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Winter is in full force back home with snow and ice and bitter cold. While I’ve always enjoyed winter photography, I have a habit of escaping to the American SW for a month or so of desert photography.

It’s not only the warmer winter temperatures found in the desert but the variety of stunning scenery and great light that draw me in.

The desert doesn’t always get the credit it deserves as an amazing place to photograph. This is often due to misconceptions that the desert is a place devoid of life, much too hot, and that it lacks anything of beauty. But that is simply not true.

Most deserts include an interesting variety of plants, animals, and geology.  All the ingredients that many landscape, and nature photographers pursue when seeking amazing places to photograph.

This article is full of tips and techniques to help you on your desert landscape photography adventure.

Preparing for Desert Photography

A safe and rewarding trip to the desert starts with a few important considerations. The first is to choose the right time to visit based on your temperature tolerance.  The desert can be hot and in some locations, extremely hot, even dangerous!

Death Valley national park is one of the most popular desert locations for landscape photographers but also holds the record as the hottest recorded temperature on the planet at 134° Fahrenheit (57° Celsius).

Yet in January the temperature is often in the very comfortable 70° Fahrenheit range (20° Celsius), so timing is important when planning a visit to the desert.

empty desert road in Arizona with mountains in the distance

Hot and desolate in Arizona

Depending the time of your visit, consider several items for safety and comfort:

  • a hat to shield you from the sun
  • several bottles of water to stay hydrated
  • sunglasses and sunscreen
  • a GPS (phones don’t work in many remote locations)
  • a scarf to cover your neck
  • a long sleeve shirt to block out the sun
  • pants with zip on/off leggings
  • quality hiking boots (in case you step on cactus needles)

What You Should Have in Your Camera Bag

Desert photography is not unlike most landscape photography where you pack the equipment you are sure you will need.

This can include:

  • Lenses ranging from wide angle to telephoto
  • A tripod
  • Cable release
  • Filters like a polarizer or graduated neutral density
  • A focus loupe
  • A flash unit if you like to add light
  • Extra batteries
  • Extra SD cards
  • And a multi-tool for pulling cactus needles out of your boots, pack, or even your leg.

And finally, one of the most important items: A Garbage Bag!

photo of how to use a garbage bag to protect your camera during desert photography

Why a garbage bag? The desert is a harsh place and many plant species have adapted defensive mechanisms in the form of needles. In some locations, the ground is littered with them.

Throwing on your camera pack after laying on the bare ground could result in something sharp attaching to the pack before sticking you. Camera care is important and setting your bag on the ground or in sand can create problems later.

Lenses for Desert Photography

Wondering what lens you’ll need is a valid question. My opinion is, “whatever you can carry.”  If you need to keep weight in check, limit your lens choice to fewer lenses with greater coverage. I carry a 16-35mm, 28-70mm, and 80-200mm as my three main lenses and they all get used.

The desert is often a broad expanse of land and sky . It’s natural to want to capture it all in one frame with a wide-angle lens. While there are plenty of subjects where a wide angle is perfect, the same can be said about telephoto lenses.

When I think of the best lens for specific subjects, I remind myself that a wide-angle lens makes the foreground appear larger while a telephoto brings the distant background closer to the viewer by zooming in.

Desert photography at Badwater, Death Valley, emphasising the foreground and its pattern

Death Valley (HDR) F/22 @ 1/50th ISO 200

Captured at Badwater in Death Valley, the wide-angle lens perspective set to 17mm emphasizes the foreground while minimizing the background. This is a great strategy for scenes that have interesting foregrounds and less than interesting backgrounds.

Death Valley desert photography captured with a telephoto lens

Death Valley f/8 @ 1/80th ISO 200

A telephoto lens is equally valuable when you observe a subject far away. Here, the foreground is not interesting, so it’s best left out while zooming in on a specific area. Captured in Death Valley, this detail shot of distant hills needed a 300mm lens to get close enough to leave out the surroundings.

