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Catching Just the Right Moment

© Mark Baldwin

by Erik Neidy,
Resource Management and Development 

In 2012, the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County was in the process of dedicating Springbrook Prairie Forest Preserve in Naperville as an Illinois nature preserve. District staff used local photographers’ work to highlight more than 20 years of native grassland, prairie, wetland and creek restoration at the third largest DuPage forest preserve. An internet search produced an amazing series of landscape photos by Naperville photographer Mark Baldwin. This photo of Springbrook Prairie caught my eye and was eventually used as the cover for our nature preserve dedication documents.

Springbrook Prairie Mark Baldwin
It quickly became apparent that Mark had visited numerous other preserves, and he possessed a natural ability for “catching it just at the right moment.” I recently sat down with Mark to talk about his photo series and time spent in DuPage forest preserves. Read on, and you’ll see how Mark’s passion for the outdoors fuels his breathtaking photography. 

EN: What brought you to photogragphy?

MB: Like a lot of people, photography is something that has always fascinated me but I didn’t know anything about it. In winter 2006, I joined the Morton Arboretum and took a winter photography class with a point-and-shoot Kodak digital camera. Once I learned how to use the manual settings that 99 percent of people never use, I was hooked. When you start seeing things that you’ve taken that remind you of other amazing photographs, you think, “Wow! I can really do this.”

EN: What brought you to take landscape shots, and more specifically, your choice in light?

MB: Most landscape shots are typically taken at dawn and dusk, because the light is the warmest during these times. Shooting with midday light — unless you have good cloud cover — can be very difficult. The light can be more harsh and tends to wash out many of the colors. These colors begin to come back out as the sun begins to set.

I grew up hunting and fishing in and around a small town in Indiana, so being outdoors is what I like. It just felt natural take outdoor shots. When I got into photography, it never occurred to me to be a portrait photographer. This gets me outdoors. It gets me lots of exercise. It allows me to see things that I might not normally see or even ever notice. It provides opportunities for me to get to many of the local forest preserves and trips I probably would have never gone to before like Isle Royale up near Lake Superior.

EN: How did you find Springbrook Prairie?

MB: I live near Springbrook Prairie and had driven by it several times. It is one of the few wide open spaces where you can take a large landscape photograph without power-lines or houses in the shot. At about 1,800 acres, there are just so many places to go and so many different environments. You have the prairies, wetlands and creek, and I can shoot any of those in any of the different seasons. It’s just so big!

EN: You have a great eye for catching the right spot or the right time of day, and colors simply flow from your photographs. District staff have worked in many of the areas you photograph and who have stopped to admire your work often ask, “Is that West Chicago Prairie?” or “Is that Mayslake Savanna?” It’s really neat to watch people’s reactions to your photos. How do you know where to go and what to shoot?

MB: You quickly realize that it can take several trips to one location to get just the right light, the right conditions, even the right season. When weather conditions are not ideal, you can still do research by hiking and explore areas you know will make a good photograph. For example, the shot of White Pine Pond at Blackwell, that was not my first time there. But I saw what picture could be made with the right conditions. One day I realized a storm would be clearing in that area. The winds were low, the light was going to be right, the wild bergamot was still in bloom, so I was able to head over there and get that shot.

More and more I’ve been keeping a log of places that I like to go for different shots. For instance, I was at Churchill Prairie in late summer for the first time, and I could see all of the coneflower and prairie clover seed heads left over from that spring. All I could think was how beautiful that must look when all those flowers are in bloom. So I made a note to go back there next spring. The longer you do this, the more you realize you can’t keep it all in your head. Taking good notes is important. Even taking notes of when you took the photo under what conditions, and why you chose that shot becomes very valuable, especially when you go on a trip and have hundreds of pictures. After a while, they all begin to look the same!

EN: Can the average person take similar shots with some basic skills?

MB: There are some great classes out there … to learn the basics of composition and light and general rules of photography, like not putting your subject in the middle of the frame. It makes it much more interesting if you frame it to the side or to one-third of the frame. By learning these basic techniques, you begin to see the world differently and in more interesting ways. You see it framed in a picture, imagine it during a different season or even notice its different textures. It’s a lot of fun when you start seeing things from that perspective.

Photography doesn’t have to inspire you to be a photographer. It has a lot of different uses, from setting the mood based on an expression on someone’s face to highlighting the restoration work the Forest Preserve District does, like at Springbrook Prairie Nature Preserve. Anybody who is considering taking up photography should. Whatever you want to do, there is a great deal of satisfaction that comes from it.

In the months ahead, our “100 Stories for 100 Years” feature will highlight some of Mark’s landscape photos to commemorate our centennial. Look for stories by some of our Natural Resources staff to learn about our stewarding land and caring for its resources. To view more of Mark’s work, visit natureofthingsphotography.com.  

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