Thorn-scapes and Five Lessons

“A ball of daggers” would be a fair description of many agaves, but the natural arrangements are so artful that it’s easy to look past the potential pain and simply admire the abstract design

Job, career, profession.

Hobby, pastime, passion.

Art, science, magic.

Photography can be different things to different people, and its role in a person’s life can certainly change over time.   As I was working on a recent series of images, I asked myself, “What is it to me now?”  The answer wasn’t immediately clear.  I wasn’t planning to sell these images.  The subject matter (thorns) wasn’t wildly popular on 500px. And the main reason I chose it was simply the fact that plants with spikes are plentiful in my environment.  But once I got started, I wanted to keep going.  After a few images it felt like an adventure.  The fun had started.  Now I just needed to figure out what I was supposed to learn from it?

If you can imagine a saguaro cactus as a long neck, then the spines that cover it can be thought of as neck-lace. Intricate patterns woven together to create a delicate, almost jewel-like covering. Although, in the case of saguaros, this dainty lace is actually a formidable defense. Pretty to look at, especially close up, but completely unforgiving of even an accidental touch.

One thing I quickly realized is how this choice of subjects completely separated me from the madness that sometimes engulfs nature photography.  There was no line of photographers three-deep trying to get the same picture of Mesa Arch.  No crowded bridge in Zion National Park.  No dozens of vehicles at White Pocket.  It was just me and usually a single Sonoran Desert succulent.  I could relax and search for pictures with no timeline or deadline.  Exploration isn’t always about traveling significant distances or spending lots of time reaching a destination.  This was still nature photography, but in an easy-to-reach, distraction-free solitude that invited searching for possibilities and finding something new.  Lesson one:  Stop chasing the light and focus on where it might be hiding instead.

A macro lens reveals that each individual saguaro areola is covered with nearly two dozen sharp thorns. The blur inherent with these close-up shots softens the overall appearance to some degree, but don’t get fooled. These spines are sharp and painful even if their abstract presentation seems somewhat benign.

I also soon came to understand that I had failed to fully see the plants I had walked past every day since moving to Tucson.  Their abundance suggested they might be ordinary, I suppose, and who wants to photograph “ordinary,” right?  I had a photographic bias against plants, I think. But that’s changing.  There’s nothing commonplace about common plants anymore, especially here in the deserts of southern Arizona.  There’s beauty in resilience and elegance in adaptation.  The structures that help these plants survive also impart a unique character.  Finding this character with a camera is the challenge.  Discarding previous attitudes helps.   Lesson two:  Don’t ignore ordinary.

The elegance of agaves is undeniable. Symmetry, repetition, and gentle curves. But they’re also pointed, tough, and determined. A true desert survivor that adds grace and style to the landscape.

Possibly one of the more surprising aspects when looking over the images from this thorn-ography project was that, stylistically, they are quite similar to many of my previous sandstone images.  When I lived on the Colorado Plateau, I found it easy to go out to photograph slot canyons, hoodoos, and arches.  These were extraordinary formations and seductively captivating photographic subjects.  However, many times my favorite pictures were just a tiny slice of the larger landscape.  Details and textures probably constitute a majority of my images from that sandstone era.  These thorn-scapes are all about pattern and texture also.  I do love these natural rhythms, and this series of images made me realize that this is maybe my way of visualizing subjects to photograph.  Once I see a pattern, I can start to see a picture.  Lesson three:  It’s easier finding light once you’ve found your style.

Golden Barrel cacti are commonly used in desert landscaping since they’re well-adapted to the dry conditions and don’t require irrigation. Their golden spines provide a colorful focal point. However, this image focuses on the repetitive, abstract nature these spines and not their color. I like the sense that this cactus is able to weave a fabric of thorns across it’s surface.

Processing images is something I enjoy.  I know photographers are supposed to want to be out taking pictures, but crafting an image in Photoshop is also a unique experience for me.  It’s a place where I can have a dialog with the image.  I learn where it wants to go and then find a way to help it get there.  And it teaches me something along the way.  Maybe it’s a new technique in Photoshop.  Maybe a new way to use an old technique.  Or maybe a surprising way of presenting the image that the original capture might not even suggest.  Regardless of what happens, I want to be present for and open to the possibilities.  For this series, all I knew was that I wanted to use monochrome, which accentuates patterns and textures.  As things progressed, I learned a new way to convert to black and white (calculations), new burning and dodging techniques, and received valuable feedback from critiques on  As a result, these images mean more to me now than when I took them.  Lesson four:  Taking the picture is only the beginning.  Developing the image personalizes it.

