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Prickly perfection: The art of photographing cacti

Video: How to take better photos of plants

Donn Reiners, Sacramento plant collector and avid photographer, shares his tips. He relies on the natural light in his backyard greenhouse. Interviewed by Debbie Arrington, Sacramento Bee.
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Donn Reiners, Sacramento plant collector and avid photographer, shares his tips. He relies on the natural light in his backyard greenhouse. Interviewed by Debbie Arrington, Sacramento Bee.

In his greenhouse, Sacramento photographer Donn Reiners found the perfect subjects. They stay motionless as he captures them in sharp focus. He can squeeze in extra tight without worry that they’ll react. They never blink.

Of course, Reiners has to watch his fingers if he gets too close – these beauties can be beasts.

For their unusual color, infinite patterns and compelling textures, Reiners is crazy about cactuses.

“Be careful around some of these guys,” he said as he gingerly skirted a table full of prickly plants. “They can reach out and grab you.”

He particularly loves smaller specimens; he can fit more into his backyard greenhouse. Although petite, they pack plenty of photographic power.

See hundreds of eye-catching examples at this weekend’s Carmichael Cactus and Succulent Society show and plant sale at the Carmichael Community Clubhouse. More than 250 rare specimen plants will be on display. In addition, more than 3,000 cactuses and succulents will be offered for sale to the public.

Reiners, a modern renaissance man, has long dappled in plant photography. The one-time designer of residential communities and golf courses is the chairman of the Sacramento County Planning Commission with hobbies that range from prospecting for gold to racing vintage cars. He concentrates most on two passions: photography and plant collecting.

“Most people just photograph the fully open flowers,” he said. “I really like the flower buds and the spines. Their textures, patterns and colors are so unusual, so unexpected. They’re just amazing.”

Local gardeners may remember Reiners as Mr. Geranium. At one point, his geranium collection ranked among the largest anywhere, and he hybridized his own varieties such as “Lady Carmichael,” a fluffy white pelargonium.

“My first love was geraniums, particularly the pelargoniums,” he said. “I had 23,000 of them.”

Reiners lovingly photographed their forms and flowers. Restrictions on agricultural imports plus the fragile nursery business cut off his supply of new varieties.

“Every year, I got 100 to 200 new varieties of geraniums,” Reiners said. “I would get rid of old varieties – the ones that didn’t grow so well in Sacramento – and try new ones. But there’s only one all-geranium nursery left (in the United States), and I couldn’t get new imports.”

But he could get cactuses and succulents. So he changed his focus.

This switch was not as severe as it might seem; many pelargoniums are succulents with thick stems and built-in drought-resistance.

“I concentrate on the smaller cactus and succulents,” he said. “That way, I can fit more in my greenhouse.”

As a bonus, he has hundreds of plants that don’t need much moisture.

“My wife and I collect our shower water in a bucket as it warms up,” he said. “We transfer it to a 36-gallon drum (next to the greenhouse).”

With water saved from the shower, Reiners hand-waters his plants once a week or less “as they need it. I feel the soil first before I add a drop. And that’s all the water all these plants use – straight from the shower to the drum.”

Reiners’ greenhouse is a perfect photo studio because its plexiglass siding and roof soften the light.

Inside his greenhouse, Reiners replicates microclimates, grouping cactuses and succulents according to light and humidity needs. He carefully grooms and fusses over his subjects as they grow and eventually reach bloom stage, which can take years.

Reiners still loves rarities. He marvels at the corkscrew shape of Eulychnia castanea monstrose. He notes how Euphorbia odesa looks like a plaid ball. He recounts the difficulty of growing from seed the equally strange Astrophytum caput-medusae; its long gray snakelike stems resemble Medusa’s lethal hairdo.

The greenhouse is a perfect photo studio, he noted. The plexiglass siding and roof soften the light, “so you can see all the detail.”

For outdoor photos, he uses a homemade diffuser, made with a bent coat hanger and plastic grocery bag.

As the individual cactuses and succulents develop, he photographs them often in his attempt to capture the best picture.

“Being a perfectionist, I take thousands and thousands of photos,” he said. “I don’t have a favorite cactus (to photograph). I keep finding interesting stuff. There are so many varieties to choose from and all have interesting stories.

“It never gets boring.”

Debbie Arrington: (916) 321-1075, @debarrington

If you go

39th Annual Carmichael Cactus & Succulent Show

See spectacular specimens and learn how to grow these low-water wonders. Sale includes plenty of plants, hand-made pottery, books and drawings. The first 100 guests each day receive a free plant.

  • Where: Carmichael Park Clubhouse, 5750 Grant Ave., Carmichael
  • When: 9 a.m.-4 p.m. today, 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday
  • Admission: Free
  • Details: www.ccandss.com


Here’s advice from Sacramento plant photographer Donn Reiners:

▪ Steady it: Set the plant material on a flat surface such as a sturdy table that won’t shake. Use a tripod or monopod to steady the camera

▪ Cameras count: Sure, your smartphone snapshots look good – on your phone. But for greater depth of field and clarity, you need a camera and lens made for taking sharp close-ups. Use a single-lens reflex (SLR) camera with a macro lens in the 50- to 105-millimeter range. For most photos, Reiners uses a Nikon D3X paired with a 60mm lens. For shots from a greater distance, he switches to a 100mm macro lens. He uses a remote shutter release switch, so he can take a photo without touching his camera; this also allows him to move around with a light diffuser.

▪ Get a backdrop: A simple black matte or other neutral background makes close-up photos pop – and look professional. Reiners uses pre-cut sheets of black matte, available at Staples or art supplies stores. Get a few sizes (such as 8-by-11-inch or 2-by-3-feet) for various subjects of different sizes. He angles the backdrop slightly behind his subject.

▪ Diffuse the light: To eliminate glare and harsh highlights in the garden, Reiners softens direct sunlight with a homemade diffuser – a wire coat hanger bent into a square, with a white plastic grocery bag stretched over the wire frame. While snapping his photos, he holds the diffuser in front of the direct light.

▪ Hold their heads up: Some flowers need a little assistance when posing for the camera. Reiners uses a “snuffer bottle,” a long-necked clear or white plastic bottle used in gold panning, as a temporary “vase” for tiny flowers. He puts a little bit of water in the bottle to keep the flower looking fresh. For larger flowers such as roses, he uses long-necked clear bottles.

▪ Some handy tools: To get cactuses and other plants ready for their close-ups, Reiners gently removes debris or other distractions (such as tiny cobwebs) on the plants with a small watercolor brush and tweezers. Plastic wrap can be used as a wedge to hold flowers upright in the bottle-vase.

▪ Have fun: That’s the whole idea of a hobbylike photography, said Reiners. The more photos you take, the more comfortable you become with your tools.

– Debbie Arrington