Portraits in Sandpoint


With its mountains and lakes Sandpoint, Idaho, is a great destination for landscape shooting. I don’t usually shoot landscapes, but instead prefer environmental portraits—”a face in a place.” When the place is my home the possibilities are many, as I’ve only recently discovered despite living here for eighteen years. Here are my favorite places, all but one within a mile of downtown. These photos are intended for inspiration not direction, so I’ve included gps coordinates—Google Maps or Earth will give you a sense of the location and will guide you there as well.

The harsh light on Jennifer’s face shows why I don’t like to shoot at this hour, but it does make fun shadows on the ground.

Sand Creek Trail has to be the best photo op in town. From a parking lot at its south end (48.273611, -116.54543) a paved path winds north for over a mile between a vegetation wall on the east and the “creek” on the west. The wall blooms in summer and holds snowflakes nicely in winter (the path is reliably cleared). You’ll find a granite bear, beautiful old-timey lamp posts, rock platforms for posing, cottonwoods, reeds and cattails, even stone steps leading, ghat-like, down to Sand Creek. The serpentine path and the array of posts splayed out to support the Ponte Vecchio-like Cedar Street Bridge provide creative leading lines and backgrounds—all this and more in just the first quarter mile.


I dislike the harsh sun of midday so I try to shoot people here in the hour or two after sunrise, when the wall provides open shade or in the hour or so before sunset, when the light is direct but softer and warmer. Sandpoint’s famously gloomy winters (and springs and falls), however, provide a sky-sized soft box that can make for happy light even at mid day. At the end of this treatise I’ll suggest other places to shoot portraits on sunny days.

I put “creek” in quotes because you need to understand water levels in our lake when shooting on its shores. The Corp of Engineers raises and lowers the level of Lake Pend Oreille in spring and fall, swinging either seven or twelve feet depending on—well, I don’t know what it depends on. The summer level is stable and this part of the creek acts like an arm of the lake. The winter level is also stable—the Corp announces that level in the fall—and the creek winds its way through mud flats, supporting skaters during cold snaps.

Farmin Park and Jeff Jones Square, are at the grand conjunction of Main, Oak, and Third Streets (48.275278, -116.55096). This small park is ordinary but for two attractions for shooters. The first is the farmers market, held on Wednesdays and Saturdays in summer. It’s chock-a-block with crafts, colorful veggies, and happy vendors, locals, and tourists. If you like street shooting this spot is perfect. If you like huckleberries or fresh corn get there at the starting bell. The band shell at the east end of the park just begs you to pose dancers or the odd bagpiper there.

Adjacent Jeff Jones Square (yes, we know it’s a circle) sports a fountain with squealing kids on hot days. I think a stunning portrait could be made shooting toward the late sun with the sparkling fountain and dark, out-of-focus trees and clock tower behind a beautiful model, whose hair is rim lit and face is brightened with a reflector or flash. I haven’t done it yet. Go ahead, beat me to it.

Also at our circular square—besides a public bathroom and charging station (free, at his writing)—is a colorful abstract bicycle sculpture, which makes a good posing prop. It faces west, offering open shade before noon. Next to that is Sandpoint’s own Solar Roadways demonstration, a collection of 30 solar panels with electric heaters and lights designed as highway pavers to be set into roadways, providing power, snow removal, traction, and signage. Whether they are a success or failure depends on whom you ask, but kids love the flashing LEDs. They’re best shot in low light since they’re not very bright in sun. I think a cool shot would be a model lying on them in winter, surrounded by snow banks and bathed by the colored lights. You’ll have to pay her because the panels are cold, dirty, and rough. Luckily for your Tesla the charging station is powered by Avista, not the solar cells.