The color of the saguaro needles changes over time. The newer they are, the whiter they are. Over time, as in years and decades, they change to black. So, the tops of the saguaro trunk and arms are covered in light-colored needles, and bottoms are covered in darker needles. This image, therefore, is of a young saguaro as I was able to photograph white needles along the main trunk while standing next to it. For older saguaros, these spines would have been black, and this would have been a very different picture.

So back to the original question:  What is photography for me now?  While it’s a continuously evolving thing, after this series, I’d say that photography is a meditation.  It’s a way to gain perspective both about the subjects I photograph and my ability to interact with them creatively.  It’s also an opportunity step away from the normal flow of events and focus on a single thing in order to better understand myself and how to be fully present in the moment.  In many ways, I also see this as an experience common to other creative pursuits. I’m not sure there’s a word for it, but photography practiced in this manner seems to provide a way to experience and express a shared humanity.  Lesson five:  We are all photographers, even if we don’t take pictures.

31 thoughts on “Thorn-scapes and Five Lessons

  1. Well seen, well captured, well processed. Eye-catching photos that I keep coming back to. You are right, Tony, intimate landscapes offer so much more than rehashing the same grand landscapes time and again.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Great article. I have joined as a result. I moved from Fort Lauderdale/Tampa to rural NC and this spring I have been taking flowers and I am amazed at the detail and beauty that I see. With a macro lens the detail that I now see in nature is awe inspiring.

    I am still learning and practicing.

    Also again I much appreciate your writings and work on the TKx, not using it as much as I could/should but learning…

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great lessons here Tony, and the pictures are stunning! I love the patterns and textures in these.

    Thanks! Bill


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  4. Wonderful article Tony. Was a great way to start my day with my morning coffee. Moved me to change, modify, my take on photography. It’s nice to still find ways to make photography even more exciting after shooting for 58 years, Thank you Tony

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Every relationship eventually needs a source of renewal. Fortunately, photography provides a never-ending source of possibilities. I think that’s why it remains popular with so many people. It allows for constant evolution in many areas. 58 years is a long time, but there’s no reason you can’t keep it going. There’s always something new to explore.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Tony, love this posting and the reminder that the entire photographic process important to understanding who we are. And thank you for creating critical tools that have become essential for my work.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. There’s a film they show at Saguaro National Park (West), in which a Tohono O’odham elder (the traditional people here) recounts how they view the Saguaros as Ancestors. It’s quite an impressive in the film, and I must say that it’s changed my relationship to the saguaros. We never get tired of the Desert.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I would agree, Chris, though I also think it’s easy to take the things we see everyday for granted. I catch myself doing this from time to time and am thankful for when the catuses bloom or the monsoon clouds start to build or there’s snow on the Catalinas to remind me how special this place is. This project, though, has definitely fostered a new perspective that even a normal, warm, sunny, ordinary day offers something special.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Wonderful inspiration for those of us living in the desert and thinking there’s nothing new to shoot in these Covid times. I probably have all these in my own yard!👍


  8. Tony,

    Outstanding essay. I have posted a link to it on Luminous Landscape. Normnally I roll my eyes whenever I see photographers trying hard to sound deep and philosophical but ultimately come off as sophomoric.  But your essay is that exception.

    Even while writing in a personal vein, you have managed to drive home important truths in an unselfconscious manner.




  9. This article stimulated my creative juices. Thank you for sharing. I have been taking pictures most of my 77 years on this planet, but the last year has caused my enthusiasm for what I normally describe as my passion to dangerously diminish. I am today putting on a macro and taking a walk in woods near my home.


    1. I too was in a bit of a creative slump during the pandemic, Edward, and definitely found that this project helped pull me out of that. I will credit my local camera club as providing a steady stream of inspiration. There are many different styles among the membership and it makes one realize there truly are pictures everywhere. That said, I also think it’s important to find a connection to whatever you decide to photograph. Once you get a image or two that works from a new subject, it’s easier to start digging and see what else you might find. Which also brings up the point that shooting locally has it’s advantages. Some of these images are literally right outside my front door. That made it super easy to experiment and then to go back and shoot again once I better understood the light and how to compose it.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Spot on. I live in Central Illinois, farm country. I have no desire to photograph the mesa’s, deserts, mountains or the sea. I am happy where I am. I search for beauty within what’s around me.

