Exploring the Palouse

When I first heard of the Palouse and the beautiful photography opportunities there I assumed it was somewhere in France, one of those magical places only professional photographers ventured while on expense account.  Then while I was in Montana a couple of years ago someone mentioned taking a day and shooting in the Palouse.  Since the Concorde doesn’t include Missoula in its service I asked for more information and learned the region is in eastern Washington, south of Spokane and just across the border from Idaho.

Composed of ancient volcanic soil eroded into soft, rolling hills, the Palouse is a massive agricultural area much like the Great Plains, where the fields of crops undulate from horizon to horizon.  A few buttes penetrate into the sky, remainders of harder quartzite formations that allow the visitor to get more of a bird’s eye perspective.  In the early morning and late evening the slanting sunlight highlights the wrinkled nature of the landscape to show off the effects of thousands of years of sculpting by erosive forces.

Spring is the popular photography time in the Palouse as the fields show colors varying with the types of crops.  Images from this time, as well as a description of the area, can be found on the Luminous Landscape entry about this region.

It was late summer that found us in the Palouse, catching the harvest season where the combines mow their rows through the crops, swaths of industry lining the hills like a giant topographic map to clearly show the rounded nature of the land.  Much of the photography advice I’d gotten on the region was to use a long lens to compress the play of light and shadow across the scenes, much similar to many images I’ve seen.  I did work with my longer lenses but one of the more pleasing images I made came from using my shorter large format lens – a 120mm.


Yes, actually.  The angle of view for this lens is the same as a 35mm lens on a 35mm camera – about 60º.  I wanted to show the grand landscape but still have details that were interesting so I wanted the largest image I could generate; hence, large format.

I’d packed all my film holders with Fuji Velvia 100 4×5” sheet film, my first efforts with large format transparency film.  With less than 50 exposures of B&W sheet film under my belt I approached the use of color film with some hesitation, but hedged my bets with medium format film and digital images just in case.  We’re fortunate in Omaha to have a lab that processes E-6 transparencies in both large and medium format, as well as producing a variety of outputs.

This image was made from Steptoe Butte, just north of Colfax, WA.  This formation rises about 1000 feet above the surrounding fields and has a road to the top as the whole formation is a state park.  It’s a popular place at sunset as many photographers (and sun watchers) gather to see what the end of the day brings.  During our visit there was a lot of dust in the air so I returned there the next morning for a sunrise picture, expecting to find clearer air for my “wide-angle” image.  And it was.  This is about 15 minutes after the sun was fully above the horizon, enough to highlight the hilltops and give some illumination to the shadows in the valleys.

Driving around the Palouse as a photographer it quickly became apparent that knowing specifically where to go is the best use of the limited time in the morning and afternoon.  A photo tour would be the best way for someone new to photography in this area to approach the opportunities, traveling with a guide who can put you on the spots that will deliver the compositions you want.

I noticed that for some reason the back roads all follow the valleys, not the hilltops, so expansive views are rare.  There are a few other buttes but I saw most of them are tree covered so higher perspectives are at a premium; again the value of being with someone who knows the area.

Spring probably offers more color variety, but harvest gives the shapes and curves – pick your version.  Clouds are apparently more prevalent in the spring, which not only adds to the sky but also gives shadows on the ground.  There are barns and equipment and farms throughout, as well as detail images of rows and such. I found more blooming plants than I expected in the late summer, so color was present if you just look around.

If you are interested in textures, tones, color shades, lines and the play of light, the Palouse is a good place to spend a few days exploring with your camera.  I advise reading up on the area before going so you’ll know where the roads lead, and consider joining a photo tour for more of an immersion.


2 thoughts on “Exploring the Palouse

  1. Sounds a lot like the English Lake District, knowing where the roads go i.e. valley or hill top and yes a guide would help but then I feel it’s mass produced shots. And I always like the sense of discovery when you ‘find’ the actual spot all the good shots are taken from. Now you’ve been you’ll have to go back to the Palouse and have another go.


    • Kate,
      I would like to return in the spring but the good lighting is so fleeting in morning and evening I’d prefer being with someone who knows where to be for the best compositions. Actually, without an airplane or balloon the higher perspective images are limited because the landscape is pretty uniform. Lots of great detail images, though, and for those I would just wander around keeping my eyes open.


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