Photographing in the Western Prairies

by Reinhard Thomas
October 25, 2016

Barn and horse by Reinhard Thomas ©

Barn and horse

Our prairies make up the northern regions of the North American Great Plains and the soil beneath is one of the most fertile in Canada. Visitors and photographers frequent touristic and historic sites such as the Dinosaur and Writing on Stone Provincial Parks or the Red Rock Cooley, but many ignore the unique prairie environment in which these parks are located.

Reflections in Pond by Reinhard Thomas ©

Reflections on a pond in the Pine Lake, AB area.    Canon Power Shot SX200 IS, 5-60mm Lens,  shot at ISO 100, 5mm, f8, 1/40sec.

Some photographers consider the prairies to be simply flat grassland without any features, but actually they offer great photo opportunities. Flat landscape is by far the defining adjective of the prairies, but nestled between the flat plains are rolling hills, valleys and beautiful escarpments. The small lakes and ponds that are part of the landscape are ideal places to watch and photograph waterfowl. The ever-changing open skies can provide an interesting component to your images.

Building in Ghosh Town of Fusiler, SK by Reinhard Thomas ©

Building in the ghost town of Fusilier, SK. Canon EOS 7D,  EF 24-70mm f2.8 Canon Lens,   shot at ISO 200, 24mm, f16, 1/80sec.

Mural by Reinhard Thomas ©Mural depicting life and history in the area.     Canon EOS 7D,  EF 24-70mm f2.8 Canon Lens,   shot at ISO 100, 30mm, f14, 1/125sec.

Different designs of rustic barns, grain elevators, ghost towns and other relicts of times gone by are dotting the landscape, and if you are lucky you can spot wildlife such as antelopes, foxes and birds along the gravel roads. In some prairie villages several buildings have been artfully decorated with murals, depicting local life, history and activities in the village.

Old Alberta Barn by Reinhard Thomas ©

Old Alberta barn  Canon EOS 7D, Sigma 10-20mm f3.5 Lens,   shot at ISO 400, 18mm, f10, 1/250sec.

Trappers, fur traders and first nations peoples only sparsely populated the area before the 19th century. Settlement started in earnest after the Canadian Pacific Railway was built and the first train moved across the prairies in 1886. To protect the new settlers, the Government in Ottawa established the Northwest Mounted Police (also known as the Red Coats) outposts to ensure law and order in the “wild west”.

Robsart, SK by Reinhard Thomas ©

The car is parked in the garage but nobody is home in ghost town of Robsart, SK. Robsart lost it’s village status in 2002. Canon EOS 7D,  EF 24-70mm f2.8 Canon Lens,   shot at ISO 100, 30mm, f20, 1/125sec.

The settlers came mainly from the Ukraine, Scandinavia, France and Germany and settled in distinct ethnic blocks. These settlers transformed the area into a thriving base of Canadian agriculture that generated a livelihood for their families.

Rusting in the mist by Reinhard Thomas ©

Rusting in the mist - signs of better days past. Canon EOS 7D,  EF 24-70mm f2.8 Canon Lens,  shot at ISO 640, 28mm, f13, 1/80sec.

Deserted Farm equipment by Reinhard Thomas ©

Deserted farm equipment with closed elevators in the fog. Canon EOS 7D,  EF 24-70mm f2.8 Canon Lens,   shot at ISO 640, 24mm, f14, 1/160sec.

Signs of the past by Reinhard Thomas ©

Signs of the past in the ghost town of Robsart, SK. Canon EOS 7D,  EF 24-70mm f2.8 Canon Lens,   shot at ISO 100, 28mm, f16, 1/125sec.

Dust storms, droughts and the Great Depression ended the prosperity during the 1920s and 30s and many homesteaders left the area. This was the beginning of an era which would create many ghost towns in Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Misty morning by Reinhard Thomas ©

Misty morning in the prairies    Canon EOS 7D, EF24-70mm f2.8 Canon Lens,  shot at ISO 400, 27mm, f8, 1/60sec.

Prairie sky by Reinhard Thomas ©

The ever changing prairie skies Canon EOS 7D, Sigma 10-20mm f3.5 Lens,   shot at ISO 320, 12mm, f14, 1/80sec.

Alberta barn at pond in the Red Deer area    Canon EOS 7D,  EF    24-70mm f2.8 Canon Lens,  shot at ISO 500, 40mm, f22, 1/200sec.

Things got better after the Second World War and today the region has vast tracks of fertile farmland growing barley, canola, wheat, sugar beats, potatoes and other crops. It also produces natural gas, petroleum, potash and minerals. Ranching is a big part of the prairie economy and has created a well-known and popular cowboy culture.

Over the years, agriculture has become more industrialized and efficient; farms were consolidated and many farm families vacated their farms and moved into the growing cities. This lead to some of the buildings and equipment becoming obsolete and several villages turned into ghost towns. According to Government information alone in Saskatchewan over 30 towns were deserted between 1985 and 2000 and many more are close to extinction due to rural depopulation.

Deserted gas station by Reinhard Thomas ©

Deserted gas station by Gleichen, Alberta. Canon EOS 7D,  EF  24-70mm f2.8 Canon Lens,  shot at ISO 100, 28mm, f7.1, 1/800sec.

Grain elevators Warner, AB by Reinhard Thomas ©

A row of grain elevators along the railway line in Warner, Alberta. Canon EOS 7D,  EF 24-70mm f2.8 Canon Lens,   shot at ISO 100, 24mm, f13, 1/125sec.

Winter in the prairies by Reinhard Thomas ©

Winter in the prairies also offer photo opportunities.   Canon Power Shot SX200 IS, 5-60mm Lens,  shot at ISO 100, 28mm, f4.5, 1/160sec.

Water pump and grain elevator by Reinhard Thomas ©

Left: Water pump on the Alberta prairies   Canon Power Shot SX200 IS,  5-60mm Lens,  shot at ISO 100, 60mm, f5.3, 1/1250sec. Right: Grain elevator in the village of Consul, SK. Canon EOS 7D,  EF 24-70mm f2.8 Canon Lens,   shot at ISO 320, 51mm, f22, 1/250sec.

Each week more and more grain elevators, homesteads and barns, once symbols of prairie prosperity, are vanishing from our landscape and future generations will only look at these structures on our pictures. That is why we should take many photographs as long as these reminders of the past still exist.


Authors Biography & Contact Information

Reinhard Thomas portrait

Reinhard Thomas is a photographer living in Calgary. He is specialized in travel photography. Between travels he creates animal and landscape images and has a comprehensive collection of barn and grain elevator pictures.




Previous articles by Reinhard Thomas -

Photographing Madagascar
Photographing Cambodia, Kingdom of Wonder 

Web site:
Phone: 403-239-3278

Click on the buttons below and share this site with your friends