Sunday, October 19, 2014

Fall on the Prairies: Friedland and Hart

The Friedland and Hart Prairies at the base of the San Francisco Peaks are almost always a good place to go for Fall color in northern Arizona. This year was no exception. Both were my destination on an overnight trip. The second and third week in October is usually the best time. Higher elevations show their color sooner as the Fall action makes its way down the mountain. I decided to pass on Lockett Meadow this year. It was the weekend and I knew it would be pretty crowded with all the other Fall color seekers.

On the Friedland Prairie road

A couple miles down the road on the Friedland Prairie, I set my sights on the first aspen showing off. I stopped right away and started making images. The colors were so stunning with the brilliant side-light of the sun. Some nice shadows of the adjacent aspen made for a nice composition. 

More from the road

A big mix of colors and textures stopped me again as the road snaked its way through the forest. 

More action along the road.

Sometimes it's hard to figure why a scene stops me in my tracks. Is it a sense of awe and wonder more than what I see with my eyes that makes the difference? I know this happens a lot. Sometimes I get home, look at my images and wonder what I was thinking. Why was this place worthy? Oftentimes, it's not really because of aesthetics, but more the way a place feels at the time. It's something more innate and instinctual feeling. That emotional reaction is what so many other photographers respond to as well. Some places just have more photo mojo than others. Then the biggest challenge is making sense of the ever-present chaos of nature and finding a pleasing composition. 

The funny thing is, none of this is going through my mind at the time. I just respond and do my thing. All the thinking happens later...

Aspen in Fall Splendor

Further up the road, I settled on a spot, parked and hiked up the foothills of the Peaks where the aspen were dense and colorful. I took a zillion photos. Again, mostly responding to the wonder of the color. When I got back to the truck, I broke out my bag-chair, kicked back and soaked it all in.

Going, going, gone.

The aspen were in all different stages of color. I found one spot with a green, yellow and a, well, spent aspen that sort of reminded me of the Irish flag... with a lot of imagination, I guess.

X marks the spot amongst the aspen on the Hart Prairie

The next morning I headed up the highway to the Hart Prairie. Its another popular spot in the Fall. One grove of aspen are particularly photogenic and I've photographed there before. 

Hart Prairie Aspen Grove

Next time you're in Flagstaff in the Fall, check out the Hart and Friedland Prairies. While most people drive up the road further to the Snow Bowl for their Fall color fix, make that turn off the road and hit Friedland. Hart Prairie is just further up the highway. The forest service road is a lovely drive around the north side of the Peaks and dumps out near Sunset Crater and the Lockett Meadow road. If it hadn't been the weekend, I might have gone for the trifecta of the Friedland and Hart Prairies along with Lockett Meadow. Maybe next year.

© 2014 Arizona Panorama / G. Reid Helms
All Reproduction Rights Reserved

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

A summer trip north...

I love Flagstaff. The entire area is chock-full of interesting places to visit. On this trip, I visited some of my favorite places: Wupatki National Monument, Lockett Meadow and Sunset Crater. Summer just wouldn't be the same without a look at these beautiful places. 

I spent the first night in Pumphouse wash north of Sedona. I looked for a waterfall I'd seen from Google Earth, but the creek wasn't running and I made camp after ending my search. I spent the night in my tent with the dogs. It was quiet, calm and cool. 

I woke before sunrise, broke camp and headed north. I went looking for a wetland in the Kachina Village area, but didn't find it. I've looked for this spot a couple times now to no avail. If I look for this place again, I will have exact directions and it located on a map.

So, on to Sunset Crater I went. I drove in the backside through the Cinder Hills Off-Road Recreation area. I ended up on trail 777. Big mistake! It was a never ending series of undulating whoops. Mile after mile I plowed through this difficult terrain. The cinders weren't a big problem as long as I kept up my speed so as not to get bogged down. I did bounce around pretty severely a couple times and would find out later that I'd damaged my catalytic converter. 

It took over an hour to get back on the main road to Sunset Crater. I stopped on the north side to take some shots.

