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The word prairie invokes images of a landscape wide open in every direction. The winter brings a cold dynamic to this land, snow settling in and frost forming on the grasses while they dance in the breeze. It can be a challenge to capture the essence of this cold terrain, but there are few tips that can help you capture a winter landscape on the prairie.
The prairie’s grassland flows into eternity, eventually joining with the sky at the horizon. If you want to capture the essence of the openness of the prairie, including a lot of sky is a good idea. Use a wide-angle lens, usually something in the range of 11-24mm and tilt the lens to include a large portion of the sky.
A recent snow will become a huge light reflector taking on the ambient hues. During sunrise and sunset, the snow can take on all sorts of hues – oranges, reds, purples, that give the prairie an otherworldly quality. Take advantage of these times to convey that even on the coldest days there can be a bit of warmth.
While capturing grand wide-angle shots can be fun, be sure to get near the ground. Don’t be afraid to get your clothes dirty and wet while getting low. Tracks in snow, prairie grass, snow on branches, these little details help provide context and shape the story of winter on the prairie.
Choose a fairly wide open aperture to give the background a nice blur and isolate your subject. Including the low sun in the composition can add an additional interesting element to the composition of a winter landscape.
When preparing for a sunrise or sunset shoot on the prairie it’s always a good idea to keep your options open. Scout around and find 3-4 locations facing in various directions, just in case the light turns out better in one direction than another. Find your ideal positioning and frame some shots in all of these locations so that you can quickly move if conditions change, and always assume they will.
Set up your tripod in your ideal location and frame your shot. As the light changes check the locations and angles you chose earlier. If you use a quick release with your tripod you can remove your camera quickly to check if there are stronger compositions. If so, grab your tripod move to the new shot. You’ll find your keeper rate will rise with a little pre-planning!
Winter’s embrace creates unique opportunities for abstracts and patterns. Ice on small ponds will be filled with cracks and bubbles. Generally, the more thawing and freezing that has occurred, the more the ice takes on an artistic quality. On foggy days, hoarfrost can cling to trees and prairie grass creating silvery outlines that accentuate the cold feel of the season.
Look for these patterns and use a macro or telephoto lens to zoom in and focus on them. Sometimes even the simplest patterns and shapes that are created or isolated by snow and ice can become compelling subjects.
As with all nature photography, watching the weather forecast is crucial, but in the winter months, it’s even more imperative. For one thing, you don’t want to be stranded somewhere during a blizzard or ice storm. Secondly, winter brings weather and precipitation that can create compelling scenes.
For snow, you should plan to be out while it’s falling or right after the last snowflake to capture the untouched white blanket across the landscape. After a day there’s a possibility for it have melted into a muddy mess, or have too many tracks or footprints. Fog, as mentioned previously, can coat the world in a nice outline of frost and provide lower contrast scenes. Lower than freezing temperatures brings frozen lakes and ice and with it natural patterns and designs. Lastly, be sure to watch the weather while you’re out as it can change suddenly for the better or worse!
The prairie is a dynamic landscape filled with opportunities to capture interesting and compelling images. The distinctive qualities of winter bring unique opportunities to these dynamic scenes. Not only is it a place where both land and sky stretch into eternity, but the small intimate details tell their own story.
Do you live near a prairie landscape? Please share your tips and photos below.