This series of photos was taken one day while on a magazine assignment. Only one of these photos ended up being published in the article, but what’s interesting is that these images were the first of 14 locations and thousands of images I would shoot over the course of a year for this story—14 exceptional locations, where I had to get the timing right because great events only happen once.
The project began after I moved back to Arizona in the fall of 2013. I made a point to check in with the photo editor at Arizona Highways magazine, Jeff Kida. Arizona is one of the few states that publishes a travel magazine, but this isn’t surprising, given that there are 24 national park units and natural areas, from deserts to 12,000-foot peaks, that could fill many lifetimes with incredible places to explore. Since Arizona Highways published its first photo portfolio by Ansel Adams back in 1935 (to rave reviews from its readership, of course), the editors of the magazine haven’t looked back. Since then, it has become known worldwide for the quality of its photography, but this isn’t a story about the magazine, rather how an assignment from the magazine led me to shoot skiing in Arizona to produce one of 14 images that appeared in a portfolio of my photography in their September 2015 issue.
When thinking of a project to pitch to Arizona Highways, I wanted to work on a story that would allow me to travel through a big section of Arizona and act as a reintroduction to the region. What I came up with was a proposal to shoot a portfolio of images of the Little Colorado River. I had already explored many sections of the river over the years, and was aware of its highly varied landscape, but my experiences had given me only a glimpse of the river. The Little Colorado has been in the recent news a lot, as several proposed tourism developments are poised to destroy the river’s wild and scenic beauty, as well as divert water from dozens of the springs that supply the river’s perennial flow. The Little Colorado had become a big talking point, but few people had really seen the place.
I proposed to explore the entire 340-mile length of the river, from its source in the White Mountains to the confluence where the Little Colorado meets the Colorado River in Grand Canyon National Park. And I figured the only way to cover all the facets of the river was to photograph it in a variety of seasons. I sent my proposal to the magazine, and Jeff got back soon after, saying that the story would be perfect for a Hatcher portfolio for their annual Photography Issue in September 2015. It was only March of 2014.
I started plotting my strategy to fill 10 pages of the magazine, while keeping an eye on weather near the Little Colorado. And, wouldn’t you know it, a NOAA weather alert warned of a big late spring storm that could dump over a foot of snow in the Arizona high country. Capturing the Little Colorado near its source at 10,000 feet on Mount Baldy under a blanket of fresh snow included too many good elements in one photo to dare miss. I needed to get there fast, and with no time to look for partners, this would be a solo trip. I hastily gathered my ski gear and packed a tent, sleeping bag, camera, tripod and three days of food. I drove out of Tucson, weaving past towering saguaros as I headed for the high country. Talk about altered realities: In a matter of hours, pines replaced cactus and I was driving blind through fat spring snowflakes on an unplowed road. My eyes were glued to the front windshield of the Subaru for snow markers and the edge of the road, while fighting the vertigo caused by swirling snow. The sun had set by the time I made it to the road’s end, with darkness coming on as I skied the seven miles to my camp along the Little Colorado.
For an assignment on Arizona’s Little Colorado River in a variety of seasons, Bill Hatcher was fortunate when a rare late spring snowstorm developed. But his many decisions in the field made getting the right image possible.
I didn’t have much of a plan and had only hiked in this area once the previous summer—I recognized nothing. In darkness the tent went up, and I quickly got to work shooting night shots of camp in the falling snow. My mantra: When in doubt, shoot.
Before dawn I was up, photographing myself preparing for the day’s exploration. I loaded my pack for a full day’s outing and skied out of basecamp to make my way up the valley on skis. The Little Colorado winds through meadow after meadow as it descends from its source around 10,600 feet on the east face of Mount Baldy. The photo I was looking for was a ski shot and I, out of necessity, would be the model. I had all night to think about what I was looking for; I was there to capture the river valley with trees thick with fresh snow. My trusty PocketWizard wireless remotes have an effective range of hundreds of yards, and I would use every bit of that distance since my intention was to set the camera up far away from my position for a big landscape shot.
I broke trail through a foot and a half of new snow. The going was slow, but in every meadow I passed through I stopped for photos, finding the best vantage and setting up the camera tripod for shots. It was a time-consuming endeavor. The reality about shooting with remotes is that you have to shoot many, many photos to get the shot right, but I also had to work fast because the storm was clearing and it wouldn’t take long for the Arizona sun to transform the fluff under my feet to slush. This being a magazine assignment, I would be selective. My snow composition was intended for a horizontal two-page magazine spread. For that reason, every frame I shot would be horizontal and my position in the frame was in the left third of the shot since that composition, to my eye, reads better when the page is opened. I was shooting with the 36-megapixel Nikon D800; if the editor wanted to grab a vertical from any of the horizontal frames, that wouldn’t be a problem.
I set my camera’s drive mode on low-speed continuous so it would fire at 3 frames per second. With my eye I would mark a tree or rock in the camera frame so I could determine where I would enter the frame. Once set up, I would ski into the correct position and trigger the camera when I hit the mark. As the frames clicked through, I increased my skiing speed so the frames would capture a different stride through a 5- to 10-second burst of shooting. I would check the images, then recompose until I got things right. After I was happy with the results, I would pack up gear and move further up valley. The snow didn’t stop until well after the golden hour. By late afternoon, the intense spring sun was out and the snow was disappearing.
The image the editors chose to publish in the magazine was the ski shot with the boulder in the foreground. The photo was made in the afternoon, but clouds had kept the snow fresh and, by then, I was plenty warmed up in the role of ski model, having already shot hundreds of photos in a half-dozen or more locations. One could say I was lucky to time catching a rare Arizona snowstorm, but there were also a hundred other calculated details that coalesced to make this photo a reality, and that’s where the real magic in photography is revealed.
To see more of Bill Hatcher’s photography and read his blog, visit his website at billhatcher.com.