From once-common barn owls to least bitterns, from Hine's Emerald dragonflies to leafy prairie clover and Blanding's turtles, Carol Freeman's portfolio is an eye-popping, finely detailed who's who of threatened and endangered species. One hundred twenty species photographed whose continued existence is precarious. And counting.
The thing is all of those birds and butterflies, reptiles and wildflowers were photographed in Illinois, listed among the state's 483 threatened and endangered species. And almost all of them—90 percent, Freeman estimates—were shot within two hours of her home in the Chicago suburb of Glenview.
Wherever you live, chances are you don't have to travel far to capture great images of nature, says Freeman, a nature and wildlife photographer whose images include many more readily accessible species, too. She has been published in calendars, greeting cards and catalogs and in publications such as Nikon World and Chicago Wilderness magazines.
"Within 15 minutes of my house I can make it to the lake, to three or four prairies and to three or four woodland areas," Freeman says. "The wonderful thing I can say about this part of Illinois is the huge amount of acreage, compared to development that has been set aside as nature preserves. Northeast Illinois is very rich in its diversity. It's actually a unique convergence of habitats. We have dunes, lakeshore, bog, woodlands, wetlands and even some virgin prairie remnants."
Freeman majored in graphic arts at the University of Illinois, but photography, her minor, was never far from her mind.
"I just loved photography," she says. "Out of college, I wanted to get a career going in photography. But in Chicago, as I was navigating the career landscape and looking for jobs, graphic design sort of came out on top. It was easier to get a job in graphic design than in the big world of commercial photography."
She found a design job with an advertising agency and continued to pursue photography as a hobby.
"When I started my own graphic design company in 1990, one of the first things I did was to look for graphic design clients who could potentially need some nature photography as well," she says.
Clients such as the Chicago Botanic Garden, the Nature Conservancy in Illinois, Chicago Wilderness magazine and a birding store called Upstart Crow brought her closer and closer to her goal of becoming a full-time photographer.
"Little by little I started collecting clients that I could justify going out and taking photographs for, because now I was doing it for work."
Over the next few years she published her first calendar, began to be published in Nikon catalogs and was even featured by Nikon World magazine.
In 2003 she sold her graphic design business to focus on her brand of nature photography.
"I think what I do might be a little different," Freeman says. "I call it naturalist conservation photography. It's not just a picture of a tree or grass or cultivated flowers. It's learning the history of the plant, how it fits into the environment. Every plant tells a story. There's some amazing story about every species out there."
Freeman began taking naturalist courses at the Botanic Garden to learn, for instance, about the parts of flowers and how animals survive in winter.
"Every photograph I take I attempt to identify the species," she says. "For me, that's what nature photography is about. It's about looking at a species in its native habitat, being able to identify what it is and also being at one with the environment.
It's important to her to be just an observer-not to conflict with nature in her photography.
"I don't want to interfere with its behavior. If I'm out in the prairie and there's a deer there, I don't want to interfere with what it's doing. I'll sit for 15, 20, 30 minutes in one spot so the birds come to me."
That concern for nature precludes her from carrying a lot of equipment, even on those short trips from home.
"Anything that weighs me down takes me out of my connection with nature. I tease people. I say I'm the laziest photographer. I don't carry a camera bag. If it doesn't fit in the fanny pack I don't bring it.
"For many of my pictures I use my elbows as a tripod. You will often scare the wildlife away when you move a tripod. I minimize my footprint as much as possible."
Yet her self-imposed limits haven't kept Freeman from capturing the kinds of details she finds so important.
"I love having things sharp," she says. "The bird needs to be sharp because you need to see the field markings. If I can't see the wing markings of a bird or a butterfly I can't identify it. It could be any one of several species, and I have to be able to identify it."
Part of that sharpness comes from isolating the subject from background clutter.
"I will go in close with a long lens so that the plant is isolated and the background goes soft, so you can see the structures and the details in the plant. You can see how it bows, how it holds dew, where the insects come in.
"It's not enough to just stand up and shoot down at the flower. You have to get down to the flower level or down to the insect's level and see what the insect is seeing. It's a whole different world, sitting on the ground."
Color and lighting are crucial, too.
"There's a quality of light, and in a natural setting certain plants at their peak just glow," Freeman says. "I think the same thing that attracts the insects to a plant attracts me to the plant."
Early morning light, when the sun may be bright but isn't casting huge shadows, is best, she thinks.
"I actually prefer a little overcast. The colors pop even more. It's a soft illumination. You can walk down the path and everything will have even light on it. Even if the flower is faced away from the sun, you can get a good photograph because overcast evens out the light."
One tool Freeman uses regularly is exposure.
"I underexpose the pictures a little and that gives me brighter colors, richer colors. I learned that with film, and the same seems to be true with digital. I like to shoot as accurately as possible in the field and then do as little adjustment as I can. I typically underexpose a third to one and a third of a stop. I think it's easier to lighten a photograph than to darken it."
"It's lightweight and it's great," she says. "I got the D300S to try out and just loved it because it's so light. With the new sensors you can really push the ISO. I can easily go to 800 ISO or even 1000. That gives me up to two extra stops in depth of field, and I love the additional sharpness."
A favorite lens is the 200mm macro lens.
"It's so sharp. Because it's a macro lens I can get fairly close, but because it is a telephoto lens I don't have to. It gives me working room between me and my subject."
She points to a shot on her Flickr.com page of a dragonfly, taken with the 200mm lens.
"That's full frame. It's not cropped, and it has amazing detail. Because it's a telephoto lens it blurs the background. A 200mm is still long enough so that if a bird flies by I can still get a decent shot without changing lenses."
For most bird photos, however, she turns to an 80-400mm lens, the longest lens she has. "That's the lens on the camera most of the day when I'm shooting birds."
Freeman also likes to take landscape shots, and when she does she uses a 17-35mm wide-angle lens. "Again, it's just super sharp."
Her most important tool, however, may be her intimate knowledge of northeastern Illinois and the species that inhabit it. By now, she has an innate sense of when fall leaves are about to reach their peak in color, which flowers are blooming when-and where-and when certain birds might be migrating through the area.
Even better may be the close proximity of all this nature to her home.
"Usually the first thing people say when they hear about my Endangered Species Photography Project is, ‘Oh, you must travel all over the world to get these pictures.' My answer is no. I photograph them right here in northeast Illinois.
There are no excuses, she says.
"You can even see wildlife in your own backyard. Just put out a bird feeder and a bowl of water and you can see scores of birds, insects and mammals right from home. The most important thing is to get out and enjoy nature and share what you see with others."