Tower on Pilot Knob, Iowa

I hope my friends here in the US had a great Labour Day weekend and those of you who enjoy using a camera had a chance to make some extra clicks on your Monday off. We pitched our tent for a couple days at Pilot Knob State Park, located near Forest City in the north-central part of Iowa. Other than where we live, in the drift-less area, this landscape was formed by glaciers. They deposited the rocks and earth that formed the hills and valleys that are now Pilot Knob. Dedicated in 1923, it is one of the oldest parks in Iowa. The tower on top was built by the Civil Conservation Corps in the 1930’s (source: Iowa Department of Natural Resources website).

A little bit before sunset we hiked up to the tower. While I was still trying to make the best possible click of the warm sunlight on this old structure Joan lifted our little dog Cooper up on the wall that surrounds the observation deck. 

From the top you have a gorgeous view over some of the most fertile land in the world. Wooded little hills, small lakes and potholes, some wetlands and patches of restored prairie make this part of the state very charming.

All images: Nikon D750, Nikkor 70-200mm / f4


Last light, Proving Grounds Recreation Area, north of Dubuque, Iowa

Joan, our dog Cooper, and I went out for a mini hike this evening again. I only took the SIGMA 150, f/2.8 macro lens with me because our destination was the restored prairie areas in the new Proving Grounds Recreation Area north of Dubuque, Iowa. We have been there lately a few times and wanted to look again at the great variety of wildflowers before they are all gone.

We made some clicks and Joan tried to identify flowers and different kinds of prairie grass. The macro lens was the right choice today. However, my favorite photo of the day was made when we just started our return to the car and the last light of the sun over the ridge put some magic out. When the light is right it’s good to be ready for the click. The macro lens worked just fine for this unexpected nice moment.


Here is a little location tip, not just for photography. Coming back from a short business trip to LaCrosse, Wisconsin today, I stopped at one of my favorite photo locations along the Great River Road. Just south of the little river town Lansing, Iowa is the Driftless Area Education and Visitor Center. From there you have a great view upstream with Lansing and the Black Hawk Bridge in the background. The scene reflects really the character of the driftless area and the Mississippi Valley. As a bonus a small local thunderstorm developed quickly and provided drama and some great clouds and colors.

I used the wide angle lens to catch as much of the clouds as possible and walked down and across the street to keep the road out of the foreground. If you don’t have any clouds or if they are not important, you can shoot with a longer lens and still keep the road out of the frame. What about the railroad bridge? This old beam bridge has character and becomes part of the storytelling.

If photography is not the only thing you have in mind, the Mississippi river town of Lansing has a lot to offer. Founded in 1851, downtown still has some authentic period architecture and little antique shops, boutiques, and restaurants are behind the storefronts. If you like to learn more about this scenic town and the area around it, check this link out: https://www.lansingiowa.com


On top of Platte Mound, above the big “M”

Four miles east of Platteville, Wisconsin is Platte Mound. On its slope is the largest hillside letter “M” in the world. It is the symbol of the College of Engineering and was created in 1937. The M was constructed from limestone found on the mound. It is whitewashed every year by students. Here is a link where you can find more details: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Platte_Mound_M

Many times we drove on the highway to or from Madison, Wisconsin we have seen Platte Mound and the big “M” during the last fourteen years. However, we have never been at this landmark until yesterday.

Platte Mound M

Joan counted 290 steps to the top and from there you have a great view to the southwest. Several patches of prairie flowers made for a nice foreground in the first photo. A mile long hiking trail leads to the other end of the mound through a deciduous forest and along some interesting rock formations. 

I love to photograph clouds and I consider coming back for a more dramatic sky to Platte Mound and its unobstructed view.

All images: Nikon D750, Nikkor 16-35mm / f4, Breakthrough GND filter 0.6


Nikon D750, Nikkor 16-35mm / f4, Breakthrough GND filter 0.6

Heading back home from a business trip in Wisconsin a couple days ago I saw some nice clouds formations developing on the horizon over the Mississippi Valley. Just before crossing the river into Iowa I was finally able to pull off the highway to a rest stop, located on top of the bluffs that border the valley. It was too late, the magic I saw while driving, with sun beams breaking through the “clouds fingers”, was already gone. Still not bad, but too much of the sun in the west was covered. Color didn’t really play an important role in the scene for the story and doing this in B&W brings back a little bit of the drama in the sky.


Ice Harbor, Mississippi River, Dubuque, Iowa

Great clouds, combined with a short rain shower, made for good shooting conditions this evening at the Ice Harbor in Dubuque, Iowa. I took our dog Cooper for a walk on the dyke, a little further north of this place. Well, I call it a “dog walk” but sometimes he just sits patiently next to me while I’m fiddling with the camera on tripod. I tell you what, he probably understands how photography works… 😊

While taking a few shots of the old railroad bridge that crosses the Mississippi over to Wisconsin, I suddenly saw the CELEBRATION BELLE coming up the river from LeClaire, Iowa and taking a turn towards the harbor. We jumped into the car and drove down the short distance. It takes time to maneuver this big boat through the small entry and flood gates of Ice Harbor, giving me enough time to find a good position. The TWILIGHT was also docked in the port and I rushed to find a shooting position where both Mississippi River boats and the clouds would line up perfectly. The spot was found while the first passengers exited the CELEBRATION BELLE. The image was made with the Nikkor 16-35, f/4 at 16 mm focal length and the BREAKTHROUGH 2-stop GND filter attached. The rain shower earlier made the wood of the pier wet and darker. It takes out the glare and makes the pier a good part of the composition that doesn’t compete with the bright subjects in this photo.


