“Well, ya’ll could ride with me if you want…”

He was walking toward us from his pickup truck in the cold, early morning light of Florence, Arizona. Wide brimmed cowboy hat and real cowboy boots. And he was all smiles.

Florence is a very small town southeast of Phoenix, and also the home of our state prison. We were standing in front of a little market that was preparing to open. “We” were myself, Jon Gabriel, art director and marketing guy for the Goldwater Institute, and Bob Dunn, Arizona rancher.

We were out to make a photograph of him and a fellow rancher that had just completed a 10 year study on land use and the Desert Tortoise. It had started with a problem and they had worked tirelessly to the end… a good end for them.

And the desert tortoises of Central Arizona.

“It isn’t that far from Florence, but it there is some dirt road,” Bob smiled as he shook my hand.

It was cold and cloudy, but I declined. I had a lot of gear in the car and if it did rain, it could be a problem in the back of his pickup truck.

We followed Bob out along a small paved road for about 20 miles before we turned south on a wide, paved, semi-washboarded road. Directly in front of us was a mountain range and directly over it were some very ominous clouds.

I was thinking we would turn in at each ranch we came to, but we kept on chugging up that road… farther and farther into the desert.

No bars. Yep, we were without cell phones and the storm clouds had mustered up quite a rain for us. It poured like crazy and we slowed to about 30 mph as we bounced over washboards and flew through running creek beds.

We didn’t have to suffer the rain long though.

It quickly turned to snow.

Yes… snow in the Arizona Desert. I mentioned that it was pretty cold, right?

The “bit of dirt road” turned into about 50 miles of dirt road. Hard, dirt road. I was beginning to think it would have been wise to check the gas tank before heading out this far into nowhere, but I figured they would have some gas at the ranch if I needed it.

I don’t know why I thought that, it just felt good to think about as we were without cell phones on a now tiny dirt road way far into the desert in a snow storm.

Finally we headed up a hill and around the bend into a wonderfully grand house in the middle of a rustic, working cattle ranch. We were greeted with an astonished… “You drove THAT all the way up here?”

I guess PT Cruisers were not the choice of ranches where the roads were less than hospitable. Who knew?

(As to why I am driving a PT Cruiser… it is a long and painful story.)

We were invited in for lunch and to wait out the misting snow and rain, and we met some of the nicest, and smartest, folks around. There were a lot of PHD’s in that room of ranchers. More than one each. Land Management, Sustainable Ranching, Land Use and Water Rights…

As I said, some really smart guys.

As fast as it came in, the rain dissipated and we headed outside for the shoot.

We had chewed up about an hour waiting for the rain to subside and both of the guys wanted to get back to work.

I grabbed my two bags, one camera bag and my Standbagger Grab-n-Go with two speedlights, two stands, a mini boom, two umbrellas and a set of triggers. In the car was my Profoto kit with an extra battery, four stands, a larger boom, some modifiers and two additional sets of triggers.

Camera wise, it is the same kit I carry for nearly every shoot. Canons, an assortment of lenses from 20MM – 200MM and my Minolta Meter.

I set the gear up on the porch and moved it to the very saturated grass as I built the lighting. I used a couple of speedlights on a boom, and radio triggers to fire them.

Radio triggers that didn’t seem to want to cooperate in the still misting air.

A quick trip to the car for my backup kit, and we were up and ready for that first test shot.

“Thanks” they said and started to walk off.

We said we were coming up to do a picture of them and I just did one.

Ranchers near Superior, Arizona, 2012

This was from the first set of images we did on the little bluff. Behind them and out of sight was the stables area, and I loved the clearing storm clouds for the backdrop.

We explained that I will probably do several more shots and I got the sneaking suspicion that they then figured I must be new if I have to take more than one.

Sometimes I feel the same way.

I did a shot of Bob and Walt (Meyer) on a little spit of land overlooking his stables and then I realized that this big ol’ tree was just the thing I needed to give the image a bit more context.

Still using the speedlights, we got them under the tree and relaxed, talking about the land and the great weather we were having. Right on cue, the dog joined us. We also included Walt’s daughter, Katie Cline in this shot as she was a big part of the study.

I got six shots, and the shoot was over.

“Got lots to do…”

I was shooting to a square format, as the original designs were to be square. A change in design meant a change in the imagery, but that was not a problem. I shot with some room around the subjects to give the art director some wiggle room with the images.

Here is the image as was used in the 2011 Goldwater Institute Annual Report.

Goldwater Institute Annual Report Photograph by Don Giannatti

And here is the original image as shot.
Goldwater Institute Annual Report Photograph by Don Giannatti - no crop

Sometimes you get all the time you need to shoot, and other times you better be prepared for not having much time at all. This was unique as after driving for nearly two and a half hours, I would have expected to have a bit more time. But that was not the case. The storm had eaten into my shoot time, and now it was down to a matter of a few minutes.

In the end we got nearly 30 shots total – including the test shots. There were so many places and ideas that I had wanted to do that it was a bit disappointing that I couldn’t keep shooting.

The final shot looked pretty good, and the client liked it a lot. So I count this as a successful shoot. This was one of six portraits we shot for the annual report, and all of them were unique in their own way. I may share some of those stories as well.

I really enjoyed this shoot, and working with Jon was a blast. We made it out of the mountains and to a gas station with no problem and by the time we were back in Phoenix there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.


I was recently on creativeLIVE and have received some rave reviews of the workshop. If you are interested in taking a look at the workshop, you can find it on creativeLIVE’s web site here. I think it is a tremendous value and if you are unable to attend any of my workshops, this may give you a ton of information you will want to have to push your photography to the next level.

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