Saturday, June 6, 2009

Bubble Gum Cacti of the Desert Garden

I don't know why I dislike them. . .maybe because they represent a willful altering of something naturally beautiful to obtain something personally attractive. I'm referring to hybrid cacti grown from nursery stock that has been twizzled with the soft bristles of a paintbrush loaded with pollen from another genetic variety or species.

This creative endeavor seldom produces a fruit with viable seeds (or any fruit at all), the plants are less resistant to disease and insects, and they are less hardy in a desert or high desert environment.

I guess all this is OK so long as the "varieties" don't mix with the native chollas, barrel, prickly pear, and hedgehog varieties that thrive in the arroyos, washes, and cuts in this arid region.

Apparently they don't intermix, so-o-o no harm, no foul...but the foolishness goes on.

Silly Latin names are made up, attempts made to persuade the Department of Agriculture to recognize a "new" species, and the nurseries that propagate them continue to tell people, "That one? It's called an Amazon Giant (top left)...comes from South America."

Fortunately, at least in Arizona, a hard-to-get state permit is required to dig up or possess a native species. It ensures that native cacti in this high desert will continue to exist and remind us when they bloom that there is a wisdom lurking in the mix of spines and flowers

It's always a delight when we're on an evening walk to keep an eye out for a particular cactus species that should be blooming.

It's even more fun in the backcountry to scramble over the rocks and hills and find among the mesquite, juniper and manzanita that single cactus flower that makes a perfect picture.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Flower Photo Technics

I've been asked several times how to create the dark background behind many of the desert flower pics I take and my usual answer is, "It depends."

It depends on the time of day, it depends on your camera settings and, ultimately, it depends on your camera and the adjustments it will allow. The key to getting these results is the use of spot metering as opposed to metering in wide area mode.

The simplest solution is illustrated by the photo of the Palmer penstemon (top left). Flash is used on a camera with through-the-lense (TTL) metering. Spot exposure aimed at the bright flower will produce a sharp subject against an unlit background.

Another technique is equally simple. Again using spot metering, focus on the brightest part of a white, or very bright, element of the flower. If your camera offers the feature, partially depress the shutter release button to hold the exposure and focus while you better frame the subject. Auto exposure will close down the aperture (and speed up the shutter) so that a darker background will result in a high-contrast picture. The prickle poppy (middle left) jumps out of its background with no distracting elements.

It's always fun to experiment and see what you get. Digital cameras give you the freedom to produce nearly any effect you want and also the pitfalls that go with it. In this case, the danger is in the tendency for all your flower photos to have a guidebook quality...good only in moderation.

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