The Pend Oreille Bay Trail follows the lake shoreline for a couple of miles from the parking lot (48.279969, -116.54598), which is small and sometimes fills in summer. The authorities are said to be strict about parking on the roadway. If it’s full I suggest you wait a little before driving back to the Windbag Marina and walking the one-third mile or so back. Most of the trail is a pleasant walk in heavy woods, cool in summer and a good place to shoot in full sun if you’re careful about hot spots in your background. Fall colors are grand here. The snow is not cleared in winter, a joy for Nordic skiers. We call this area “bums’ jungle” because it’s historically the home for train hopping hobos. Today you’re far more likely to encounter the aroma of cannabis which, unlike in our in neighboring states, is not legal here.

The real attraction for us portrait shooters is less than two hundred yards down the trail from the parking lot, where you’ll find a few remnants of the century-old Humbird lumber mill. High and dry above the shore are huge concrete blocks, colorfully decorated with graffiti. Scramblers will find opportunities for posing, including open shade in the afternoon.

In May and October the lake is briefly at this level… shallow enough to allow Cody to wade out without getting her dress wet.

Better yet are the structures on the shore below. There you’ll find stubs of wooden pilings marching into the water and ancient Stonehenge-like concrete footings and arches, all remains of Humbird’s piers, railroad spur, and intake ramp to manage logs arriving by water or rail and to pull them up to the third floor of the mill. Today they’re beautiful accessories for landscapers as well as us portraitists. Here both season and time of day matter. At high water they’re all covered, or nearly so. At low water you can walk among them. I like the brief periods in May and October when the water is halfway up, as in this image (loggers courtesy of the historical museum and Photoshop). The shore faces east, so sunrises over the lake are spectacular, sunny middays are harsh, and the hour before sunset is soft and beautiful, like most everywhere in Sandpoint.

Graffiti Alley. This narrow alley between Main (48.275, -116.54833) and Cedar Streets, plastered with graffiti blessed by the property owners (mostly), is popular with photographers and tourists alike. By wandering up and down the alley you can find light and art to suit your taste except at high noon when the sun blasts directly down the north-south corridor. Other good graffiti spots are the aforementioned Pend Oreille Bay Trail and a wall at Second and Church (48.2738, -116.54851) as well as all the freight trains rumbling through town.


The Spokane International Yellow Caboose sits at the County Historical Museum in Lakeview Park (48.26486, -116.56196) and makes a delightful yellow posing platform. The museum staff has always been very helpful in opening it up to shoot inside, even with a model hanging out the upper cab window. It’s in full sun so the usual cautions apply, but the adjacent arboretum has lots of specimen trees with meandering paths, logs, and benches, all places to seek out shade with beautiful bark and leaves to accompany your subject. Incidentally, our two annual car shows, which I’ll cover under parades later, are excellent opportunities to recruit show quality restored antiques for photo shoots, as I did with Lee Burnett’s scrumptious Model A here.

The Healing Garden is a peaceful patch of serenity (48.278258, -116.54939) intended as a retreat from the stresses endured by patients, family, and staff inside our hospital, next door. Its multiple trails wind among plantings, trees, memorials, colorful caterpillars, a fountain, a chapel (locked on Sundays), even a fort. The trees are dense and tall so it’s easy to find beautiful light and background on the sunniest day for an intimate portrait here. The historic Brown house, which sat within the garden but wasn’t a part of it, has just (August, 2018) been demolished for replacement with a hospital annex. The construction has been isolated by a tall fabric fence. It won’t disrupt photographers as much as those seeking peaceful respite, but I’m told that the fountain will be inoperative for the duration of construction.

These docks receive cool sky light just after sunset. I popped just a touch of warmed flash on Allie’s face for this shot.