Sunset Crater

The light was soft with good cloud cover. I've shot from this vantage point several times and am still not entirely happy with the image. This ancient volcano erupted over 500 years ago and must have been a sight to behold by the local population of ancient Pueblo people that lived in the area. 

On to Wupatki. I stopped at Wukoki first. This is the first dwelling you reach as you drive in from Sunset Crater. This is my favorite of the dwellings. Built on top of the rocks, it's a cathedral of stone and ancient engineering. 

Wukoki at Wupatki National Monument

I've shot this location many times. This may have been the best day of all though. Clouds made the images much more interesting than previous trips. The light shifted from bright early morning light to a softer feel. 

I climbed inside the ruin though a series of impossibly small doorways. Getting my big body though with my gear and bag was fun. The inside room is probably 12'x12' and 15' tall. A series of holes and remnants of wooden poles indicated there must have been a second story floor. 

Inside Wukoki

Windows on 3 of the 4 walls at a variety of heights must have provided good views and cross ventilation. This place really stirs the imagination. What was life like 500 years ago? What was living in this dwelling like? Life must have been a day-to-day affair. On top of the obvious hardships of daily living, there was a volcano erupting just a few short miles away. Hard to imagine.

Wukoki Window to the World

After finishing up at Wukoki, I drove up a side road alongside Deadman Wash. I turned around, parked alongside the road and walked to the edge of the wash. The area is an interesting mix of red sandstone, sage and scrub with black cinder mixed in. 

I was doing my thing taking copious amounts of photos when a park ranger appeared over my head on the cliffs above. I nearly jumped out of my skin. I thought I'd heard something moving around above, but couldn't be sure. When you visit these types of places, it's easy to be on edge. I'm not sure if I sensed the spirits or the energies or it's just a bit spooky, but I"m always hyper-conscious of my surroundings. 

Deadman Wash

The ranger explained I was trespassing and did I not see the sign that said off road travel was prohibited. Most of the time this means don't drive around off the main road. This time it meant, keep in your car, no walking around off the road. I apologized my ass off and he was very nice. He was mostly concerned about whether I was collecting pottery shards. Apparently, I wasn't the first person he'd approached out there. We had a nice conversation before I left. He checked my I.D. and didn't issue me a ticket, thankfully.

After my brush with the law, I passed on the park headquarters. There were a ton of cars in the parking lot and knew it would tax my patience trying to shoot the main ruins. So, I drove to my next favorite stop, Lomaki.


This is another dwelling you can walk around in. I did a panorama of the interior of the main room along with a nice one of the exterior.

Inside Lomaki

After spending some time here, I went on down the road. The morning light was finished and it was getting hot. The road winds though the hills created by volcanic activity along with more red sandstone formations. I had to stop one more time along a stretch of the road in a grassland. Sometimes the most simple landscape is also very beautiful. It was very windy and the grasses were laying down in a very pleasing way.

Wupatki Grassland

I had lunch in a day use area before deciding to go see Lockett Meadow. It was around 1pm when I arrived. The cloud cover was still doing its thing. Mid-day is not the best time to shoot, but it was still working for me. 

The Tank at Lockett Meadow

Some reeds that have been growing there for a few years had gotten pretty tall. I have a series of photos now, showing their steady progression. The colors were a very nice mix of greens from the algae to the reeds, grasses and mountains. Soft light made the mid-day shot possible.

I walked the dogs around the circular road of the meadow and settled in a campsite to relax for a few hours. I was sore from bouncing around in the Cinder Hills earlier. I had a cocktail and kicked back under an enormous Ponderosa pine.

Under the tree in Lockett Meadow

It was a good day and it felt wonderful in the cool mountain air. I eventually had to put my fleece jacket on. I'm such whimp living in the desert like I do. Being cold in the middle of August is always a treat. I ended up driving home. The storm front moving in was very entertaining the entire way back into the valley. 

© G. Reid Helms / Arizona Panorama. All reproduction rights reserved.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Tempe Town Lake Independence Day Fireworks

Tempe Town Lake was the location again this year for the 4th of July fireworks celebration. This was the 3rd straight year photographing there. It was a beautiful evening and not too hot. The evening air was still and made for great reflections. I even managed to get a decent parking place close to where I wanted to photograph. Getting out of the parking lot was a completely different thing though. It was 45 minutes before the line of cars in front of me started to move.

