Ultimate Guide to Desert Photography

Ultimate Guide to Desert Photography

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Ultimate Guide to Desert Photography

Deserts. They're vast, empty, barren stretches of nothingness for miles and miles. At least, that’s what many people think about them. There are a lot of misconceptions about desert photography. People often think that deserts are always scorching hot, completely devoid of life and that they just boring looking. However, they come in all forms, structures, colours, landscapes, and temperature ranges. In my opinion, they are probably the most underrated and under-appreciated locations in the photography world.



Deserts happen to be one of my favourite environments in which to shoot. The high desert can be filled with massive mountains, spring wildflowers and interesting plant life. On the other hand, red rock deserts are filled with cathedral-like slot canyons, pink and orange sand, plateaus and buttes, as well as great canyon-lands with winding rivers running through and winter snow dusting along the rims are epic scenes. Then there are the beautiful sand dunes with miles of winding peaks creating amazing shapes and forms. The list goes on and on for subject matter. In this guide, you'll learn all about desert photography, from when to visit to what to bring, as well as some tips for getting the most out of your shots.

Ultimate Guide to Desert PhotographyDeserts are fascinating environments in which to shoot. Photo by: 'Sean Ensch'.



How to Prepare for Desert Photography

Preparation is the key to landscape photography in the wilderness but it is especially important when it comes to the desert.

Deserts can be very unforgiving places. From extreme temperatures to venomous snakes and scorpions, as well as plants covered in needles and thorns, it can sometimes feel as though everything in the desert is going to harm you.

How you prepare to head out for desert photography can mean the difference between a successful trip or a dangerous one. So before you go anywhere, be sure to do a fair amount of research on the area that you will be visiting prior to your trip. How well you prepare will depend a lot upon how off the beaten path you are willing or wanting to go.

Ultimate Guide to Desert PhotographyA dead cow dried and mummified by the extreme Arizona desert heat leaves a foreboding warning along a dirt road in the middle of nowhere. Photo by: 'Sean Ensch'.

What to Wear

First, let’s talk temperature. During most of the year, deserts can be extremely hot. In summer, temperatures can hit up to 50°C (122°F) in some regions, while many areas can drop below freezing point and even snow during the winter. Knowing the general temperatures that you'll be dealing with is a key component of your trip preparation, so that you can ensure you'll pack the proper type of clothing.

Your clothing should reflect the weather conditions. Try to pack clothes that will keep you either cool or warm, depending on the temperature. If it isn’t too hot, I suggest taking pants that will prevent you from being stung by needles, stickers, and thorns that can be found on plants. Also, bring a pair of sunglasses to protect your eyes from sun damage and a hat to keep the sun off your head.

A good pair of hiking shoes is an absolute must. Do not walk around the desert in cheap flip-flops or thin-soled shoes, unless you want a cactus spine to puncture through and into your foot. The desert floor can be littered with all kinds of nasty things that might make you bleed.

Food and Water

Another extremely important thing about traveling during the warmer months is that you bring along lots of water. I cannot stress this enough. The dry air and heat can dehydrate you very quickly in the desert. You should always carry a lot of water on you and drink frequently throughout the day. For emergency purposes, I always carry two gallons in my car in addition to all of the water that I will be using for the day in my pack.

Always research what services will be available in the area where you'll be travelling. You can do this easily by searching online and looking on Google Maps. Oftentimes, you will be traveling to areas that barely have a town so gas stations, cell service and places to eat might be few and far between. Knowing the general vicinity of towns and services will help you to make sure you have enough fuel and supplies for your daily ventures.

If you are visiting an area that doesn’t have many services nearby, then I suggest that you bring a GPS unit in case you lose cell phone connection. You should also bring along a tire patch kit and ensure that your spare tire is ready. It is never fun to get a flat tire, especially if you are unable to fix it when. The last thing you'll need is to realise that you don’t have cell service while sitting in the heat. 

Ultimate Guide to Desert PhotographyDeserts are remote areas so make sure you're prepared before you head out. Photo by: 'Sean Ensch'.

Dangerous Wildlife

I always like to do a bit of research into the local wildlife before I head out into the desert. You can find this information at the beginning of walking trails or at visitor centres. However, it’s still a good idea to look it up ahead of time. I don’t know how many times I have been out and seen people reading signs about wildlife, only to hear someone express their surprise that there are rattlesnakes or mountain lions in the vicinity.

