Behind The Image: Lower Fox Creek Schoolhouse

I'd never pictured Kansas as a place I'd want to go and photograph. I'd always kept a list in my head- Maine (before I moved here), various parts of California, the Pacific Northwest, parts of the Southwest, and of course the Rockies. The Kansas prairie never really piqued my interest, primarily because it just didn't seem that dramatic to me. But when I was working for Lytro, I was asked to visit a camera store in Topeka, Kansas to teach a workshop and do an in-store dealer event. I built in an extra day in the trip to have some time to explore the prairie, as it's an area of the country I'd never really been to, though due to my east coast bias, I didn't really believe there was much to explore.

I began doing some research on the area and found the Flint Hills National Scenic Byway. And that was pretty much where my research stopped. I didn't want a singular location to go to, I wanted to explore. So on that free afternoon, I pointed myself to the Flint Hills Scenic Byway and started driving. As I followed the signs for the byway, I found myself driving south on Kansas Route 177 and up on one of the hills, saw an old one-room schoolhouse. I had seen the turnoff on my GPS so I quickly turned around and made my way to the schoolhouse. Later on, I did some research and found that it was the Lower Fox Creek School in Strong City, Kansas. It is now part of the Tall Grasses Prairie National Preserve, part of the United States National Park System. Built in 1884 of native limestone, the first students took classes here in 1884. The first teacher was paid $35 a month and an apple per day. In the early years the average enrollment was 19 students, dropping to just a handful before the school closed in 1930.

I arrived here in the late afternoon. The sun was still higher in the sky than I would have preferred, so I wandered the area around the schoolhouse, looking for the right angles. I knew the sunset was going to be behind the schoolhouse, so I began looking for compositions from the hillside in front of the school. I found a group of milkweed flowers, glowing bright red among the tall green grasses of the prairie. With the sky populated with beautiful clouds and the sun descending towards the horizon, the bright green grasses, red milkweed flowers, and blue sky with orange clouds, the color palette was absolutely gorgeous. That was the scene I captured in the first image above.

Comparison of images. On the left, no graduated neutral density filter was used. On the right, I used a 3-stop graduated neutral density filter.

Capturing That Sky

One of the challenges of photographing a sunset is keeping the sky from looking washed out while you get detail in the foreground. While there are many techniques to do this- many cellphone cameras have built-in HDR modes now, as do many digital cameras- the best way to do it naturally is to use a graduated neutral density filter. A graduated neutral density filter is simply a glass filter that goes in front of the camera lens. One side of the filter is darker, like sunglasses, while the other side is clear. The dark side gradually transitions to the clear. Neutral means there is no color cast, and the density just refers to the amount of darkness in the glass to keep light from passing through.

For my sunset image of the schoolhouse, I used a 3-stop graduated neutral density filter to keep the sky from washing out on me, and still be able to see the detail in the foreground. In the comparison above, taken only a minute apart, you can see how the filter keeps the color in the sky. The building is slightly darker, yes, but I still have detail there so it's not a big deal.

The second image in this entry was taken after the sunset image. I was walking down the dirt road back to my car, and turned around for another look. When I saw the sky looking that gorgeous, I decided to stay just a little longer and grab one more image. I loved the dirt road running past the schoolhouse, the limestone building perched on the hill, and the gorgeous color in the sky. And on this night, there was something special in the air. Music. On the preserve, a symphony concert was playing, just over the hill. I could hear the music as the afterglow faded and I made my last image. Perfect end to my exploration of the Kansas prairie. And now I know. There is plenty worth photographing here, and I need to go back.

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