Photographing Mounds

On Photographing Effigy Mounds

Making photographs of the Native American Mounds can be a very difficult prospect.  Many mound groups are located in beautiful settings along lakes and rivers, and picturesque bluffs.  These mounds are readily visible to the observer, but when photographed they tend to blend into the landscape. Effigy mound shapes in particular can be difficult to make effective images of.

Photographers over the past century have employed several techniques in an attempt to show the diversity of mound shapes.  Occasionally they were outlined with substances such as lime to highlight the mound shapes.  This was a satisfactory technique if the mound was located in a well manicured environment.  Most mounds are not in such a location, and the alteration of the landscape is frowned upon today.

Weather also helps show the shape of the mound.  Flood waters can effectively show the shapes of mounds, especially intaglios such as the one in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin.  The differential melting of snow can occasionally be an effective way to outline the shapes of mounds.

Aerial photography is another technique that can be used.  Today, the use of drones can greatly aid in making images of mounds.  But the problem of how to clearly demarcate the mound’s shapes is still problematic.

The best way to show the mounds is to photograph them in the early morning or late afternoon when the sun is low and produces wonderful soft shadows.  This low, racking light, and the shadow it casts, can effectively show the mound shapes in a way that the harsh light of mid-day light cannot.  These lighting conditions can benefit both the on-ground photographer as well as images taken from the air.   

Effective images of mounds can also be taken during late twilight times while the moon is low on the horizon.  This result in interesting images that highlight the shapes of the mounds, while allowing some starlight to show in the skies.

Most interesting are shots taken in the late twilight times by providing light from artificial sources.  Back in the days before digital cameras with high ISO capabilities, interior spaces such as cathedrals in Europe were photographed using techniques that today we call ‘light painting’.  With light painting, a light source from something as small as the light provided by a cell phone, to hand held high power spotlights can provide enough light to ‘paint’ the shape of mound.  The most effective strategy is to position the camera and light source as an angle that will provide enough of a shadow to show the shapes of the mounds.  Generally speaking you will want to use as soft, diffused light as possible.  My preference is for small hand held LED lights to paint the shape of the mound that best captures the image.  Some degree of post-processing may be required to balance the temperature between the natural light, and the light from whatever light source you are using.  This is will be necessary for color photographs, but not as important for black and white images.

In the near future, my plans will be to create a short video of light painting mounds that should help you create wonderful images of these sacred mounds.