This year, I settled on the north side of the lake near the marina, east of the bridges where the fireworks were to go off. My friend, Tina and I, got there a couple hours before show time to insure I'd get a good spot. My plan was to position myself across the lake and get a nice base HDR (high dynamic range) panorama shot with the bridge and buildings at Hayden Landing I could then use to add fireworks to. 

I took a couple panos as the sun set and the twilight began.

Just after sunset at Tempe Town Lake

I love the twilight portion of the night. It's my favorite time of day. Something about the way the the light changes, the sky darkens as the lights of the buildings and streets come up and night settles in is just magical to me.

Nautical Twilight on the lake

The "blue hour" light at nautical twilight is a time I often use when I shoot real estate and architecture. It makes properties look amazing and dazzles my clients. I had photographed Tempe Town Lake several years ago in the morning blue-light. That image still remains one of my favorites of all time. At the time I first shot the lake, I had no idea about the blue-light portion of twilight. It was a blind luck.

Independence Day Fireworks on Tempe Town Lake

The show started and the fireworks were amazing, as usual. It really is the best fireworks display in town lasting around 30 minutes. The shot above was what I was aiming for, a composite with a base shot panorama combined with a variety of fireworks from individual shots. But the best was yet to come.

Crescent Moon and Fireworks over Tempe Town Lake

I spent the couple hours before the show talking to a young man also there to photograph the fireworks. It was his first time and I quizzed him about his setup. He seemed to have a good grasp on how to do it. Santiago and I traded stories and he showed me some recent star trails shots he'd done in Sedona on a full moon night. It was very nice work. At one point during the show, I could see he was taking a pano and it occurred to me I didn't have one at this time of night. So, I swung my camera around and snapped a pano, even with the show fully under way.

I didn't have much hope my shot would work out. I was bracketing my exposures so I could process the images in HDR. I couldn't imaging how the fireworks would be okay. Along with multiple bursts going off during the exposures, the bursts were cut off on the second frame of the three frame pano.

The next day, I processed the images and built the panorama. I was more than surprised to see my quick pano during the show was the best shot of evening. I had captured the moon, clouds, smoke and a series of the fireworks that my stitching software had handled perfectly. The HDR processing added lots of detail that my straight shots didn't have. Even the fireworks themselves had more depth of color and texture. And the best part was it wasn't a composite with a base shot and fireworks added in post processing, but all captured in one series of photos.

I did obsess over the image for the next couple days. I must have reprocessed it a dozen times, dodging and burning and making countless adjustments before finally tweaking the individual frames to get a stitched pano I was happy with. It also was a final image that didn't require a lot of extra manipulation in Photoshop. Mistakes like these are always a good way to learn something new. Even though I hadn't exposed the panorama correctly, I did finally figure out a way to make it work. It just took some time.

Social media went crazy with approval. I had over 400 likes on the Photography Adventures Club Facebook page, 100 likes on my own FB page and over 2,100 views on my SmugMug gallery. Some of the better comments claimed it was the best 4th of July fireworks photo they had ever seen. I was more than flattered and grateful to those who took the time to comment. It felt good to be recognized for my efforts, and I even managed to sell a couple prints.

It was a magical evening and one I was proud to have captured so well.

© 2014 G. Reid Helms / Arizona Panorama
All Reproduction Rights Reserved.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Kofa Revisited

I went back to the Kofa Mountains a couple weeks after my first visit. Again, I was hoping for a Milky Way shot over the mountains and this time, the weather cooperated. I parked in a new spot this time near Kofa Queen Canyon. A clear sky was a welcome sight.

The Milky Way over the Kofa Mountains.

It was probably about 4:30 when I hopped out of the truck to see the Milky Way shining brightly overhead. Light pollution from Yuma (right) and Quartzsite (left) added a bit more to this 8-frame panorama. It took a couple tries at the post-processing to get it right. The subtle colors of the stars as well as the tiny bit of green airglow were tough to bring up. Having shot in RAW mode on my camera was a big help. I was able to process each RAW file and color correct them before I stitched the pano.

