Ocotillo Skeleton 2023

Ocotillo Skeleton 2017

Critique Style Requested: Standard

The photographer is looking for generalized feedback about the aesthetic and technical qualities of their image.


I can seldom resist photographing Ocotillo cacti when visiting Anza Borrego Desert State Park. I especially like their skeletons, which are tailor-made for wide-angle treatment. I go back to them year after year, sometimes getting wildflowers popping up through the skeletons, other times opting for contrasty black and white treatments, seeking drama. The top image was shot this year; the bottom in 2017. I think I’ve learned to select my Ocotillos more strategically, meaning I’ve opened up the compositions and shot in places with better backgrounds. More about the place, less about the skeletons – and I don’t believe I’ve lost much impact by giving these beautiful desert features more space!

Specific Feedback

My thanks to the network for suggesting this idea. Among other things, it made me realize how many places I should re-shoot, but haven’t. I think crossing over to “serious” landscape work means foregoing the endless search for new material and returning to do better work in the best places already shot. I recall struggling with that decision in Canyonlands NP. Having shot inside the park and realizing I was late for the right light, I had to decide whether to press on to Arches NP or devote most of the next day to a re-shoot in Canyonlands.
As for these Ocotillos, I think most desert shooters know the challenge: The cacti are often so much fun that it’s tempting to always shoot them up close. Would be interested in comments on that, as well as the differences (good and bad) between these two shots.

Technical Details

As the desert light is very bright, I would offer no particular technical information. Shutter not an issue; aperture/DOF kind of take care of themselves out there! I’m sure I used exposure compensation.

This is progress, James!

Your more recent composition is so much more considered and effective. That you’ve come in closer to show the structure of both the upright and prone plant parts works much better than the 2017 version that just has too much in it (including contrails). Frame-filling is key with this kind of thing and it works so much better in this year’s version. An excellent improvement!

It also looks like you chose a different time of day to do the later one and the light is more even and brings out the color nuance better, although the sky looks a bit too blue to me, especially in the URC. What a cool subject!

@james7 I think the newer image is light years ahead of the previous one. A much better, and tighter composition, IMO. You have a variety of textures in the image, especially the texture of the cactus itself. Your sky is much more interesting as well, although it looks a little overcooked IMO. Too much contrast and saturation, to the point where it detracts from your primary subject. The darker tones look very unnatural to my eye.

Thanks Patrick — I plead guilty to the overcooking. I wandered into the neverland of attempting an art look vs. true to nature, I think because the light was pretty hot in the unedited image. Punching up the textures has side effects.
Good news: I can try again thanks to some tough love.

@james7 Yes, it is all too easy to crank up those sliders too far! I plead guilty to the same charge.

Thanks Kristen. I will forever photograph these special plants. I had a fun moment last fall in Joshua Tree NP when odd weather patterns caused the Ocotillos to put on leaves off season – and then as temperatures cooled, the leaves turned red, like they were in New England!

I agree that the recent image is an improvement on the one from 2017. It looks like you had softer light, which I think suits the scene better. Composing closer to the upright part of the plant seems more effective as well, as the roots, while interesting, are taking up a lot of space in the 2017 image. Well done.

Thanks Dean. FYI, those are not roots, but the skeletons of fallen Octotillos. When these guys kick off, they fall like giant octopi across the landscape and weather beautifully for years. Some of them are up to 15 feet tall, so they often tempts the wide angle shot!
Unfortunately the recent drought claimed a lot of them – but from a photo standpoint, many of the survivors are like the Bristlecones – part dead, part alive. Great subjects.