Beauty all around - Tucson Local Media: El Sol

Beauty all around

NW photographer Joel Grimes hones unique style snapping images of desert's common sights

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Posted: Wednesday, January 28, 2009 12:00 am

Commuters drive by the desert’s beauty on a daily basis, and hardly ever take a second glance.

Luckily, Joel Grimes takes a second glance.

Grimes’ photographs were the main feature in Arizona Highways September 2008 issue, and his photograph of a lone saguaro 30 yards off Oracle Road graced the cover.

About 2 miles north of Tangerine Road on the east side of Oracle Road stands a multi-armed saguaro, uncluttered by surrounding bushes, trees or other cacti. That is exactly the kind of cactus Grimes seeks to photograph.

“I had driven by and saw that cactus a few times and thought, ‘I’m going to jump that fence one of these days and shoot that,’” Grimes said.

Around that time, in the summer of 2007, a friend called and asked if he could follow Grimes on a shoot to watch him work and maybe get a few tips. Knowing of the saguaro about 6 miles from his Northwest home, Grimes agreed.

“We hopped the fence, shot it, and of course, little did I know, it was going to be on the cover of Arizona Highways,” he said.

The location of this shoot, along with many of his other photographs featured in the national publication, is just off the road. Grimes doesn’t like to trek more than 100 yards from the road.

“There are a lot of cool roads that you can just take off on,” Grimes said. “Realistically, I would say I have only tapped into 5 percent of what areas I explore looking for cactus. They are everywhere.”

Over the course of about a year, Grimes traveled around the Southwest with his lighting kit to photograph the desert. Grimes said that 80 percent of his Desert Life collection was taken during the summer of 2007, and a handful of the others were taken throughout the rest of the year.

In his earlier years, instead of hunting for desert plants, Grimes worked hard at marketing himself by knocking on doors carrying his portfolio. That’s not to say he doesn’t work hard now, but he didn’t make a name for himself by taking pictures of cacti. He took the commercial route after graduating from the University of Arizona with a degree in fine arts. He now has shot for Visa, Volvo, the University of Arizona basketball team, AT&T, Sony and others.

Twenty years ago, only a handful of photographers were taking portraits of people outside with supplemental lighting, Grimes said. He was one of them. He was known within the photography community as the “One Light King.” That was his signature look for almost 20 years.

The now-father of four boys has had to change his style, bending toward the now “edgier look” of mainstream marketing.

His current photographs, showing athletes clad in Under Armor and Nike clothing, are high in contrast and very desaturated. Backgrounds consist of surrealistic views of gyms where there are no shadows, yet no lights are too bright.

Grimes uses a form of photography called HDR, which stands for high dynamic range imaging. In those images, details in the shadow areas that would usually be dark are visible. Yet areas like the sky, which would typically be overexposed and washed out in those images, hold their deep tones and colors. In essence, everything is exposed for in the photograph that your eyes would do on their own if you were to see the location in person. He then adds his “Joel Grimes” twist to these images.

Grimes will be the first person to tell you he wasn’t the first one to get the idea to photograph cacti or make his advertising photos look edgier.

“It’s not the idea that is so novel, it’s the process of what you end up with in the end that hopefully stands on its own,” Grimes said. “Going out and photographing cactus with (lights) is not necessarily that novel. But, hopefully in the end, it’s something that people respond to.”

Many photographers try to mimic Grimes’ techniques and style, and those images are scattered about the Internet. Just as he led the way with lighting portraits outdoors, Grimes is developing a look that is quickly being replicated.

Grimes doesn’t keep any secrets about what he does to his photographs. He answers hundreds of e-mails a week answering eager photographers’ queries — enough to drive him to create a blog on his Web site and also post a section breaking down his techniques.

As for the secret of his now well-known desert photograph series, there isn’t much to it. It is just a matter of underexposing the background and lighting the cactus from the side with a bright flash to make the plant appear properly exposed.


In addition to his how-to portions of his Web site, Grimes is offering a two-day workshop in Phoenix. The February lighting workshop will focus on developing a personal style, keeping up with trends and being able to market yourself as a photographer, all while learning key elements to experimenting and innovation with lights in and out of the studio.

For more information about his techniques and workshops, go to

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