The rugged peaks at the entrance to Kofa Queen Canon.

The next morning was a clear sky day. No spectacular sunrise, but I thought the light streaming around the peaks was very interesting.

Kofa Prominence

I used my 80-200 f/2.8 lens to concentrate on the atmospherics of the sunrise interacting with the mountains. I hardly ever use this lens, but haul it around with me wherever I go. It was nice to find a use for it on this trip.

I drove home knowing I had accomplished my goal of capturing the Milky Way. It was a satisfying trip and the reaction to my shot was a bit overwhelming. I was surprised at how many people responded to it. This is something I'll have to work at some more. Finding the right location is half the battle and having a vision of the shot before taking it is key in this type of photography.

© 2014 G. Reid Helms / Arizona Panorama
All content copyrighted and all reproduction rights reserved.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Kofa National Wildlife Refuge

Kofa Vertical Panorama

I spent a little over 24 hours at the Kofa National Wildlife Refuge in southwestern Arizona and that was not nearly enough. This is a big area of over 660,000 acres and there are plenty of roads accessing many parts of the mountain range. Established in 1939 to protect desert bighorn sheep, The Kofa National Wildlife Refuge is named after a large historic mine, The King of Arizona, or Kofa for short.

I started on the southern tip of the range in Palm Canyon, but wished I'd spent more time in Kofa Queen Canyon a little further north. I arrived mid-day and kicked back to enjoy the scenery.

Chillin' with the dogs.

My campsite at the base of the mountain was a perfect vantage point to take in the mountains. I had 360-degree views back into the valley from my slightly elevated base camp. It was a perfect cool and breezy, late-March, winter day, yet I could feel summer was just around the corner.

Orange glow looking west from the foothills of the Kofa Mountains.

My photographic vision at Kofa was to get a moonlit mountain shot with the Milky Way rising behind it. I had envisioned a sweeping panorama with the drama of the cliffs and the mystery of the universe behind. I calculated a shoot time around 3:30 a.m. would work, but the clouds that rolled in at the end of the day ruined that idea. As usual, I made the best of it and decided to try something new.

The road to Palm Canyon

A nice straight section of the road nearby beckoned. I used my headlamp to light paint behind my camera setup onto the road. It took several tries as my lamp was pretty bright. I had one version where the camera shadow went all the way to the mountain on the road and looked freakishly big. The moon was also very bright and diffused in the thin clouds. Seeing the clouds though, gave me hope for a nice sunrise.

Kofa Rain Ring
A big ring around the moon was an interesting element in this 180-degree pano. The glow from city lights of nearby Yuma can be seen to the right. 

Moonlit Kofa

Moonlit Cholla, Kofa NWR

Kofa Sunrise

The wispy clouds that gave me fits during the night were almost gone at sunrise. I had hopes this would turn out better than it did. I have seen another photographers shots in the meantime and was in the wrong place that day... (like you ever know) Further north in Kofa Queen Canyon was perfect. But I hadn't been there yet. 

Entering Kofa Queen Canyon

So, after my early start and shooting the sunrise, I headed up Kofa Queen Canyon. The road was just off the main road to Palm Canyon and a no brainer. It was a couple miles through the desert foothills to the mouth of Kofa Queen Canyon. The mountains grow increasingly rugged and jagged a silhouette. The dirt road led into a pretty long canyon surrounded by huge rock spires. These were very picturesque formations that took my breath away. 

Royalty in Kofa Queen Canyon

The road led back further and further following the same path as the winding wash. When I first entered the canyon, the clouds were very nice. But in less than an hour, they were all gone. I drove way back in towards the end of the canyon, but not all the way. The light had deteriorated and the road kept getting more and more sketchy. Next time I'll spend more time in this canyon.

Brittlebush in Kofa Queen Canyon

Spring was in full swing, but there were very few wildflowers to be seen. I did happen on this nice brittlebush at the entrance to the canyon. The peak behind was a perfect backdrop, but that was it for the wildflowers. Obviously, this area was experiencing the same drought the rest of the western U.S. was. I saw absolutely no critters. I did hear some coyotes at daybreak...

