Just finished up planning details for my night photography workshop in the Kansas Flint Hills. I must say there is something about night photography that I really enjoy, the sense of mystery, the vastness and beauty of the night sky, all making one realize how insignificant we are in relation the universe.
Exploring subject matter and doing a little night photography in preparation for my workshop made for a cold and lonely night. That is one of the drawbacks. Late nights, especially in the summer months when it does not get dark until late, can really mess with your sleep pattern. But I must say the reward can make it all worthwhile. If you are out alone though, the darkness can be rather spooky. On this night there were horses out in a pasture at this location. I knew they were there but they mostly stayed a couple hundred yards away. After setting up one camera to take multiple continuous shots to potentially be used in a time lapse sequence, I retreated to my vehicle to relax. It was cold and a little windy so I thought I would warm up and check my email on my phone. After about 10 minutes relaxing in my car something banged on the side of my truck. Scared the bejeez out of me. Turns out the horses must have gotten curious and decided to pay a visit and bump my truck as if to say, BOO! Well, it worked. I jumped out of the truck to see what or who was there. I then noticed a group of four or five horses begin to wander off, probably engaging in a little horse’s laughter among themselves, having succeeded in spooking the visitor. Having someone else along has a number of benefits, if for no other reason than combatting loneliness and warding off those unsuspecting bumps in the night.
Notwithstanding the interesting experiences of the evening, I came away with a few images and was able to compile this brief star trail/Milky Way time lapse.
The annual Flint Hills prairie burns are again approaching. In just a few short weeks ranchers in the Flint Hills will begin their annual burning of the prairie. This event has become an event to experience for casual observers and photographers alike.
Where and What are the Flint Hills?
The Flint Hills – Big sky, expansive landscape, and a horizon that stretches on forever is the beautiful four-million-acre swath of land in eastern Kansas makes up about 80 percent of what is left of the world’s tallgrass prairie, according to the Nature Conservancy. The prairie’s is composed of mostly Big and little bluestem, switchgrass and Indian grass, and a geology of limestone and shale. Historically it was known as Bluestem Pastures or Blue Stem Hills. Zebulon Pike was an explorer who first coined the name Flint Hills after entering in his journal about “very ruff flint hills”. It was suggested that over time Flint Hills had a better ring to it than something like Bluestem Pastures.
A Bit about the Flint Hills
It’s written that clay soil and cherty (flint) gravel is what saved the Flint Hills from the plow, While there were some areas used for agriculture during the period between the Civil War and the 1900’s, much has been turned back into pasture. Among Flint Hills folklore, author James Kindall, suggested the Osage Indians, after having been displaces for the third time to what is not the Flint Hills, were pleased about its unsuitability as farmland as the tribe was unlikely to have to move again.
Why do they Burn?
Prairie fires are essential to maintaining the unique ecology of the flint hills. Native Americans used fire on the prairie to generate new growth that attracted bison. And later, with the arrival of cattle in substantial numbers in the 1860s-1870s, burning and grazing, as key range-management methods, have helped maintain the structure and function of the tallgrass ecosystem.
Without the burning practices the prairie, which provide nutrients and help the grasses grow, would become mostly a scrub forest of essentially Eastern Red Cedars and would have little practical use for anything. As such, the ranchers have a springtime ritual, which sustains the lush grasses for the cattle and has come to provide unique and beautiful opportunities for photography. While the winter and spring weather will determine when the burns take place, it usually happens during a period around mid-March through the latter part of April. Last year the burn took place following a two-year hiatus because of drought conditions; though, high spring-time winds can also cause ranches to cancel or postpone planned burns.
Prairie Burn Photography Workshops
For the last couple of years Craig McCord Photography Workshops teamed with Manhattan Kansas photographer, Jason Soden, conducting several exclusive prairie burn photography workshops. It is really a joyful experience, not only for the great photography involvement, but to get to know the ranchers and their way of life. These folks are true Americans that love their simple but hard-working lifestyle and are happy to share their stories and experiences with visitors.
While photographing the burns it was a pleasure to watch young rancher-to-be children participating in the springtime prairie burn ritual. Then later they played and roasted hot-dogs as the elders prepared the cowboy meal for our photography group. As we relaxed around the camp fire enjoying our cowboy meal of pulled pork and all the fixings, including homemade cookies and brownies, we discussed photography and prepared to venture out for the second burn of the day, the dusk burn. This time of day for me is the most exciting, as the flames reach toward a red setting sun that creates cowboys silhouettes against the backdrop of the burning prairie.
This year we are again we will host a host Flint Hills Prairie burn photography workshop at the Clover Cliff Ranch and Bed and Breakfast in Elmdale, KS. . We are looking forward to another fantastic exclusive photography event. If you wish to take part in next year’s prairie burn workshops, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will make sure you get on the list.
