by Brent Bergherm
Whitman Mission National Historic Site
Whitman Mission is definitely a spot that has me returning over and over again. Any season, any time of day (almost anyway) and you’re bound to get a good shot. Things to look out for and maybe focus on include:
- The fence. The Oregon Trail runs right though the heart of the park and the rustic looking fence runs right along side it. It can make a great compositional element. Use it to pose the family or to lead the viewer into and through the scene. The ruts are considered maintained and not “original,” but it’s still very cool to walk the trail. If the grasses to the north of the trail are tall and thick (depending on season) you’ll likely witness a pheasant or two launching out in a tizzy as you stroll by.
- The Wagon. During mid spring to late autumn the park staff move out the wagon which looks much like the wagons of the time the Whitman’s were here taking care of weary travelers and ministering to the local Native Americans.
- The Obelisk. Also called Memorial Shaft, it sits atop memorial hill. The obelisk is made of Vermont granite and was shipped to Walla Walla about 50 years after the famed Whitman Mission Massacre. It was set up to commemorate the incident. It takes a bit of energy to get up there but it makes for some great sunset shots (or sunrise) and it’s usually very peaceful.
- The Great Grave. Not a hugely exciting piece of granite to look at, but it does pay respects to those that established the Mission and ended up giving their life for it too. It’s hard to imagine that the parking lot used to come up all this way, and that you could drive up to the top of memorial hill until sometime in the 1950’s. It’s just so much better with the parking lot as it is now.
- Teepees. Park staff usually erects two teepee structures near the Oregon Trail in the center of the park for summer visitors. I’ve seen some seasons where they don’t put them up, and also where they just put up the poles, leaving the covering off. They are great fun for the kids and also make great photo subjects when they’re up.
- Mill Pond. And finally, one of my favorite places to shoot… On the way to Mill Pond you’ll pass by the place where the mission buildings were located. You’ll see blocks indicating the outline of the structures. The kids usually love running around the edges of the building bricks. The pond is home to many turtles, fish, and birds. There’s Canada Geese, in season of course, and a plethora of red winged black birds. There’s usually a great blue heron around as well. I’m sure there’s other birds too but I don’t know what types they are. If you have a long lens you’ll certainly be very happy here. Approach with caution as they are a bit skittish.
As an added bonus there’s no admission fee to enter the park. While there, don’t forget to visit the great visitor’s center. Get your National Park Passport stamped and see artifacts from the era of the Whitmans.
Really, almost any wide angle will do, but if you’re looking for maximum versatility, I’d recommend the 16-35 f/2.8, or Canon’s 16-35 f/4 that has IS. If you shoot a crop-sensor camera go for the Tokina 11-16. It’s such a nice and incredibly sharp lens. Some parts of the mission do look very good ultra wide, for that go for the 11-24 by Canon.
Canon’s 24-70 is a great all around option but if you need a bit more flexibility, go for the 24-105. It’s slower at f/4 but it remains popular for it’s versatility. If you’re looking for the ultimate sharpness and clarity, go for a 50mm prime (non-zoom) lens. the Sigma 50mm Art or the Canon 50mm or even the manual focus Zeiss. All are insanely sharp and they’ll allow you to really isolate details like never before, yet still maintain a “common” lens approach as compared to a macro.
The 70-200 is certainly a good lens to choose if you need the wide open f/2.8, but most folks don’t. I’d recommend the 70-300 or the 100-400 for their greater versatility and longer reach. You just might get a few birds to cooperate with you and that 400 reach is really nice to have. Get the Sigma 150-600 if you really want to get those birds. It’s possible to hand hold this lens, but it’s not recommended. All these lenses are image stabilized so that helps keep the subjects sharp as well.
If you’re in to really magnifying the details then the 100 or 180 by Canon is for you. I recommend a tripod, especially for the 180, but hand holding is also possible. The depth-of-field is so shallow so watch out. If you’ve never shot macro before the Mission is a great place to try it out. However, be willing to shoot like crazy and have a much lower “keeper” rate than you’re used to.