And I'll have to get back to Kofa soon. It was a bit of a long and boring drive though... 160 miles from Phoenix, but the payoff was well worth it. The mountain was spectacular and I totally lucked out with some clouds. And I learned a lot about where to go and what I'll do better next time. 

© 2014 G. Reid Helms / Arizona Panorama
All content copyrighted and reproduction rights reserved.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Gilbert Water Ranch

The Ripirian Preserve at Water Ranch in Gilbert is a great place for birding and photography. The Gilbert Water Ranch, for short, has seven ponds used to reclaim waste water, recharge the aquifer and is the perfect setting for all types of shore and water birds. It's also just a nice place to walk through and enjoy the desert. 

There was no shortage of species on my trip in early January: Canada geese, gadwall, Northern shoveler, Northern pintail, American avocet, snowy egret, great egret, pied-billed grebe, spotted sandpiper, black-necked stilt, Northern harrier, red-tailed hawk, etc... There also were some rare birds in the area like a white-throated sparrow that had birders excited to see it.

American Avocet

Black-necked Stilt

Great Egret

Northern Mockingbird

Northern Pintail

Ring-necked Duck (male)

Ring-necked Duck (female)

Ring-necked Duck

Snowy Egret

This was my first effort photographing birds. I used all the lens power I could muster and was surprisingly pleased with the results. A 2x converter on my 80-200mm lens was plenty of power for moderately close birds. Anything very far away was still pretty small in the viewfinder. Shooting came with a bit of a learning curve I discovered. My 2x converter had me focusing manually, but I found my groove after a while. There were plenty of other photographers there too. Some really nice glass had me drooling. 

I really enjoyed the morning light. It was very nice as it reflected off the water on the birds. This kind of photography is something I'll have to do more often. I already love birds and really enjoyed the new challenge and shooting something out of my comfort range. It's always good to try new things.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

2014: Bring it on!

I went to bed early on New Year's Eve. I'm not the party boy I used to be. Instead, I snuggled with my dog Louie who was NOT liking the fireworks and celebratory action at midnight. Uggg with the gunfire people! I'm sure there were plenty of people that had the time of their lives. I just let 2013 slip away quietly into the night. See ya!

2013 was not the best year. I thought I had finally made it as a commercial real estate photographer after all the success I had in 2012. 2013 started off well. I photographed an advertising agency's new office and started working with a property redevelopment company. But things changed. The California property development company that was sending me tons of business in 2012 moved on. They weren't able to buy the REO properties that were their bread and butter anymore. Banks held their properties. Foreclosures dried up. Prices on houses saw big gains in 2013 and it's fair to say the market may be back where we started before the big financial crash in 2007.

Work with the realtors and flippers I do have relationships with also slowed down. I would imagine people saw the rising prices and decided to wait a while to sell. The economy didn't really improve that much, at least not for the rest of us and had to be a factor in keeping people from wanting to buy a home. And I have to admit, my marketing efforts were piss-poor at best.

That's my biggest goal for 2014: Marketing. Not only my commercial photography, but my fine-art landscape work as well. I joined Fine Art America late in the year to provide an easy way for people to buy my work. I joined SmugMug and set up a gallery over using my stand alone website and my work never looked so good. I did sell some work and was published a couple more times in 2012, but only by blind luck. I guess blogging and posting to Facebook and Google+ did pay off. But I wasn't consistent with when and where I made my presence known.

So, here are my 2014 resolutions. I don't usually do this kind of thing. Let's call them professional goals instead. 

1. Marketing: Publications. Phoenix is the perfect storm for publishing. I already have a great in as the designer of one pub in Scottsdale. I need to take advantage of this and get out and shoot. Even for free in need be. Nevertheless, there are so many other magazines and newspapers I could be contacting. This could also be the year I muster up the courage to contact Arizona Highways and get the ball rolling there.