Open Your Mind and Eyes

The desert is rich with subjects to photograph, but if you are new to these dry, desolate locations, finding a great subject and composition may take some time.  A good strategy to get started is to remember that many of the same composition strategies found in most landscapes are in the desert as well.

Leading lines, curves, patterns, textures, objects, framing, forced perspective, one-third placement, and more, still apply. If you keep these in mind, you will quickly find a worthy subject.

desert flora photography of a Cholla cactus

Kofa NWR, Arizona f/16 @ 1/60th ISO 200

Composing this scene using the rule of thirds placed this large Cholla Cactus in a foreground one-third ‘hot spot’. The close subject and distant background give a sense of scene depth.

desert photography showing lines in the foreground, dunes and mountains in the background

Death Valley Dunes f/22 @ 1/30th ISO 100

Foreground lines are a powerful way to lead the viewers into a scene. It’s a natural response to start looking at the scene at what appears closest to the camera and then follow it through to the background. Here, we have layers with different tonal values and textures, flowing from foreground to background.

using diagonal lines to emphasize desert photography in the Valley of Fire

Valley of Fire NV f/22 @ 1/13th ISO 100

Diagonal lines or the Z lines are another powerful composition approach when found on the right subject. Here, the foreground lines create a Z-line that zigs and zags through the picture on its way towards the background.

Keep an Eye Out for Patterns and Textures

Desert landscape photography often presents new subject opportunities to landscape photographers. In many desert locations, you can find cactus style plants and interesting geology that contain a variety of colorful rocks and unusual patterns.

sand pattern caused by dehydration turned into beautiful sand photography

Yuma, AZ f/11 @ 1/200th ISO 100

This image of cracked mud is a great example of patterns. Here, the water evaporated, and the sediment hardened and cracked as it dries out. The result is amazing patterns and textures that you can zoom in on.

Pattern of eroding hillside near Pareah, UT

Pareah, UT f/11 @ 1/25th ISO 100

Not all patterns and textures are on the ground. This eroding hillside presents a colourful palette of different coloured sediment in a multitude of horizontal layers. By using the 70-200 zoom lens, I was able to zoom in and out and create a composition emphasizing the horizontal rows.

Desert photography showing the use of pattern in the foreground to draw the viewer's eye to the mountains on the horizon

Alvord desert, Oregon f/22 @ 1/15th ISO 100

Just like leading lines, patterns can make a great foreground that visually supports the background. Shot with a 35mm lens, this foreground occupies 2/3 of the composition and leads to the mountain on the horizon.

The camera height controls how prominent the foreground will be and in this case, the height is moderate: not emphasizing the foreground too much nor too little.

Take Advantage of the Sun

Some photographers have suggested that desert light can be some of the best a landscape photographer will find.  The advantage of visiting in winter is shorter days and the sun’s position, which is low most of the day. That low angle can create great lighting early and late and possibly throughout the day.

Sand dune photography

Death Valley f/22 @ 1/30th ISO 100

It was barely mid-afternoon when I captured this sand dune image. You can see by the lighting in the background, that there are few shadows meaning it might be hours before the sunset quality lighting. Yet, this image has perfect lighting on the dune right now and here is why:

  • The sun is on the left and creates beautiful side lighting emphasizing the texture
  • The angle of the sun is low in the sky, so foreground sand ripples have close to 40% highlight, 60% shadow.
  • The angle of the dune is sloping downwards to the right, away from the sun, and is beginning to fall into shadow, resulting in a darker toned dune
Desert flora photography

South Mountain Park, AZ f/22 @ 1/20th ISO 100

Backlighting is beautiful when applied to the right scene. In the desert, you often find a variety of cacti and other plant species that benefit when the sun is lighting them from behind. The needles and small leaves really begin to glow as the sun gets closer to the horizon, making the plants stand out.

Desert Photography After Sunset

Once the sun sets, don’t put the camera away! There is still plenty of desert photography to capture and silhouettes are one subject you can pursue as soon as the sun disappears. Any subject that has a clear sky background will work.

