Photo Essay

The Lady of My Dreams by Michael Zwack

Pollination.  1/400 @ F/2.8  ISO 250 

If Minnesota is known for one thing...besides winter, it's the continuing care and expansion of city parks, trails, and anything which  gets people outside.  Being cooped up for months out of the year, when Spring/Summer arrives Minnesotans head outdoors.  As a photographer this environment provides a plethora of natural shooting locations within the city limits.  

When realizing it was already early June and about the right time of year for the annual blooming of the Showy Lady's Slipper, I knew I had a responsibility to capture and share it's fragile beauty.   Having tried to photograph the elusively magnificent pink and white orchid many times, and coming up empty handed, I had more reason than ever to go in search of the Minnesota state flower.

With a busy schedule ahead and only a couple free days to get out and shoot, I started my research and found my best chance at a hidden sanctuary inside a city park in the heart of Minneapolis.  To be fair the landscape arboretum would also house this rare flower, but I wasn't looking for a carefully manicured garden.  No my friends, I wanted to give the flower the respect it deserves and search for it in it's natural habitat.  The only way to make that happen within the city limits was at Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden within Theodore Wirth Park.  So there you have it...the secret is out. 

To be honest I didn't even know the garden existed up to this point.  I figured to get a photo I would have to head five hours north, wade through hot humid boggy swamps, only to fight off hoards of bloodthirsty mosquitoes.  As tempting a thought as that may be, I nonetheless opted for the path of least resistance.    

Swamp Buck Fawn.  1/60 @ F/2.8  ISO 640

One would think that a flower that can live up to 100 years, averages a life cycle of 50 years, and produces upwards of 50,000 seeds, that locating one would be easy.   Unfortunately however, with a peak bloom lasting only one to three weeks and taking up to 16 years to produce it's first flower, it would appear only the truly vigilant stand a chance at seeing one.  

Upon becoming the Minnesota state flower in 1902, it soon became clear that with continuing urban sprawl and wetland drainage the delicate flower would need protection.  Since 1925 the state has restricted collection and sales of the flower.

Pitcher Plant.  1/80 @ F/4ISO 1000

Add to that poor seed germination and a slow maturity rate, it quickly becomes an extremely fragile and difficult plant to cultivate...which also happens to make it all the more alluring to illegal farming.  Even being 1 of 43 orchid species in MN, it maintains an almost mythical stature.

So in continuing my journey, I had no idea if I would catch one in bloom.  Even if lucky enough to capture one at it's peak, I knew not what shooting conditions awaited.  Growing only in damp, boggy areas I knew that good lighting could seriously jeopardize my goal.  So as much as I preach bringing only the gear necessary for the shoot, I packed an arsenal of equipment and with my gear equipped I headed into the unknown.

Before heading to my final destination at the wildflower garden, I stopped at another location within the park aptly named Quaking Bog, where I was fortunate enough to photograph a rare carnivorous pitcher plant.  Not nearly as terrifying as originally described to me by a pair of eager orchid hunters I met along the way (Little Shop of Horrors Anyone?), it was nonetheless impressive in it's own right.  

With the sun starting it's descent it was time to finish my journey; and the timing couldn't have been better.  I found myself feeling incredibly fortunate to have the weather on my side, and with my trusty 70-200 f/2.8 lens I was confident I would have the focal length and aperture necessary to get the shot I waited years to photograph.  

The wildflower garden itself was an impressively preserved and peaceful natural environment.  With wooden boardwalks guiding visitors past seemingly endless vegetation, it would be easy to get wrapped up in the countless variety of plants and flowers.  I however was on a mission, and would have to wait until successful in my goal before reveling in the garden's secret charm.  

After stopping by the small wooden house turned interpretation center, I knew on which path to find my flower.  I was informed there was one group of flowers in early bloom just off the boardwalk. With growing excitement I rushed through the garden; passing innumerable shooting opportunities I noticed instantly when I arrived...a gentle pink color layering 7-8 delicately soft flowers and crisp white pedals on a small lone plant glistening in the early evening light.  I was caught off guard and it took a minute for the scene to truly register...I had found my flower!      

Showy Lady's Slipper.  1/640 @ F/2.8  ISO 100

I ended up only taking a small handful of pictures, and upon clicking the shutter, I knew I had captured something truly special. It was as if she knew I was coming and was ready for her close-up.  The reality being when photographing a subject that majestic, the picture almost takes itself and now I also have a timeless record of that moment, forever available to pull forth to memory of when I first laid eyes on the lady of my dreams. 



For more information on the Showy Lady's Slipper and Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden, check out the following sites:




Badlands Birthday Adventure by Michael Zwack

Big Badlands Overlook Self-Portrait.  1/40 sec @ f/14  ISO 400 (2 image panorama)

In this month's post I want to focus on my recent trip to Badlands National Park in South Dakota. With a growing need to refuel my spirit, and an impending birthday on the horizon, I found no better excuse to pack my gear and head into the great outdoors.  