Family of Pied-billed Grebes, Green Island Wetlands, Iowa

It was about time to go back into the wetlands at Green Island. On a sunny day it doesn’t buy you much to be there before 6:00PM, when the light gets softer and warmer. The water level is still very high but for the first time in months no roads or dykes were flooded and the area was complete accessible again.

I talked to an old farmer in his eighties, who owns land adjacent to the Green Island Wetlands, and he told me that the numbers of ducks and geese are the lowest he has seen in a long time. This might be due to the fact that many nest sites were under water for such a long time and still are.

Well, some life can still be found. There were large families of Wood Ducks and the young Canada Geese have almost adult size. I counted three successful broods of Pied-billed Grebes along the main dyke. The one above is my favorite image of this evening, three little chicks stayed close together while their parents dived for food and delivered promptly when they had success.

Paddling is not the best idea at this time of the year. An abundance of water plants, duck weed, and algae make it difficult to move in the backwaters. We have done that before, it’s not impossible, but the fun of paddling is cut in half to say it mildly. I did not regret to leave the kayak at home. The low sun created some dappled light in the foreground, making the “green mess” not so dominant, and with some puffy clouds in the blue sky the picture got some depth and tells today’s story about a perfect summer day along the Mississippi River.

Trumpeter Swans

About 7:45PM I drove slowly back on the main dyke and this pair of Trumpeter Swans enjoyed the last sun of the day as much as I did. Maybe they just found each other this season. Trumpeter Swans often mate for life and most pair bonds are often formed when they are 5-7 years old. More to come… stay tuned!


Mississippi River, Potosi, Wisconsin

Same location as in my last blog post from two days ago. Before the time of twilight the sun has to set, of course, as it happens 365 days a year (but not every day lets us enjoy the twilight time 😉) The view goes to the northwest, the direction where the river comes from, and due to the time of the season the sun sets still over a part of Wisconsin. Our state of Iowa is the small stretch of land on the left hand side, and that may give those of you who are not so familiar with this area an idea how mighty the Mississippi River really is. For shots like this I set the white balance in camera pretty close to 7000 Kelvin. The new Breakthrough 2-stop graduated neutral density filter prevents the blow out of the highlights even in the center of the sun. The real landscape photography gurus may ask, why did you use only a 2-stop filter, if the range of light is asking for three stops or maybe even more.? Yes, I have a 3-stop GND filter (Schneider GND 0.9) and I knew it would have been the proper choice, but I’m still testing the limits of the Breakthrough X4 GND 0.6.

Moon over the river, Potosi, Wisconsin

And here is the other reason to be out there as a photographer, even if it wasn’t really my subject this evening. An almost full moon raised 42 minutes before sunset, pretty much exactly 180 degree on the opposite side. A little too early for the best shot of a moonrise but still good for a picture from the same spot and pointing the lens to the southeast. The exposure time was 0.6 s & f/16, giving the water a nice blur and telling the story about a windy spot by looking at the willow leaves.

I know, family and friends over in Germany often ask me to show more photos of our area. I hope this gives those of you who have never been here, or have a look at my blog from different parts of the world (Hi, Jeanine and Johan in Johannesburg / South Africa) a better perspective if I tell one of my “Mississippi River Stories”. I appreciate every visitor in my blog! Keep sending me message/opinions/questions, etc. 


Mississippi River, Potosi, Wisconsin

I went east, over to the Wisconsin side of the Mississippi River this evening. There is a popular spot in Potosi, where a dyke with a gravel road reaches out into the river for about half a mile. At the end is a little parking lot and a boat ramp and you are surrounded by water on three sides. Sometimes it is a great place for wildlife photography but this wasn’t on the agenda this evening. The river makes a bend here and has a northwest to southeast course. Today it was kinda special, because the almost full moon came up in the southeast over the river and the sun set exactly 180 degree on the opposite side. Because the course of the river at this point you can see the sun disappearing behind the trees on the bluffs of the Wisconsin side.

There were some other people coming out for the sunset tonight but only one couple stayed after sunset for the civil and nautical twilight. We got rewarded with a great show in the sky, sunbeams in the northwest and a full moon in the southeast. A little wind made this evening very pleasant, summer doesn’t get much better…

Nikon D750, Nikkor 16-35mm / f4, Induro GIT 404XL tripod, RRS BH-55 ballhead, Vello cable release, Breakthrough GND filter 0.6,   @16 mm, 2.5 s, f/20, ISO100


Thunderstorm cell moving out, near Sherrill, Eastern Iowa

A little storm cell showed up on the radar this evening and brought finally a few rain showers. I jumped in my car and tried to chase the clouds, hoping for some exciting light and drama in the sky. Well, the clouds dissolved pretty quickly and the big drama didn’t happen. I have photographed this old farm house many times before over the years. It’s condition doesn’t get any better, another reason for not making it the subject of my image, but in context with clouds and landscape it makes sense to include it anyway.


