The Saguaro Project

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While I love to photograph and process nature images, “photo fatigue” still happens. There are so many outstanding nature photographs now that I’m a bit overwhelmed by both the number and quality, and wonder if I have much to contribute to this already gargantuan collective body of work. Photography remains one of my passions, though, so I try to invent opportunities for exploring something different to keep me interested.

The Saguaro Project was an effort that combined my fascination with the Sonoran Desert that now surrounds me with the inspiration I’ve found in Club Camera Tucson’s Digital Art SIG. I wanted to take photographs of one of the natural icons in the region, the saguaro cactus, and transform the images into something less photographic. I wasn’t sure what that would be, but I started playing with Photoshop and eventually found the path I wanted to follow.

Before deciding to undertake this project, I didn’t have many saguaro images in my RAW file collection, so the first stop was nearby Sabino Canyon to take some. I was determined to use cactus images taken in any type of light and from the start I was thinking in terms of tight compositions. Isolating the subject and separating it from the surrounding terrain would create a sense of abstraction while still emphasizing the characteristics of saguaros that make them so unique.

After developing a few images I started see the direction this would go. In the end there were six criteria for each image.

  1. Use photographs that were taken in ordinary, unspectacular light.
  2. Have the cactus’ arms bleed off at least one edge of the frame.
  3. Use Steve Dell’s sketch action that he recently shared with me.
  4. Use luminosity masks in the development process.
  5. Use Photoshop’s “spectrum” gradient (the rainbow gradient) as the main source of color.
  6. Add an “orb” to the image in Photoshop to suggest the sun or the moon.

I also wanted to produce at least six images that fit these criteria so I could add a thumbnail gallery on my website that featured them.

One of the nice things about Steve Dell’s sketch action is that it evens out the light even for photographs with considerable contrast. As a result, the color added from the spectrum gradient was applied more evenly than the original lighting would suggest. Luminosity masks were also useful after the sketch action ran for selecting areas that would receive the gradient color. To a large degree, the processing changed the original photos into illustrations, which was sort of the intent given the influence of the Digital Art SIG. In some of the images, though, the underlying photographic starting point can still be easily recognized.

This project took around a month to complete and was a lot of fun. I was exploring photography and Photoshop in new ways, and each image was a new adventure. There was no preconceived idea of what the final images would look like other than it had to meet the criteria. There was lots of experimentation and the final images often required more layers than a “normal” photograph.

In the process of creating these images, I started to appreciate saguaros in new ways. They’re easy to take for granted given how numerous they are here, but they offer a lot of possibilities: an iconic anthropomorphic figure, wonderful textures from the ribs and needles, and lines and shapes that work well from many different angles. The light might not have been anything special when the images were taken, but this project made me realize that it’s more than light that makes saguaros special.

12 thoughts on “The Saguaro Project

  1. Hi Tony, I know what you mean about “photo fatigue”. Great project and the photos are very intriguing. Thank you for sharing.


  2. Hi Tony, can you tell me more about Steve Dell’s sketch action about what it does and the results, greets ruud


    1. It takes any image and turns it into a sketch. One version makes a black and white sketch and another version makes a color sketch. They simplify the image to lines, so photographs end up looking like a drawings. For the Saguaro Project, I used the black and white version of the action and then added color in the non-black areas of the image.


      1. I clicked on the link provided, and it links t Steve’s SmugMug account, but I don’t see any links to the action. Does he make this available to the public? Does he sell it? A quick Google search turned up nothing. Thanks.


  3. Tony,
    Nice work. They work. I have a hard time breaking away from my inner voice / habits . . . this is inspiring.


  4. I have come to the conclusion that color and focus are variables as in any artistic image. Photography has really never been about a precise set of details. We do things because we mean too!


  5. Hi Tony,

    I love this series. One thing that is systematic about shooting saguaros is that there are inevitably shadows that hide detail. As you mentioned, your approach, with the help of Steve’s action, eliminates the shadows producing great a graphic-art look. Nice work!

    Look forward to seeing you in person and socializing again. I’ve found the TK7 Study Group invaluable as I now use your panel on virtually everything I’m processing – especially the Milky Way shots.

    Please continue your good work which is a great contribution to the photographic community.



    1. It’s a local group of photographers who get together once a month in Tucson to work with the TK7 panel. We’re doing it online right now. When you’re snow birding in Tucson, Gordon, I could ask Steve to include you. He’s the one who organizes it. It’s important to note that this isn’t a group that can be open to everyone reading this blog. It was initiated by another photographer and has roughly 20 participants, which is about the right size, probably, so we can all chime in whenever there are questions.


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