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It Started on a Windy Day

We've had some seriously windy weather here of late, the kind that feels like your house is about to blow away. Hunkering down, I started reminiscing about my encounters with the wind as a landscape photographer.

Photography in the outdoors covers a broad range of subjects and styles. If you can forgive me for generalizing, we can divide this spectrum into wildlife and landscape photography, but the types and approaches vary widely within each.

I have a lot of admiration for wildlife photographers. They have to be quick to capture that perfect moment before their subject runs or flies away. I often find myself drawn to the classic landscape style known for sharp-focus views across scenic vistas. But when the wind blows, such vast depths-of-field can be scarce, forcing me to get creative. There's only so long I can keep the shutter open before something moves. When the wind blows, it's as if everything becomes wildlife.

On a trip once to the Palouse regions of eastern Washington, I couldn't avoid the wind. On my first night out, I stopped along the Columbia River. After midnight, while car camping, the wind started blowing. What began as a modest rustling of the leaves quickly intensified until it was impossible to sleep. Between the howling winds and the motion of the vehicle, it was a rough night. Eventually, I abandoned my riverside campsite for a nondescript corner out of the wind but still couldn't sleep. But morning brought a relative calm, and I continued on my journey across the state, naively hoping I had seen the last of it. Alas, such was not the case.

Those who don't know of the Palouse have probably seen images of it without realizing it. That famous image of rolling green hills seen as wallpaper on countless Windows computers was shot in the Palouse. The entire area is like that. It's all simple farmland, but each spring, the crops bloom and decorate the hillsides. I had hoped to shoot the change of seasons in the Palouse at peak bloom on this trip. But the wind had followed me to the region, and it wouldn't stop blowing. Nothing would stay still.

At first, I just persevered. Setting up the tripod for a view across a colorful valley, I waited for a lull in the breeze. Although shooting with a remote cable release, I frequently caught myself holding my breath, as if my stillness would influence mother nature. After several hours of little more than frustration to show for my efforts, I changed course. I surrendered to the all too frequent gusts, figuring that if I couldn't beat them, I should try joining them. Rather than holding out for a photograph where everything was sharp, I decided to shoot it deliberately blurred.

At a distance, the blurred plants rendered as little more than washes of color. Finding some smaller red flowers beside the road, I had an idea. I began scouting out every new patch I came across. I hoped to compose a shot with a few of them in front of a hillside of yellow canola. With the blue sky above and an appropriately chosen depth of field, I hoped to create a study in red, yellow, and blue — the three primary colors. I settled down with my camera and tripod to see what I could come up with, sitting behind my car as a windbreak.

I never got the shot I was after, sadly. But it began a series of ideas and pre-visualized compositions that eventually came up with an image I find truly unique. But I'm getting ahead of myself here. There are a few more steps in the chain of events I need to mention first. Although my efforts weren't yet bearing fruit, they continued to intrigue me. The prospects of a wash of color behind a few flowers of contrasting color seemed like they should eventually come to something.

My little red flower friends proved uncooperating wildlife subjects. I took countless shots looking for an image with just the perfect balance, but came away primarily with haphazard blotches of red in a sea of contrasting colors. When I shot with a shutter speed fast enough to freeze the motion of the flowers, I ended up with a depth of field too shallow for them to all be in focus. And, as you can probably already conclude, a deep enough depth of field would have required a problematically slow shutter speed. Eventually, I had to continue down the road to find some lunch.

The wind finally cooperatesThe next day, I found myself on the Idaho side of the border. The center of the Palouse may be in southeast Washington state, but one can find similar features in Idaho and, to a lesser extent, northeast Oregon. There was still more wind than I wanted, but it seemed better than the day before. I have no way of knowing whether I was finally outrunning the winds by venturing into another state or if they were growing tired of tormenting me. But rather than go back and find out, I counted myself lucky and continued my search for flowers on the side of the road. I was on a mission.

Over in Idaho, the roadside flowers changed species but still occupied the same ecological niche. Both were opportunistic species whose seeds found fertile purchase along the edge of the road cut. They were unlikely to grow on the roadway, and farmers were undoubtedly doing their best to avoid them invading their fields. The ones I encountered were of hardier stock, with stems that didn't constantly shiver under the slightest provocation. With less wind and more willing subjects, I was in my element. I spent the better part of the day exploring just a few miles of road, but it was fun. Compared to the disappoints of the day before, I was downright hopeful.

I settled on a grouping of five flowers, nearly perfect in arranged stacked rows of three and two. The yellow canola was missing, substituted with patch-worked shades of green below a sky of blue. Circumstances pushed me to explore alternate solutions. But the final shot that day resulted from what had led up to it over the entire trip. The basic idea remained the same, and I had emerged victorious in my quest to capture the overcome the wind.

In the end, I think it let me win.

Date posted: November 14, 2021


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