So before you go into the desert, it's best to learn what animals will be around you and which ones to avoid. You should also know what to do in case you do encounter a dangerous animal. The way that you react might mean the difference between life and death.



Laws and Regulations

As with any trip, read up on the local regulations. Different environments require different regulations to ensure the safety of visitors as well as to protect nature. If you don’t know the local laws, then you may get fined but even worse, you may destroy the fragile ecosystem. Some formations in the desert take thousands of years to form and are so fragile that simply walking over them may cause permanent damage.

Respect nature, otherwise it may not be there in the future for you or others to enjoy.

Ultimate Guide to Desert PhotographyBryce Canyon National Park in Utah. The hoodoo rock formations take thousands of years to form. They are beautiful and extremely fragile. Photo by: 'Sean Ensch'.

Culture & Customs

Lastly, look into the local culture. I believe this is very important when taking any trip, especially to a foreign country. Everyone has different belief systems and traditions. It is good practice to be aware of the local culture and customs, as well as to respect the locals.

The beautiful part of traveling is not only seeing different forms of nature but also to experience different cultures. So keep an open mind and enjoy the sometimes differing views of the locals.



Camera Gear

Now that you have everything else prepared, let’s get into camera gear. I think a standard photography kit applies in almost any environment you plan to shoot in. The only difference will come from fine-tuning accessories to suit the conditions that you will be facing.

If you have a camera with a variety of different lenses that cover a range of focal lengths, then you will be able to photograph everything you'd like out in the desert. I've listed my standard kit below, as well as some extra items that I recommend you bring along for most desert conditions in order to keep your trip running smoothly. Some of this includes protection for your camera. Learning how to keep your camera safe in the desert and how to prevent sand from entering your camera is very important because the harsh environment can damage your camera in many ways.

Standard Camera Kit

  • Main camera body plus a spare body, just in case the main body fails.

  • Fast wide angle lens (16-28mm f2.8).

  • Mid range “walkaround lens” (24-70mm).

  • Telephoto zoom lens (70-300mm).

  • Tripod.

  • UV filters to protect the glass of my lenses from sand and dirt.

  • Graduated neutral density filters to handle unbalanced lighting.

  • Polarising filter for reflective scenes, such as bright sand.

  • Remote shutter release.

  • Two spare batteries.

  • Spare SD or CF cards.

  • Lens cleaning kit.

  • Compressed air for blowing sand and dirt off the camera.

  • Rain cover, if rain is expected.

  • Plastic tarp to lay my bag on to avoid needles and thorns getting stuck in my backpack.

  • An old shirt or towel to wrap around my camera when not in use. This helps to prevent dirt and sand from getting on it.

  • Flashlight and headlamp.



How to Plan Your Desert Shoot

Deciding what time of year to visit the desert will depend on what you want to shoot. Each location has its pros and cons during different seasons. Some areas will be unbearably hot in summer while others may be tolerable. Perhaps you want to chase desert storms or photograph wildflowers. All of these things will help to determine the best time for you to go.

The first thing that I suggest you do is to pinpoint a location that you want to visit. Once you have the location, do your research on each season and decide what time of year will be best to get what you want out of it. Below are some very general thoughts of mine on photography during each season in the desert.

Spring Desert Photography

Spring is probably one of the nicer times to visit the desert. The temperatures will be mild and if you are lucky, then you may be able to capture super blooms of desert wildflowers. Flowers can transform an otherwise bland location into a canvas of colour.

Another thing that I enjoy about springtime in the desert is that rivers or creeks will most likely be at their highest water flow, particularly after the winter rains or if the snow has melted.

Ultimate Guide to Desert PhotographySpring is the best time to visit the desert. Photo by: 'Sean Ensch'.

Summer Desert Photography

Summer is probably the most difficult time for travelling to the desert. Scorching hot temperatures and long days of high sun create adverse lighting conditions for photography. Even the nighttime can be really hot, making camping in a tent difficult. However, for many desert regions, summer heralds the beginning of the monsoon season.

Summer monsoon storms are absolutely beautiful. Small, localised storms bring heavy rainfall and lightning so you'll often see beautiful displays of light with sunshine peeking through the dark clouds. You might even spot a few rainbows.

