What is the first thing that crosses your mind when you think of a desert? Is it emptiness, heat, endless wasteland? In reality, in spite of the scarcity of resources, it is a home for various plants and creatures. With amazing landscapes and life that defies the odds, desert photography is definitely a great idea.
However, conditions in the desert are specific. To make the best of it you have to be prepared. An appropriate approach will allow you to capture some amazing images. There’s no step-by-step manual, but some guidelines can help you to avoid mistakes and improve your chances to take a perfect shot.
The Right Equipment
You will need a couple of lenses from wide angle to telephoto. The desert offers a variety of opportunities for great shots so it is good to be prepared. Tripod is a necessity as you will use a long exposure set up. Even on a calm day in a desert, it seems like sand finds the way to get everywhere. Because of that, you will need a UV filter to keep your lens protected from the sand. Polarizer and graduated neutral density filter will allow you to incorporate the sky in your shots. Sky can be too bright in the desert, but the neutral density filter will soften it and the right polarizer will make it deeper and in a rich shade when doing desert photography.
“This creed of the desert seemed inexpressible in words, and indeed in thought.” – T. E. Lawrence
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The Desert Sun
In a desert, the sun is your best friend and your worst enemy at the same time. To take advantage of it, follow the golden hour rule. Avoid midday. With the sun high above the horizon, shadows are rare, light is harsh and flat. While your photos may turn out flat and dull, you might struggle to stay sharp and focused under the unforgiving desert sun as well. Early morning and late afternoon provide the best light conditions for shooting. Soft sunrise or sunset light will bring out new colors and shades, while shadows will provide depth and texture.
How to Find a Subject
The desert offers a lot of opportunities, both small and big. Keep an eye for unique and peculiar plants, remarkable rock formations, lines and patterns on the ground. It might take you some time if it’s your first time in the desert. But don’t worry. Just pay attention to details and follow the general landscape composition rules. Rule of thirds, lines, shapes, forms, forced perspective, etc. work in a desert, too. The wide-angle lens makes the foreground look larger, while the background is minimized. In a desert, you can use that to capture patterns and lines on the ground. The wide-angle lens will emphasize them and highlight their beauty. Distant mountains and the sky will add up for a perfect composition.
Telephoto lens, on the other hand, will be perfect for a subject that is far away. It will be the case quite often, as it is not easy to cover a lot of ground in the desert. Zooming in will allow you to avoid distracting surrounding and to capture your subject.
Point of Interest
The desert sceneries are fantastic, but endless sand dunes can become repetitive after a couple of shots. Finding a point of interest can breathe life into your desert photography endeavor. Be it a shrub, or an animal or a person, all of them suggest there’s some story in the photo. It adds some character and mystery and stimulates the observer. Without it, it is just a beautiful landscape.
HDR mode can help you out as well. Rock formations or deep canyons can create too much of a contrast in your composition. Take a series of shots while changing the shutter speed. It will solve your problem. Just make sure that you don’t overdo it.
“What makes the desert beautiful is that somewhere it hides a well.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupery
After the Sunset and Into the Night
The sunset offers new opportunities in the desert. Silhouettes of cacti and rock formations can be great subjects after the sun goes down. The sky that ranges from yellow to orange, red, and pink makes a perfect background. There is a trick to help you take a great shot. You want to keep your silhouettes black. In order to do that, aim your camera at the sky at the side of your subject and set the exposure for that image. Now, you can aim at your subject and take a shot.
The night sky in the desert is nothing less than spectacular. To capture it you will have to extend exposures. ISO must be high, with a maximum aperture, and shutter speed 15 to 30 seconds. Longer shutter speeds would blur the stars. Of course, no one can hold the camera steady for so long, so your tripod comes to your rescue. A cable release is handy as well.
Once you visit a desert, you will certainly come back to it again. You can capture amazing images and landscapes in a far more forgiving and friendlier environment, but the desert photography does offer many unique opportunities. Just make sure to keep yourself and your equipment safe. You will end up with some stunning photos and an unforgettable experience.