A Butte with a View

Gain a bird's-eye view with your feet firmly on the ground.


June 27, 2022 :: Landscapes


To make a bird’s-eye-view photograph, you have to take flight.


Whether it’s the in-person way by plane or by helicopter or remotely by drone, your camera must fly, if you want to get your composition off the ground.


But if you’re lucky and smart, maybe you can mimic an airborne perspective while your camera and your feet remain on terra firma.


Palouse region farmlands from Steptoe Butte
A bird's-eye view of farm fields from Steptoe Butte.

That rare opportunity is provided by a drive to the top of Steptoe Butte in the Palouse Region of eastern Washington. A corkscrew road takes you to the summit about 1,000 feet above the surrounding farmlands. From there, you gain panoramic views of the rolling fields below.

Here is when a long telephoto lens becomes a landscape lens. If it is a long telephoto zoom lens, it’s even better. Now you can zoom in and out until you create a pleasing composition. Adding a polarizing filter will cut through the fog or haze on a day like this.

Whenever you’re near a vantage point like this one, come back for first light and last light as often as you can for a butte of a view.


MAKING THE PHOTOGRAPH


SUBJECT: The town of Steptoe, WA and farm fields from Steptoe Butte.


LOCATION: Steptoe Butte State Park, Washington


CONDITIONS: Sunny, breezy, clear except for some distant haze; Late afternoon; 70 degrees F.


EQUIPMENT and SETTTINGS: Nikon D850, Nikon 80-400mm at 400mm. Gitzo tripod, Really Right Stuff ball head, polarizing filter; Matrix metering, Aperture Priority exposure


EXPOSURE: 1/100 sec @ f/11, ISO1000


Here's another situation where scouting the location ahead of time will help you make pleasing photographs. Be sure you have a compass, a notebook and a pen with you. When you reach the gate, reset the car's trip odometer.


The drive up Steptoe Butte takes you on a road that spirals around it to the very top. Stop at every pull out, get out and look at the scene. Check the compass, determine which way you're facing and where the sun will rise and set at this vista.


Visualize how the sun will track across the landscape. Speculate how the highlights and shadows will change. Make notes of all of these elements, including the odometer reading and maybe a landmark near the parking spot. Be sure to add that there are restrooms at the foot of the butte and at the top.


Finally, rank the viewpoints as best sunrise, best sunset, best rolling hills without buildings, best scene with hills and buildings. This information will help you get to the good spots in the predawn dark or in a hurry as the sun drops low. Knowing these things will take away the stress of getting to a good place. Now you can focus your energy on making good images. You'll thank yourself every time you venture to the butte.