Photographic subjects, Photography locations - Washington

Photographing Wind Turbines in Washington State

12.31.11 | 1 Comment

Wind Turbines.  While the subject is turbines in Washington State, these were actually photographed in California between Desert Hot Springs and Palm Springs. Hundreds of turbines are found in this area, and the setting sun made the image irresistible. Nikon F100, telephoto lens, Fuji 100 Pro film.

Wind turbines are relatively new ways to generate electricity in a sustainable manner that has less damaging effects on the environment. While they may be “greener” than burning coal or natural gas, they do have some environmental consequences. Hundreds or thousands of birds and bats are killed each year when they fly into these structures, especially during long migrations at night. Wind power officials are aware of this, and studies are conducted prior to construction to try to select areas to site wind farms that are not primary migration routes for birds, especially large birds of prey like hawks and eagles. When I worked for the Washington State Department of Fish & Wildlife, we worked closely with power companies to develop siting and construction policies that would minimized the environmental impacts of wind turbines, and those policies were a model for the nation.

Wind turbines really started kicking in Washington State at the beginning of this century, and many hundreds of turbines have been constructed over the last 20 years. Living in Walla Walla in the SE corner of the state and surrounded by wheat fields, I’m often “desperate” for new things to photograph, so I spent several days photographing turbines near Walla Walla (actually located just over the state line in Umatilla County of Oregon) and near Dayton, WA, about 30 miles east of Walla Walla. My goal was to capture some of the aesthetic views offered by wind turbines, although some contend these giant structures, so visible at the tops of ridges, will always be a visual detriment to the natural landscape. How one reacts to the sight of wind turbines is very subjective, and IMO each is valid.

While wind turbines come in a variety of sizes and designs (evident in my opening photograph), those in this part of Washington State consist of three rotating blades, and they are huge!

Typical wind turbine near Dayton, Washington.
  Canon 1DsMKIII, Zeiss 50mm f/2 ZE lens.

A few statistics I gathered from web sites: The turbines in this area number 204 (Hopkins Ridge owned by Puget Sound Energy, and Marengo I & II, owned by PacifiCorp). Each turbine tower is 221 feet tall and weighs 77 tons. The blades are each 129 feet in length, weigh 7 tons, and rotate about 15-17 revolutions per minute. The total weight of each wind turbine structure is 223 tons, and each can produce 1.8 megawatts of electricity, enough to power about 460 households over the course of the year. Considering there are a number of similar wind turbine farms in the state, this adds up to a considerable amount of generating power.

My goal was to capture some of the interesting photographic aspects of wind turbines. Using Nik Silver Efex Pro 2 B&W conversion software, I created a more romanticized view of the turbines (these are located just across the Oregon State line, west of Milton-Freewater). Most turbines have restricted access, primarily for safety reason, but some allow a close approach.

Wind turbine near the Oregon-Washington state line.
Canon 1DsMkIII, Canon 16-35mm II f/2.8 lens.

Most of the turbines are constructed on farmland leased from local farmers. Even though the wind farm may cover thousands of acres, the actual footprint of the turbine itself is very small. Farmers benefit by receiving financial income from the lease, new roads to move their farm equipment between fields, and an ongoing ability to farm the area very close to each turbine.

Wind turbines in a wheat field, a very typical situation. Canon 1DsMKIII, Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 lens.

Wind turbines can have different aesthetic appeals. I managed to capture four in the same rotational cycle, and it reminded me of a squad of soldiers led by a commanding sergeant:
Five synchronized turbines. Canon 1DsMkIII, Canon 70-200mm f/4 IS lens.

Some of the most appealing photographs of wind turbines for me appeared when evening fog moved into the valleys and climbed toward the ridge tops as the sun set on the western horizon:
Rising from the fog. Canon 1DMkIv, Canon 400mm f/5.6 lens.

A close-up of one turbine with others rising through the fog had particular appeal:
Rising from the fog II. Canon 1DMkIV, Canon 400mm f/5.6 lens.

Zooming out a bit added some farmland in the foreground, creating a slightly different look:
Turbines in farmland with fog. Canon 1DMkIV, Canon 70-200mm f/4 lens.

