George Wilson: The Black and White Landscape - Palmetto Prairie

001 Palmetto Prairie Hal Scott Preserve 590 395

Black and White photography is my roots. It is where I first cut my photographic teeth with plus-x and tri-x films. Later on it was the extremely fine grain TMax film. Black and white is also my first darkroom experience. I remember exposing the paper and then gently coaxing each image out by agitating the developing tray slightly. I can only compare it to watching something approach on a foggy day. There is a point at which all is suddenly sharp and clear. Digital imaging still allows me to use black and white. Selecting monochrome and using colored contrast filters transports me back to the days of the darkroom. The smell of developer flashes back instantly sometimes.

Good black and white images, in my opinion, are about contrast. One assignment I give my advanced photography students is to watch an old movie like The Grapes of Wrath, Casablanca, Raging Bull, or Young Frankenstein. I tell them ‘don’t watch the movie, watch the contrast!’ First, your viewing is controlled by what is in focus, this is what you see, and this is what they wanted you to see. This is what your brain first goes to in a scene. Then next is lighting. Usually you notice light against the dark first. This is how they created separation, gave things depth and even created mood. Night scenes were shot in daylight and were just under exposed. Contrasts in texture gave more life to the scene. Black and White photography is about light!

For the image above I was at the Hal Scott Preserve in Eastern Orange County, Florida, just a short distance from the bustling theme parks in the Orlando area. Orlando is my home having forsaken the snow and cold of New England years ago. It was a warm and humid August day in the early afternoon. Here in Central Florida, that means clouds were building for the almost daily dose of humidity rain. If you need a sky with character in Florida, start shooting mid-day.

The Hal Scott Preserve is located on the banks of the Econlockhatchee River and contains shell mounds left by the Timucua Indians. These native peoples vanished from Florida in the early 1700’s due to diseases brought by European settlers. Today, this area encompasses 9,515 acres and is a natural home for breeding pairs of the red-cockaded woodpecker, a threatened species.
But it was the landscape that I came here for. The Florida flatwoods consist of open prairies, hammocks of cypress and sweetgum trees. The flatwoods communities harbored by Hal Scott are disturbed, with the most significant alterations being the historic harvest of trees combined with the dry season burning for several decades prior to its public preservation in 1992. This combination has resulted in a fairly sparse canopy of pine trees with very little regeneration.

Working my way out into the prairies I found a spot to stop, set the tripod and think about what I wanted to capture. I closed my eyes and felt a slight wind, which is a welcome relief on a hot Florida day. The area was silent. Listening to the wind, feeling it on my skin as it wafted the aroma of pine and the musty smell of palmetto, it was as if Osceola beckoned and the voices of past generations called out “hear me, experience me...protect me”. I was the only one in the parking lot and the only person there. With that I created my first two “themes” for the image I would try to capture; wind and palmettos.

Several of the trees in front of me were barren of leaves, long dead and gradually succumbing to the elements. How much longer would they stand? Behind them the Pine flatwoods moved in the wind, blurring slightly. My first contrast will be movement, I thought to myself. I had my image in mind, now I needed to build it.
Out came my camera I was shooting infrared that day. This meant my Singh-Ray I-Ray infrared filter would be in front of the lens. This type of photography has its challenges. Long shutter speeds and a filter that is almost impossible to see through, a filter that is such a deep red color that it is almost black in appearance. I would have to focus and compose, then place the filter over the lens without changing anything. With the filter in place, shooting time increases dramatically. Planning and tedious attention to your settings will produce a good image.

I chose one dead tree, placing it on the left third of the image. In western society, we read from left to right. Placement of the subject here gives a comfortable place for the viewer to start enjoying the image. The slow shutter speed I used allowed the clouds to flow in the same direction, gently coaxing the viewer through the image, as I wanted them to experience what I did. The long leaf pines in the distance moved slightly, blurring with the long exposure. The dead tree in the foreground was unaffected by the wind, thus sharp in my image.

I have found that f8 seems to work best for my infrared work. Shooting at smaller apertures does not have the depth of field increase that can usually be associated with smaller apertures. My exposure was thirty seconds at f8, ISO 400. Shooting at a lower ISO, say 100 would have given me an exposure time of almost 90 seconds, far too long to get the proper movement in the clouds. With 90 seconds the clouds would have obscured any open areas of the sky.

I composed and the carefully focused the image. The challenge now is screwing on the Singh-Ray I-Ray infrared filter without changing the focus. I tripped the shutter and bracketed with exposure time.

George Wilson has more than 30 years of experience as a professional photographer, and his work has appeared in many national and international publications. Now focusing on nature and wildlife photography, George exhibits his infrared black and white landscape work and teaches photography at numerous art centers, botanical gardens and at the Walt Disney World Resort in his home state of Florida. A key element to George’s work is his dedication to traditional photography as his post processing is strictly limited to tools aligning with the traditional darkroom. To see more of George's work, visit

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