How to Manage Lighting in Desert Photography

sunset 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.

desert photography tips
Desert Ripples

It’s important to remember that in landscape photography, there’s really no such thing as bad light – just the wrong composition for the available lighting conditions.

This is especially true when photographing the desert, and with the help of some examples, we’ll explore some techniques that will help you capture beautiful desert scenes.

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).

Some DSLRs may have a ‘live mode’ where the histogram can be displayed during shooting, but be aware that using live mode will deplete a DSLR’s battery quickly.

how to use a histogram desert photography
Histogram displayed on a Canon EOS R

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.

As you change your exposure settings (depending on the exposure mode you use, for example, Aperture Priority or Manual), the histogram will change shape and move to the right or left.

Using the histogram, you can adjust the camera settings that affect exposure (aperture, shutter speed, and/or ISO) to ensure you capture the full range of tones in the scene.

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.

desert photography tips
First Light at Quail Springs

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.

sunrise desert photography lone tree photography
Sunrise at Jumbo Rocks

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.

Read more: Bracketing & HDR: Photographing Landscapes Without Filters


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.

sand dune desert photography
Early Morning Dunes

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.

Read more: Simple Landscape Composition Ideas with Sand Dunes

Overcast skies

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.

desert photography
An Overcast Day

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.

Read more: Landscape Photography Settings for Cloudy Days


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.

desert photography tips
Dried Mud Tiles

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.

Read more: 10 Tips for Photographing Patterns and Textures in Nature

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.

black and white landscape photography desert photography
Geometric Rocks

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.

black and white landscape photography tips
Hi-Key Joshua Tree

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

Late afternoon

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.

how to create a sun-burst landscape photography
Late Afternoon 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.

Read more: How to Use Backlighting in Landscape Photography


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.

sunset desert photography
Sunset by Cap Rock

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.

sunset photography
Sunset Layers

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.

Read more: Why You Should Use a Telephoto Lens for Landscape Photos


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.

desert photography
Last Light

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.

In conclusion

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.

Visit Jon's website

Jon Norris is a landscape photographer offering one-to-one and small group workshops, online photography mentoring, and fine art prints for sale. He specializes in guiding and leading workshops in Joshua Tree National Park. For Jon, landscape photography is about the overall experience and isn’t just about the gear or capturing the image. His approach is to: Explore. Experience. Create.

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