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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.
- Use photographs that were taken in ordinary, unspectacular light.
- Have the cactus’ arms bleed off at least one edge of the frame.
- Use Steve Dell’s sketch action that he recently shared with me.
- Use luminosity masks in the development process.
- Use Photoshop’s “spectrum” gradient (the rainbow gradient) as the main source of color.
- 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.