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Western Fireworks

In the pursuit of captivating photography, it sometimes pays to aim low.

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Purple coneflower (Echinacea) adorns a roadside at Ponderosa Wildlife Management Area near Crawford.

Story and Photos by Justin Haag

When developing an interest in nature photography years ago, capturing the subjects on these pages were at the bottom of my list.

Yet, on countless mornings of taking photos of landscapes and wildlife, there they were: Little bursts of color around my feet. I already knew that pretty sunrises, sunsets and fauna were even more attractive with wildflowers in the scene.

Soon, though, I learned a macro lens focused at various parts of these plants could provide imagery rivaling any burst of fireworks. The radiating petals of a flower feature the lines that we photographers crave. The presence of a pollinating insect makes a scene akin to those provided by our biggest wildlife species. All the while, the plants congenially remained still enough for me to set up off-camera flash and multiple poses.

The white flowers of prickly poppy (Argemone polyanthemos) stand out against blackened timber in the Pine Ridge. Photo by Justin Haag.

Along the way, I have also learned some things about the plants, which I value just as much as the imagery. Still too often, though, some unfamiliar petals catch my eye, and I think to myself, “You sure are a pretty little thing, but are you worth the trouble?”

By “trouble,” I mean shooting the photo, entering it into the digital workflow and, finally, getting the identification right. That last part usually involves poring over ID books — the foremost resource is Nebraskaland great Jon Farrar’s incredible Field Guide to Wildflowers of Nebraska and the Great Plains.

When all that fails, my pursuit ends with “the email of shame”: a message to knowledgeable, patient colleagues such as Game and Parks private lands biologist Shelley Steffl, botanist Gerry Steinauer or Chadron State College professor Steve Rolfsmeier.

With identification in hand, I look back and think: Yes, it’s always worth the trouble. ■

About Justin Haag

Justin Haag has served the Commission as a public information officer in the Panhandle since 2013. His duties include serving as regional editor for NEBRASKAland Magazine. Haag was raised in southwestern Nebraska, where he developed a love for fishing, hunting and other outdoor pursuits. After earning a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Chadron State College in 1996, he worked four years as an editor and reporter at newspapers in Chadron and McCook. Prior to joining the Commission in 2013, he worked 12 years as a communicator at Chadron State, serving as the institution’s media and public relations coordinator the last five. He and his wife, Cricket, live in Chadron, and have two children.