When people think of the rich heartland of America's farmland, they don't usually think about the state of Washington. If you were to show the average person a shot of the green rolling hills of Eastern Washington's Palouse region, they would probably assume it was Kansas, Indiana, or somewhere else in the mid-west. Washington's farmland is quite unlike those regions in that it's an area with hills, and valleys. The typical flat fields of wheat or corn stretching across the horizon doesn't exist here. Here the farmland follows the contours that nature has created: hills, buttes, and valleys included. It's this landscape that has created some of landscape photography's most interesting subjects.
There is a rub though...trying to find your way around! The Palouse is an intricate maze of one lane farm roads and small rural country lanes that completely dissect this entire region. Many of the roads are named after the farmer who owns the house at the end, or perhaps a blend of names of multiple farmers. If you don't know the area, it would be easy to get lost, and the chances of finding those gems to photograph would be nearly impossible.
That's where we come in. Aperture Academy instructors Brian Rueb and Scott Donschikowski have travelled the roads, and mapped out the best locations and things to see, and combined it with a love of teaching to help ensure that a group of 12 eager photographers can travel to the Palouse, and come away with some truly remarkable images of this community!
Friday evening after our customary "meet and greet" orientation for our Palouse workshop, we turned the class loose to go get a start on their photo-filled weekend with an impromptu shoot at the iconic Steptoe Butte State Park. This butte juts out of the countryside like a tower that just begs photographers to go to the top, where they will have a birds-eye view of the surrounding countryside as the first and last light of the day bathes the rolling hills and turns them into photographic gold.
:: DAY 1 ::
It was great to get the class out early, and familiarize them with the area, because Steptoe was the first spot we took them to on the following morning, for the "official" start of the workshop.
Thirty-seven degrees and driving winds greeted our class as we arrived atop the hill after our lovely 3:45 am departure time. Brian and Scott spread the class out and helped them compositionally work on closer shots to capture the available light streaking through the clouds and lighting up the landscape.
The weather in the Palouse is temperamental in the late spring, and it was evident with the off and on rain, wind and cold present on this June morning. Brian and Scott worked with the students to use higher ISO and faster shutter speeds to help capture the best shots with the wind that was vibrating the longer lenses attached to the cameras as we stretched out to focus more on the details of the area, as opposed to the area as a whole. Our group was tough, and we made the best of the situation. However, the cold eventually could no longer be ignored, and the entire class was ready to retreat to the valley below for warmer temperatures... and new subjects.
We drove a small dirt road that took us by several local farms. These farms had seen their fair share of better times, and hard winters. Many of the barns in this region are on their way out, and each year brings a new twist to the workshop as some barns have finally succumbed to the driving winds and harsh winters that bury this area every year. While on these side roads, Scott and Brian worked with the class on their compositional skills as they stopped every 10-15 minutes to find another old piece of Americana, AKA another old barn.
It's important that when we're out in this farm country that we stay respectful of someone's dwellings, and for farmers, their livelihood. We always stayed out of the crops, and in most cases the farmers whose barns we photographed were happy to let us take some joy in exploring, what for them, was just "an old building." To us, it was a photography goldmine.
"Sorry 'bout the old trucks blocking the barn," said one nice farmer. Little did he know, but the old trucks were just as much fun to shoot as was his barn!
After a brief morning break it was back out again for not only more lovely barns, but also a nice scene Brian and Scott had scouted with an old pine forest surrounded with red and white flowers. This area of forest is part of the Kamiak Butte area, and provides a contrasting, and different, break from the farm and barn scenes we were shooting.
The wind was minimal in this area, and the class was able to make some nice shots of the repetitive tree patterns, interlaced with the white flowers. A few red flowers also dotted the area and provided a small blast of color from the sea of white.
After Kamiak Butte, we took a break for an early dinner before heading out to brave the rainstorm that had washed in. The next location was an hour and a half drive to the iconic Palouse Falls state park, home to a 200 ft. tall monstrous waterfall.
