Desert Plants
basic info & photography
By Michael Hakans

When talking about evolution and adaptation, most people think of fish sprouting legs, or apes progressing in a line. Of course plants are living organisms, and have also undergone great changes, giving us the wide variety we have today. Plants cannot get up and move to an environment where it is easier to live, nor can they run away from predators. Because of this, plants in their natural habitat are extremely well adapted to that environment. One example is the arid and hostile environment of a desert.

Because of its scarcity, water is precious in a desert. Around the world, plants have populated deserts by adapting interesting ways of collecting, storing, and protecting water. Many such plants take on unique forms and characteristics, and therefore are interesting subjects to photograph.

split rock

Large thin leaves promote transpiration (the loss of water due to evaporation). Because of this, most plants in the desert have either lost their leaves, or their leaves have evolved into thicker structures, which are better at conserving water. An example of such a plant is the split rock.

Left is a side view of
Pleiospilos nelii, or split rock. To the right is a view from the top.

Both shot using a 60mm Macro lens.


split rock top

pleiospilos Nelii

Split rock

The use of bellows and a 38mm thimble lens allows a much closer inspection. The split rock's flesh is spongy and moist, with the surface being tough and waxy (like most succulents).

Split rocks come in many different colors and sizes, some looking much more like rocks.


split rock

Here is an example of Senecio mandraliscae, another plant that has lost its traditional leaves in an effort to save water.

60mm Macro lens

senecio senecio
Senecio mandraliscae

Once again this macro shot was accomplished with bellows and a 38mm thimble lens. Fiber optic lights allowed light to be directed through the plant, without flare (since the subject is so small). The fiber optics also allow the light to be brought where it is needed while the heat of the light stays with the base unit. This is beneficial when photographing plants since prolonged concentrated heat could damage the subject.



Cereus monstrose

Member of the cactus family

The desert is full of animals, which are also involved in the struggle over water. Since cacti and succulents are so good at storing water, they are prone to being eaten. Because of this, many plants have developed the familiar spikes and spines. These grow out of the plant from areoles.

A newspaper rolled gently around the plant can aid in moving and positioning, as well as repotting.



This is not a natural species, and is actually two cacti grafted together. The top orange part is what is scientifically named. This and other species have been bred so that they contain no chlorophyll. While this provides an attractive color, it also leaves the plant no way to photosynthesize. While still very small they are grafted on top of a sturdy green cactus.

A 60mm macro lens was used for the shot to the left, and bellows and a 38mm thimble for the shot to the right. For both fiber optic lights were used, with small tungsten lights used as fill, and black velvet as a backdrop.

moon spine

Gymnocalycium mihanovichi

Hiboten (orange form)




Rather than spines, some species are covered in a fuzzy hair. This protects from insects, and can help block harsh sunlight.



Nikon D70, 60mm macro lens, bellows, 38mm thimble lens, fiber optic lights, small tungsten lights, white reflector cards, copy stand, black velvet, lab jack.


All of the wider, full plant views were shot from above the plant. Side views were accomplished by tipping the plant on its side. This allowed a small lab jack to be put under the plant and aid in small working distance changes. The flexible fiber optic lights allowed a very small, positionable light source. Black velvet gave a nice clean background, and also hid the lab jack.


Contact author.


Michael Hakans is currently a Biomedical Photographic Communications junior at the Rochester Insitute of Technology.


The Cactus Collection

The British Cactus and Succulent Society website