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Photographing Prairie: An Eye for Detail

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Few natural habitats are as challenging to photograph as tallgrass prairie. This mostly extinct habitat once covered much of central North America, before the discovery that prairie soils were especially productive for agriculture. Now the great tallgrass prairie only exists as degraded, marginal scraps between corn fields, covering less than five percent of its original extent.

Because of its rarity and fragility, prairie is worth photographing. Yet, prairie landscapes lack the stark mountainscapes of the west and the lush trees of the east. The broader landscapes are typically flat, with few obvious points of interest, while foregrounds are crammed with the untidy details of scrambling plants. By late summer, flowers and stalks sway many feet overhead. Simplifying the tangle into a sensible photograph is surprisingly difficult.

I’m writing this post to share a photo that represents one of my strategies for this habitat. Rather than trying for full prairiescapes, I often prefer to abstract details using long lenses. For example, here is a stand of big bluestem as seen through a wide-open 200mm telephoto:

Incidentally, if you sit close to your computer screen and stare, this is what it looks like to be lost in the tallgrass prairie.

Photo details: Canon EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM
on a Canon EOS 6D; 200mm
ISO 800, f/2.8, 1/500 sec
handheld; no flash
taken at Meadowbrook Park, Urbana, Illinois

Alex Wild About the Author: Alex Wild is Curator of Entomology at the University of Texas at Austin, where he studies the evolutionary history of ants. In 2003 he founded a photography business as an aesthetic complement to his scientific work, and his natural history photographs appear in numerous museums, books and media outlets. Follow on Twitter @myrmecos.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. DRintoul 6:25 pm 08/13/2013

    Alex, it’s not quite true that tallgrass prairie “only exists as degraded, marginal scraps”. Here in the Flint Hills of Kansas there are many acres of native prairie. See


    for some sample images.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Alex Wild in reply to Alex Wild 2:09 pm 08/15/2013

    Thanks for your comment, DRintoul. There’s obviously some subjectivity here- and Kansas has managed to preserve more prairie than Illinois, certainly, mostly in the Flint Hills- but from a global perspective I disagree. The remaining prairie patches represent such a small percentage of the original acreage, less than 4%, and even the better patches are facing invasion by brome, spurge, and other aggressive invaders. Tallgrass prairie is one of the world’s most endangered ecosystems.

    Link to this

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