Beyond The Campfire was created to encourage readers to explore the great outdoors and to look at it more closely. 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 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 Pilot

The Pilot
The Pilot

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 successfully...is 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.

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