Catching Fire – Part II

chris crisman nature conservancy arizona forest fire

Catching Fire – a beautiful yet dangerous subject, unpredictable and temperamental, photographing fire should always be approached with caution. When our editors at Nature Conservancy called asking us to shoot the ecosystem of wildfires and fire prevention in Arizona, we couldn’t say no. At that moment in February we had no idea the assignment would take us twice to the southwest, photographing all over the state, in blizzards and controlled burn fires. From loggers to scientists, firefighters to the homeowners they protect; we had the unique opportunity to meet and photograph people from all walks of life who have been affected by the climate of fire in which they live. It was truly a wild ride.

The second part of our story took place months later, when Chris traveled back to Arizona to shoot the real thing – Fire. As winter transitioned to spring in the Southwest, the snowfall of our previous adventure faded and fire season began. We knew that with warmer and drier weather developing, forest operations would begin and our chances of capturing a controlled burn would increase. Ultimately, our success in capturing a controlled burn depended on factors beyond our control – wind, weather, temperature – we were again at the mercy of Mother Nature to make the photos we needed. So what did we do? We hopped on a plane back to Arizona with our fingers crossed. Keep reading to see how our second adventure panned out…

chris crisman nature conservancy arizona forest fire

As soon as we landed in Arizona, we were geared up to shoot a controlled burn. Our contacts knew we were ready and waiting, it all came down to the right set of weather conditions that would make it happen. We made the most of this wait by traveling throughout the forests of the state, shooting and documenting the landscapes affected by both wildfire and the forest work done to prevent it.

chris crisman nature conservancy arizona forest fire

chris crisman nature conservancy arizona forest fire

After two long days of waiting, we finally got the call. The familiar voice of Mary Lata, the fire ecologist from our previous shoot and our contact in the world of fire in Arizona came over the line to tell us of a burn the next morning. This was the moment we’d been waiting for, the real thing.

We were up well before the sun and on the road north from Flagstaff, headed towards the grand canyon. Following Mary, we turned off the highway and headed off-road into the forest. Then we began to see the smoke – we knew we were close.


After unloading our gear and an extensive safety briefing, we followed Mary into the fire. The controlled burn stretched for hundreds of acres – slowly set ablaze by the fire crew we were a part of.

chris crisman nature conservancy arizona forest fire

In all of the situations we shoot in, we strive to have a certain level of control – our subjects know and welcome the fact that we are photographing them, our lights shape and create the mood of the scene, and usually the environment we’re making pictures in is hospitable. Shooting in the controlled burn, it felt like all bets were off. The landscape was constantly working against us, unpredictable and ever-changing.


chris crisman nature conservancy arizona forest fire

Despite the harsh environment and having an important job to accomplish, the crew was generous with their time – stepping into frame for portraits when they could break away from tending to the controlled fires burning all around us.

chris crisman nature conservancy arizona forest fire

In terms of lighting, we were forced to work simply and quickly – as we had to always be ready to move in the even that winds changed or a burn crept up on us. We used one octabank for the entire shoot, working to balance it against the smoky, hazy daylight.

chris crisman nature conservancy arizona forest fire

I have to give a big thanks to Ken Clark, the local assistant who worked with Chris, trekking through the controlled burn, hauling our lights and generators to make photos. It also helps that Ken is a volunteer fire fighter – I can’t think of a better suited assistant for the shoot.

chris crisman nature conservancy arizona forest fire

The fire was real, the smoke was real, the danger was real. We we’re in it.

chris crisman nature conservancy arizona forest fire

Smoky, exhausted, and sweat-stained, we left the controlled burn with not only the portraits we needed to make, but a new understanding and respect of not only the forest, but the hard work required keep the ecosystem healthy.

Want to read more? Read the story and explore exclusive interactive features on Nature Conservancy magazine’s digital edition app for the iPad (The iPad edition includes an audio interview with Chris on what it was like shooting in the snow and the fire). Also make sure to take a look at the full story on Nature Conservancy’s website.

Questions? Comments? Let us know below or @crismanphoto and /crismanphoto.

10 replies to “Catching Fire – Part II”

  1. you guys oughta check out paul buff’s Eistein lights and vagabond lithium batteries. they would work perfectly for you in this kind of situation, and save you the hassle of using a generator while in the middle of a fire… really!

  2. Hi, can I please ask how you achieve that the light falls off gradually from the faces of your portraits?
    Is it in post? Or a light modifier? Or the direction of the octa?
    These are really great portraits!

  3. Hey Julian, thanks for asking. The shape of the light has a lot to do with the position of our octabanks to the subject and the balance of light to the ambient exposure. Hope this helps!

  4. Hey Rob,

    Did ya’ll have to get a “red card” before you could photograph the burn unit?
    Or did you find a way to be exempt from it?

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