Two docks. (48.27726944, -116.5479083) Sandpoint, situated on a large lake, has countless docks for boat moorage. Some are small and private, some are public. Some float to accommodate the changing lake level, others stand high, dry, and boatless during low water. All exposed to the lake must deal with furious storms that can destroy a boat…an electric lift is a popular option. Some are new and beautiful, others old and decrepit. I like decrepit. If you’re walking on the Sand Creek Trail about a hundred fifty yards north of the Cedar Street Bridge and look across the creek you’ll see my favorite. I don’t know who owns those floating wrecks constructed of logs but they benefit from years of neglect. The owner used to tow them to the center of the creek for winter storage where they’d rest on the level creek bottom but for the last few years he hasn’t, so they rest on the uneven bottom near shore, suffering yet more damage. They’re accessible by the driveway at the foot of Alder Street with no gates to pass or signage. I’m sure the occupants of the medical offices there are not the property owners and, besides, the good light here is in the evening when there is no one there, so I’ve never asked permission. Boats moored there ruin the effect so it’s best early and late season. Best of all would probably be in the winter when the docks lay totally kattywampus on the bottom.

For nice new docks with beautiful sailboats try the Windbag Marina (48.27559167, -116.5442444). There are no gates, so you can walk among them, or shoot from the breakwater just beyond.

Lady Liberty (48.27175556, -116.5394). This is a classic Sandpoint shot and all your friends, and maybe you, already have it. She sits on a concrete pier jutting eastward into the lake, so the easy shot without getting wet is right down the pier. How do you do something different? In summer you could shoot from a boat after bribing two of the teenagers to do a flip off the pier. Depending on your position you could get the marina, the mountains, or a sea of bikinis on City Beach for your background. At low water the pier is about ten feet above the sand so you could take a ladder, as I did for this shot, and get most any angle you want. With a long enough lens, say 300, you can shoot from higher on the shore for a variety of angles. Get creative.

Parades. People expect to have their picture taken at parades and that makes them great for street shooting. By that I don’t mean the parade itself, but the form-up. Go two hours early and shoot participants fussing with their floats, musical instruments, or fire engines. The light is uncontrollable and probably bad. Live with it…you may get lucky, like my shot of this drummer boy under a huge maple. Sandpoint has two major parades each year. Lost in the Fifties in mid May is strictly classic cars. It forms up in the high school parking lot (48.26861111, -116.5693722). The Independence Day parade forms up on Church and adjacent streets west of Fifth (48.27416667, -116.5537139). Then go sit on a curb and enjoy the parade.

Restored cars make great platforms for portraits and Sandpoint has lots. Don’t try to do it at car shows. I suggest using shows as an opportunity to arrange a shoot later where you’ll have controllable light, a relaxed owner, and no passersby in your background. Besides Lost in the Fifties, we have the local Injectors club. They don’t parade but they do fill up the downtown on a Saturday in September.

Smoke and haze are a big summer problem for photographers. This day was moderate; I’ve seen much better and worse.

For sheer drama in your portrait background with little effort it’s hard to beat a trip to the top of Schweitzer Mountain ski resort (48.38 -116.63389). The base of the ski area is 2,000 feet and a twenty minute drive above Sandpoint. There are some fine views from the base but the best require another couple of thousand feet of elevation. Both hiking and mountain biking trails lead there but lazy photographers can take the Great Escape lift. It runs summers through Labor Day and, of course, during the ski season. They sell single trip rides and there’s a nice bar and restaurant at the top. Unfortunately, they kill the lift at 5:30 pm in the summer, so if you want to stay for that nice evening light you’ll have to walk down. I didn’t. A reflector helps to fill in the harsh shadows. Head north from the top of the lift for the best edge-of-the-world shots.

Mid day sun can turn the most beautiful face into a squinting raccoon. Harsh light can be a good feature on a face like Clint Eastwood’s but I’m usually looking for gentle light early and late in the day. If you find yourself shooting in mid day sun the usual advice is to find or make a local patch of shade and to shoot close, avoiding bright spots in the background. For mid day shooting there are a few locations in Sandpoint where you can hope to find extensive shade and a photogenic environment. The Pend Oreille Bay Trail beyond the Humbird ruins is a good bet with its tall trees. Both the arboretum by the yellow caboose and the Healing Garden have dense mature trees with the Healing Garden offering the better selection of posing props. Finally, Graffiti Alley is narrow enough that the two story walls will, except at high noon, throw a sizable shadow somewhere on its 350 foot length.

Happy shooting!

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *