Tag Archives: flagstaff

Autumn Gold

Flanked by evergreen pines, an aspen stand near the North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park shines golden beneath a September sky. (Bill Ferris)

Flanked by evergreen pines, an aspen stand near the North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park shines golden beneath an autumn sky. (Bill Ferris)

It’s October. Mornings are crisp, shadows grow long by mid-afternoon and evening descends just a little too early for this boy of summer. But such annoyances are minor in comparison to the rewards of autumn’s arrival. In northern Arizona, photographic opportunities abound as the aspens are turning. Northern Arizona doesn’t enjoy the cornucopia of color that makes a northeastern US a mecca for leaf peepers. That said, the area has much to entice the dedicated nature photographer. Aspens abound at elevations of 7,000-feet and higher. Whether you make the North Rim of Grand Canyon or the Ponderosa pine and aspen forests surrounding Flagstaff your destination of choice, autumn gold will be the featured attraction for photographers visiting this region of the Southwest US, this month.

On the North Rim, the curtain is ready to come down on yet another summer season. At mid-month, the North Rim Lodge will close until next May and the first significant snowfall of winter will mark the official closing of Highway 67. But for a brief period from the end of September through mid-October, the forests and meadows are alive with color. Fall color on the North Rim peaks early in Arizona. With an average elevation of about 8,000-feet, the chill of autumn arrives just a bit earlier and yields to winter well before Christmas.

A lone Ponderosa Pine stands amidst a collection of towering aspens along the Inner Basin Trail in the San Francisco Peaks near Flagstaff, Arizona. (Bill Ferris)

A lone Ponderosa Pine stands amidst a collection of towering aspens along the Inner Basin Trail in the San Francisco Peaks near Flagstaff, Arizona. (Bill Ferris)

Closer to home near Flagstaff, Lockett Meadow and hiking trails along the base of the San Francisco peaks offer access to colorfully garnished aspen stands. Lockett Meadow is my favorite destination of choice for leaf peeping, near home. The Kachina Trail connecting Arizona Snowbowl with the Weatherford Trail near Schultz Pass Road is another favorite. If your personal or business travel brings you to Arizona, this month, add a day or two side trip to Flagstaff or the North Rim of Grand Canyon to your itinerary. Golden views will be your reward.

Oh, and bring a camera so you can get out and shoot.

Bill Ferris | October 2015

Lasting Light

Lowell Observatory staff and workers work to remove a 400-lb. counterweight from the mount for the historic Clark Refractor. This 120-year-old telescope is undergoing a complete refurbishment.

Workers prepare to remove a 400-lb. counterweight from the mount of the historic Clark Refractor. This 120-year-old telescope is undergoing a complete refurbishment at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. (Bill Ferris)

Photographers and astronomers share a lot in common. Arguably, the most important shared quality is their reliance on light. For the photographer, light paints the subject. It imbues a scene with certain qualities. Light can be bright and happy, dark and brooding, or any of a variety of personalities. For the astronomer, light is information. By examining the light from a celestial body, an astronomer can determine its distance, size, composition and how its moving. In the same way that light adds drama to a photographer’s composition, light – and the information it carries – allows an astronomer to answer fundamental questions about the universe.

In the 1890’s Percival Lowell established a research observatory in the sleepy railroad town of Flagstaff, Arizona. Lowell was, in many respects, a pioneer of modern science. He built his observatory in the western United States far from his Boston home. At a time when many observatories were still being built at locations near major cities and universities, Lowell chose the site for his observatory for its remoteness and the quality of its skies. As important as light is to the astronomer, the best places from which to explore the night sky are those far from city lights where natural darkness allows the feeble glow of distant objects to be seen.

Soon after Lowell Observatory was established, its founder contacted Alvan Clark & Sons and commissioned them to build a 24-inch refracting telescope. It would be among the largest such instruments in the world and from first light in 1894 through the 1960’s, the Clark Refractor at Lowell Observatory regularly contributed to the science of astronomy. Lowell staff astronomers used the Clark to make some of the first photographic images of the planet, Mars. The Clark was used to study the motions of so-called spiral nebulae. These observations produced the first evidence of an expanding universe. During the Apollo program in the 1960’s cartographers used the Clark to make detailed maps of the lunar surface. Apollo astronaut Neill Armstrong even visited Lowell Observatory to observe the Moon through the 24-inch Clark, before making his one giant leap for all mankind.

Workers prepare to lift a counterweight through the open shutter of the Clark Dome at Lowell Observatory.

Workers prepare to lift a counterweight through the open shutter of the Clark Dome at Lowell Observatory. (Bill Ferris)

In recent decades, larger and more powerful telescopes have replaced the Clark Refractor as the principal research tools used by the Lowell science team. However, the 24-inch telescope has definitely not been put out to pasture. This historic instrument has been used almost every clear night for years to share the wonders of the universe with the general public. For several years, I had the great privilege and pleasure of working at Lowell Observatory as a tour guide and observer. The joy I experienced when operating the Clark was exceeded only by the awe felt by visitors when, for the first – and possibly only – time in their lives, they stood in that darkened dome, peered into the eyepiece and saw Mars as it can only be presented by a world-class refracting telescope.

Of course, the decades have been at work on this historic instrument. Time, use and the elements have taken a toll on the great refractor. In January 2014, Lowell Observatory staff removed the telescope from its home on Mars Hill to begin a months-long project to refurbish the Clark. When friend and Lowell Observatory Communications Manager Kevin Schindler invited me to be there for this historic happening, I immediately jumped at the chance. Although it has been years since I last observed with the Clark, memories of astounding views of Mars, Jupiter and Saturn are still fresh in my mind. There was no way I was going to miss this once-in-a-lifetime event.

Lowell Observatory's Ralph Nye (on right in blue jacket) inspects progress toward removing one of the 400-lb. counterweights from the mount of the Clark Refractor.

Lowell Observatory’s Ralph Nye (on right in blue jacket) inspects progress toward removing one of the 400-lb. counterweights from the mount of the Clark Refractor. (Bill Ferris)

The telescope was removed from its dome in stages. The lens cell and lenses are the heart and soul of any refractor. The 120-year-old optics of the Clark were removed, first, and stored safely away from the work area. Next, several 400-lb. counterweights were removed – one at a time – from the telescope mount. Finally, the 32-foot optical tube was disassembled, with each section raised through the open dome shutter by a large crane.

I was struck by the number of people in attendance and the variety of ways they were documenting the historic undertaking. The observatory had hired a professional videographer and a pro photographer to capture the event. Additionally, several observatory staff used smart phones to make movies and photos. I was there with my D600 shooting a time lapse video. There was at least one iPad in use and a quadcopter hovering just outside the dome. While observing this hive of activity, it dawned on me that if this work had happened five years ago, there would be no quadcopter, no iPad, no DSLR’s shooting video. It is amazing how much can change in just a few years.

Of course, I’m looking forward to the return of a refurbished and fully-functional Clark telescope. That should happen in 2015. And on that day, I plan to be back on Mars Hill with my camera documenting the homecoming for this historic instrument of science and public education. That will be a grand day but the real treat will be the next clear, dark night in northern Arizona when the 24-inch Clark Refractor sees first light for the second time in her life.

Now, get out there and shoot.

Bill Ferris | February 2014

Fun With Speedlights

 (Bill Ferris)

Artistic Director, Erica Kragness, leads the Troubadours and Madrigal Singers in a performance of “Before the Marvel of This Night” during the Children’s Chorale of Flagstaff 2013 holiday concert. Photographed with a Nikon D600 and Tamron 70-200mm lens at 95mm, f/5.6, 1/200-second exposure and ISO 1000. (Bill Ferris)

There are times in life when, regardless of how crazy an idea may seem, you just have to give it a try. I recently experienced just such a moment and was quite amazed–and pleased–by the outcome.

My son sings with Children’s Chorale of Flagstaff, a professional-style choir for youth from 1st through 12th grade. He started as a nine-year-old singing with the Pine Tones. For the last two years, he’s been singing in Dolce Cantando and has aspirations to perform with the Troubadours, a young men’s choir. Children’s Chorale performs a holiday concert each December at the historic Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Chapel. Locals refer to this striking Gothic structure simply as, Church of the Nativity.

The week leading up to the big night, Matthew attended three rehearsals. It was during the first of these that the artistic director asked me if I would photograph the Friday performance. I eagerly accepted the invitation. Church of the Nativity is an amazing photographic subject in its own right. The opportunity to photograph the choirs performing in their formal attire in such a classic setting was simply too good to pass up.

 (Bill Ferris)

Led by Jordan Rakita, the combined choirs of Children’s Chorale of Flagstaff perform “Santa Claus Boogie.” Photographed with a Nikon D600, Tamron 70-200 lens at 122mm, f/5.6, 1/200-second exposure at ISO 1000. (Bill Ferris)

I used the next day to develop a strategy for the shoot. I had photographed previous concerts in this venue with my Nikon D90 and the biggest challenge had been the low level of ambient light in the sanctuary. Although the D600 has much better high ISO performance, my preference was to add enough light to allow the use of more reasonable ISO’s with good depth of field and a fast enough shutter speed to freeze the action. Unfortunately, my lighting options were limited to an on-camera flash and two Nikon SB-700 speedlights.

So, on the night of the final dress rehearsal, I brought my camera equipment to scout the venue and work out the lighting strategy. With only two speedlights, I began exploring options for setting up the flashes near the front of the chapel. I found elevated positions along the walls about eight rows from the front where I could set up the SB-700’s, one on each side of the chapel. I used a Vello Freewave Fusion transmitter mounted on the D600 and two Freewave Fusion receivers to trigger the speedlights. The choir looked great in my test shots. But there was a major issue: with the speedlights positioned near the choir, the majority of the chapel was too dark to register in the exposures. I would have to go sans speedlights and boost the ISO to capture wide angle shots.

This weighed on me all through the next day until I settled on an idea. As crazy as it may sound, I decided to see if I could fill the house with light using the SB-700’s. I mean, what could it hurt? If my plan didn’t work, I had a strategy for lighting the choir and then boosting the ISO to capture wide angle images. But if it did work…

 (Bill Ferris)

The combined choirs of Children’s Chorale of Flagtaff peform “Night of Silence,” the traditional closing song of their annual holiday concert. (Bill Ferris)

The day of the concert, I arrived more than two-hours before the performance to test my crazy idea. There is a small balcony at the rear of the chapel. I walked up the narrow flight of stairs carrying my kit. I set up the two SB-700’s on light stands, one on each side of the balcony. They were set at full power and aimed to fire across the sanctuary toward opposite corners. I began taking test exposures and, much to my surprise, the two speedlights did an adequate job of filling the chapel with light. I did have to boost the ISO a bit (ranging between 800 and 1600, depending on lens focal length and aperture) but even at the highest ISO used, it was well within the D600’s wheelhouse for low light performance.

In my excitement at having found a way to light this beautiful church, I overlooked one critical element: people. All during the afternoon, I had been alone in that small balcony. But when the doors were opened to allow the gathering crowd to enter, a flood of parents, family and chorale supporters made their way up to my perch to find seating for the show. My biggest worry was that someone would accidentally move or knock over one of the speedlights. Or, while I was down on the floor gettingĀ  shots of small groups and individual choir members, someone would take my position at the center of the balcony rail. But I needn’t have been concerned. All went well.

 (Bill Ferris)

The Troubadours of Children’s Chorale of Flagstaff. (Bill Ferris)

Of the approximately 275 exposures I took that night, 61 were of sufficient quality to place in an online gallery from which parents and other chorale supporters have been invited to purchase prints as remembrances of a fantastic evening of holiday song and cheer. A portion of the proceeds will go to support Children’s Chorale. As for the remainder…well, I might add a couple of speedlights to my arsenal for the May concert. The front of the chapel was a skosh dark in some exposures.

Have a Glorious Holiday season and … get out and shoot!

Bill Ferris | December 2013

Hit the Street

It's a busy Friday night at "The Sweet Shoppe" in historic downtown Flagstaff, Arizona. (Nikon D600, Tamron 24-70 at 70mm, f/2.8, ISO 6400, 1/250 sec.)

It’s a busy Friday night at “The Sweet Shoppe” in historic downtown Flagstaff, Arizona. (Nikon D600, Tamron 24-70 at 70mm, f/2.8, ISO 6400, 1/250 sec.) (Bill Ferris)

Street photography is all the rage. Candid images of unsuspecting people capture the personality of a community. On a recent Friday night, I roamed the streets of Flagstaff looking for scenes of real life to photograph. The above image of a friendly exchange between a customer and employee in a downtown Flagstaff business, captures a touch of the good feeling that filled the streets on this particular evening. It was the first Friday of the month. People were out and about having dinner, buying a dessert to share with a friend and enjoying out the diverse collection of art and artists on display. It was wonderful to be out and in the midst of such a positive vibe.

