Quaint Bisbee, Arizona offers photographers a smorgasbord of unique and colorful photographic subjects.  You see this Southeastern Arizona town has thankfully retained many of it’s old buildings, stairs, and narrow streets while modernizing exteriors with vibrant paint colors. I dare say there is any other city like this in the United States!

Where:

map showing Bisbee, Arizona

About:

In 1877  US army scouts were sent to the Mule Mountains in Southern Arizona to search for Apaches but instead discovered a land filled with minerals. In fact the area was so rich in cooper and other minerals that Bisbee became known at the Queen of the Cooper Camps.

With all the mining activity, Bisbee grew to become the largest city between St. Louis and San Francisco.  It was not until the 1970’s that the mining activity in Bisbee began to slow down as did the town. Thankfully Bisbee preserved many of the old buildings from it’s heyday which are now home to art galleries, restaurants, and shops.  In addition to it’s many beautiful old buildings, the town is full of stairs.

Bisbee 1000 Signs and Stairs:

Bisbee is located in the base of a steep canyon with no available land for housing.  So homes had to be built on the sides of  steep canyon walls. Access between the town, mines and homes required hundreds of different sets of stairs to be built. The stairs were initially built out of wood than later replaced in the 1930’s with concrete stairs that remain in place today.

In fact, these old stairs have now become the center of an annual fitness event called the Bisbee 1000 Stair Climb . The race/challenge includes 1034 stairs over only 9 different staircases.

I have no idea how many stairs are in this town but I know my knees were screaming at the sight of all these stairs!  Here are just a few of the many stairs:

Stairs 3

Stairs 8

Stairs 1

Other Stairs

Staircase Photo Tips:

I found most of the stairways lacked any photogenic appeal but I was still compelled to photograph them.  So here are my tips for making the best of a challenging situation.

  • Time of Day:  Visit either early morning or late evening or on a mostly overcast day.  Otherwise the contrast between the top and bottom portions of the stairs is beyond the capabilities of even today’s best cameras.
  • Settings and Lens:  Apertures of about F11 work best due to the large depth of field needed to capture these stairs. Len choices vary a bit based on which staircase is being photographed as well as how much of a staircase is being included in the composition. I recommend having lens from 17mm-45mm with you.
  • Other:  Many of these staircases traverse a variety of homes and businesses that are not all that photogenic as mentioned above.  Careful compositions and closeups are needed at times to exclude some rundown areas. 
  • Be aware of a lot of litter on the staircases and accept that you either have to spend a good deal of time cleaning the stairs or spend time removing the litter in Photoshop.

Colorful Shops:

Bisbee’s downtown is full of colorful buildings, doors, and windows.  Here is only a small sample of the beautiful storefronts in the town. 

Photo Tips:

Photographing the storefronts of Bisbee is a bit challenging.  

  • First there is nothing straight, the roads are angled, the buildings are old and certainly not built square or level, so just accept that is will be very difficult to get the perfectly straight image and enjoy the old!
  • Try to avoid photographing yourself in a building’s window.
  • Use a polarizer.
  • Lens and Settings- Varies too much to provide recommendations.

Historic Old Buildings:

Stock Exchange Saloon

This beautiful building was originally built around 1905 as a brewery saloon but was converted into the E.F. Hutton Stock Exchange due to prohibition. The building has now been completely redone and once again claims it’s place along with other Bisbee watering holes.

Bisbee Museum

This is a beautiful old brick building but be aware when photographing this building that the grounds and benches are filled with the homeless. I could not take one photo of the entire building for this reason.

Copper Queen Hotel

Catholic Church

Cool Gates:

If all the above are not reason enough to visit Bisbee, add very narrow curvy streets to your list of must sees when in the area.  In fact, I owned a 21 foot van and had so much trouble making one particular turn, that I swore I would never drive any of Bisbee’s side streets again.

Nearby Attractions:

Lavender Pit

This is an open pit mine that once produced over 600,000 tons of copper.  It has been referred to as the Grand Canyon of Copper and is equally dangerous due to it’s steep cliffs.  Thankfully the pit is fenced off but has holes cut into the fencing for cameras. The combination of colors and textures in this pit are stunning.

Lowell

Lowell is another former mining town just minutes south of Bisbee that today is fairly abandoned.  In fact it is rare to see cars other than old vintage cars parked in front of its empty storefronts.

Whitewater Draw

And just 10 minutes north of the road to Bisbee is the turn off to Whitewater Draw where 20,000+  sandhill cranes gather each winter.  See: The Sandhill Cranes of Whitewater Draw

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I hope you enjoyed a brief look at the photographic potentials of an historic western town and nearby areas.  Please stay tuned for next week where we travel back to Yellowstone National Park for a look at Photographing Yellowstone’s Biscuit, Black Sand & Midway Geyser Basins

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