Eastern Washington is home to some of the world's most fertile farmland. Known as The Palouse, many believe the region was named after the French word pelouse, meaning "lawn." When you see the area, the name fits. Hill after rolling hill covered in fields of wheat, as well as the largest crops of lentils in the United States. The simplicity of the green curving hills under blue skies full of puffy white clouds is mesmerizing. The old barns are pieces of Americana and give a glimpse of our rich agricultural history. When you drive to a higher vantage point the area becomes a pastoral quilt filled with different shades of green and brown and those same barns look like pieces on a train set. Though simple, this area attracts photographers from all over the world to shoot the patterns and magic of The Palouse.
A group of 15 photographers met instructors Brian Rueb, Kevin McNeal, and Ellie Stone in Colfax, Washington, the heart of the area for a weekend of fun, education, and photography throughout The Palouse. The workshop began with a brief orientation so the instructors could meet everyone, go over the plan for the weekend and get an idea of what the students wanted to focus on during their weekend together. When orientation was over everyone was encouraged to get some rest because the next day was beginning bright and early, and the Aperture Academy photography van, affectionately known as the ApCab was departing at 4:30am for Steptoe Butte, the first location of the day.
Morning does come early and a group of groggy but excited photographers assembled in the lobby grabbing a much needed cup of coffee before loading up and setting off under the cover of darkness to their first location. Steptoe Butte is one of the tallest landmarks in the Palouse, and the views from the summit are amazing. Being the tallest landmark has its advantages, the whole Palouse is laid out, and the enormity of the area is becomes apparent. It has its disadvantages as well. It is also the coldest, windiest place in the entire region. The wind on this morning was biting to say the least and when mixed with temperatures in the low 40s, the cold was difficult to deal with. The class was up to the challenge though and spread out along the top looking for compositions. Landscape photography is normally best when using a wide angle lens. Steptoe Butte is an oddity because it gives the best images when using a long lens. The best compositions are extreme zooms that utilize the nearly abstract patterns of the rolling hills, anchored with a barn, grain silo, or other piece of Americana.
When the sun finally rises the area lights up with warm golden curves as the farmland absorbs the first rays of morning light. Kevin, Brian and Ellie worked with students to help them use the best methods possible to get nice images, and reduce camera vibrations from the gusting wind. They also provided some ideas on how to use the curves from the farmland as leading lines to help create aesthetically balanced images. The class braved the freezing conditions as long as possible, but eventually the cold won out and everyone retreated to the ApCab to head to another location on the warmer valley floor.
Our first barn and a solitary tree were the next stops on the morning session. With the vibrancy of the surroundings adding items of interest like barns and trees create depth, and add a focal point to the landscape images that people can relate to. The Palouse is a maze of old farm roads, and one could easily get lost trying to navigate the web the weave throughout the fertile valley. Kevin has been coming to this area for years, and knows some of the best little nooks and crannies the area has to offer. The class was eager to see these little gems and get the best images possible. The instructors worked with students on all the possibilities each location had to offer. Whether it was a grander vista with the rows of crops as leading lines into the frame, or intricate detail shots of a piece of old farm equipment. Each and every stop of the trip had so many possibilities.
The morning flew by and the class was happy to be back at the hotel for a warm cup of coffee and hearty farmland breakfast before setting out again for the afternoon portion of the day. Students and instructors used the morning break to recharge their batteries, and talk more photography.
The afternoon session was a barn-a-palooza. Over the next four hours we made 7 different stops to photograph a variety of barns in all shapes and sizes. Each barn was a beacon to show how the area had morphed and transformed over time. Some barns were newer and well maintained others hadn't seen any TLC for many, many years. Each barn was a unique and interesting scene into our rich history as one of the worlds' agricultural leaders. The class spread out at each location working on a variety of different scene. The images the instructors were seeing on the students' view screens were great every student had a unique vision for every location and it was great to see them working each location, asking for input on their compositions and trying to bring vision to light. The best part of the day was the weather. The forecast had called for storms all weekend, but our class was enjoying a blue sky filled with those puffy white clouds that make the Palouse fell like walking in a Magritte painting. The last stop of the afternoon was for many one of their favorites. A lone tree tucked in the middle of sets of rolling green hills. The simplicity of the scene was so powerful. If you didn't know it was there, you'd have driven right by it. The Palouse holds many secrets, and by 3:00pm the class had spent over 7 hours in the field (pun intended) photographing, and were starting to fade a bit. It was time for a break.
