Though clear now, the skies of Washington State, and indeed most of the Pacific Northwest, have been very smokey almost the entire month of August. The smoke is from wildfires, both in the United States and Canada. I fear, with climate changes, this may be our new “normal” for August, as smokey skies have been prevalent in August the past several years.
As long as the smoke is not too thick, smokey skies can have some advantages to landscape and travel photography. Though I tend not to, some people like the sunsets provided by smokey conditions. I do, however, appreciate that smokey conditions can soften light and can extend golden hour conditions by changing the color of sunlight. On the other hand, they can also dim sunlight so that the light during the actual golden hours is weak.
In my opinion, the disadvantages outweigh any advantages gained. I am fond on blue skies and wide vistas. Smoke can suck the blue out of the sky and obscure views with haze. I also like to use telephoto lenses to pull in distance subjects. Obviously, this does not work so well if there is a lot of smoke.
On my trip to the Palouse last month, the skies were quite smokey. Not smokey enough to totally ruin the trip, but I certainly did not have ideal conditions. The Palouse is known for its blue skies with great clouds. On my last trip, the sky, though clear, was more of a dusky gray. It was also cloud free on except for one day. So much for the wide sky shots I often favor, such as this one I posted on instagram. I found myself following several techniques to minimize the effects of the smoke.
1. Limiting distance in my compositions – instead of including distant hills and vistas in my compositions, I selected relatively close subjects, or chose compositions where the distant background was less important. For example, on my August visit to the Palouse, I did shoot one evening from Steptoe Butte. However, with the smokey haze, I chose one of the lower viewpoint instead of going to the top, and I mostly shot compositions with subjects relatively close to the butte rather than subjects thousands of meters away.
2. Eliminating or limiting the amount of sky in my compositions – with the sky not the blue color one expects, in many cases, I tried to either totally eliminate the sky from my composition or at least limit the amount of sky in the shot.
3. Processing using the Dehaze slider in Lightroom – I often use the dehaze slider in lightroom, and not just to remove haze; I like the microconstrast it adds to images. However, smokey conditions are what the dehaze slider was made for. While processing images from the August Palouse trip in Lightroom, I found myself adding more dehaze than I normally would.
4. Adding blue back into the sky in Lightroom – I typically do not do selective color corrections in Lightroom. Typically I’ll set the color balance for the entire photo and let well enough alone (saving selective color adjustments for Photoshop if I want to do them at all). But with new masking tools for the gradient and brush tools, I found it relatively easy to add some blue back into the sky in Lightroom. Typically, I’d make a fairly tight gradient (or perhaps the brush too) and apply it to the area of the photo containing the sky. Then, using the range mask tool in color mode, I select a wide portion of the sky. This usually masks most of the non-sky areas, but to be sure, I’ll check the Show Selected Mask Overlay checkbox (which uses a red tone to indicate where the gradient is effective). Depending on the image, I may or may not need to do some cleanup of the mask with the eraser brush). To correct the sky, I’ll move the temperature slider toward blue, typically move the exposure slider down about 1/2 to 1/2 a stop, and move the clarity slider down as well. Depending on the image, I may also increase the dehaze slightly. Sounds complicated, but it is fairly easy with a bit of practice. This technique does a nice job on restoring sky color (see the examples below).
Without a doubt, Steptoe Butte is the most popular photography destination in the Palouse. And deservedly do. Rising more that 1,000 feet above the surrounding landscape, there is no better place to capture an iconic shot of the rolling hills of the Palouse. If you only have time to go one place in the Palouse, this is it.
However, if you would rather not share the view with dozens (or more) of other photographers, or if you are just looking for someplace else to go, there are several other places I know of that can give you similar shots to those captured at Steptoe Butte.
Most blog posts that recommend where to shoot in the Palouse, as well as Greg Vaughn’s excellent Photographing Washington, Kamiak Butte is mentioned as a good place to get similar views to Steptoe Butte. Though a bit lower in elevation than Steptoe Butte, its peak is more than 1,000 feet above the surrounding lands. There are several differences, however. Kamiak Butte is elongated, running northeast to southwest, so it doesn’t give the all directional views that Steptoe does. Also, most of its northern half is forested (Steptoe is treeless), so views to the north and northwest visible except in a few spots. Perhaps the largest difference is access. Kamiak Butte is a Whitman County park. The park access road is gated, and the gate locked from dusk to 7 a.m. If you want to drive up there for sunrise photos in the summer – forget it. Plus, unlike Steptoe, you need to hike to the viewpoints on Kamiak. The main loop trail up to the viewpoints is 3.5 miles, but you can get to the first viewpoints in about half a mile (with an elevation gain of about 320 feet).
Having to access the viewpoints by trail makes it difficult for sunset shots as well. Unless you are a trail runner, it might be difficult to shoot at sunset, hike back to your car, and get out the gate before it is locked for the night. (And yes, the sign specifically states you can get locked in.)
On the plus side, there will be fewer people there and the wildflower display at Kamiak is wonderful – in my experience, much better than at Steptoe. There is also no fee to visit Kamiak, while Steptoe Butte is a state park and requires a $10/day fee (or an annual state parks pass – the Discovery Pass). Also, you can camp at Kamiak, while there is no camping at Steptoe.
I didn’t want to take my chances with the gate, so I my recent trips, I shot from Kamiak in the mid-afternoon and went elsewhere for sunset. The gate to Kamiak Butte County Park is in Kamiak Butte Park Road (image that!) at GPS coordinates 46.880353, -117.149009.
Marvin Wells Road
I found one source (Photograph America Newsletter #54) that suggested Marvin Wells Road as a good viewpoint. On this road, you can get to an elevation of about 2,975 feet, about 700 feet of the top of Kamiak Butte. The road approaches the butte from the west and skims along the bottom of the treeline (with the trees above the road on the butte). The view is not so vast as you get from the top, being only toward the west through north, nor will you be 1,000 feet above the surrounding landscape, but you do not need to worry about being locked out at sunrise or locked in after sunset.
Also, the elevation difference may not be as big a deal breaker as you might think. There is some debate about where is the best place to shoot on Steptoe, and many photographers prefer not going completely to the top, photographing instead from pullouts between some 400 to 600 feet lower than the summit. Marvin Wells Road puts you just underneath that same elevation range.
If you like your sunset between just you and your tripod, I can guarantee you, you won’t find any other photographers at the viewpoints along Marvin Wells Road (unless, of course, my blog post goes viral – ha ha!). Plus, there will be little to no traffic. The road leads to a single farm on the side of Kamiak Butte. I shot there several times during my recent visits and didn’t see any other photographers and only a single car passed me.
The best approach to the Marvin Wells viewpoints is from the west (the road does loop around to Fugate Road, just a mile east of the entrance to Kamiak Butte County Park; however, Marvin Wells Road off of Fugate is a very sketchy “summer” road [dirt roads open only in the summer] that I chose not to test with my SUV). Both South Palouse River Road (from the west) and Fugate Road (from the east) merge directly onto Marvin Wells Road below the butte. The viewpoint at GPS coordinates 46.862410, -117.182667 is to the west and northwest. By driving a little further on the road you can also see more to the northeast.
Woody Grade Road
The viewpoint at Woody Grade Road is directly east of Steptoe Butte on the eastern edge of the Palouse region (in Idaho). It has an elevation of just over 3,030 feet, but the nearby surrounding lands are only about 500 feet lower. Still, you can get some good shots here. This spot, to my knowledge, is not mentioned any in other guides to the Palouse. I found it by searching Google maps.
There are two views here; one is a wide-open view to the west and north, and the other is a more restricted view to the south. The two viewpoints are about 500 feet apart.
You can access the Woody Grade viewpoints either from the south or from the west. Woody Grade Road west of the viewpoints is a summer road, which was in good shape when I drove it last month. South of the viewpoints, it is a good gravel road – so that is the preferred approach, especially if it has rained recently. Besides, it you approach from the south, you will go by a nice old school house (on Yellow Dog Road) that will surely tempt your camera lens.
The road from the school to the turn off to Woody Grade Road is Schneider Road. It continues east past Woody Grade Road, and it looks like there may be another viewpoint along it a bit more than a mile past the Woody Grade turn – though I didn’t go check it out on my recent visit. The viewpoints on Woody Grade Road are at about GPS coordinates 47.018650, -117.010974, and without a doubt, you will not be sharing this view with other photographers. The old school on Yellow Dog Road is at 46.99672, -117.033538.
Skyline Drive Road
With a name like Skyline Drive, is it surprising this road has good views (including the featured image at the top of this post). I found this viewpoint several years ago by just driving around the Palouse scouting for good photographic subjects. At the time, it was the middle of the day, and I made a note to go back in better light – which I did on my recent trip. In doing an internet search, I found that I wasn’t the first to discover this spot – I found several blogs mentioning it. However, I venture to say it is not widely known. In the two times I’ve been to this section of road, I’ve only seen one other person. On my recent trip, just before sunset, a hunter came walking up the hill from one of the fields below. Seeing my camera, he remarked on the view and warned me about ticks (if you do wander around in the grasses of the Palouse, checking for ticks is very good advice).
