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The Palouse is one of the largest agricultural areas in the U.S., and is widely known for the wheat and lentils it produces. The 19,000 square miles of steep rolling hills are remnant of an ancient prairie now covered by farmland. These rolling hills are formed by wind-blown sediments called, Loess. This landscape is what Aperture Academy and many other photographers and enthusiasts come to see every year. To the locals and farmers, this place is their livelihood, and a symbol of many years of hard work. To us, it is a photographic wonderland.
Scott and I look forward to this annual workshop all year long, and we were giddy to meet up with this year’s group and go over the happenings of the next three days. We met everyone in the lobby of our hotel, where we had a brief orientation to get to know one another.
After we all were acquainted, Scott gave everyone the tentative schedule for the long weekend, and we all headed off to bed. After all, we would be meeting the group the next morning at 3:15 for a very early sunrise!
Well… miracles do happen in photography workshops, and not just the photographic kind. Everybody showed up next morning on time and ready to shoot (even though Scott and I were secretly hoping no one would show up and we could go back to bed). Seriously, though, this group was good!
From the hotel, we had a 45-minute drive to Steptoe Butte for sunrise. The reason we pick this area for the morning is that it is one of only two highly elevated areas (the other being Kamiak Butte) that offers spectacular views of the hills below. When the sun begins to rise, it creates deep, angular shadows that add a healthy dose of contrast to the dynamic scene.
Scott and I hooked our folks up with some filters and helped them get their compositions dialed in for sunrise. After which, we descended down the butte to see what the light was doing on the plains, but the clouds had swarmed in and killed any good light we may have had. Scott and I decided we should all take a short break for breakfast, then head back out for more.
Around 10 am, we headed out to a little red barn on a small farm outside of Pullman. The barn is a nice bright red and contrasts nicely with the dark green trees behind it. The weather was perfect for the Palouse! It was bright and the sky was full of the big puffy white clouds that add a nice depth to the scene.
After photographing some old farm equipment and a row of Cottonwood trees, we headed into the town of Palouse to shoot an old hot rod, and then shot a couple more barns after a quick break. We then headed up to a nice panoramic vista with loads of gigantic windmills. The students had fun with some long exposures using filters. By then, it was almost noon, so we decided to take another long break for a nap and lunch before heading out in the afternoon.
When we met up for our afternoon session, the skies were looking great! There were still some nice clouds hanging overhead and it looked promising. On our way out to our first location, we passed two tractors that were tilling up a field to get it ready to plant. Scott and I pulled off the road so that the students could get shots of the tractors spewing out clouds of dust as they raced up and down the hills. After they were finished with that, we took them out to a covered bridge outside of Colfax. From a high vantage point, this area offers a great reflection on the river far below, as it snakes down the deep canyon.
It then became time to head back up to Steptoe Butte, because, not only is it good for sunrise, but also for sunset! This is one of the advantages to the corkscrew-like road that winds up to the top of the butte: you can face in any direction depending on the time of the day. We decided to take the group up to a slightly higher vantage point to capture the evening colors. After sunset, it was time to head back and get some rest for another early morning.
It was up at “ridiculously early o’clock” again for another Whitman County sunrise, from the 1,000 foot Steptoe Butte. We decided to go a little higher this time so that everyone could get a different vantage point of the hills and valleys below. The great part about this area is that you can drive 1/10 of a mile and get a completely different composition. The morning looked promising with some nice openings in the clouds near where the sun was going to rise. Scott and I spent a few minutes helping everyone get prepared to capture the sun’s ascent. Just as we all hoped, the sun poked through the thick morning clouds and lit up the land with hues of pink and gold. After everyone had gotten a few good ones, Scott and I drove everyone up even higher, so the students could work with new compositions as the light danced upon the fields below. This was a good spot, but the light was moving fast, so we all piled back into the van and headed up to one last stop. Scott and I checked in on everyone and helped a few who were eager to learn some panorama and focus stacking techniques.
Now that the clouds were beginning to break up a little, we decided to drive back down to one of our favorite spots on the workshop. We had everyone switch to their wide angle lenses and took them out to photograph an old orange truck and a red barn. The colors contrasted beautifully with the blue sky behind. Since everybody was having fun, we stayed there for about an hour, working with some fisheye lenses and crazy compositions. After a quick stop at one last skeleton of a barn, we retreated back to the hotel for a much-deserved nap and some grub.