Back during a September evening the forecast for the night sky was clear for the Kansas City area. So I thought I’d head out to the Flint Hills on the Kansas side to a place called Teter’s Rock for some night photography. The Flint Hills encompasses a region in eastern Kansas and north-central Oklahoma. It features a band of rolling hills and grasslands with wide open skies. A place where in the spring you might see storms developing 50 miles away. In this area you can easily escape the light pollution of the city in search of a dark sky for star photography. While the dark skies are great for night photography, you have to really search for something to effectively use as s an interesting foreground element. Enter Teter Rock.
Teters Rock is a group of stones standing as a tribute to a man, James Teter, who owned the land where a small community developed around some oil fields. Of course the community is long gone and all that remains are these standing rocks on some high ground that represented what was originally intended as a guidepost for homesteaders searching for the nearby Cottonwood River. The original stones are long gone but the current day monolith was erected as a tribute to James Teter, while most any other sign of the former community is long gone. Teter Rock now offers a great foreground object to include in a composition while photographing the night skies of Kansas.
Arriving on site, I began to evaluate the area for possible compositions. The sun was just about to set so I caught a few quick shots of the setting sun through the openings of the rocks comprising the Teter monument. I then explored positions facing north to determine where to best set up to place the rock in relation to the North Star, which would be the center of rotation of my star trails. My initial objective was to plan for a length of time to take multiple exposures to later stack together to show the resulting star trails over Teter Rock. There are always small things to consider on the horizon, such as a flashing strobe on a distant tower, glow from a small town in the distance, should I position my camera closer to the ground for a lower perspective, and other considerations. The camera I had available to me this night was my Canon 5DSR. This camera is a great choice for landscapes because of its high pixel count, allowing for very detailed images. However, because of the higher pixel count it does not perform as well at high ISO settings often associated with night photography. But it is the only camera I had available at the time so I chose to use it to actually test its performance in these conditions.
When taking star trail images you won’t necessarily need to higher ISO’s such as 3200 or 6400. In fact I will often start out around f/4, ISO 400, 4min on a dark night without a moon. I might take a couple of test shots to fine tune my exposure. With desired exposure and composition determined, I set the intervalometer for no more than 4 min exposures and fire it off , sit back in my rag chair and enjoy a beverage and snacks, and just let it go. I had allowed for only a 1 sec interval between exposures and used a total of about 60 exposures to create the star trail shot above.
The crescent moon, which provided a small amount of ambient light, began to get low on the horizon as the night wore on. The brightest portion of the Milky Way, easily identified by its proximity to the constellation Sagittarius, was still about 15-20 degrees above the horizon. I could now reposition and try a few Milky Way shots above Teter Rock. Now this is when I really expected to run into problems with noise in my images because of having to increase my ISO. Using a Rokinon 24mm f/1.4 lens my strategy was to stay as low as possible on the ISO to mitigate the
noise and rely on the speed of the lens to capture the needed light. I knew that by using my 24mm and applying the 500 rule ( 500 / focal length of lens = max exposure time)I should keep my exposure time to no longer than about 20 seconds to render the stars as points of light in the image. Nonetheless, I decided to push the exposure to 30 seconds considering I kept my ISO at 1600 in lieu of the 3200 or 6400 I might have otherwise chosen using my Canon 5D Mark III.
All things considered, the images I came away with were quite acceptable after post processing, and to my surprise the noise was very manageable. You can see, however in the 100% magnification of the Milky Way image of why you should be mindful of your exposure time when your objective is to capture stars as points of light. While the image viewed at normal magnification looks acceptable, when magnified it clearly shows the elongated rice-shaped stars resulting from the earth’s movement over that 30 seconds. Where this would really become obvious is if you decided to make a large print. The lesson here is that you should always consider the 500 rule in these cases and even do a test shot and then magnify the result in your LCD to be sure your stars are both in focus and your exposure is within limits to produce stars as points of light.
The prime season in the Northern Hemisphere to view the Galactic Core of the Milky Way is from March to October, with best viewing between April and July. While the Milky Way is still visible throughout the year, the brightest portion of the core will be below the horizon from November to February.
I CONDUCT SEVERAL NIGHT PHOTOGRAPHY WORKSHOPS DURING THE SUMMER MONTHS IN THE KANSAS FLINT HILLS AND HOPE YOU WILL SUBscribe TO MY BLOG TO GET PLANNED DATES OR REVIEW LATEST POSTS AND TECHNIQUES. YOU CAN ALSO VISIT MY WEBSITE FOR ALL SCHEDULED WORKSHOPS AT WWW.CRAIGMCCORDPHOTOGRAPHY.COM
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