Saguaro cactus silhouette photographed in the desert

Saguaro NP, Arizona f/11 @ 1/125th ISO 100

This Saguaro Cactus in silhouette emphasizes the shape of the cactus and is recognized as a symbol of the American Southwest making it a great storytelling strategy for desert photography.

To get the perfect exposure for a silhouette, start by leaving the subject out of the frame while you set the meter. This approach measures only the sky and helps ensure that the subject itself is devoid of detail.

A silhouette should be black so start by aiming the camera to one side of the subject and let the meter read just the sky. Set the exposure for that, then reframe and shoot.

Nighttime Desert Photography

The night sky is the last event of the day for desert photography and since the sky is the light source, it’s another opportunity for silhouettes. The saguaro cactus is a perfect subject as it is clearly outlined against the sky and mountains.

To photograph the night sky, you need:

  • a full frame camera (ideally), although a crop sensor will also work, but will show less coverage with the same lens
  • a tripod to hold the camera steady for long exposure
  • a wide-angle lens ( I use my 16-35mm zoom)
  • a cable release so ou don’t have to touch the camera (not required)
nighttime desert photography showing the silhouettes of mountains and a cactus with the starry night sky in the background

f/2.8 @ 25 seconds, ISO 4000

The ISO you choose depends on your camera and lens’ maximum aperture. A good starting point is ISO 1600, 15-30 seconds, at f/2.8. But if your lens is not that fast and instead has a maximum aperture of f/4, then the best solution is to double your ISO to 3200.

The reason is many dSLR’s have a maximum shutter speed of 30 seconds before you need to switch to Bulb for longer exposures.

While longer exposures using bulb will work, the stars begin to blur at those longer shutter speeds. Keeping the shutter speed shorter (15-30 seconds) prevents blur. To get the needed increase in exposure sensitivity, upping the ISO helps.

Maximizing Your Desert Photography Trip

When you get ready to plan a desert photography adventure, consider these items before you hit the road:

1.     What time of year is it? Will the temperatures be just right for your comfort zone?

2.     Start with basic camera settings: ISO 100 for normal landscapes and increase ISO only when needed.

3.     Isolate (minimum aperture) or Illustrate (maximum aperture) your subject depending on the story you want to tell.

4.     Are you planning on desert wildflowers? If winter storms have delivered a lot of rain, you can expect a good wildflower display. Prior to your trip, search online for desert wildflower websites that share up-to-date information on wildflower areas.

5.     What’s the weather forecast? All weather is good, but stormy weather is great! However, AFTER stormy weather passes through, the result may mean even better conditions. Those desert storms often include sandstorms and you don’t want to be out in one of those. But if you can get out the day after the storm, you may very well find pristine conditions. The winds during storms will re-sculpt the sand dunes and create fresh patterns devoid of footprints and tracks.

Conclusion

While in the desert, find worthy subjects by looking up, looking down, and looking all around. Seek subjects that make great foregrounds but also remember to watch the backgrounds for any distractions. Observe what is also in the distance and use a telephoto lens to frame those details.

Desert photography is a wonderful way to capture the magic the desert offers.  With some pre-planning, good timing, and minimal gear, you can enjoy a safe and rewarding desert photography photo adventure.

A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:

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Charlie Borland

Charlie Borland is an award-winning professional photographer based in Oregon. For the last 35 years, he has done business with many top companies, such as Xerox, NW Airlines, Fujitsu, Tektronix, Nike, Blue Cross, Nationsbank, and more. His images have been published thousands of times worldwide. He has been represented by 12 different stock agencies during his career. He founded his own agency in 1995 and later merged it with a Getty subsidiary. Then he joined other photographers and co-founded the Fogstock photo agency. He is co-author with Bryan Peterson of the book Understanding Flash and you can find his ebook Outdoor Flash Photography at www.GreatPhotographyCourses.net