Sweetwater March


Zigzag Ridge. Brittlebush cover the hillside amidst a saguaro forest above the Sweetwater Trail through the Tucson Mountains in Saguaro National Park West, Tucson, Arizona. Four-image stitched panorama taken with Nikon Z7 using Nikkor Z 24-70mm f/4 S at 24mm, 1/180 sec, f/8, ISO 64.


This past winter in Tucson was disappointingly mild. Certainly every winter in Tucson is mild by most measures, and not a winter at all for Minnesotans. But usually there are some respectable hard freezes and last winter it even snowed. It only snows here every five or ten years, but I still held onto the irrational hope of a repeat. Despite that disappointment, it did rain consistently all winter, which is also unusual: every two or three weeks, there would be another couple rainy days. Again, that hardly qualifies as the Pacific Northwest, but at least every few weeks there was a day or two that felt like Seattle. So, while I was deprived of a mercurial desert snowfall, the consistent moisture all winter did bode well for something: wildflowers!

While I was shivering on train platforms in Minneapolis in February, my long-ago coworker Stacy Egan was busy painting watercolors of poppies on the Sweetwater Trail in Saguaro National Park that showed up on my Instagram feed. When March came, I took two hikes up the Sweetwater Trail to the saddle below Wasson Peak to enjoy the wildflowers and take some photographs. Since poppies are only open in the sun, both hikes were midday. I was alone for the first hike (on March 14), so it was a more leisurely affair where I could focus on photography than the second hike (on March 29) when my daughter Kristen—home from college thanks to COVID-19—came along and I did not want to try her patience with lots of lens-swapping.

I did not take a tripod on either hike, so from the outset I was not going to be doing real wildflower close-ups or exaggerated foregrounds with a tilt-shift lens. One of my primary goals was to spend some time getting to know my new Nikkor Z 85mm f/1.8 S. While 85mm is a traditional focal length for portraits, deserts are notoriously cluttered and I wanted to use this lens to more tightly frame flowers and isolate them against blurred backgrounds. For this outing, it would have been nice if the lens could focus just a little bit closer, but, after all, it is not a macro lens like the AF-S Micro Nikkor 60mm f/2.8G or PC-E Micro Nikkor 85mm f/2.8D, both of which I also own. In the end, I did not change lenses much, so all but two of the photographs in this post were taken with the 85mm.

The hikes did not disappoint. Enjoy!

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