The ApCab rolled out again at 6:00, headed for Palouse Falls State Park. Seeing the rolling hills and farmland you would never believe that nestled deep within lies a 200ft tall waterfall. It doesn't seem possible, and as you drive down the winding roads leading to the park it seems LESS possible. During the ice age some very scientific and geological things went down (that's slang for ‘I don't know) and the area formed a giant crack where the Palouse River now flows 200ft over a volcanic ledge. The lush green of the farmlands eventually give way to drier more desert like landscape. The longer you drive the more it feels like being transported in time back to a prehistoric and wild time.
This waterfall is truly unique, and takes everyone who sees it back to a prehistoric time. The class spread out along the sheer Cliffside and worked on creating a variety of compositions that showed just how amazing this waterfall was set amongst the dry deserted landscape. The sunset never materialized the way everyone had hoped, but the shots the class came up with were still amazing and really showed off the power of the falls. Palouse Falls is something that truly has to be seen to be appreciated, and our students had pushed aside a fear of heights and come away with great images. The drive back to the hotel was fun, and even though the class was tired from a long day they still found time to make fun of Brian for driving too slow. For the record, even though a semi, and a truck pulling a boat passed him…there was no way he was going to let a person riding a bike, or an old lady in a lark pass. Near the end of the drive the day took its toll, and the class began to nod out one by one. They were ready for sleep. It was a long day and they earned it! What a great day of fun and photographic variety!
Day two began just as early as the first, and once again the class was nursing a cup of coffee or tea as we set off back to Steptoe Butte area for another sunrise. Instead of heading back to the top, Kevin led the group on a hike to a neighboring hill that provided different perspectives as well as some nice batches of wildflowers, one of the icons of the region. This time the light was much better, the wind was far less harsh and the class was able to focus more on creating images rather than preventing frostbite. Kevin, Brian, and Ellie worked with the students on how to best use the foliage as their foreground to give perspective and interest to the compositions. The class spread out all over the hillside looking for unique perspectives on this gorgeous area. The best light came early, and before long the sun retreated behind a coming storm cell leaving us in the shade and ready for another location.
The next spot was straight out of a movie set. Sitting high above the river the class was treated to the only covered bridge in the state of Washington. The old wooden bridge spanned the Palouse River as it winds its way through the valley. The students were able to shoot this structure, which is in danger of being torn down, and see another of the diverse treasures that make the area such a treat. Some students climbed the nearby hillside to take some shots of the bright yellow balsamroot flowers that dotted the hillside.
"I just filled another memory card" was something that was heard several times throughout the trip. I don't think anyone expected to have so many different locations with such variety throughout the trip. The second morning transitioned just the way the first had and after a few locations we were back enjoying breakfast at the hotel, recharging our systems before setting out for another afternoon of Americana.
I think by the end of the afternoon it is safe to say that each of the students had seen their share of barns. New Barns, old Barns, red barns, wooden barns, metal barns, barns with neat old trucks in front, barns with no window, and barns with rows of old wagon wheels for fences. I think one student summed it up best by calling the experience "Barn porn" The most interesting part of the second portion of the day was a little seasonal pond the class found that in addition to some chatty yellow-headed blackbirds had an old dock, and some great reflections of the clouds and blue sky. In a world of barns it was a different and beautiful view. In each location the instructors really worked with students to see their compositions, and offer suggestions on how to make adjustments to improve the scene and get the most out of them.
The time flies and by this portion of the weekend the class had photographed nearly 20 different locations, which is more than most any other workshop can offer. The Palouse has a lot to throw at you, and the students combated it best as they could filling card after card with their own unique takes. They had earned they're afternoon break in a big way.
The final spot for the workshop was a hillside full of lupine and balsamroot on the west side of Steptoe Butte. The spring wildflowers are a big draw for photographers in the late spring and early summer. Everyone would love a shot of the foregrounds filled with flowers, rolling farmland hillsides, and a warm enticing sunset. Lucky for us we found JUST the spot and the class was giddy with the way the sunset went off, and the flowers filled their foregrounds. The Lupine was sparse this year, but our class found probably the BEST section of them in the whole valley, and they really enjoyed working with them as a subject matter. Brian and Ellie worked with students to help them use a variety of ways to capture the scene with graduated filters, increasing ISO's to get faster shutter speeds to stop the motion of the flowers that were swaying in the slight breeze. There really are a variety of ways to capture a scene and our instructors try to work with the classes to find the way that's right for them. The images on the screens were looking great. The sun shot rays of light all over the sky before fading into a deep red ball and disappearing behind the horizon. It was the perfect ending to a perfect weekend of fun, and photography in America's farm country.
Until next time...Brian, Kevin, Ellie and the rest of the Aperture Academy team!
P.S. If you'd like to join us at one of our workshops, you can find the schedule/sign up here.