Desert photography

Deserts need to be photographed in the early morning or late afternoon light. This is the most significant rule in desert photography. Why? Because, much of their detail and texture is subtle and can be lost if you take pictures when the sun is higher in the sky and light is much stronger. 

The gentle light at sunrise and sunset may cause the desert to glow beautifully orange or red. The low angle means that even a ripple in the sand will cast a small shadow. This will give contrast and definition to your picture. If you don't have other choice than taking pictures in the heat of the day, then consider to shoot with the longest lens you have. Try to photograph something a long way off that is distorted by heat haze. You may be able to photograph a shimmering mirage, where the heat haze resembles water. A powerful telephoto lens will exaggerate and magnify both of these phenomena.

Keep in mind that desert is normally very reflective. This means you should be careful with exposures. Consider underexpose slightly if you want colors be saturated. A polarizing filter can reduce glare and darken skies, making them appear more vibrant. Personally, I would avoid it if I shoot when sun is higher in the sky as blue sky would turn excessively blue.

desert photography

desert photography

Composition is a key factor in desert photography. Compose your picture with a significant interesting background to give a sense of place.

Such a massive sweeping landscape in front means you are strongly tempted to include as much scene you can in your frame. This brings you to choose a wide angle lens for your shooting. The negative aspect is that large features, such as towering sand dunes, will look quite small and insignificant. As a remedy, try to use a telephoto lens and pick out a part of the landscape that you want to magnify so that it will appears more striking. Also pick out areas of light and shadow to introduce contrast into your image. Especially if you are shooting at sunrise or sunset when sun is low yet. 

A telephoto lens will compress the perspective making objects appear closer together and making large objects seem even more dominant. It's rather difficult to convey the true scale of a desert if you don't have a point of reference in the picture. This means dunes could be massive or just mere ripples in the sand. To avoid this, consider including in the frame a recognizable object or subject like a tree, an animal or a walking person in the far distance. This will allow the viewer of your picture to gauge the scale of what he's looking at. Even clouds or tiny trails in the sand can provide a foreground to a shot and a point of interest and scale.

Dust and dirt are a major issue in desert photography. Always avoid changing lenses as much as you can to minimize the chance to prevent sand getting blown into your camera or dust getting on the sensor. Better to shoot with a zoom lens (like a 24-120mm for example). This kind of zoom gives you more choice of focal lengths without changing lenses. To avoid scratching lenses, always have a protector (or UV) filter mounted on the lens. Remember to remove it if you want to mount a polarizing filter. Blow large bits of dust off with a blower brush, before wiping with a lens cloth to avoid scratching. It is worth using a blower to remove dust from the camera before putting it away in a camera bag.

Stefano Politi Markovina