Often, street photographers seek out subjects that challenge our senses or sensibilities. There is nothing wrong with taking that approach unless it crosses a line and becomes exploitation. Homelessness is a real problem in America. At the very heart of this problem is a healthcare system that leaves far too many people without access to needed professional medical treatment for mental illness or addiction. Mental illness and addiction make it incredibly difficult for a person to function in society. As a result, far too many people suffering from these illnesses are out on the streets–homeless.

Homelessness is tragic. It is all around us and easily recognized. I suppose this explains, in part, why the anonymous homeless person is a favorite subject for some street photographers. What the photographer sees, is the person’s circumstance: homelessness. What is missed, is the person’s condition: illness. Personally, if I never see another black & white photograph of an elderly person in tattered clothes, blankly staring and oblivious to the passing world, it will be too soon. There is a good chance the person in that photograph is suffering some form of illness. And that, in my opinion, makes the act of photographing the person a form of exploitation.

It seems to me there is a misguided notion that photographing the homeless carries on a tradition begun during the Great Depression. What most people don’t understand is the fundamental quality that made homelessness during the Depression so different from today’s version. During the Depression, the underlying condition or cause of homelessness was not a physical or mental illness. The underlying condition was a global economic collapse that had destroyed the very foundation of society.

The catastrophic economic disaster which produced the Great Depression sent tens of millions of Americans out of their homes and onto the streets. By and large, these were not folks struggling with mental illness or addiction. They had been fully-functioning members of society–working, raising a family and being neighbors. But the physical institutions that served as the foundation for American society had been hit by an economic tidal wave. With entire industries destroyed, there literally was no societal framework within which a person could function. There was only chaos, a maelstrom engulfing millions who lost their jobs, their homes…everything.

The families and individuals featured in the most iconic of Depression-era photographs were just like you and me with one significant exception: They were homeless. An economic collapse was sweeping across the nation like a plague. Jobs had not been lost as casualties of a dreadful addiction or a debilitating mental disorder. The jobs had simply gone away. Not given to another person. Just…gone.

You could see the despair in people’s eyes in those photos. You could also see the determination and the dignity. These were people who had all the potential and ability in the world. In any other circumstance, they would have been the neighbors we met at the local super market, joined in worship on Sunday or socialized with at the next school open house. What made the Depression-era homeless so admirable, was that look in their eyes. They had been stripped of every physical element of dignity. But that circumstance did not touch their inner sense of dignity. They were survivors and they were determined to regain what they had lost.

In the 1930’s, homelessness was a random act of cruelty. Today, homelessness is more preventable and treatable. This makes the act of photographing a homeless person different. Depression-era photos are evidence that a person can lose every worldly good, and still retain their resolve and dignity. Photographing the mentally ill and addicted exposes people at their weakest, at a time when dignity and resolve are rare commodities. It is a means of objectifying a person in need of medical attention. It is exploitative. We may not be able to rescue every homeless person from the addiction or illness that has sent them to the curb. But we can, at the very least, treat that person as more than a compositional element in a photograph.

A patron sits lost in thought at a downtown Flagstaff cocktail lounge.

A patron sits lost in thought at a downtown Flagstaff cocktail lounge.in a different circumstance altogether. (Bill Ferris)

So, while out walking the streets of downtown Flagstaff the other night, I wasn’t looking for homeless people to photograph. Instead, I looked for every day people. People like you and me. People who share the same dreams, struggle with similar worries and who, on a Friday night, were seeking a brief respite from their work-a-day lives. I looked at the man in the above photograph and wondered, “What is he thinking?” I suppose he could have been contemplating some great world problem. Or maybe, he was thinking what I would have been thinking in that situation, “Should I go home or have another beer?”

When I got home that night, I did enjoy a cold beer. But I didn’t head home, right away. I had my camera, a fast lens and a downtown full of interesting people to photograph. People like you. People like me. Good street photography reveals the qualities that make a town a community. It celebrates the people, their dignity, their compassion for others and their ability to enjoy life’s simple pleasures. Like a bag of chocolates or a cold beer.

Get out and shoot!

Bill Ferris | November 2013