As much as this was a trip to recharge my spiritual battery, it was also important as a photographer breaking into the professional scene to test my drive and challenge my creativity and skill.  It was time to push myself to new heights and see if I actually knew anything about this whole photography thing I've been doing.  It's interesting to think that after 12 years of shooting I still had doubts, but I imagine that's a feeling that never goes away completely...rather a constant companion keeping me in check.  

So the Badlands it is.  The way I figured, it was close enough to the Twin Cities and provided a dramatic natural environment to record. If you can't get good photos in a national park, it may be time to reconsider one's profession.  Looking to expand my online presence it was also my decision to record an in-field instructional video highlighting the landscape's natural beauty while explaining the fundamentals behind each photo.      

Badlands at Dusk.  2.5 sec @ f/22  ISO 100   

Badlands National Park is a 8-9 hour drive West from my base in Minneapolis, MN. Doing my research I knew of a campground inside the park which I could stay free of cost up to 7 days, just needed to pay the park's entrance fee of $15. Sage Creek Campground, where bison graze through the campground...sounded promising.  So with bags and gear packed I headed West in search of adventure and reaffirmation.  

Upon arrival I was happy to hear from the Park Ranger that the bison herd had been spotted near the campground.  Not entirely comprehending the gravity of his statement, I made my way to my resting place for the next 4 nights. 

Big Badlands Overlook Sunrise.  1/15 sec @ f/14  ISO 100

It's not until the drive in one begins to understand the immensity of the landscape.  With only one main road through the park, The Badlands Loop is 24 miles of craggy, eroded, mountainous rock formations, mixed grass prairies, and thriving wildlife.  The Badlands themselves are a story 80 million years in the making.  The stunning rock formations found today are the result of millions of years of volcanic ash deposits eroded and sculpted by wind and water.

The land is also rich with history; First recorded by Western new world explorers in the 1700s, it was French fur traders who labeled the area "les mauvaises terries a traverser" or bad lands to traverse. Similarly the Lakota culture of the late 1700s referred to it as "Mako Sica" bad.  It wasn't soon after that American westward expansion would cross paths with the Native cultures and sacred lands, resulting in a dark period in American history.  With far too much history to cover here, let's just say I encourage everyone to educate themselves on the tumultuous history between the Native Indians and American Expansionism. 

American Bison. 1/80 sec @ f/7ISO 400

Mountain Goat.  1/1600 sec @ f/2.8  ISO 200

Connected to the Badlands Loop is Sage Creek Rim Road, which takes me another 20 miles down a gravel road before I reach the campsite.  Clear on the other side of the park, the campground is isolated, peaceful, and occupied by bison. When the Ranger said bison had been spotted, he may have undersold his statement.  Although the bison clearly owned the campground, it became clear however that there seemed to be an unspoken bond with the campers in the vein of...if you don't mess with me, I won't mess with you. Yes bison were grazing through the campsite and in extremely close proximity to the campers, yet there was a quiet and peaceful stillness encompassing the scene.  With that said, I don't recommend trying to touch the wildlife. Give them their space and you'll be fine.   

Lone Rock Formation.  1/50 sec @ f/11  ISO 100

Badlands Loop Rock Formation. 1/60 sec @ f/13  ISO100

I digress however from the main purpose of this trip, which is my mission to prove I have what it takes to compete in a professional world where beautiful photographs are just the start.  Over the next 4 days I awoke at 4 am to get into location for sunrise and capitalize on the early morning light.  After which I continually drove up and down the main stretch of road looking for interesting compositions, breaking only for lunch.  In the evening I headed back to a previously selected spot to finish with sunset. I hiked, camped,(without electricity)and spent a lot of time chasing the light.  After composing an image I shot video explaining each shot; I was man possessed.

I would be lying if I said I didn't enjoy every minute of it, but a photographer's life is not easy.  There is a thought many photographers share regarding how people view our profession.  People see beautiful images and think what a great job, travel around the world taking photographs... must be rough.  What often isn't understood is the time researching, planning, traveling, adapting, editing, and marketing.  Much less sexy when you're living it, but I don't know any photographer that would give up the freedom that accompanies it.

In the end I'll let the images speak for themselves.  They're edited, some more than others, but this isn't a conversation regarding the ethics of post processing.  I no longer worry about whether or not I "capture" or "create" beautiful and interesting photos.  In the end it's always a combination of both.  Can I improve?  Of course, we all can; and if to stand any chance in an ever changing industry I'll need to be able to improve and adapt.  When I look back on the last 12+ years of shooting, I realize now that all those successes and failures is what has shaped me into the confident and proficient photographer I am today.  As I continue on this professional journey I will only improve and expand my online social presence by providing useful and actionable content for viewers.  I hope you continue to join me on this non-stop adventure; we will improve and grow together.  

With my birthday now over 4 days past, I tore down camp, packed the car and waved goodbye to my bison companions.  I now headed East, returning to my studio eager to face the future challenges that await.  First of to edit all these photos?  


For more information regarding directions, lodging, and fees visit

Backyard Adventures (The Guthrie) by Michael Zwack

Today I'm happy to debut the first post of a new ongoing series I'm titeling "Backyard Adventures".  If you are familiar with my work, you know when I'm not traveling i'm based in Minneapolis, MN.  Having been a resident my entire life, I have a deep kinship with the city and wish to use my Twin Cities knowledge to show photographers and travels that adventure can be right in your own backyard.  

One of the many mistakes travel photographers make is they get too complacent...well, when not traveling anyway.  It's easy to fall into a rut, or focus so much on the business side that getting out and taking photos almost seems like a chore.  Hey it happens to the best of us; often times I find myself going to the same park or avoid shooting altogether because it seems fruitless to continually visit the same locations.  Thats why I wanted to try a new series where I shoot around the Twin Cities and greater Minnesota countryside, honing my skills while sharing the experience and photo knowledge I learn along the way.  

To start this series I'm focusing on my most recent visit to the Guthrie Theater.  Located in the hip and artsy warehouse district of Minneapolis, the Guthrie was founded in 1963 and has become the Twin Citie's most prolific performing arts center.  In 2006 the theater reopened in it's new location along the Mississippi River in downtown Minneapolis.  The redesign was a $125 million endeavor by renown designer and architect Jean Novel.  Ten years later it's the premier performing arts theater in Minnesota housing 3 theaters, an education center, seafood restaurant, 2 cafes, and a lounge.  It's this unique design which makes it a perfect location for photographers as well.

As stated, the theater is located along the Mississippi in what's referred to as St. Anthony Main.  This strip of land along the west bank of the river is a historical landmark of the city which housed the Gold Medal Flour Mill and current Mill City Museum.  With great shots of downtown, historic brick ruins, and a pedestrian bridge over St. Anthony Falls, it's a perfect destination for visitors and photographers to spend an afternoon. Having spent numerous occasions around this area, I decided to head inside.  

I've visited the Guthrie on prior occasions and have even taken in a few plays.  What caught my eye when I first visited was the architectural and creative design which allows for unique visual opportunities. For example; the panoramic image below was taken from the "Endless Bridge", which is a 178-foot cantilevered viewing platform located outdoors and overlooks the bank of the Mississippi.  As you can see the view is pretty spectacular.

Guthrie Theater. Downtown Minneapolis.  1/50 sec @ f/10.  ISO 500 24mm

St. Anthony Falls.  Taken from the Endless Bridge at the Guthrie Theater.                                   1/100 sec @ f/7. w/ ISO 400.  35mm 2 Image Panorama

To get this panorama, I took 2 separate photos and combined them in Lightroom.  A single image wouldn't have been able to record the scale I was looking to capture.  Together they connect the banks of the river and use the bridge as a visual anchor.  The tiny people on the bridge also help visualize the scale. With the setting sun highlighting the far bank of the river I was able to get a beautiful glow on the historic brick buildings.  

Looking back on this shot, I would've used a longer shutter speed to capture the flow of the water.  The foreground is also darker than I prefer which could've been fixed with HDR processing (high dynamic range); However, it was quite cold and windy on the terrace which doesn't make long exposure photography appealing. To get that shot would require 2 sets of images with a lot more time and patience than I had on that particular day.

Back inside the warm confines of the theater, I walked around in the subduedly lite hallways.  The Guthrie's visiting hours vary, but without a production that night, most of the corridors and rooms were left unlit. This, mixed with very few visitors allowed for full reign of the building's interior.  Many people are unaware that on the 9th floor, the elevator opens to a yellowish green hue permeating the room. This iridescence is caused by tinted floor to ceiling windows, which also give a unique perspective to the city.

As you can see the image below has a beautiful color to it and with the only light entering the room coming from outside, it creates great conditions for silhouettes.  Not much editing was needed for this shot.  I just needed to make sure the exposure settings were where I wanted them and the light took care of the rest.  Notice the focus is actually sharpest at the bottom of the jacket.  This could've been prevented by using focus lock to ensure the subject's face remained the sharpest point of the image. 

Gold Medal Flour Sign. As seen from the "Yellow Room".      1/125 sec @ f/4.0 w/ ISO 400  75mm. 

These are just a couple shots from the day. As you can see it doesn't take much to get out and find unique photographic opportunities.

I had no preconceived plan to swing by the Guthrie on this particular day, but having found myself in the area, I couldn't resist the urge to get in a few shots.  As you can see not every shot is perfect, but as a photographer if you don't get out to shoot, you don't improve.

It's important to look back on your work critically if you wish to improve your trade, and what better way than by exploring your own city and backyard? I hope you find this article helpful; are you from Minneapolis, or perhaps have visited?  If so tell me some of your favorite locations; I'm always looking for new and interesting places to shoot. 


The Guthrie Theater is located at 818 S 2nd St. Minneapolis, MN 55415 
Visiting Hours:  Mondays, 11 am -5 pm and Tuesdays-Sundays, 11 am -8 pm
Check the website for performance times and information at