Alison Meyer is recognized as one of the premier and most prolific photographers of the Palouse region. Her photographs of the Palouse and Inland Northwest are displayed worldwide, have appeared in numerous publications, advertisements, and websites, and may be viewed and purchased on this website and at many stores listed on the Shops With Alison Meyer Photography page.
Alison doesn't give photo tours or lessons, but if you'd like to visit the Palouse to see its unique rolling hills and farms and maybe to photograph it yourself, here are a few tips to get you started....
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The Landscape and the Seasons
The colors and textures of the Palouse hills are primarily influenced by the variable weather and the crops that blanket the fields. While there's a general progression of changes the appearance of fields over the course of a year, part of the fun of photographing the Palouse is that these patterns aren't set in stone and you can never be exactly sure what you'll see or what the light will be. Ground that is pristine snow-covered white during one January may be dark, deep mud the next January. (In 2007-2008, our wheat field was covered in snow from November through early April, but in 2009-2010, it had snow on it a total of 3 days!)
Even though the Palouse region isn't very large, there are variations in how the geography and weather affect the appearance of the landscape in different areas. Broadly speaking, the southern and far western Palouse progress through the farming seasons earlier than the central region, with the northeast usually progressing the latest. The northeast generally holds snow on the ground longer (some years into late February or March), while parts of the south may receive very little to no snow. Also, the lower elevations of the river canyons are drier and rockier and have longer periods of gold and brown tones than the higher elevations. The far western portion of the Palouse (from around Dusty, Washington and west) is also drier, less populated, and less treed.
SPRING The velvety green hills of spring appear in late April and peak sometime around late June. However, some crops that are planted in the fall after harvest, such as winter wheat, actually sprout in the fall. On any sunny day following the fall planting, those fields will be brilliant beacons of short green sprouts, giving the impression of early spring, even in November or February.
During early spring, lighter pastel-ish greens predominate and close-up photos of crops would show short stems. The first blush of native flowers on the buttes and along canyons occurs in early April, with the most abundant wildflower activity continuing through May and June.
Heads of wheat and barley begin to appear in later spring and early summer, when the green tones also become darker and richer.
Weather is highly variable in late winter and early spring on the Palouse, with rain likely anytime from February through early June. Dramatic clouds and sometimes stormy weather can be an awesome photographic contrast to the peaceful landscape, but the fast-moving storms of spring are hard to predict and you need to be prepared to protect your gear and yourself from the rain and breezes.
During spring and early summer, canola is a striking bright yellow crop that is a treat to photograph on the Palouse. Sometimes, there are also a few fields of cultivated mustard which look very similar to canola, so be careful when captioning your photos of yellow-flowered agricultural fields. Most years, however, canola and mustard fields are not extremely common, and timing your visit to photograph them when they're "peaking" bright yellow and the light is just right can require a commitment, pre-planning and sometimes, simple luck. For best chances of seeing a bright yellow canola field, try mid-May through June in the western side of the Palouse and southeast of the Lewiston area, although a bright yellow spot may show up anywhere in the Palouse hills all the way north into Canada.
SUMMER Around late June to early July, the primarily green hues will be begin their transition to the warmer golds and browns of ripening crops and grasses. Blue grass, hay fields and crops that were planted the prior autumn will begin to turn tan before the crops that were planted in spring, resulting in a patchwork effect of greens, golds and browns that provides exciting geometric photographic opportunities.
Sometime in mid-late June in the south and early July in the north, farmers will begin to cut hay fields, leaving the rows of swathed grasses to dry in the sun. By late July, most fields will be primarily toasty golden tones. Because fields may be fallow in any season, you may see darker, exposed soil at any time which lends a contrast to the more colorfully planted fields.
It generally rains very little during the summer and the daytime temperatures in July and August days can be quite high, especially in late afternoon, although the nights tend to be much cooler, even during most days in high summer.
The wheat and barley harvest will begin in mid to late July and finish around late August, depending on the location and weather. Harvest of other crops, such as lentils and chick peas, continues through September. Lentils are another crop which is swathed and left to dry for a short period during the late summer, leaving rusty and beige colored rows over the darker brown soil. Visit during late July through August and early September if you want your photos to include the massive combines, tractors and farm trucks seen all over the hillsides during harvest. Be prepared for dusty roads and to protect your gear while shooting scenes of harvest or grain elevators.
FALL In early fall, farmers will plow fields and plant winter crops in the brown soils of the autumn Palouse. Deciduous trees in the University of Idaho's Arboretum create brilliant red, orange and yellow color palettes to photograph from September through early November. Stubble fields consisting of rows of bright tan cut crop stems make for desolate--though not quite barren-- subjects in the fall and winter. Rains return in mid to late September, especially in the more eastern and northern regions and in the higher elevations of the surrounding mountains, and sometimes misty scenes are possible, especially near rivers and creeks in early morning.
