A beginner's guide to photographing the desert

First published:
May 24, 2021
February 12, 2024

A beginner's guide to photographing the desert

First published:
May 24, 2021
February 12, 2024

Cover image by JuRitt

Despite the extreme conditions, a sensibly planned photography trip can yield spectacular compositions

Clear skies, excellent light and striking features abound in the world’s arid desert regions, which makes them hugely popular places for landscape photographers. They’re places of extreme temperatures where insanely hot days can be followed by surprisingly cold nights, but a sensibly planned photography trip – and with plenty of water in your backpack – can yield spectacular compositions. Here are some of our top tips to get you started…

1 Prepare and protect your camera

Sand is your nemesis. Dedicate yourself to preventing it from getting into your camera and from scratching a lens. You can give that a go by always putting a UV filter on your lens and a protective jacket on your camera body. Typically made of silicon rubber and customized for specific models, these jackets largely act as a protective layer, but they also help prevent sand from getting into the crevices of your camera.

However, it's also wise to keep your camera in a roll-top waterproof bag, or at the very least, an everyday plastic bag. If you’re on the ridge of a sand dune and it’s very windy, seriously consider abandoning photography and leaving your camera wrapped-up. When you do get your camera out, get used to using a tripod merely to keep it away from coming into contact with sand.

A photographer at Bad Water in Death Valley desert USA
When photographing the desert it is really important to protect your camera from sand. Image by Johnny Quirin
Author tip:

However hard you try, sand will find its way into your camera gear. So make sure your camera backpack has plenty of microfibre cloths and a retractable lens cleaning brush so you can gently remove sand at the end of every shoot. 

2 Discover a desert and plan a trip

There’s a huge variety of fabulous desertscapes around the world. The ones that come to mind might be the ‘classic’ rippled orange shifting sand dunes of the Sahara in North Africa. Similar landscapes can be found in dozens of places including Sossusvlei in Namibia, the Simpson Desert in Australia, at White Sands National Monument in New Mexico, U.S. and the Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado, U.S. Add the Great Basin, Mojave, Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts in the southwest U.S. and it’s quite a to-do list.

Wherever you choose, do some research, read a guide book, look at other photographer’s photos and plan what you think you might want to shoot. You can even get on Google Earth and start exploring possible locations – car parks, viewpoints and where the nearest fuel stop is – from your desk. 

Sunrise in the Mojave Desert at Fossil Falls National Historic Site, California
Sunrise in the Mojave Desert at Fossil Falls National Historic Site, California.
Image by Cliff LaPlant
Author tip:

You need to stay safe in deserts because temperatures can get as high as 40°C/104°C in the day and below freezing at night. You're probably not going to be taking photos in the intense heat of the day, but the clear skies at night will likely get you trying your hand at nightscapes. So it’s important to keep as warm and comfortable as possible; if you’re cold you’ll rush your decision-making and not spend long enough taking your shots. 

3 Keep it sharp

The same rule applies to desert landscapes as to general landscapes; use a narrow aperture. That way you’ll be sure to keep everything in your photo reasonably sharp. That means working between f/8 and f/11 on a low ISO. Experiment with your camera’s aperture priority mode, which will set the shutter speed for you.

The awe-inspiring dunes at Sossusvlei, Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia, Africa
The awe-inspiring dunes at Sossusvlei, Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia, Africa. Image by JuRitt
Author tip:

Deserts tend to be home to clear blue skies, which are best photographed using a circular polarising filter (remember to remove your UV filter). It can also help reduce glare from the sand during the intense light of the day. However, don’t face the Sun while your camera is wearing a polariser.

4 Chasing ‘golden hour’ shadows

The light at midday in deserts is incredibly harsh and the Sun is likely overhead. It's for this reason that you're going to want to be taking photos of the desert in the early morning and late evening. Just after sunrise and just before sunset – the so-called ‘golden hour’ – the low angle of the Sun and its softer, redder light will create arresting colours, spectacular shadows and allow dynamic compositions.

To get the best effect you should avoid pointing your camera towards or directly away from the Sun, instead trying to capture a side-lit scene. If you can’t restrict yourself just to shooting around sunrise and sunset, know that in the afternoon the colours tend to be bolder than in the morning.

Camel rides in the Great Indian Desert, Jaisalmer, India.
Golden hour sunlight in the desert will create will create arresting colours, spectacular shadows and allow dynamic compositions. Image by Richard Kam
Author tip:

Although it's useful to have a tripod simply to lift your camera away from the damaging sand, it will also allow you to take long exposure photographs. That’s useful if you’re out close to sunrise and sunset when you're going to be dealing with low light levels. Aperture priority mode can still be used, but always be ready to switch to manual mode and take control yourself. 

5 Photographing dunes and capturing scale

You want the crest of a dune, right? With perfectly rippled sand? So don’t go running up a sand dune – and messing-up all those ripples – before realising it is (or was) your perfect subject! Survey the scene from afar and select a dune to shoot, likely with a 24-105mm ‘travel zoom’ lens or a 70-200 mm telephoto lens (because deserts are vast and you’ll likely need to home-in on something).

You should also try to create a sense of scale. So while you may not want scuffs left in the sand by anyone, if there are people (or camels) winding their way across distant dunes that can help create an effective composition. So can a lonely tree or a ‘dune-bashing’ 4x4. 

Silhouette of children playing on in the desert Vietnam
Add a sense of scale to your composition to portray the vastness of the desert. Image by Jet Huynh
Author tip:

Don't ever be tempted to change your lens in the middle of a desert. Even if there's not a breath of wind, you can bet that there is sand and dust in the air, and it won’t take much for it to get into your camera. So it makes sense to use a zoom lens that offers both wide-angle and telephoto for ultimate flexibility. 

6 How to shoot a salt flat

There’s way more to desertscapes than sand dunes, with the salt flats of Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia,  Badwater Basin in California’s Death Valley National Park and Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah also considered classic landscapes of the genre.

These never-ending white landscapes are simultaneously iconic and notoriously difficult to photograph. Definitely avoid the bright sunlight of the day, something that’s only amplified by the salt flat’s colour and vastness, and instead photograph close to sunset. It’s probably the post-sunset sky that’s going to be your subject, with the weird and increasingly contrasty hexagonal patterns below adding interest. Go in the wet season and you may get perfectly flat, mirror-like expanses of water… though just as likely you’ll have to battle high winds, which will make the water rippled, and that kind of shot impossible.

Sunset in Salar de Uyuni salt flats desert, Andes Altiplano, Bolivia
Salt flats are on many a photographer's bucket list. Image by Laurent Davoust
Author tip:

Although you might expect to mainly be taking sweeping vistas when in arid areas, don’t forget to look down for possible close-ups and abstract compositions. In the desert you’ll likely see water features, plant life and perhaps even wildlife, but what you’ll definitely be tempted to capture is the intricate details, patterns and textures of rocks, rock faces and particularly in strata (layers of rock).
LIMITED TIME OFFER: Save 60% on Picfair Plus with code JULY60
Click to Redeem