We check conditions a lot on workshops, even more so during inclement weather, to ensure that we take our class to the spots with the best potential for nice dramatic sunsets and sunrises. The cloud cover over Palouse Falls looked to be the best chance for something dramatic to happen on this night, so it's where we headed.
For the first hour of time shooting we spread the group out, worked on possible compositions and the settings needed to get the best shots of the falls. The area is located atop a deep gorge where the river and falls cut through. One needs to brave a bit of heights in order to capture the full enormity of the waterfall. Despite an early lack of color, the sky was still moody and dramatic as there was definition in the clouds, which made for some nice shots. Everything we did early on set us up for the show that was to follow.
The storm had broken far to the west, and when at last the sun finally dropped below the cloud cover, it began to light the clouds to the west with a vibrant, almost neon, display of pink and orange that quickly spread over the falls and throughout the area, even bringing a perfect rainbow over the falls as an added bonus! The class was giddy, and Scott and Brian helped them to use their polarizers and grad filters to grab some truly remarkable shots!
The class had made it through day 1 beautifully, and was rewarded handsomely with a truly "one for the ages" sunset...what a way to finish!
:: DAY 2 ::
On the second day, we rewarded the class with a few more hours of sleep, which turned out to be a very good call as the inclement weather had returned. We met at 6 am to cloudy overcast skies...with a potential for possible clearing in the future. We spent the entirety of our morning scouting for pieces of Americana and shooting some truly unique barns. We also took time to spend the morning shooting the tiny town of Palouse...the old hub the region was named for.
The town of Palouse has long passed whatever heyday it used to have, but still provided our class with a valuable lesson. By splitting up and walking the main street of town, we began to see small details, interesting bits, contrast from old to new, and signs of a town that still has a story to tell. That was the goal of the stop. We wanted the class to tell a story with photos from this place.
It was fun for instructors to watch as the students began to find their shots, and see different things in the windows and alleyways of this tiny farming town. Scott and Brian were walking around to help provide insight into composition, point out places to explore, and work with students on depth-of-field issues they may not have considered with shooting a town that still has so much to offer.
The afternoon saw us shooting a few different subjects. We stopped to photograph the last covered bridge in the area. While photographing the bridge we saw bi-planes flying the skies delivering pesticides or other materials to the crops. With lack of decent vantage point to shoot the planes from, we moved to the airport where we had a prime seat as we watched crop dusters take off and land in the strip, and fly within shooting distance of our cameras.
Of course, we saw barns, too...each with its own story and history that was lovely to capture with our cameras. There were old tractors as well, and fields of wheat, and other grains that rolled over hills for as far as the eye can see. Each bend in the road showed us something truly remarkable to photograph, it was a long morning, and we only scratched the surface of what the area had to offer!
After an interesting lunch in the town of Pullman, it was back to the hotel for a mini-processing clinic from Scott and Brian and some image review before heading out again for Steptoe Butte for what was looking like another spectacular sunset in the making.
The butte was packed with over fifty photographers, each scouting out their own composition and waiting for the magical light to hit at sundown. We took our class first to the very top, where we could shoot 360 degrees and work on compositions. The light was changing rapidly as farms, lone trees, and patchwork-like colors on the hills went in and out of light, almost as fast as we could compose new images!
Paragliders floated on the breeze over the farm country that was now lit with the warm golden light of evening. Some students chose shots that included these daredevils of the dust lands, others chose more shots of the farms and rolling hills.
When the sun dropped below the butte, we moved to a western vantage point to wait for the colors of the setting sun to engulf the scene and again fill the sky with pinks and purple. Brian and Scott helped with use of polarizers and grad filters to help achieve the best exposures in-camera possible.
We were not disappointed, the show went off as hoped, and the class came away with truly nice images of rolling hillsides, dotted with farms, and a sky filled with moody dramatic clouds all lighting up like a Vegas light show. Truly a great ending to a great workshop, with an enthusiastic bunch of great people!
Until next time,
Brian, Scott, 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.