After break, we met back up with the group around 2 pm and motored down to Colfax, to a lone tree out in the middle of a wheat field. Scott and I demonstrated how a circular polarizer can be used to pull out some of the deep blues in the sky and make the clouds pop. The clouds drifted past the sun, creating some nice shadows and adding a magnificent depth to the scene. Because one lone tree wasn’t enough, we made our next stop at yet another. This tree, however, stood in the middle of a fallow field, making it equally interesting because it was the only spec of life within the vacant space. I took a few images in black and white and showed the students how sometimes, by removing color, you can notice intricacies in the scene you otherwise may not.
Next up was the old Texico Gas Station Museum, created by one man with a drive to rewrite history. At first glance, this place looks like a normal exit, but, at closer glance, you can find several different antique cars, gas pumps, farm equipment and glass soda bottles of yore. It literally feels like one has made a step back in time. There is so much to shoot here that one could spend a full day just at this spot, but we had more to see and a schedule to keep.
We all loaded back up into the ApCab and headed down toward Palouse Falls. On the way, we pulled off of the highway to a field of blooming mustard flowers that Scott and I had found on our way to Pullman a few days prior. The weather could not have cooperated better! The signature "Palouse Clouds" still lingered overhead, as we photographed the area from a small valley nearby. After a few shots, we were back en route to our sunset location at the falls.
Palouse Falls is part of a larger area called, the Scablands, left over from the great Missoula flood. This giant waterfall on the Palouse River drops 198 feet into an enormous basalt canyon before joining up with the Columbia River. To shoot this waterfall, you have to edge out to the 200+ foot cliff with a wide angle lens. Our group lined up on the edge, and, after they got comfortable, we showed them how to capture the dynamic range with the use of filters. Some tried stacking multiple filters to produce longer shutter speeds, slowing down the water below. As the sun began to set, the cloud bank above the falls lit up for several minutes creating some nice pink color. After sunset we packed up and made the 1.5 mile drive back to Pullman.
The next morning, we felt bad for our group and let them sleep in for a few extra hours. Since the forecast was calling for zero clouds, we set back out to shoot at 8 am. The clouds were sparse, but we managed to find a couple near a few barns and spent some time working the scene and finding interesting vantage points. The first barn that we visited had fallen down after last year's winter, making it a rather unique shot.
Next, we drove down to the sleepy little ghost town of Elberton. This little town once had a population of 500 people, but it fell prey to a large fire in the 1930s. Most of the buildings were never rebuilt because of the depression, and it was too costly to maintain and make the repairs. We let the group loose to explore an old trestle bridge built over top of the Palouse River. It’s rusty old metal trusses looked great in monochrome. While I worked with some folks on the bridge, Scott took part of the group over to some blooming poppy flowers and they worked with some different compositions with the side of the bridge. After shooting there for almost two hours, we headed back to the hotel for a short break.
Afterward, Scott and I met everyone in the hotel lobby to do some post-processing. We each demonstrated examples of some editing workflow, and after demonstrating a few of our own photos, we helped some folks individually with how to focus stack and stitch panoramic photos. Once everyone was done looking through their photos, we all hopped back in the van for one last adventure.
We stopped at a very unique barn built in a circular structure, and to make it even more unique, it is painted green! The students grabbed some nice images before we rounded them up for a quick group shot in front of the barn. Then we made a stop at the Palouse Country Barn. Although this stop is rather touristy, it offers a great opportunity to practice sun stars.
We took the group out to the back side of the barn and showed them how to create one of these phenomena while keeping their desired composition intact. The sun was beginning to sink lower in the sky, so we hightailed it down for one wheat field before pulling into an old deserted house for sunset.
The sky was devoid of clouds to the east, and we didn’t expect much to happen as the sun started to set. However, just before the sky lit up, some light, wispy clouds moved into view and lit up bright pink over the old house. This was another good reminder that, in photography, it’s not over until it’s over! The group took their last few shots and we headed back to the hotel for a pleasant end to another amazing visit to America’s fertile farmland.
Until next time,
Scott, Phil, 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.