WINTER The lush hills of the growing season become even more serene during winter. Light snow on cultivated fields can make lovely images, whether in bright sun or during twilight hours, when pink and peach sunsets are common. Fog and mist is also common, especially near water in January through early March.
Winter weather is highly variable, but in general, most years have a reasonable amount of snow to photograph, without being too overwhelming to drive in, at the lower elevations. Most agricultural field roads are "summer roads" which are not maintained for winter travel and most are completely impassible or closed in wet weather. Even if your dandy 4-wheel drive vehicle can traverse a muddy road, landowners and farmers do not appreciate ruts being created in their field roads. So bring cross country skis, snowshoes, and/or tall mud boots if you want to get off the main roads during the wetter seasons. Skies can be overcast for long periods in winter, but black and white and other photographic styles that don't rely on over-saturation of colors can result in stunning winter scenes.
Encourage Your Creativity A good rule for all photography is to think outside the box and inside your own head. Popular photographic locations are often photographed over and over again in the same ways by many people. This is somewhat human nature; we see a photograph we love that makes us want to visit a place and then it's hard to "see" the place in a unique way, in our own way. Don't just shoot the scenes you've seen before in pictures; instead, make the subject your own, try to see it through your own eyes and with your own creative spirit. Regarding the Palouse in particular: remember, it's not just about the hills! Seek images that go beyond the classic green rolling hills scene.
Of course, there are many old barns to photograph also, but don't forget to consider farm equipment, rivers, flora, and non-cultivated scenes, as well as the people and towns.
Changing your physical relationship to the landscape can help you to see something new. Crouch down low to the ground, lay on your back or side, ride a bike if you normally drive, walk over a hill where you've never explored, get off the trail (if you have permission!), shoot in "lousy" weather or lighting conditions--all of these things can result in pictures that are more unique and individual to your style.
Use A Tripod On one hand, using a tripod seems obvious, but on the other, they're often seen as cumbersome and not worth the effort. Believe me, a good tripod is worth the effort! A tripod allows you to use slower shooting speeds without ending up with camera movement blur (unless you want that for creative effect). This gives you more control over creating your scene-- you can choose the smallest aperture you want for as much depth of field (the area of the scene that is in focus) that you want and gain the greatest clarity possible. Therefore, if you want to greatly enlarge one of your pictures, you won't be disappointed by that slight movement that is often made when pressing the shutter when hand-holding a camera, which isn't very visible on digital cameras' LCD's or in smaller prints. You may not need a tripod for every shot, but when you suddenly find yourself viewing the most gorgeous light over a broad landscape, you'll be so glad you have it with you.
Lenses A wide angle lens is very helpful for depicting expansive landscapes. Often, composing your picture with a close subject in the foreground, such as a rock outcrop or flowers, will give perspective to a scene which also contains a more distant landscape. Use a broad depth of field (smallest aperture=highest f-stop number) to bring all parts of the scene into the best focus possible for this type of scene.
Using a long lens to capture a narrow section of the landscape can create a more abstract, graphic image. If the atmosphere isn't clear and you shoot a distant landscape with a long lens, the haze lends a softness to the photo which can be painterly and unique.
Because you can see a very long view of the fields from on any of several tall buttes and mountains, a long lens can also be used to capture a somewhat wide scene, making the hills appear to be more compressed and compactly rippled, which is a type of photo often associated with the Palouse hills.
Time of Day Generally, photographing the Palouse in the early morning or late afternoon-early evening provides the best light needed for showing off the shapes of hills and textures of fields and barn wood. Low side-lighting on the hills at these times creates the shadows that make the hills more visible and dramatic. If you don't have much time to photograph, these would be the time periods to get out there.
Ask Permission! Many of the same locations (certain picturesque barns in particular) are visited regularly by individuals and groups of photographers and cyclists. Palouse residents are very friendly and generous, just as you'd hope to find in rural America. Returning the kindness to landowners who are welcoming to the cars and photographers stopped on their roadsides and driveways can go a long way toward keeping these locals amenable to future visits. Cultivated fields (and barns and old homesteads) in Idaho and Washington are not public property. Be sure to have the proper permission to enter agricultural fields and to photograph close to barns and other private property. If you have a business card, give one to the owner. A really nice idea is to get the landowner's name and address, and if you get a good picture of their farm or house, send them a copy.
Locations You Shouldn't Miss
*Note that Washington state requires a permit to use Washington state-managed recreation lands, including the state parks noted below. A one-day pass or an annual pass can be purchased.
Rather than including a link here to a web page that may expire, do a web search for Washington State's Discover Pass and you'll easily find the info you need.