Hometown Nature Photography

by | September 14, 2011

© Darren HuskiSome people live within a mountain range or at the doorstep of a national park. They have amazing scenery and big game right out their front door. I am not one of those people. I live on the flat of the south plains, and it is 507 miles to the nearest national park (not that I am counting).

Like most people these days, I live in a city. Ansel Adams had Yosemite as his backyard; I have over one million neighbors. As such, it is easy to dismiss the idea of being able to make great nature photographs where you live. However, with a little time and effort you might find that you can make some great nature photographs right in your own hometown. It might not be the same as being in a national park but it sure is a lot closer.

My hometown of Fort Worth, Texas is fairly large city of several hundred thousand, and some 1.8 million people live in the county. With so many people, it’s hard to imagine it as a nature photography destination. However, I have managed to find some great opportunities for image making here despite the crowds – I just have to work with what I have available.

For starters, Fort Worth is a cowboy town, where our stock exchange trades cattle, the rodeo is still a regular event, and the Chisholm Trail once passed through. Knowing the history and character of the area helps me with ideas for photography as well as finding locations. The local stockyards offer up history and the remaining cattle ranches provide a flavor of the old west that I often work with. This is also the eastern edge of what was the Comancheria, the land of the Comanche, who once roamed over all of the south plains. The open prairies and free roaming bison are now a memory, but I often seek to find landscapes that would represent the land as they would have seen it. Find out more about where you live and you might be inspired by its past too.

Living in and knowing about the area gives me the ability to work with the local environment. An evening here, a weekend walk there and you start to learn about an area. The key is to get out and look. Grab your camera and walk or bike around the region where you live.

A big plus with local photography is that living in an area gives you more chances to see it in different seasons and in different light. I might only be able to get to Big Bend twice a year but I can photograph the landscape around town every week. I am here for spring flowers, fall color, and winter snowfalls. If you have a free weekend morning you can out walking, or if you notice the clouds looking interesting towards the end of the day one evening, you can shoot a pretty sunset. Because it only takes a few minutes to get to a location, I can get there quickly and return home quickly too. Everyday access is the advantage you have in your hometown; use it to make great images.

By walking through parks, biking along greenbelts, and following streams I have found plenty of great landscape locations to photograph. Trees, flowers, rocks and waterfalls can all be found around where I live, and I bet you can find some of that where you live too. Sure, these spots can sometimes be a challenge to find and in the city it can be even more difficult to not include buildings or power lines, but think of that as part of the fun! Often times that means thinking like Eliot Porter and finding a small intimate scene where you can exclude the distractions of the modern city. However I still also look for opportunities to take it all in and capture a big sky sunset. I keep a list of locations that have potential for different conditions and seasons. Then when I wake up on a Saturday morning, I can make grab my gear and go to a known location if the morning looks promising or I have a couple of hours to get outside.

Fog in the park © Darren Huski

Look for parks and greenbelts in your town. These are often easy to find and if you look you may even find parks with natural areas. Go at dawn and you will even avoid the crowds – only runners and cyclists will be out early. Remember that a park in the fog or after a snow will take on a whole new look from the every day. On those rare days we actually get snow I head for my favorite parks to see them covered in white.

Most every city has at least one park that was named a park and left undeveloped. If you are not sure of any, go to Google Maps and start looking around, you might be surprised to find parks you did not know existed. In addition to parks you might also find undeveloped parcels of land when using the satellite view. Those areas of open space will jump right out at you when seen from above. Then zoom in to see the details. You might be surprised to find several areas you did not know about are within a few minute drive of your house. Put the tools of the web to work for you to find new areas and then go explore.

Using Google Maps I have found several different parks, bike paths, and areas I was otherwise unfamiliar with that have allowed me to work in areas produce some neat images. Between the places I knew and places I have found I now have over a dozen locations that I know can yield a great landscape image. One of my favorite local parks in Fort Worth is our Japanese Garden. It is a jewel of a park with interesting features, scenes, and trees that offers up some of the most vivid fall color in north Texas.

Fall colors at Japanese garden © Darren Huski

Nature Centers are also a growing trend in cities and suburbs. Does your town have one? If it does they are often great locations for birds or small mammals and can even have some nice landscapes. We have a nature center that has acres of woodland and riparian habitat to explore. They have a small herd of bison and the center also rehabs injured birds. All of that makes it a great location for the wildlife and landscape folks.

Rivers, streams, and other waterways are often a great place to find nature. Cities may grow, but often, for rather good reasons, floodplains are not developed. The linear nature of a river or stream provides corridors for wildlife and can make great landscape locations too. After a severe flood in the 1940’s, Fort Worth created a series of parks and trails along the two forks of the Trinity River and several of its smaller streams that run across the city. It was done for flood control, but a side result is I can pedal my bike or walk for over 40 miles following the river through town. Exploring these waterways on foot, by bike, or even canoe I have found rocky cascades, quiet pools, and even waterfalls.

Forest river © Darren Huski

The Clear Fork of the Trinity River is only a five minute walk from my home and along its clear and rocky banks I find a great many interesting scenes to turn my lenses toward. Despite how much I like this river, no one will ever confuse it for the mighty Colorado or Rio Grande. It is a small river that only runs through two counties – but it is my hometown river and a wonderful local subject for a photographer.

The quest for nature in town does not preclude the wildlife photographers either. I am amazed what animals either still survive or have made their way back into the city limits. In town I have seen wild turkey, coyotes, buzzards, beavers, nutria, and many types of waterfowl. Add in the more common birds, rabbit, and squirrels and you find that birds and animals are really everywhere. There are even birding guides to Central Park in NYC; if nature can survive there, it can thrive anywhere.

If even after looking on your own you still can’t figure out where to go, you can always seek the advice of others for locations in the area. Check out local camera clubs, other photographers, camera stores, birding organizations, the Sierra Club, and even the local bicycle shop; these can all be sources for information on trails, parks, and potential locations. Do not forget web resources like Flickr or just a plain ol’ Google search either. There are images from just about everywhere available someplace online.

Great falls of the clear fork © Darren Huski

If all else fails with finding nature in town get in your car and drive outside town, just outside the city limits. You do not have to go out far into the country on little two lane roads to find nature. Avoid the interstate and find two lane highways or county roads – something that you can stop along or pull off of. Within ten miles of downtown I can find ranches, fields, open range, and wooded streams that look much more like wilderness than their proximity to a large city would suggest.

Photographing the local landscape can be fun and rewarding. Knowing the right location, finding the right conditions, or maybe just the right lens choice can let you make a landscape image that seems out in the wild, even if it’s just a five minute drive from home. No matter where you live and whether it is near forest, farmland, or plains, there is something neat closer than you think.

Nature is there and photos can be made, you just have to work with what you have. So start looking around your hometown with new eyes and you might just find it has much more nature photography opportunity than you ever thought possible. Then get your camera and go make images that capture the nature that is there, right in your own backyard.

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