Under the Wing of the Thunderbird

Updated processing:

Original processing:

Critique Style Requested: Standard

The photographer is looking for generalized feedback about the aesthetic and technical qualities of their image.


I’m losing patience waiting for spring to come to Minnesota’s prairies, so I headed south to a Nature Conservancy preserve in a remnant tallgrass in Missouri this past weekend. A large tornadic supercell passed by just a few miles to our south, and as the sun appeared just before sinking into the Kansas horizon, the trailing mammatus clouds of the storm complex brought to mind the mythological Pawnee thunderbird, Huhuk. The website native-languages.org describes Huhuk as, “as a huge long-necked bird like a swan, with a forked, jagged tail. The beating of his wings cause thunder.” His wings were certainly in motion on this day.

Specific Feedback

There is some amazing storm photography out there emphasizing the atmospheric battleground that sits above the Great Plains. This storm doesn’t have the same punch-you-in-the-face drama of some of that work, but my hope is that it still makes you truly feel the power of the moment, and perhaps even sends you back in time to a landscape that now hardly exists. Would you have approached the composition in a different way, or processed this any differently?

Technical Details

28 mm f/13, ISO 200 at 1/60 sec. Processed to somewhat enhance the contrast in the cloud formations while adding a bit more brightness to the prairie grass while still holding back a bit on the yellow saturation.

I did digitally remove several fence posts and a very distant but somewhat discernable gate. I generally feel uncomfortable removing things from my images, but the reality on the prairies is that it is almost impossible to find a grand landscape that doesn’t include anthropogenic features. Since my intention is to try and communicate a sense of what this region looked like before its agro-industrial transformation, I don’t think it is too dishonest to do some minor editing to accomplish this goal. I’d be interested in hearing counter arguments to this approach.

I like the treatment of the prairie, but wonder about more contrast or tonal manipulations to bring out the evil in the clouds. I would have been heading for the bomb shelter.

Hi Jeff,
wow, that looks quite dramatic. I’m glad the Supercell didn’t get you.

I’m not a storm chaser. But the guys I know who try storm chasing shoot usually pretty wide-angled. I wonder how your image would look if you shot it with 16mm or something similar. I can imagine there were some exciting structures in the clouds that were not in your frame.

I agree with @Diane_Miller. The clouds could take a little more contrast. The prairie in the distance is quite bright and cometes with the clouds. Of course, it depends on what your main subject should be. I assume the clouds?

We probably would have met there. :rofl:

You are the artist, you have the freedom to decide what stays in your image and what you get rid of.
I like your picture even when I know you have removed distracting elements. I do that in my images, too.


Awesome clouds and great job combining with the open prairie. Most certainly there’s a feeling of “you might want to take shelter!”

First, this reminds me of this paraphrased quote from Andy in “Shawshank Redemption”: “… if you’re willing to come this far, maybe your willing to come just a little further…” How does that relate to your post and comment? Well, if you’re now willing to clone out a fence post, maybe you’re willing to take that sky and make it more dramatic? And why not add to that drama with a b&w presentation? That may not be your goal or cup of tea, but I think there is great potential for that; not only in the ominous clouds, but also the relation with the prairie.

To your uncomfortable approach, I won’t offer a counter arguement, but just offer my own approach. My thoughts on this have certainly morphed over time. It first starts out with the justification… oh, I didn’t notice that beer can under the bush - I should have cleaned that up before taking the shot… so it’s “ok” to remove it in PS. Then pretty soon you’re removing errant branches, power lilnes, fence posts and distractions at the edges, bright spots here and there… then you’re bending and transforming a scene - just a little… to make the elements fit better… then you don’t have a problem combining different frames to “fill in” washed out areas in the river… Where I’ve stopped at is replacing whole skies or adding a buggling elk that didn’t exist in the scene at the time… But in the end, if we’re to call our work “art” and not “documentary”, then we’re free to do whatever the heck we want and not feel guilty about it. But also, if you’re going to present your image as reality, then you best disclose what you’ve done to achieve it. That’s my .02!


I find this to be a very emotional image. The composition is simple and I think that makes it more powerful and more emotional. One of the strong points about the midwest is the simplicity of the landscape and I feel that should be encouraged in compositions rather than shied away from.


It is a powerful scene for sure. I like the color contrast between the yellow prairie and the subtle blue tones in the clouds. I understand your intent to attempt to show the prairie in its pre-agriculture state, but your description of the fence posts and gate has left me wondering if they might not have made the image just a little bit more powerful.

1 Like

Hi Jeff,

What a great prairie scene! Personally, I think your trip south paid off!