    My little project analogous to yours is to photograph the patterns formed by the rows of the newly planted corn and beans as they follow the contours of the earth. I usually use infrared B/W because it brings out the contrast and shows the patterns clearly. A telephoto lens is generally used to isolate interesting sections of the patterns. But I do use a wide angle occasionally when I include the sky in my composition especially if it is a rich blue which goes black and shows off fluffy white clouds.

    If you substitute young plants, which photograph white, for your thorns and substitute the soil, which is black, for the body of your cactus, there is a similarity between the photos. It is all about pattern and geometry.

    I am amazed by the technology of modern farming. With GPS equipment, rows which are perpendicular to each other meet within inches.

    Alas there is one draw back, a limited time frame to get the photos. The beans grow to a size that merges the rows. The corn so tall so as when you drive down the back roads it is like being in a tunnel of corn.

    Larry Leuallen

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s really nice to hear, Larry. Connecting to your local landscape photographically provides a constant supply of potential images compared to having to rely on special trips to take pictures. You’re lucky to have been able to tap into this resource. I grew up on a farm in Iowa and was quite anxious to leave, but reading your experience makes me think I could reconnect to this landscape again should I ever decide to return.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Thank you Tony for sharing your five thorny lessons with us. Definitely thought provoking. I’m in the process of reinventing myself, photographically and finding my new happy place has been challenging. This article has opened my thinking and attitude towards this goal. Thank you.


  12. “As things progressed, I learned a new way to convert to black and white (calculations), new burning and dodging techniques, and received “

    This quote caught my attention.  I checked out the Calculations method and found a few basic tutorials and would be interested in your approach, as well the B/D methods.

    Will you be posting about these?  Can you refer me to a good source of info?

    Mike Isenberg


  13. Excellent article, Tony. Reading your thoughts I rmemember Goethe’s dictum: «If you want to enjoy the whole, you must see the whole in the smallest.»

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Excellent article and advice, Tony. It has always been my preference to shoot local and in most cases places where I am not likely to have company. It would be nice to have a go at the icons but the smaller landscapes and details found here in New England draw me more strongly. Although much of what I do, flower photography especially, is not unique, it is uniquely mine and I didn’t have to look for anyone else’s footprints to stand in. Plus instead of spending a few thousand on travel and a guided tour I can purchase a new macro lens.
    That said, I enjoy cactus and succulents and do envy the opportunities you made good on with these images, Tony. I’ll have to take a closer look at my own plants now.


  15. Tony:

    This is a wonderful article. Not only were the images potent (I almost felt the pain from them when looking at them closely) but I love your narrative. And the fact that you are exploring new and different paths of things that have been in front of you for some time. And I might add another “ographer” to the many you name and say that it is not really imperative, but close, that we all become “learnographers” as we saunter through life. There is so much to learn and explore, both in capture and post—it is literally endless. Keep up with the saguaros, as they are endlessly fascinating and I doubt, as you say, that there will ever be a busload of photographers cramping your space!




    1. Thanks for your comment, Frank. If we’re fortunate, photography will indeed change us. Our pictures and techniques are only part of the story. As with any good relationship, you should emerge a different and better person.


  16. A thought provoking article and fine images Tony. Thank you for sharing. I find the term or label Photographer too general a term these days and it has moved to a generic name which imho denigrates, devalues and dislocates true fine image makers. I agree that anyone who uses a ‘camera’ is a photographer but the wheat needs to be freed from the chaff…


  17. Really enjoyed this, Tony, thanks!


    On Wed, Jun 2, 2021 at 6:19 AM Good Light Journal wrote:

    > Tony Kuyper posted: ” “A ball of daggers” would be a fair description of > many agaves, but the natural arrangements are so artful that it’s easy to > look past the potential pain and simply admire the abstract design Job, > career, profession. Hobby, pastime, passion. Art” >


  18. Tony, I am sorely late in sending this message regarding your “Thorn-scapes and Five Lessons” post. Nevertheless, wanted you to know that I thoroughly enjoyed this piece! Not only are your images downright magical, but your text is beautifully done.

    I, too, love our desert cacti—especially when shown as closeups. I have taken many such macro shots over the years and am now inspired to actually edit them! Thanks for the inspiration.

    Bebe O’Brien


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