The northern and western end of Skyline Drive Road starts just north of Farmington, Washington, a right-hand turn off the Tekoa Farmington Road if driving north. The road winds up a hillside and then traverses through Mary McCroskey State Park in Idaho. Skyline Drive Road is nearly 20 miles long, and I have only explored the northwestern end. As the road continues from there into Idaho, it enters a forest. However, in examining it using Google Earth, it appears there may be several other spots where it leaves the forest and provides views of the Palouse. On a future trip, I hope to explore the full length of the road looking for additional viewpoints.
The northwestern end of the road near Farmington offers wonderful views of the Palouse to the south, west, and northwest, with Steptoe Butte forming a distant bump on the horizon. This portion of the road is at elevation 3,000 to 3,200 feet while the nearby surrounding lands are at about 2,600 feet.
The road itself is dirt and may be unpassable during or after wet weather. I found the road to be generally in good shape. The Idaho state parks website suggests the road may be “too rough” for a family car, but I don’t believe this northwestern section is. Though there are many spots along the road to take great photos, general GPS coordinates for this northwestern section of road are 47.125139, -117.042153.
There are many other viewpoints with more limited views in the Palouse region. Typically these occur where a road crests one of the rolling hills that is somewhat higher than its surrounding neighbors. I’ve found several that are worth mentioning, and I will do so in when my guide to the Palouse comes out next year. For now, I’ll just show you two examples from one such spot, the crest of Clear Creek Road (46.897361, -117.185005).
Meanwhile, I’m on the hunt for more viewpoints in the Palouse. If you happen to have a favorite one, particularly if I’ve missed it, please leave a comment or drop me an email.
Earlier I wrote about stepping toward greatness in your photography, concerning a 10-step approach outlined by Steve Simon in his book The Passionate Photographer, Ten Steps Toward Becoming Great. That post also discussed step one: working on personal projects, and I described several personal projects I’ve been working on.
Step two is volume – shooting lots of images to improve your craft. Not just shooting for shooting’s sake, but shooting volume with a purpose. By taking lots of shots, you can learn from your successes and mistakes, such as which compositions work and which don’t, as well as making sure your subject is covered from all angles.
To illustrate these concepts, I give you 24 images I took of the Freeze Community Church outside of Potlatch, Idaho from my trip last week to the Palouse. While at the church, I made a conscious effort to really try to cover it from all angles (at least the angles where I thought the light was good enough). Since leaving the site, I’ve thought of at least five or six additional compositions I’ve should have tried – obviously I need to keep working on this step. On your next photo shoot, try to really cover your subject and let me know how it goes; do you think of any shots you should have taken but didn’t?
In his book, Simon mentions that rarely is your best image of a subject the first one taken. How true this is. In travel photography in particular I’ve noticed this. When I finally reach a particular site I’ve been itching to photograph, I’m excited by the scene, and hop out and start taking pictures immediately. That’s fine, but rarely are those images any good. Further, those images are almost never unique. They typically are the same tired images that every tourist with a point-and-shoot or camera phone takes (no offense to those of you that only shoot with point-and-shoots or camera phones; I’m just trying to illustrate my point).
To get that great shot, that unique shot, I need to investigate the subject and cover it from multiple viewpoints and with multiple compositions. I admit, even though I typically shoot a lot of images (see this earlier post), I get lazy and don’t cover each subject like I should. And I know better; if you are like me, how often do you find your best image of a particular subject is one taken near the end of your session rather than at the beginning? I think this is true of other forms of photography besides travel; I’ve found it true in portrait photography as well (at least until the model gets tired).
Taking lots of shot also opens your mind to angles and compositions you may not have seen earlier – both earlier in the particular session and earlier in your photographic career. Several photo clubs I belong to have an annual scavenger hunt, where each participant is given a list of topics to shoot. Later, at a club meeting, the images taken by all the photographers for each topic are shown. I’m always amazed how other photographers, given the same subject as I, come back with some incredible images that I did not even come close to seeing. I’ve found that when I practice shooting a subject with as many compositions as I can think of, my mind becomes more open to potential shots. In other words, I’m training myself to see more potential images, and all it takes is practice – the practice of shooting, shooting so more, and shooting until it hurts (mentally that is, when I can’t think of one more composition).
It’s really quite easy to do, but something most of us don’t because we are either lazy or just unconsciously trained by today’s fast paced society to get it done fast and get on to the next thing. You need to fight the urge to settle for immediate gratification (common in today’s social media driven world), i.e. hopping out of the car, grabbing a quick shot, and then heading on to the next spot on your list. If you want to improve your photography, take time to cover subjects in detail. You will come home with better images, and you will train yourself to see better images. Give it a shot, well actually, lots of shots.