Photographing the Palouse
2 Valuable Lessons Relearned

Read about a world-renowned photo location in WA State and learn how to ensure that you still get sharp images in very windy conditions.

If you want to photograph some of the best rolling wheat fields on the planet, the Palouse region of Washington State is the place to be and now is the best time to visit. During the end of May and the first part of June,  the fields are at their greenest green. Photographing the Palouse during this time of year is surely on many photographers’ bucket list.

This unique area is near the border with Idaho and about 1 hour south of Spokane. Rising over 3,600 feet is Steptoe Butte, a State Park with an unusual corkscrew road leading all the way to the top. This makes for many wonderful, aerial-like vantage spots.

photographing the Palouse

I find that I can often get good images all day long, especially if there are some big, fluffy clouds but the optimal times to photograph here are the two low-light times of the day. Sunrise comes early in the spring at  5 am but it’s definitely worth it. The low angle light creates wonderful shadows on the back sides of the undulating terrain — it’s much like photographing sand dunes.

photographing the Palouse

I mentioned in the title: “A couple of lessons relearned.”

Photographing the Palouse has its unique set of challenges and I found myself remembering some lessons learned the hard way through trial and error.  The first lesson was actually something that I recently blogged about, “Is there a substitute for good light in landscape photography?” (You can find this post by clicking here. »If you didn’t read the blog, in a nutshell, my answer is no. Good light is extremely important for stellar images.

photographing the Palouse

That lesson was reinforced last week as I was sitting in my van towards the end of the day, parked halfway up Steptoe Butte. I had found a world-famous composition while I was speaking to Magrit on my iPhone (BTW, the cell reception is great on the Butte and you can also get a wonderful classical radio station from Spokane). I was really not too impressed with the light or the composition for that matter and was ready to move on when the low-angle sun broke through the clouds and bathed the scene in the most gorgeous light — nice deep shadows on the back sides of the hills and the distinctive S-curve and the lone tree were beautifully illuminated. Needless to say, I could not get out of the van fast enough. Sorry, Magrit! (She’s been in the same situation, though — so she understands. :-))

photographing the Palouse

The second lesson relearned while photographing the Palouse was about how to photograph in high winds with a telephoto lens. My 100-400 mm Sony lens is ideal for photographing from high up on Steptoe Butte but any amount of wind can be problematic as just the slightest movement of the lens can cause blurry photos. So here are my suggestions for photographing with a long lens in windy conditions:

  1. Find a wind buffer. A tree, rock, your vehicle. I’ve had great success by opening the sliding door on the side of my van and photographing while sitting inside.
  2. Keep low. Bring the tripod down low so that you are on your knees. A foam pad or knee pads are helpful here.
  3. Weight down your tripod with a bag of rocks or a bottle of water or hang your camera bag from the hook of the middle column.
  4. Remove the lens hood if you can without getting flare in your image from a low angle sun. Those lens hoods are large on tele lenses and offer more surface area for the wind to hit.
  5. Use a fast shutter speed of at least 1/320 of a second. You may have to bump your ISO up. I was recently using an ISO of 1600 and got good results with just a bit of digital noise. Don’t use a polarizer as this will reduce the amount of light by up to 2 stops.
  6. If it is really windy and you can see your lens vibrating you can try a couple of techniques. First, set your camera to high-speed drive mode. When you fire off a few, say 3-5 quick frames, often, at least one of them will be sharper than the others. The second technique is to experiment with turning on the vibration control mode on your lens. (Vibration Reduction, VR, on Nikon, Image Stabilization, IS, on Canon and Optical Steady Shot, OSS, on Sony). Usually, you want to avoid this while on a tripod but if you try using it when the lens is vibrating because of wind you will most likely get sharp images. If you have the vibration control on while conditions are perfectly still you might get blurry images. So don’t forget to turn it off when the wind dies down. The other day on the Butte, with windy conditions, I would fire off 3 frames in high-speed mode and then quickly turn on vibration control and fire off 3 more.

photographing the Palouse

It’s just like with any skill: “Use it or lose it.” I was a bit rusty as I had not been out shooting for some time and had to remind myself about using these techniques. One wonderful benefit of the digital camera is the instant feedback we get by enlarging the photo to check for sharpness. This is easy to do with a mirrorless camera as you get playback by looking through the viewfinder and you can see the image perfectly without the surrounding brightness of the environment affecting the view.

With a digital SLR, you have to view the playback on the LCD screen, and often it is too bright to see the image clearly. For this situation, a hood loupe is the way to go. For one option you could try, click here. »

If you’re anywhere near this beautiful location, go there now. Conditions are perfect. In fact, I’ll be going back next Thursday for another few days of photographic bliss. See you on Steptoe Butte.