2. Marketing: Real Estate Photography. A few years ago I went around with hundreds of fliers dropping them off at Realty offices with zero success. The fliers were beautiful and I offered a great introductory price. Nada. This year I plan on putting together a real advertising campaign. Contacting the brokers and meeting them face-to-face is the only way I'll be able to add clients to my business. I may even find a way to advertise. I know there are trade pubs for realtors in the Phoenix metro area. Word of mouth is great if it works. It hasn't. So I need to ramp it up and make it happen in 2014.

3. Marketing: Social networks. I have a FacebookGoogle+, Twitter and LinkedIn account. 2014 is going to be the year I maximize my presence and take advantage of these free services. There also are a ton of photo sharing sites and publications to utilize.

4. Bucket List: There are still a lot of beautiful places I need to photograph in Arizona. 

Here's the short list in no certain order:

• Canyon de Chelly. I rolled through there a few years ago coming back from Nebraska when my mother died. I spent hardly any time there and even managed to lose the shots in a backup. I didn't even see Spider Rock on that trip. So, it's time to go back. 

• Monument Valley: Another place I rolled past two summers ago on my big whirlwind summer vacation tour. I know this place is perfect for my panoramic style and need to hit it hard when the conditions are right.

• Petrified Forest/Painted Desert: I spent a couple days here a few years ago, but I was just getting started and my technique wasn't the best. I did get a couple keepers, but there is so much more to photograph there.

• Grand Canyon, Toroweap: It's long drive and the furthest spot away from me, but a must do this year.

• Marble Canyon, Tatahatso Point: I finally found this spot during the summer, but wasn't prepared to stay and shoot it. Now that I know how to get there, I need to shoot this spot in earnest. It is a fantastic location that only a very few photographers even know about. The vistas are mind-blowing and the bend in the river is way better than the way over-photographed Horseshoe Bend near Page.

• Coal Mine Canyon: Get a permit and go. It's another place perfect for my style of photography. I love canyons in general and always gravitate to them. 

• Sedona: I have very little good stuff from Red Rock Country. I much prefer wild places and dealing with tourists makes my skin crawl. Nevertheless, there are some great scenic opportunities that I need to get some good images of. 

• Fossil Creek: I've make several trips to this area already. It's a gorgeous creek with emerald and turquoise-colored waters. My first trip's shots also were lost, so it's time to go back. 

• The Wave/Coyote Buttes: I'm not sure if this one is going to happen unless someone invites me. I see waaaaay too many shots of this area and I'm not sure it's really my thing, but probably a place I should see. I'm not the type to follow the rest of the crowd and am not thrilled about dealing with getting the permit via the lottery system.

• Southern Arizona: This area doesn't get much love from the landscape crowd, but I know how beautiful it is down there after living in Tucson for 10 years. I did manage to shoot Chircahua National Monument in southeastern Arizona this summer and loved it. Still I didn't get the shot I really wanted and will undoubtedly go back again in the near future.

• Western Arizona: This is another place that doesn't get much love. I had a blast shooting Cibola National Wildlife Refuge on the Colorado River north of Yuma a couple years ago. All along the Colorado River are more of the same kinds of places.

5. My Health. I went gluten-free late this year and have never felt better. The fog in my brain has finally lifted. I'm losing some belly fat and have more energy. I sleep better and most importantly, my attitude is so much better. I had no idea this one simple thing would have such a huge impact on me. Gluten is very bad I am convinced. The new grains are so different than the ones our parents and grandparents ate. The enhanced gluten content as well as an additional addictive protein now found in the highly hybridized modern wheats are definitely to be avoided.

6. The other thing I am determined to do is shoot with other photographers. I'm not the most social creature on the planet. Being alone is not a big deal for me and in many ways I prefer it. Being active on Facebook has provided me a bunch of friends that are also shooters and like-minded individuals. Making an effort to be more social and making some actual friends needs to be high on my list this year. So Bob, John, Ron, Paul, Pam, Peggy etc... get ready. Time to have some fun!

2013 taught me a lot, not so much about who I am as what I need to do. I realized I can't just let it happen if I want to be a success in photography. I need to make it happen. It's time to get off my butt, get out there and show the world what I have to offer. It's really the only way.

Thanks to all my friends and family for the support this year. Even though it wasn't the best year, I couldn't have done it without you. Have a very happy and safe 2014.