I can easily imagine this scene from past experiences, I used to live in central Minnesota and I have relatives that live Missouri and Iowa, we used to visit each other quite often so those foreboding skies are very familiar, even the mammatus clouds that often yield hail and heavy lightning bolts and… if it’s cold enough become the more familiar and welcome snow clouds, are ever so clear in my memory.
I don’t really miss the massive snow storms or snow drifts that would cover our entire first floor from time to time. I live in NC now :slight_smile:

This image however, seems a bit flat to me, it lacks the depth that I feel is required to convey the sense of actually being in an ominous environment.
My interpretation of a flat image is one that seems a bit like a slightly less than clear sheet of glass, so it’s a little like looking through a sheet of glass, it feels safer but it doesn’t convey “In person”.

No image can ever convey the feeling you get from being there in person, not even a movie on a big screen at a theater can do that so the best we can do in my opinion is punch it up just enough to spark a memory in those who have seen similar scenes in person.
I remember the scents of grass and fresh rain mixed together, I remember the wind on my face, the power the wind possesses that nearly knocked me off balance, the wisp of a grass blade striking my face and thinking “Maybe it’s wise to take shelter in a vehicle or maybe even an underground bunker if there’s one nearby”.

I hope you don’t mind but I did an example edit and I suppose the results are more memory driven than what might be an overall improvement.

Obviously, do whatever you feel is right for you, this is your experience and memory but thanks for allowing me the chance to stir my own memories!

Thanks for making me aware of the mythological Pawnee Thunderbird, Huhuk! Great subject for research!! :slight_smile:

I call this kind of editing (where you remove fence posts, fencing, etc.) “Retro”, you’re not manipulating the scene to something that never was or ever will be, it’s a restoration of sorts in my mind.
We manipulate a scene when we choose to show a minimum DOF or use a graduated ND filter or whatever, the truth is, any image taken with a camera isn’t exactly as it really is, we often like to think so but that’s not really the case IMHO, bottom line is that photography is our medium for art so let it flow from the creative heart! (that’s the way I see it anyway).

In the edit I added just a touch of yellow to the sky, done some dodging and burning to the clouds via a brush, removed the green in the FG grasses, darkened the FG grasses to place more emphasis on the horizon and sky, reduced the saturation of the grass slightly (to add more emphasis to the sky).
I did the above edits with individual masks on the FG grasses and others on the sky.

As mentioned, I hope you don’t mind that I posted my interpretation/example for your consideration. :slight_smile:

Wonderful scene and wonderful capture!! :slight_smile:

I was intrigued by both the descriptive and visual edit suggestions and really liked Mervin’s edit, I found that while I haven’t been inside such a storm on a prairie except from a much father distance, the storms we get here in Florida are not at all dissimilar.

In my edit, I worked all three channels in differing adjustment layers as well as blending modes to push the contrast in and out, then added a SEP3 layer and changed the blending mode to Luminosity, later making some adjustments to the colors, specifically the reds and yellows. The crop I borrowed from Mervin as it set a more dramatic skyscape. As with all the other suggestions, it is just one more possibility.

I like @chris10’s less saturated approach for this subject.

Thanks everyone for your helpful suggestions! I’m sorry it has taken some time to get back to reply; the end of the semester doesn’t give a prof a lot of extra time!

I appreciate the processing revisions that you posted @chris10 and @Merv. These are very helpful. My conundrum as I started processing this scene is that I actually wanted the golden light on the prairie to be the star of the composition, which is why I subdued the sky a fair amount despite the dramatic mammatus clouds. However, seeing your versions made me realize that more burning/dodging made a more powerful image. I’ve posted my own revision for comparison’s sake. Thank also for the note the tone down the LRC greens; that is an improvement as well.

Thank you also @Lon_Overacker, @Jens_Ober and @Merv for your thoughts on the digital removal of distractions. @Merv, I love your use fo the term “retro” and think I will use exactly that in the description for this gallery when I am ready to post to my website. "Retro-processing, keeping the elements of the scene true as they would have appeared before development, but removing the elements that represent humans’ intentions to tame the landscape. The reality is, without removing distractions like fenceposts, water towers, electrical lines and wind turbines, there is very little way to imagine what the landscape would have looked like in its pre-development state (especially in tallgrass prairie landscapes!). Since that is my artistic intention with this project, I’ll have to be open about the need to take some editing liberties along the way.

Finally, thanks @Igor_Doncov , @Youssef_Ismail and @Diane_Miller for your thoughts.

The edit looks great, Jeff! :slight_smile:

I’ve struggled with “Retro” edits for many years, in some cases I was able to get visual descriptions of how things used to look from locals, the problem came into play when those descriptions varied from one person to another, they all seem to remember things differently :slight_smile:
In the end all I could do was make it look natural.

Just glad I could add something that you could use as food for thought! :slight_smile: