"It is that special light at dawn that defines a landscape in magical ways."
It is the landscape photographer’s job to rise well before the sun and return to rest long after it sets. It is that special light at dawn, or just after sunset, that defines a landscape in magical ways. On overcast days at sunrise or sunset there is often a slim break between the horizon and clouds that lasts a minute or two and sends a focused shaft of light across the land, such was a morning during my recent visit to The Nature Conservancy’s Double Bar Seven Ranch in South Dakota.
I spent several days at the ranch photographing the grasslands of the Conata Basin that border the Badlands of South Dakota. I almost overslept on this morning only awakened by the sound of prairie birds that sing at the first glimmer of light. Jumping from bed, and knowing there was little time to waste I grabbed a camera and tripod and fled the ranch house in panic.
Luck was with me as I reached the pasture nearby, the sun made a quick break through that slim layer between horizon and cloud. Knowing I could not aim my camera directly into the bright light of the sun I maneuvered to shade my lens as much as possible by the few small trees along the pastures edge while still catching the slanting light across the grassland.
Since November 2007, The Nature Conservancy has purchased 6,188 acres along the western edge of Conata Basin including the Double Bar Seven and Badlands ranches. The acquisitions include federal grazing allotments totaling 25,188 acres. The allotments are significant because they are home to relatively large numbers of black-footed ferrets, one of the rarest mammals in North America. With reintroductions of native wildlife such as bison, bighorn sheep, black-footed ferrets and swift fox, Conata Basin is now one of the most complete Great Plains ecosystems in the United States.
Mark Godfrey is The Nature Conservancy's director of photography.