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How to Photograph Deserts

photograph deserts

When we hear the term “landscape photography,” we probably imagine some mountains or a beautiful coastline at best. Thus, we overlook the largest part of the land that exists on Earth. Deserts occupy about one third of the whole land surface. It would be short-sighted to ignore these beautiful and diverse sceneries.

In this tutorial, I’m going to give some general advice on preparing a trip to photograph deserts, and then focus on photography techniques, tips, and tricks. We’ll focus on photographing sandy deserts in this tutorial.

how to photograph deserts

Types of deserts

There are not just sandy deserts with huge dunes like I once thought. In reality, there are multiple classifications of deserts. They can have a regional classification: subtropical, polar, cold winter, and coastal.

Another classification mentions the following four types: 

  • Hot and dry
  • Semi-arid
  • Coastal
  • Cold

All these types are somewhat useful to know, as they give a general idea as to the necessary preparation and expectations.

General guidelines for photographing deserts

The most important part of any photography trip is the preparation, and it’s even more important for working in the desert. The desert essentially means a barren land where people can’t live. This means that if you run out of supplies, you are in trouble.

Therefore, take extra time doing your research and planning. Calculate your supplies and add a bit extra on top. Here is a basic check-list that you can start working around. The list is not exhaustive and will be different for each type of desert:

  1. Headwear, sunscreen, and sunglasses
  2. A scarf that you can use for cooling down your neck by making it wet
  3. Long sleeve clothing
  4. Enough water supplies
  5. Appropriate footwear (the actual footwear type depends on the desert type, you’ll need to do the research)
  6. If it’s one of the hot deserts, you’ll find a solar powered charger for your camera very handy

Bonus tip: I recommend having some sort of a cover for you camera and lens. It could be some cloth or even a plastic bag. In case of the high wind, it’s going to save your camera from being damaged by sand particles. Also, a protective filter like the Hoya Protector would be a great idea too. Flying sand or ice can scratch the lens easily.

photograph deserts

What to photograph in a desert

The deserts are different to all other natural environments. At first sight, they are barren and empty. However, it isn’t true; they are full of features, landforms and subjects to photograph.

To be efficient in a desert, we need to step back, slow down and pay attention to the small details.

1. Isolation and vastness

The desert appears barren and isolated, so look to emphasise these properties of the area. We have a perfect ability to photograph something isolated with the feeling of loneliness and a resonating sense of scale. Find a single object detached from the rest and make sure to include a lot of space around it.

photograph deserts2. Patterns

Whichever type of desert you are shooting in, look out for patterns, as they are everywhere. For instance, in Death Valley, there are famous cracks that you can use in a number of ways. They are, in fact, one of the most impressive features of the location.

patterns in sand

In a sandy desert, the sand itself forms endless patterns, and the most exciting thing about it is that the patterns exist on multiple scale levels. If you take a photo with a wide-angle lens, you’ll capture the lines formed by the wind. I call these sand patterns. You may also include any animal footprints as one of the features.

3. Dune patterns

A telephoto lens, however, shows you dunes compressed and their profiles form shapes and figures. This helps us greatly, especially if there are no smaller scale patterns to observe (perhaps destroyed by rain). If that’s the case, it’s a good time to unpack your longer lens and start thinking bigger. Look out for the dunes, crests and shadows.

desert dunes4. Flora in a desert

While doing your research, pay special attention to the seasons. Vegetation is typically scarce, however, it depends on the time of year. Some deserts tend to bloom on certain seasons or conditions. So you may arrive to see lots of wildflowers, for instance.

Another impressive feature is dark, dead trees. They look a bit eerie and make for a perfect contrast with a bright background.

photograph deserts5. Fauna in a Desert

Another important piece of advice is to study the fauna. You may encounter various lizards, and they can be great to photograph. But there may also be snakes and scorpions.

If the desert you are going to may have some of these, have appropriate protection with your footwear and make sure you understand if any are venomous.

Timing and light in a desert

We all know the rules – start one hour before sunrise, finish one hour after it, same for the sunset. Right? Wrong! It doesn’t work for the desert! From my experience, the desert photography is completely different in this aspect. You can create beautiful photos all day long. But let me explain.

1. Before sunrise and after sunset

The desert is quite dull during this time. To work at this level of ambient light, you need bright clouds that allow reflected light to reveal some volume and contrast. Otherwise, the cloudy weather, for instance, won’t do any good – the photos will look boring and dull. This applies to the sandy deserts.

photograph deserts2. After sunrise and before sunset

During the golden hour, any landscape scenery is majestic and beautiful and it applies to the desert too. The sand turns gold and glows, the shadows are long and intriguing, and the clouds are colourful. All normal landscape composition rules apply: look for an interesting foreground, build compositions with leading lines, etc. Be quick, this light won’t last long.

sunset in desert3. Night photography in the desert

The deserts are vast and unpopulated; this means there’s no light pollution, so you can easily shoot the stars all night. It’s best if you pick some object, like a dead tree or a dune and build a composition around it.

Read more: The Ultimate Guide to Star Photography

You may start early, set up your gear, and do a few shots during the twilight. Then wait till the light completely fades and start shooting the stars. Later on, you’ll combine these shots and get a high quality picture. You may need it because there’s absolutely no light in a desert and your foreground won’t expose properly.

4. Day photography

My favourite part of photographing deserts: shooting all day long! The dunes are all around, and their slopes roll in all directions and angles. This means, wherever the Sun is, you could potentially find a dune, where the Sun reveals the textures and patterns. You’ll need it to shine from the side relating to the dune in order to cast attractive shadows.

photograph desertsConclusion

Deserts are beautiful and full of life. Take your time to prepare and then examine the area thoroughly, finding all the hidden gems and compositions you don’t spot at first.

Build your compositions around isolated objects or patterns and shapes. Think of light differently and shoot all day. However, the most important piece of advice is to stay safe and have enough supplies. Good luck!

Anton Gorlin is a landscape and real estate photographer in Sydney. His photography experience includes landscape photography (over a decade) and real estate photography (almost a decade). As a landscape photographer, Anton offers workshops covering basics, advanced techniques, seascapes, and composition. Anton's educational articles have been published internationally.

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