All The Painted Hills

Earlier this year I set out on another one of my road trips. This time the plan was to visit a very interesting geological formation in Eastern Oregon dubbed aptly the Painted Hills. Having lived in Oregon years ago and worked in the high desert I’ve visited the location periodically but I haven’t been out that way for several years…. my mistake. Here’s a little info on the hills to ramp you up. The Painted Hills are part of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, located in Wheeler County, Oregon. They are named for the colorful layers of its hills corresponding to various geological eras, formed when the area was an ancient river floodplain. The black soil (seen in the image above) is lignite that was vegetative matter that grew along the floodplain. The red coloring is laterite that formed by floodplain deposits when the area was warm and humid. The gold and grey coloring is mudstone, siltstone, and shale. An abundance of fossil remains of early horses, camels, and rhinoceroses in the Painted Hills making the area particularly important to vertebrate paleontologists.

Colors of the Painted Hills
Colorful Layering of the Painted Hills

The area really isn’t that large. You can hike the entire “painted hills” quadrant over the course of one morning or evening… and the gravel road make the place fairly accessible. The chromatic scene obviously makes for great backdrops for landscape images and time lapse video. (which is why I came and am now plodding away at my keyboard to tell you about it). The terrain is very unique and will grab your imagination if you let it. Compelling images can be constructed from fragments of hills even using your telephoto lens. More inclusive, board images create great desert scenes and with the help of some cloud cover can become magical as color prints or black and whites. I always have liked shooting in the desert I feel like I’m photographing the fingers of time. Showing off the artwork of nature is what I love so it’s one of those places I really get high one.
Ok let’s get to the actual act of photography and the details that surround it. The shot just above shows early morning light over one of the hills at the monument with a cloud formation rolling over the scene. The dynamic range of the image is too much for a single image even with the filters I have on hand so I shoot bracket of 3 images. This will capture all the lights and darks that can be re-assembled as layers in Photoshop or your image editor of choice. For the sky images (a compilation of the first two images in the bracket) I shoot using a SS3 graduated neutral density filter to control the brightness of range of light in the frame. I’m looking for a even exposure. Then the final frame is used to capture the proper exposure for the foreground. If you are shooting a bracket feel free to kick up your contrast on your foreground layer to bring out some of the colors in the rock. It will result in a more dramatic final image but don’t over do it. Try to stay away from Polarizers (or at least the traditional polarizers) if you include sky in your images as you may end up with vignetting in your final image (good rule of them for all your shots honestly just use the polarizers for the water). Honestly this is just a beautiful, beautiful place to see the artwork of time on the landscape. If you get a chance I highly recommend visiting the Painted Hills and bringing along some friends as well as your photographic equipment.