and replaced with single species of range grasses.  The bison were killed, and fire was suppressed.  Within 50 or 60 years, almost all of the original tallgrass area was gone. The only place now where horizon to horizon vistas of original tallgrass prairie can still be found, is the Flint Hills region of eastern Kansas and northern Oklahoma.  It's difficult to grasp, but the Tallgrass Prairie is the most endangered land form in the world...even more endangered than the rain forests.

Northern Oklahoma is home to the largest of the few protected areas that remain...The Tallgrass Prairie Preserve, owned and maintained by the Nature Conservancy, is unique in the world.  No other location still uses all three of the original forces that sustained the prairie.  The climate has remained basically the same in the region, and there are around 3000 bison that roam free and wild across the preserve.  Fire is also used, although controlled, in the same way as the wildfires that once scarred the landscape.

I began my affair with the tallgrass saga over 15 years ago when I first visited the preserve.  It was pretty new at the time and only a few hundred bison were on the preserve.  Most of them I was able to watch from high atop a knoll as they grazed across a slope a few hundred yards away.  I watched my first legendary prairie sunset that day and even though I didn't own any quality camera equipment at the time, I made a promise to myself to return and photograph what was there.  It took over ten years before I would live up to that promise, but eventually I did return with camera in hand and began capturing the flavor and drama across this wonderful landscape.  Little did I realize at the time that six years later I'd still be searching that landscape for all of its photographic potential.  I've not even come close to finishing.

Oklahoma's Tallgrass Prairie is truly a place where what once was...still is.  At one time I thought of the prairie as just a big field full of weeds.  No more...for I've spent hours sitting under the shade of an isolated cedar tree just letting the sounds of the prairie infiltrate into my heart.  I've watched legendary sunsets and amazing sunrises.  I've face prairie storms and encountered close up angry bison.  I estimate that I've driven hundreds of mile on the gravel roads and hike dozens of miles through its fields and across its hills and arroyos.  I've sat atop a high knoll and surveyed a landscape that stretched from horizon to horizon with not a single man made object in sight.  I've watch white clouds drift across a blazing blue sky.  I'm still in wonder of this landscape and will continue to search its quiet beauty and the soul cleansing that it affords.

I'm often questioned about why I keep returning after all the thousands of photo's I've already taken.  I quit trying to find an answer because there is no answer that will satisfy that question.  The best I can do is to show you what I've experienced.  Please find time to watch this video...after doing so...maybe you will understand as well.