Heritage Trail, old railroad path near Durango, Iowa

Another picture from yesterday’s walk on the Heritage Trail in the Little Maquoketa River Valley. The photo from my last blog post was made way in the back behind the couple on bicycles, on the bridge that crosses the river. In the old days when the railroads were built they tried to keep the tracks as straight as possible and blasted away some of the rocks and bluffs that were shaped by the river a long time ago. These hollows make some nice and shady spots on the trail that have a micro climate and can be interesting for finding plants, birds, and critters.

As mentioned in my last blog post, I tried out a new GND filter and even in a situation like this it helps to manage the high dynamic range of the scene.

Nikon D750, Nikkor 16-35mm / f4, Breakthrough 2-stop X4 GND filter


Little Maquoketa River, Durango, Iowa

A shot fresh out of camera from this evening. I went down into our Little Maquoketa River Valley to Durango, Iowa, a little village with maybe a dozen homes and the old railroad depot, which is now a bar. The picture was taken from the railroad bridge towards the fork where the Middle Fork Maquoketa River and the Little Maquoketa River meet, only a few miles before their water enters the Mississippi River. The railroad tracks have been removed a long time ago and their path is now a very popular recreation trail, called the Heritage Trail.

I was testing a new 2-stop soft edge graduated neutral density filter and I’m sure after I have more experience with it I will write a little review here in the blog. After the flooding during the last months the river banks don’t look necessarily pretty. A lot of dead wood and debris edges the banks and removing some of the sticks in post process is part of my way to make this landscape picture work. You can see how the GND filter keeps the interesting clouds and the moon on the right hand side intact and leaves good detail and tones in the fore- and middle-ground. Sure, I could lift the dark shadows in post process to reveal more detail in the trees, but this would not benefit the storytelling of this image. This is not a picture with a clear subject but the eye follows the lines of the river, goes to the clouds, maybe the moon, and comes back to the subtle reflections on the water in the foreground. No reason to get lost between dead branches and the mud of the river bank, which are nicely covered in the shadows.


If this looks familiar you must have visited my blog a few days ago. Today I tried the same image as a black and white version. I had this in mind when I took the shot but later at home, in front of the computer screen, the play with the color contrast appealed to me as well. Now, with both versions on hand, I think the monochrome version supports the graphic impact of this photo better. The Z-shaped curve of the clouds and the edge of the field are better pronounced.

As much as I like the relativ new B&W presets in Adobe Lightroom Classic, for the finishing of this image I used the well trusted NIK Silver Efex Pro 2. In Lightroom I started with the same Camera RAW settings as for the color version, opened the photo as a Smart Object in Photoshop, and finally applied NIK Silver Efex Pro 2 as a filter. I still love the way how global and local adjustments interact with each other in any program of the NIK Suite. The final touch was made with a subtle dodging and burning layer in PS, mainly in the lower half of the photo.


Farm on a hill with clouds, near Sherrill, Iowa

A couple days ago I mentioned I would share another photo from the “cloud chasing” tour that evening. Quite some time ago I made a mental note about this old farm on a ridge not very far from our home here in eastern Iowa. I have driven by several times over the years and always thought this would make a nice foreground or middle ground for a photo with a dramatic looking sky. Well, this week I had my chance. The lush vegetation makes for a nice color contrast to the clouds in the sky. The curved edge of the field leads the eye to the farm structures and from there the curve continues in the sky. Now I’m thinking about a black and white version of the image…


Mississippi River, Mud Lake, Iowa

The disadvantage of living in the woods is that we are the last ones that know when some interesting clouds are around. Yesterday evening some nearby thunder and a few rain drops made me grab the dog, jump in the car, and drive to a ridge in the countryside. Some quick photos were made of an old farm (I may show them another day) but the way the clouds were moving I expected that down at the Mississippi River some drama would develop in the sky. I just hit it right. The last rays of the setting sun over the banks of the river painted the landscape with some killer light. 

A minute later I was attacked by a bear, whose shadow you see at the bottom of the picture. Alright, I’m just kidding. The big shadow beside mine belongs to our little dog Cooper, who patiently followed me again, although he hates thunderstorms…

The time stamp in the metadata of both photos reveal that the second picture was made just two minutes later. The sun was gone, the thunderstorm moved along the river, and on the Wisconsin side of the Mississippi parts of a rainbow developed.

These are the moments when I employ the Schneider Graduated Neutral Density filter 0.9, which darkens the upper part of the photo by 3 stops of light. Both Photos were made with the Nikon AF-S Nikkor 16-35 f/4 at 16 mm focal length. The ring of the Schneider ND filter creates a little bit of corner vignetting with the lens zoomed out to 16 mm, but this is easy to fix in Lightroom or Photoshop.