Surrounded!

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What looks to be six saguaro cacti looming over the viewer in all directions is actually six arms branching off the top of a broken saguaro. Tucson, Arizona.

Story

Last month I decided to explore the Painted Hill Trail in Tucson, Arizona, and take some pictures. It is only a couple miles from my house, but was new to me. It is a recently-developed trail and loops over and around some small hills up near the Tucson Mountains on the city’s western edge. As trails go in Tucson, this one is not very strenuous. I wandered the trails for a while, and found two particularly interesting saguaros. One was a bizarre crested saguaro (that I will leave for a future post) and the other was this one:

Six arms from a single saguaro surround its missing trunk, Painted Hill Trail, Tucson, Arizona.

It’s a lot easier to make cheesy circular fisheye images than nice ones, so I try to stay on the lookout for promising compositions. When I saw this saguaro, I decided that sticking the camera in the gap where the trunk once was, pointed straight up, just might work. The gap was a little high for me to hold the camera by hand. I own a nice hiking staff that can mount a ball-head, but only having two hands I do not usually bring it along when I bring my tripod. I also have a great mini tripod that could have sat right on top of the saguaro’s truncated trunk, but why bring a mini tripod when you have a big one? (I guess now I know!) So, I had to get creative and remove the center column of my tripod and use that as a short monopod. This gave enough reach to comfortably hold the ball-head and camera up in place between the arms. I then used the self-timer to take batches of three pictures at a time. I would pull the rig down, check and adjust the focus and exposure, push the shutter, stick it all back in place, wait for the exposures, and repeat. In retrospect, it would have been helpful to use the Nikon SnapBridge app so that I could see on my phone what the camera was seeing; that would have made the process easier, though I may have been wishing for a third hand.

As it was, I tried to generate my own luck by repeating this procedure quite a few times, and the featured image is my favorite composition because of the nearby saguaro centered in the gap between arms. It also took some trial and error to get the focus and aperture right. In the end I settled on f/11 as giving the best results; even with the massive depth of field of a fisheye lens at 8mm, the bases of the cactus arms around the periphery of the image are only about six inches from the lens in every direction and I wanted the spines to be sharp all the way to the tops of the arms in the center of the image.

The Nikon 8-15mm f/3.5-4.5 Fisheye gives the circular field of view used in the featured image when zoomed out to 8mm. For comparison, at 15mm the entire frame is filled, which also makes for a nice image with a somewhat heavier feel:

Six arms from a single saguaro look like skyscrapers reaching for the clouds, Painted Hill Trail, Tucson, Arizona.

Although I had only explored about half of the trail complex, it was getting warm and a after a few hours I decided to call it an outing and used a nice sandy wash to cut back to the trailhead. Since what I assume to be “Painted Hill” was in the other half, I will have to go back and keep exploring. The top is probably a nice place to photograph across the city at sunrise or sunset.

Analysis

One tricky thing about a circular fisheye image taken looking straight up is that it is arbitrary how you rotate the image for viewing. In Lightroom, it is pretty easy to rotate in increments of 90°; rotating other amounts can be done in something like Affinity Photo or Photoshop. (There may be a sneaky way to achieve this in Lightroom, but I haven’t given it a lot of thought.) In the end, I rotated it 90° clockwise, because it was a little too weird having that saguaro hanging down from the upper right. Also, this kept the closely packed arms at the bottom of the frame; otherwise, the composition seemed top-heavy.

The key compositional feature of this image is of course those six saguaro arms all converging on the center from every direction; they force the eye to the middle. Not only do the arms point towards the middle, but the ridges on each arm do as well. The fact that the ground is seen all around the periphery of the image blocks the eye from straying out of the frame.

To me, it is that saguaro at the lower right that gives the image a little bit extra. (It is also nice that the saguaro arm opposite it on the upper left points towards it.) And once the viewer notices it, as they inevitably will, that saguaro points them back into the center and generates some tension.

Finally, in addition to the large scale features of the arms, all the ridges and spines give the viewer plenty of detail to explore. The ridges are interesting, in particular, because they are lit in so many different ways as you traverse around the image; some have deep shadows with a thin backlit edge and others have virtually no shadow at all.

Creation

This image is a single exposure. I used Affinity Photo to replace the usual black square around the circular image with a white one. Circular fisheyes typically have a blue ring around the very edge. Since I didn’t have space to crop the circle in tighter without losing the base of the little saguaro at the lower right, I overlaid a slightly magnified version of the image, masked to a thin ring around the periphery, and used a ‘color’ blend mode to make that blue fringe match the saguaro’s color. I am sure that there are other ways to suppress this artifact, but it worked.

Other than the 90° clockwise rotation, already mentioned, I cloned a few pieces of the clouds to cover up the some blown-out sections that remained after the highlight recovery.

Technical Data

Nikon Z7 with Nikon 8-15mm f/3.5-4.5E Fisheye, 1/125 sec, f/11, ISO 64, using a center post from a Gitzo tripod as a short monopod with a Really Right Stuff BH-55 Ball Head.

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