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Saguaro Cactus in the Superstition Mountains

Saguaro Cactus in the Superstition Mountains of ArizonaSaguaro Cactus in the Superstition Mountains
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I love the desert. And it seems every time I visit it, I fall deeper in love. The open space, the geology, the weather, and the unique flora and fauna of the American deserts never fails to pique my curiosity and my creativity. On a recent trip to Scottsdale, AZ, I had the pleasure of visiting the Superstition Mountains - a beautiful stretch of stately peaks dotted with saguaro cactuses. Ah, yes, the saguaro cactus. There are few silhouettes in nature more iconic than the saguaro cactus. That unmistakable outline with its central pillar rising out of the landscape like a Corinthian column, arms held staunchly to either side; it just screams American Southwest. They encapsulate the whole vibe of the desert that appeals to me. So when my companions and I ventured out on a short hike to visit some ancient petroglyphs deep in the Superstition Mountains, I seized the opportunity to photograph some impressive specimens of the saguaro cactus.

I brought my medium format Mamiya RZ67 camera because I knew I'd be able to create some extra-shallow depths of field with its wide-aperture 110mm f/2.8 lens. Despite how impressive the Superstition Mountains appeared towering over the desert floor, I opted not to do any of the traditional high-color, high-contrast, wide angle, sweeping landscapes I typically gravitate towards. Instead, I wanted the saguaro cactus to be the star of the show. I wanted to create "portraits" of this desert succulent much like I did with the Joshua Tree over the summer (check those out here). My plan was to approach these cactus like I was creating a traditional black and white portrait of a person. I envisioned a shallow depth of field, a simple straight-forward composition, and side lighting to help bring out the subtle textures of these magnificent saguaro cactuses.

For the tech junkies out there, I used a wide aperture on these photos at either f/2.8 or f/4. A polarizer helped me create some separation between the clouds by darkening the blue sky. The film was Ilford Delta 100 professional developed N+1 (per the Zone System). I wanted these shots from the Superstition Mountains to have a timeless look, a gritty vibe, and an understated representation of the beauty in this landscape. But rather than continue talking about what I wanted these photos to capture, I'll let the shots speak for themselves. Thanks for reading.

Saguaro Cactus in the Superstition Mountains of Arizona

Saguaro Cactus in the Superstition Mountains of Arizona

Saguaro Cactus in the Superstition Mountains of Arizona

Joshua Tree National Park

Back on the 29th of March, I met a student out in Joshua Tree National Park for some 1-on-1 tutoring (Hey, Kim!). The hope was to capture some wildflower photographs but the bloom wasn't quite out just yet. There were some Desert Dandelions blooming along the side of the road, but nothing amazing. So instead, I led us out to Arch Rock and then the Cholla Cactus Gardens for some shots.

I wasn't jiving too well at Arch Rock, so I didn't bring anything home from it. The light was no good and I felt like I already got the best angles of it in a previous trip (you can see one of those shots here). But the Cholla Cactus Gardens turned out to be much more fun. I started out trying to capture the sheer denseness and expansiveness of this amazing wild garden by using my Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS to zoom into the landscape and get some pictures that highlighted the texture, shape, form and patterns of these cacti. I positioned myself so the sun would act as backlighting, giving the cacti a nice halo.

Then I put on my Canon 100mm f/2.8 Macro lens to capture some more intimate, abstract views of these "Teddy Bear" cacti.

Then, when sunset rolled around, I switched to my wide-angle Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L and started working some more classic landscapes.


Click for a larger version of this panoramic

As I was doing some of these shots with my camera pointing southwest, I happened to glance over my shoulder towards the east to see the most stunning view of the full moon rising over the Colorado Desert. So, in a mad dash to beat the moon before it rose too high above the horizon, I called out to Kim to point her camera towards the moonrise, I switched out my lenses, framed up a quick composition and started firing away. The lesson here is never forget to look around when you're out in the field - sometimes the best shot is behind your back.

On our way out of the park, the full moon was shining so much light on the landscape that I just didn't feel right not stopping to get some nighttime shots. The following were taken at night under moonlight. You can see the constellation Orion if you look closely. The following shot was illuminated by nothing more than moonlight.

In this last shot, the rock formation in the background was illuminated solely by moonlight, but I "painted" the Joshua Tree in the foreground with a few sweeps of my LED headlamp throughout the 20-second exposure. I think it turned out quite well if I may say so myself!

Well there you have it. I hope you enjoy the pictures - I know it's a lot this time, but I just couldn't leave any more out! All in all, the trip was a blast and it was great taking my very talented student, Kim, out there to teach her a thing or two about shooting in this great park! Until next time...