If you can stomach the high temperatures during both the day and night, then summer is a great time to go storm chasing in the desert!

Ultimate Guide to Desert PhotographySummer is one of the most difficult times to visit the desert but it's great for storm photography. Photo by: 'Sean Ensch'.

Autumn Desert Photography

Fall is a favourable time for desert photography because the high temperatures begin to dwindle and the nights are cooler. If there are forests nearby on the mountains, then you can even capture autumn colours in the foliage on the trees.

Depending on the region, there may be high winds during fall, which can create beautiful, atmospheric conditions as in the photo below.

Ultimate Guide to Desert PhotographyHigh winds created a dust storm across the salt flats in Utah. Photo by: 'Sean Ensch'.

Winter Desert Photography

Winter is probably the time of least travel to deserts, which I don’t quite understand. I love winter in the desert – the short days mean that the sun will be hanging lower in the sky, which allows for longer periods of pleasant lighting during which you can shoot. In addition, the later sunrises mean that you get to sleep in a bit.

The temperatures can be cool and pleasant or they can be freezing cold. In some regions, winter can bring rainfall, while areas of elevation can receive snowfall. Some people see these conditions as negatives but I love them!

Ultimate Guide to Desert PhotographyWinter is an unlikely time to head out into the desert but it can be very rewarding. Photo by: 'Sean Ensch'.

When to Go?

With all that said, when you go to the desert for photography is completely up to you. Choose a time based on the conditions you favour for the location where you want to head. For example, if you want to shoot the sand dunes in the sunshine at Death Valley in California, then you should avoid summer and head out during fall or spring when the temperatures are cooler. On the other hand, if you want to photograph the monsoon storms in Arizona, then you will need to go out during the height of summer and muscle through the heat to chase the storms.

As you can see, the best time for desert photography depends completely upon the location. So choose your location wisely based upon research into seasonal conditions.



What to Shoot in the Desert

The desert is full of beautiful subject matter. The options for photography are really are endless. Desert landscapes can be full of stunning plateaus, otherworldly buttes, odd rock formations, arrays of colour, seas of sand dunes, salt flats and blankets of wildflowers. Some of my favourite formations to photograph in the desert are slot canyons, such as the famous Subway slot canyon in Zion National Park, Utah.

Ultimate Guide to Desert PhotographySubway slot canyon in Zion National Park, Utah. Photo by: 'Sean Ensch'.

Don’t forget to look down and examine the ground. There are interesting details for macro photography to be found in petrified wood, cracked mud and salt, cacti and succulents, as well as patterns in the sand and rock. These little subjects can make some absolutely stunning abstract desert photographs, which are perfect for prints.

Ultimate Guide to Desert PhotographyPatterns can be found beneath your feet in the desert. Photo by: 'Sean Ensch'.

Wildlife photographers might be able to find many wonderful species in the desert to photograph. In the USA, there are coyotes, lots of lizards and snakes, as well as tarantulas, scorpions, deer, and even Bighorn sheep.

Aside from animals, one of my favourite things to shoot in the desert is the dark starry night sky. As deserts generally aren’t the most desirable places to live, cities can be miles and miles away, which keeps the sky free of light pollution. On clear nights, the stars can light up the world above and the Milky Way can be seen even with the naked eye.

Ultimate Guide to Desert PhotographyOn clear nights, the stars can light up the world above and the Milky Way can be seen even with the naked eye. Photo by: 'Sean Ensch'.



Best Camera Settings for Desert Photography

This is a subject that is often asked which has very few proper answers. This is because your camera settings will depend largely upon what you are shooting and what the lighting is like. It’s one of those topics which really involves being on-location and looking at a scene. However, here are some basic tips to help you get where you need to be. 

For landscape photography, keep your ISO as low as possible. Around ISO 50 or 100 is good to have as little noise in your photos as you can. Only increase ISO when it is unavoidable.

Use the smallest (highest f-number) aperture in order to have everything in focus from foreground to infinity. Use wide open (lowest f-number) apertures when you want to make a subject stand out using depth of field, such as flowers or details in macro photography.

Use a Tripod

Always use a tripod and a remote shutter release (or shutter timer) if possible. This will ensure your photos will be as sharp as they can be.