My fascination with the fog made me forget all about the nearly full moon that would be rising that evening, and I was shocked and dismayed when I looked to the east and saw the moon already well above the horizon. I quickly drove to a pre-scouted location to get some turbines for the foreground, although it wasn’t exactly as I had planned:
Rising moon and turbines. Canon 1DMkIV, Canon 70-200mm f/4 lens.

Later in the evening, as the light was fading quickly, I photographed a much darker turbine with the moon in the background (all of these are single shots with no post-processing to balance the light — it’s pretty much how it looked to my eye):

Nearly new moon in late twilight. Canon 1DMkIV, Canon 70-200mm f/4 lens.

By far my most exciting and rewarding experience photographing wind turbines occurred when I made the short drive to the wind farm near Milton-Freewater, Oregon (I believe it’s the Vansycle Wind Project owned by NextEra Energy Resources). When I was driving to the wind farm, the sky was clear blue and the day was beautiful (although blue skies are generally not the best for landscape photography). A short time later, a storm started moving in from the west, and some of the most dramatic cloud formations I’ve ever seen marked the forefront of the storm. I wanted some wind turbines in the immediate foreground, but the closest ones were a short distance behind me and on private, gated land. Therefore, I used a longer lens and included a wind farm located in the distance. In the end, I like this larger assemblage of wind turbines at a smaller size relative to the clouds, because I think it better communicates the size of the storm. I converted the photograph to a toned B&W using Nik Silver Efex Pro 2 software.

Wind turbines about to be tested by an approaching storm. Hasselblad H4D-40, Hasselblad 210mm f/4 lens with 1.7x converter (284mm equivalent in 35mm terms).

A nearby radio tower also showed off the power and beauty of the approaching storm:
Radio tower and approaching storm. Hasselblad H4D-40, Hasselblad 35-90mm f/4 lens.

I find that clouds make all the difference when photographing wind turbines. Converted to B&W, some striking photographs can be made:
A line of wind turbines and brush strokes of passing clouds. Hasselblad H4D-40, Hasselblad 210mm lens with 1.7x converter (284mm in 35mm terms). I really like the H4D medium format digital camera for high ranges of light like this, because it has an amazing ability to capture a broad range of light (HDR photography with its inherent challenges is often not needed).

Five turbines against a turbulent sky. Canon 1DsMkIII, Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 lens.

Three turbines against a turbulent sky. Canon 1DsMkIII, Canon 70-200mm f/4 lens.

A slower shutter speed will reveal some motion of the turbine blades, and this can be very appealing. A shutter speed that is too fast will simply make the blades appear slightly out of focus, while a shutter speed that is too slow will allow the blades to move to the extent that they “disappear” from the photo. A Goldilocks approach of “just right” is needed, but that depends on the rotating speed of the turbine blades. I photographed these turbines using a shutter speed of 1.3 seconds:

Motion in turbine blades. Canon 1DsMkIII, Canon 50mm f/2 lens, 1.3 seconds.

The whole point of the wind turbines is to produce electricity, and I wanted a scene that captured this notion:
Wind turbines and electrical power. Canon 1DMkIv, Canon 70-200mm f/4 IS lens.

While flying birds and bats may be adversely affected by the presence of wind turbines, ground animals are apparently unaffected. This deer asked for its picture to be taken with ghostly turbines rising through the fog in the background, and I obliged:
Deer and distant wind turbines. Canon 1DMkIV, Canon 70-200mm f/4 IS lens.

Finally, a quick word about wind turbines versus windmills. “Wind turbine” defines structures that are used to produce electricity. “Windmill” defines structures that are used to move mechanical devices, such as grain-grinding machines and water pumps. I photographed this derelict windmill against a crescent moon some time ago. Since then, a couple more blades have been lost. Soon it will be just a tower with a hub, a relict of the past:

Windmill and crescent moon. Pentax 645NII, lens unknown, Velvia 100 pro film.

1 Comment

  • On 12.31.11 Jeff Grant wrote these words:

    Thanks Steve. I really enjoyed this article. It’s a great way to present a body of work. Have you approached any of the photo magazines with your articles? I would expect that it would be very saleable.

    In Australia there is a lot of angst currently about wind turbines. People are claiming all sorts of physical ailments to themselves and their livestock. It is very polarised but the science is vey much in favour of the proponents of wind power.