How to Manage Lighting in Desert Photography
Desert photography provides ample opportunities to capture fascinating landscapes.
However, the extreme temperatures and harsh lighting likely to be experienced in these barren environments mean that desert photography can be challenging.
Much of this challenge can be mitigated by selecting a suitable subject for the lighting conditions when you shoot, managing exposure carefully by utilizing your histogram, and bracketing exposures when required.
Measuring light and determining exposure
The prevalent weather condition experienced while photographing desert landscapes is typically a bright, cloud-free sky with direct, overhead harsh lighting.
This creates a high dynamic range of tones in your photographic scene from bright white to deep, dark shadows.
In the desert (as for other landscapes), it’s important to manage exposure carefully to prevent your scene’s highlights from being blown out.
While metering is the traditional method of measuring the light that reaches your camera’s sensor, you should always trust your histogram when determining exposure rather than relying on your camera’s meter.
The histogram is far more accurate than relying on camera metering, which is far better than relying on the camera’s display screen.
Using the histogram should become an essential part of your workflow whenever you take a photo. A histogram can be displayed during shooting (on mirrorless cameras) or reviewed after shooting (on DSLRs).
The histogram is a bar graph that shows the 256 different tones, from pure black (on the left) to pure white (on the right). The height of each bar shows the number of pixels that appear in the image of that tone.
To ensure you don’t blow out the highlights in your scene, you adjust your exposure settings to position (or shift) the histogram so that the graph profile touches the bottom horizontal axis and does not quite touch the right-hand side vertical axis.
This is often referred to as Expose To The Right or ETTR. The shape of the histogram is not important and is purely a result of the different tones in the scene you’re shooting.
Sometimes, when photographing sunrise, sunset, or another high-contrast scene, it is impossible to position the histogram graph without clipping the whites (right-hand side), blacks (left-hand side), or both.
This is because the dynamic range of the scene (the difference between the brightest and darkest parts of the image) exceeds what your camera’s sensor can capture in a single image.
In this case, you can use exposure bracketing to take a range of images with different exposure settings. These bracketed images are then combined in post-processing to create a final image that shows the full dynamic range of the scene.
Read more: Understanding Histograms and How to Use Them
Pre-dawn and sunrise
When shooting deserts during morning twilight – whether shooting away from the sun or towards it – you’ll typically need to bracket your exposures to ensure that you can capture the complete dynamic range of the scene.
In the above image of the Belt of Venus (an atmospheric phenomenon visible shortly before sunrise during civil twilight, producing a pinkish glow) without bracketing exposures, you would have to choose whether to expose for the color gradient in the sky or the shadow detail of the Joshua Trees.
You would not have been able to capture both in a single exposure.
By bracketing exposures (and shooting a series of 5 to 7 images at 1-stop intervals) and combining the images in post-processing, you can see both the color gradient and the shadow detail.
The example above, taken towards the rising sun, was also bracketed to include both the colors in the sky and the foreground shadow detail of the rocks and Dwarf Juniper tree.
Once the sun is above the horizon and before it has risen too high in the sky, it is a great time to take single-frame images, as exposure bracketing will not be required because the dynamic range is reduced within the camera’s limits.
In this shot, taken while on a 4WD safari in the dunes outside Dubai, the morning sun picks out the ripples of the sand on the dunes without casting overly dark shadows.
Sometimes you may be blessed with an overcast sky during the morning with sufficient cloud cover that it creates a large softbox, diffusing the sun’s harsh light and creating an even spread of light over the desert landscape with reduced contrast.
This is great light to shoot both wide vistas and more intimate landscapes, as the harsh shadows are greatly reduced, providing a more pleasing, softer, and even light throughout the tonal range of your scene.
Harsh, direct, overhead light can often be used to good effect when photographing smaller details in the landscape, such as these mud tiles in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in California.
The dark, deep shadows emphasize the curling edges of the mud tiles, giving them dimension and depth and contrasting with the highlights on the top surface of the tiles.
Black and white landscapes
When the scene that you want to shoot is a broader view of the landscape, and you have harsh, direct overhead light, you can minimize the amount of sky that you include in the composition and shoot in black and white.
Most digital cameras (DSLR and Mirrorless) will let you compose in-camera as black-and-white, by selecting the camera-back screen to display in monochrome.
This helps you to pre-visualize how the tones in your scene will work together in your composition.
Another technique is to shoot a tree against the sky (not into the sun) and deliberately expose it to the right, creating a high-key image with minimal shadow or darker tones.
Read more: Black and White Landscape Photography Guide
During the late afternoon, backlighting a tree and using a small aperture (f/16 or smaller) will create a sunburst. Be sure to position the sun behind a tree trunk (or branch) to at least partially obscure the sun.
Backlighting also accentuates the smaller shrubs and grasses that often surround desert trees, giving interest and visual depth to the foreground and mid-ground of your composition.
As the sun sets, and during the evening twilight, similar to sunrise, it will be necessary to bracket your exposures and combine the images in post-processing.
This ensures that your final image combines both colors in the sky (without blowing out the highlights) and shadow detail in your foreground and mid-ground.
Another technique that works well at sunset (or at sunrise) is to use a telephoto lens (typically with a focal length of at least 200mm) to compress the layers of a scene and bring the background into the mid-ground.
Before packing up the camera and tripod and heading out to dinner, look for subjects that would make an interesting silhouette. The last light of the day often displays strong color gradients, such as this image taken at Hidden Valley in Joshua Tree National Park.
This is another shot that required exposure bracketing to ensure that the full dynamic range of tones (and colors) was captured and brought out in post-processing.
As we’ve seen, there’s no such thing as bad light – even when shooting photographs in a desert.
Select a suitable subject for the available lighting conditions, manage exposure carefully by utilizing your histogram, and bracket exposures when required.