Read the Histogram

Learn to read the histogram to ensure that you are getting the proper exposure. Oftentimes, when you are standing outside in the bright sun, your LCD screen can be misleading in terms of how light or dark your image looks. The histogram will never trick you.

Night Photography Settings

When shooting at night, keep your shutter speed below 25 seconds. This is to ensure that the movement of the stars across the sky won't show in your photos and make them appear soft. 

Unbalanced Lighting

If you have unbalanced lighting, you can use graduated neutral density (GND) filters to help balance your exposures. GND filters are incredibly useful when shooting landscapes where part of the scene is much brighter than the rest.

An example is when you are shooting towards a bright sunset over a darker foreground. The sky can be so bright that your camera’s sensor is not able to capture it in the same shot as the darker foreground, because the range of light is too different. Using a GND filter in this context will block out a few stops of light from the sky, so that you can capture the full dynamic range in one exposure.

GND filters come in varying strengths, usually one stop to three stops. Check out our Guide to Using Neutral Density Filters for Landscape Photography for more information.

If you do not have a GND filter, then you can take bracketed exposures to ensure that you will cover all of the available range of light. This means taking one exposure, then another exposure that is one stop over, plus an exposure that is one stop under. Most modern cameras have settings that will automatically take bracketed exposures for you when shooting. You can blend these exposures later with post-processing software in order to produce a high dynamic range (HDR) image.



How to Use the Light

The lighting in the desert can be unforgiving for photography. Learning how to photograph sand and bright dirt can be tricky with the sun beating down on it. This is when the time of day and angle of light becomes extremely important.

As with almost all photography, you want to stick to heading out into the desert during the time of day when the sun is low, creating a soft light across the land. This means going out during sunrise and sunset, as well as during the short window of the golden hours or blue hours before and after them.

When you shoot, try not to have the sun positioned directly behind you. This will prevent shadows from falling across the landscape, which can cause the scene to appear much more flat. Instead, position yourself so that the sun is coming from an angle, which will help to create depth with shadows.

Ultimate Guide to Desert PhotographyPre-dawn and dusk are great times for desert photography. The lighting is soft during these moments, creating an even contrast and beautiful, pastel colours. Photo by: 'Sean Ensch'.

The directional lighting and intense depth that is created from grooves and textures can make fantastic opportunities for desert black and white photography.

Ultimate Guide to Desert PhotographyThe deep contrasts and shapes in sand dunes can make great monochrome images. Photo by: 'Sean Ensch'.

Finding unique lighting in the desert means that you'll have to head out during the best possible conditions. This is why photographers often chase storms, clouds, fog and the more extreme versions of weather conditions.

The photo below was taken at Zion National Park in Utah on a day that was filled with gloomy, heavy rainfall. I spent the whole afternoon in the park and as sunset approached, I noticed the clouds beginning to part over the horizon. I set up my camera over the famous Watchman bridge viewpoint and waited for the show. As the sun got low enough, it broke through the clouds and glowed for about 5 minutes before going back into gloom.

Ultimate Guide to Desert PhotographyZion National Park in Utah. Photo by: 'Sean Ensch'.

Chasing these kinds of conditions is what great landscape photography is all about. Finding that unique and beautiful lighting is the most important aspect. As the saying goes, “it’s all about the light.” Research and scouting helps so that you can be at the right place at the right time.



Post-Processing Tips for Desert Photography

  • When processing your desert photos, make sure to keep an eye on the contrast levels. In harsher light, you will have a lot more contrast in your images. In order to balance this, you can decrease the contrast.

  • A different and more useful way is to decrease your highlights while increasing the shadow values. This will flatten out the contrasts while giving you control over the precise appearance of the highlights and shadows. 

  • If you have images in which the highlights have been clipped (blown out) due to harsh lighting, then you can decrease the highlights or whites to recover some of the image data in the highlights. You'll be able to correct most of the damage, provided that the areas aren’t too badly overexposed.

  • When you edit photos taken in really soft light, such as during dusk or pre-dawn, the images can be very flat or dull. Increasing the contrast will give your images much more punch and also result in more colour saturation.

  • A great way to bring out detail is to use the “Clarity” or “Texture” sliders in Lightroom. These sliders will add contrast to the midtones only, resulting in an increase in detail. The clarity and texture tools are also great for incerasing fine textures in sand, rock formations, or water.



