Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

A soft view of a sharp subject

with 20 comments

Click for greater clarity.

Just about everyone is aware that many cacti protect themselves with long, sharp spines. That’s true of the prickly pear, Opuntia engelmannii, by far the most common cactus in central Texas. Especially in the cooler months, the lower portions of its large spines can turn yellowish or even reddish-orange, as shown here. Less well known, and much more insidious, are the short and very slender spines that you see surrounding the base of the large ones. Known as glochids, these tiny spines pull out of the cactus very easily, find their way into your skin just as easily, and don’t come out of that invaded skin at all easily. Once glochided, twice shy, we might say, if we’re willing to customize—cactusize—a familiar proverb.

I took close-up photographs of this prickly pear cactus in my neighborhood on November 21, 2011, and for some of the pictures, including the one you see here, I decided to stay with natural light; that meant using a large aperture of f/4, which in turn meant getting a photograph with only a small portion of its subject in focus. It was a similar approach to the one in the recent photograph of Clematis drummondii, but I applied it to a subject very differently textured from the plumes of the Clematis. The large aperture accounts for the overall soft appearance of today’s image, but some of the glochids are sharp (in both senses), as is the lower length of the prominent large spine, which had turned a rich and appealing red-orange.

© 2012 Steven Schwartzman


Written by Steve Schwartzman

February 9, 2012 at 5:44 AM

20 Responses

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  1. Looks like something out of a sci-fi movie. We have native prickly pear in PA. One day a friend stopped by. Intrigued by the yellow flowers she reached down to pull them closer. Bad idea! Again, a photo I would be proud to hand on my wall! I think I have a theme going, I loved the photo you took of the thorns on a stem. Sorry I don’t remember the name!

    Bonnie Michelle

    February 9, 2012 at 6:33 AM

    • Then Texas, with its many prickly pears, must be another planet. I’m sorry for your friend. Even though I know what the glochids are and do my best to avoid them, in order to take pictures I have to get close, and it’s not uncommon for me to get some glochids in my clothing or skin. I think the other picture you’re thinking of was of a dried-out greenbrier. If you had pictures like these two on your walls, I wonder what visitors to your house would think.

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 9, 2012 at 7:03 AM

  2. Brilliant. Very fascinating colors.:)


    February 9, 2012 at 7:17 AM

  3. With the protuberances in different stages and colours, this has the appearance of an action shot. Clever.

    The World Is My Cuttlefish

    February 9, 2012 at 7:29 AM

    • It’s good to hear that you inferred action from this still shot; I hadn’t perceived that, but I had noticed the diagonal arrangement of things, which can also suggest motion.

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 9, 2012 at 7:45 AM

  4. Just love this. You know, I know those little buggers are there and I see them in my fuzzy normal vision as a little blur. You have made them up close and very real. They do hurt like the dickens when you get them under your skin, having been a victim of them many times.

    Wonderful shot.


    February 9, 2012 at 9:46 AM

    • Very real they are: too real for many people, alas. Here you get a chance to appreciate them at no risk to your skin.

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 9, 2012 at 11:30 AM

  5. OUCH ! Super close-up Steve and I like the selective focus/depth of field you chose to use!


    February 9, 2012 at 10:51 AM

    • I’ve paid the price often enough that I deserve pain-free cactus closeups for the rest of my life.

      A view with deeper focus is coming up shortly in the next post.

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 9, 2012 at 11:33 AM

  6. Amazing how you make something sharp so soft!


    February 9, 2012 at 10:53 AM

  7. They are well armed, and yet I’ve watched Javelina dine on them.


    February 9, 2012 at 11:17 PM

    • Those animals must be pretty hardy: maybe that’s why footballs were originally made of pigskin.

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 10, 2012 at 5:35 AM

  8. Image what that scene looks like to a small insect? Towering spikes and forbidding landscapes… good way to keep your enemies from eating you for lunch. 🙂

    Beautiful macro work – thanks for the opportunity to see with new eyes.


    February 10, 2012 at 7:26 AM

    • Happy new eyes, Dawn. A change in scale can do wonders for perception, can’t it?

      From experience, even though I’m huge compared to an insect, I’ve come to see these tiny spikes as towering and forbidding.

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 10, 2012 at 7:34 AM

  9. another week of beautiful artful inspiring photographs. thank you.


    February 13, 2012 at 9:41 AM

    • You’re welcome. There have been more pictures than usual lately because I’m trying to get some accumulated posts out before spring is really here (we’ve already been having a winter that’s more like early spring).

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 13, 2012 at 9:59 AM

  10. […] stiff, holly-like, tripartite leaves taper to a point; they make the same point as the spines and glochids of the prickly pear: approach at your own […]

  11. […] I’ve observed on other insects that are undoubtedly beetles. This one was hanging from the spine of a prickly pear cactus, and although at first I thought the insect was dead, I changed my mind because dead things […]

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