Desert landscape photography displays vast empty scenes with different patterns, textures, colors and shapes.
Photographs of desert landscapes have often been considered some of the best landscape photography ever captured. There are different types of desert landscapes, many of them differing from the general notion of an empty expanse of sand.
The landforms you find can be rocky, and sometimes even icy (think about Polar deserts), each with unique textures that make them wonderful to photograph. Photographing in the desert demands creative thinking that allows you to get a glimpse of the sheer number of possibilities that are hiding in plain sight.
Let’s take a look at the different possibilities and techniques, as well as how to prepare, the best camera settings and equipment to take stunning photos in the desert.
Related: Abstract Landscape Photography
Preparation for Shooting in the Desert
A trip to the desert, while being extremely rewarding, can also be very challenging. So preparation is key.
The first thing to do before even thinking of shooting in the desert is to understand the potential threats you can find. Are there venomous animals? What are them (scorpions, snakes)? What plants can harm you with their needles?
Knowing the environment you are going to take an adventure in, can make a difference between going home with some beautiful photos and real danger. Visit local tourist sites to get as many info as possible. Read travel blogs and if uncertain send an email to local authorities and tourism agencies to get as much info as possible.
Also, don’t forget to determine the ideal time for you to visit it, depending on your tolerance for temperature. Wheater conditions are harsh and can be unpredictable in the desert.
Depending on when you visit, here is a list of items that you must definitely consider:
- Protection for your camera, lenses, and other accessories.
- A sufficient number of water bottles, in particular during hot months.
- Enough food.
- A sun-hat.
- Sunscreen and sunglasses.
- A scarf to protect yourself from wind and sand.
- A shirt with long sleeves that cover your arms completely.
- A GPS device because a lot of phones won’t work in remote locations.
- Good quality boots for hiking.
- Pants that have zippers for detachable leggings.
- A multi-purpose tool (can always be handy).
- A headlight if you are doing astrophotography or moving around in low light.
Desert Landscape Photography Gear
Understanding what photography gear to carry is very important when trying to do desert landscape photography. You need to consider the potentially harsh conditions in the desert and pack your bag accordingly.
The following is a list of essentials that are very useful to have with you.
- A weather-sealed camera. Dust-proof is a must.
- Extra batteries and SD cards.
- Wide-angle lens 16-35mm f/2.8
- Standard zoom lens 24-70mm
- Telephoto zoom lens 70-200mm. Don’t underestimate how useful a telephoto lens can be in this context.
- Tripod for shooting in low light and desert astrophotography.
- A cable release or remote shutter release to avoid camera shake.
- A graduated neutral density filter.
- A circular polarizer filter.
- [Optional] A focusing loupe, especially if you use manual focus.
- [Very important] Don’t forget a lens cleaning kit and compressed air.
In general, it is recommended to carry as much as you can carry comfortably because there is so much to photograph in the desert that you can never have enough equipment.
Desert Landscape Photography Composition
The desert landscape is full of amazing subjects to capture. If you know where to go, there aren’t just beautiful sand dunes, but also plants, interesting wildflowers, rocky formations, and even salt lakes.
With the tools you have at your disposal today it’s not too hard to find a good subject even in the desert, but compose a great shot is another story especially for first-timers.
To begin with, some of the same strategies and principles used in landscape photography can be used here.
These form a great way to look for the ideal subject and compose it well.
A simple but effective trick when composing a desert photograph is the use of layers. Take advantage of dune formations, lower your angle of view and create depth by capturing distinctive lines between foreground, middleground and background.
While the desert seems barren, with not a lot to photograph, by simply changing your perspective, you can find beautiful shots that you can’t get anywhere else. These are a few things you can look out for that make for excellent pictures.
- Sand patterns
- Dead trees
- Dune patterns
- Lone dunes
- Wildflowers and grass
- Contrast in terrain
- The wind
- Abstract geometry
Best Light for Desert Landscape Photography
It is often considered by photographers that the desert light is some of the best light you can find in any landscape photography.
A low angle of the sun offers excellent lighting, especially early in the morning and late in the evening. If you visit the desert during the winter, you will find that the days are shorter, and the sun is positioned low in the sky for the majority of the day. This is an advantage that gives you lovely lighting for a long period.
Backlighting, when applied to the appropriate scene, can also create an enchanting effect. You will generally find a lot of cacti and grass that look spectacular when the sunlight hits them from behind. You will see the plants stand out against the background as the sun begins to set, the backlighting illuminating the edges of the plants.
A mistake that a lot of beginners make is that they put their camera away once the sun sets. However, this time of the day gives wonderful opportunities to get silhouette shots.
Astrophotography in the Desert
Since there is no light pollution whatsoever in the desert, it is the perfect playground for astrophotography.
Here is a list of the equipment you would need, specifically for night photography/astrophotography:
- Full-frame camera (ideally)
- Cable release so there is no need to touch the camera
- Tripod for steady, long-exposure shots
- Wide-angle lens
Your ISO setting will mainly depend on the maximum aperture of your camera and lens. ISO 1600 at f/2.8 for 15 to 30 seconds is a good place to start.
Post-Processing for Desert Landscape Photography
The program you use it’s not really important. Do you use Lightroom, CaptureOne, ON1? It doesn’t matter much, what’s important is that you know what you’re doing when post-processing your desert photos.
First of all, don’t over-edit your photos to keep a natural look.
Let’s see go through a few simple tips:
Highlights and Shadows
Increasing the shadows is a different way of decreasing the highlights. This will balance out your histogram and allow you to make further adjustments with the tone curves.
In desert landscape photography contrasts play an important role. The tone curves are in my opinion the most efficient way to correct the contrast in your photographs.
Slightly changing the color hue of a photo can affect the mood you deliver to the viewer. For example, you can bring down the warmth to create a more dramatic look or increase it to convey a more comforting sort of feel.
Free Images of Desert Landscapes
The free stock images website Unsplash offers a wide number of photos of desert landscapes you can check for your inspiration. Take a look here.
The magic and beauty of the desert can easily be captured if you just pay a little attention to preparation and planning, optimal timing, and essential gear. I hope this article has opened up some avenues for you to explore the exciting world of desert landscape photography!
Have you ever taken photos in a desert? What were your main challenges? Tell us in the comments below.
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Stefano Caioni is a photographer from Sydney, Australia. Founder and editor of Pixinfocus, his passion for photography helps him explore new places and live new adventures. Thanks to photography he reconnected with the outdoors and was able to travel the world and take photos of some of the most beautiful places on Earth.