Creative Ideas for Desert Photography

The desert has amazing properties that can really unlock your imagination. It is a great place to fully explore your creativity. With so many varieties of terrain, the options for photography are endless. Many photographers even enjoy desert portrait photography as it makes for great scenery around a subject.

Open your eyes, not only to the views but to the small details. Look for wonderful and intricate patterns, colours and textures out in the desert. Sometimes, they are on the ground in cracks of mud. They can even be through the walls of a canyon or plateau, lines in the sand or swirls in rocks. These interesting details can be used as subjects for foreground interest in your photos to lead the viewer’s eye through the frame.

Ultimate Guide to Desert PhotographyThere are many wonderful and intricate patterns, colours and textures out in the desert. Photo by: 'Sean Ensch'.

Don’t forget to look for different perspectives when shooting out in the desert. Use aerial photography or hiking to a high vantage point can give you a different point of view. Most canyons have trails to hike up to the rims, which will give you an expansive view over the entire area.

Using high vantage points can transform the look of the area, such as below in this image of Zion National Park, Utah. Getting to the very top of the canyon at Observation Point gave me a bird’s eye view over the park.

Ultimate Guide to Desert PhotographyZion National Park, Utah. Photo by: 'Sean Ensch'.

Sand dunes lit from the side at low angles of the sun can create beautiful shapes and swirls of lines in the shadows of the peaks. Backlit dunes can also create some fantastic imagery. When you walk around the sand dunes in nice lighting, it feels like there are endless compositions.

Ultimate Guide to Desert PhotographySand dunes in nice lighting. Photo by: 'Sean Ensch'.

One of my favourite things to shoot in the desert is the night sky over interesting landscape. Going out miles and miles in the desert away from any town on a clear night will produce some of the best night skies you can find. Pair this up with a unique landscape and you can make images that look like they are straight out of a sci-fi movie.

The photo below was shot in Arizona on one of the darkest nights I have ever encountered in my life. It was absolutely beautiful. The darkness was so strong in the middle of the night that you couldn’t even see your hand right in front of your face.

Ultimate Guide to Desert PhotographyStarry sky in Arizona. Photo by: 'Sean Ensch'.



Safety

Last but not least, we need to talk about safety. Keeping safe is of the utmost importance in the desert. As we've already discussed in the section on preparation, you need to be ready for any and all possible situations. Check temperatures, local wildlife, services available, local ranger station locations if you're in a park, and keep a watch on the weather day by day. Heavy rains can bring flash floods. Freezing temperatures can bring ice and snow. Extreme heat can dehydrate you faster than you'll even be aware.

Below is a general safety checklist of necessary items that you'll need for desert photography, besides your camera kit. 

  • Proper clothing (for heat or cold)

  • Good walking shoes with hard soles

  • Water, water, water, and more water

  • Snacks and food to keep in your bag while out or if you get lost

  • GPS unit

  • Flashlight and/or headlamp for night

  • Tire patch kit and spare tire, tire iron, and jack

  • Tarp for setting your camera bag on and to sit on to protect from needles/thorns

  • Multitool

Ultimate Guide to Desert PhotographyDeserts can be dangerous places. Photo by: 'Sean Ensch'.

I highly suggest bringing along all of the above items. Even if you do plan on being nearby towns or on a day trip, you never know what can happen in the desert so it is best to be prepared.



Conclusion

If you thought that deserts weren't worth visiting for photography, then I hope this article will have changed your mind. Deserts can be some of the most beautiful places to photograph. With a little research and preparation, you will be rewarded with the opportunity to create some of the most incredible photographs that you can imagine. Whether you're after sand dunes, salt flats, intricate rock formations, cracked mud, fields of wildflowers or beautiful slot canyons, it is all out there. Visiting the same location during different seasons can make the desert feel like a completely new place.

Please remember that safety is extremely important in the desert (or any wilderness) and that the dangerous should never be underestimated. Be prepared, be safe and go out for a great adventure in the open desert! You might surprise yourself and come home with some truly stunning images.


About the author:  Sean Ensch is a landscape photographer based in the USA. You can find more of his work on his website or by following him on Facebook and Instagram.


Have you ever photographed a desert? What was it like? Where was it? Did you find it to be easy or difficult? Share your thoughts and leave a comment below!