Photographing the Palouse-When Things Don’t Go As Planned

Jan 23, 2018

A Smokey Trip to the Palouse

Sometimes the best-intended photographic plans go off the rails due to things totally out of your control. When this happens, you need to find a way to see differently. You do not want to let a little bump in the road stifle your creativity. This happened to my husband and me on a recent trip to the Palouse region of southeastern Washington State. The worst forest fire season on record in neighbouring British Columbia blanketed the province and Washington with a thick orange haze. At times we couldn’t see more than 100 metres in front of us! Landscape photography in these conditions would be challenging. When things don’t go as planned, you need to embrace new opportunities. Grab your camera and think outside the box!

I want to share a few ideas with you that allowed me to bring home SD cards full of images from the Palouse, even though conditions were far from ideal.


Because the smoke obliterated our view, I looked for details. I focused tightly on subjects with textures and interesting geometry. I looked for small vignettes instead of large open vistas. These types of photographs can be just as compelling as beautiful landscapes.

Think in Black and White

The smoke muted colours from the fields and produced a flat, lifeless sky. Instead of trying to capture the traditional fall Palouse harvest hues of gold and yellow I shot with black and white in mind. With monochrome, the emphasis would be on the texture, tones and graphic details of the fields and dilapidated buildings.

Limit your Horizons

Because the sky was featureless I did one of two things. Firstly, I tried not to include the horizon in the shot, or very little of it. This put more emphasis on the undulating hills and tracks in the fields. If this was not possible, I looked for elements with strong foreground interest that I could use to mask part of the sky.

And sometimes I did the complete opposite! I used the blank sky to create negative space. This large, empty area of the photograph adds tension to the image and helps reinforce the vastness of the landscape.

Get in the Mood

I could have wallowed in the fact that I was not going to be able to capture quintessential images of the Palouse. Instead, I took the opportunity the smoke created to capture unique images that would not be possible in more typical conditions. The smoke added a mood and a sense of mystery. I layered elements in my images. I looked for strong foreground elements like silhouettes of trees or power poles to add a sense of depth.

Make Friends with the Locals

Images alone don’t tell the full story. To enrich your photographs, find out some history from the locals. You will be amazed at how friendly folks are if you approach them at small coffee shops, restaurants, and bars. In most cases, they will be more than thrilled to share their stories with you. We were even invited onto two properties to get a closer look inside the owner’s barns.


Unfortunately, over the last couple of years, some photographers have trespassed onto private property. They have damaged fields and destroyed property in the process. This is unbelievably inconsiderate and there is absolutely no excuse for such behaviour. Not only are their actions illegal, thoughtless, and selfish, but they have tarnished the reputations of other conscientious and law-abiding photographers. If you can’t think of a creative way to get your shot without trespassing, you shouldn’t be shooting. I want to stress that all the shots I have shown here were either taken on public property or were taken with the permission of the landowners. As I said above, getting to know the locals will enrich your photographic journey on many levels.

Enjoy the Moment

So if you run into a situation where conditions are not as you hoped, do not despair. Enjoy the moment and use the experience to grow as a photographer. Challenge yourself. To quote Jay Maisel, “There is no bad light. There is spectacular light and difficult light. It is up to you to use the light you have.”

What About You?

Have you run into situations like these? I would love to know how you tackled the challenge of shooting in conditions you hadn’t expected! Please share you thoughts and comments below.

To see more images from my trip, not just those from the Palouse, check out my longer article on Photography Life.