Photographing cactus flowers

Photographing cactus flowers

My next door neighbor has some very prolific cactus. These blooms are magnificent, large enough for a bat to be a pollinator. Unfortunately, they only bloom for a day. Fortunately, this is the third time this year it yielded a display.


That be the technical name of these gorgeous blossoms. This cactus hails from South America. They are popular here in Arizona because they are desert friendly and don’t need a lot of water once they are established. I’m happy my neighbor made these work. We had a similar cactus kin which produced white flowers. One year it popped 23 blooms at the same time. Unfortunately, the temperatures dropped down that winter to about 15 degrees and our cactus literally froze to death.

Photographing the bloom

Because the bloom is so large it can be difficult to get detail all the way through the bloom. I decided to look at this set of blooms with a 60mm macro lens. Since I am using a micro 4/3rds format that gives me the equivalent field of view as a 120mm macro in a camera with a full frame sensor. I’m a fan of the micro 4/3rds format for its lightweight and computational image capture power. In this case, I used the focus stacking feature in my camera to make some of my exposures. I also used an Olympus OM-D E-M1 mark III with 60mm macro lens.

A total of 28 images were stacked to achieve deep depth of field with the macro lens.

Bee visit

I’d call it luck, but I withstood the chowing mosquitoes while I waited for the pollinating visitor. In order to capture the bee in focus, I made multiple runs of the focus stacking. Focus stacking makes a bunch of images while shifting the focus minimally. I waited until I made enough stack captures to know there would be a match of the bee and the focus before I called it a day.

cactus flower photo with bee

Post production

In post production, I used Helicon Focus software to stack the images. I’ve found Helicon to be a very strong software for this purpose. If you do a lot of stacking projects or stack a lot of images, it’s worth the money. If you are just doing focus stacking occasionally, Photoshop will work just fine.

helicon focus screen
Helicon Focus screen in process of picking out the sharp bits for stacking. See my review of Helicon for more info on stacking.

I did some basic color and tone correction in Adobe Camera RAW. Added some sharpening. Then I took the image into Luminar 4 (Now NEO) and used the Mystical filter to add some atmosphere. The same idea could be accomplished with NIK filters using a combination of Tonal Contrast and Glamour Glow. If you don’t have filters look up how to create an Orton Effect. Then some final color corrections and more sharpening to help lead the eye around the image.

“Far too many photographers think that if they take a picture of something interesting, they will automatically have an interesting photograph. But it doesn’t work like that.”

– Paul Graham

I want to talk about this quote as I have been sharing this thought about photography for a while. There is a tendency for a beautiful subject to be thought of as a beautiful photograph. I use the example of Cathedral Rock in Sedona. I’ve seen some magnificent images of it. And some of the worst photos I’ve ever seen. Same subject. What’s different? Lighting first and foremost. Add composition, juxtaposition with another subject, clouds, time of day depth and dimension. You normally won’t get a beautiful image by luck. Planning, exposure putting in the time to explore the subject … You get the idea. Work and experimentation and knowing your equipment leads to an interesting photograph.

cactus bloom photograph
Final cactus flower image. Not sure I’m totally there yet, but getting closer. Maybe on the next bloom!

I don’t know that I’ve been able to achieve that with these flower blooms that only last for a day. But each time I see then come forth I’ll learn just a bit more and come away with a stronger image each time.

Yours in Creative Photography, Bob