Tips & Tricks: Photographing Deserts

Deserts can be an extremely gratifying subject to photograph if you know what you are doing. On the flip side, however, they can be an extremely difficult subject, one that can hover on the point of frustration, if you are unsure about what you are doing.

Most photographers make the mistake of not choosing the right time to photograph deserts. This means in all probability the light in which they shoot is never ideal. Then again, they almost never shoot with a tripod. Add to that a bunch of other compositional mistakes and all of a sudden desert photography becomes a challenge. Well not anymore. As this article will show you how it’s done with little planning and using the right approach.

1. Use the golden light


It is no secret that professional photographers love shooting at the early morning and late afternoon light. They call it the golden hour, seemingly because the light has a beautiful golden tone to it. This light travels almost horizontally to the ground. It can often bring out lines, shapes and contours that are otherwise flattened during the harsh light of the mid-day sun. The presence of shadows can accentuate a form and give it dimension. At the same time an image becomes more contrasty when it has shadows.

2. Use a point of interest in the image


Sand dunes, by themselves can be extremely boring as compositions. Miles after miles of sand dunes, unless the wind-crafted contours form the focus of attention, isn’t going to make an interesting image. Instead find something in your image that is going to break that monotony. One example would be to catch the full-moon in all its glory. Other examples could be a car or camel or even the lonely silhouette of a man.

3. Focus on the work of natur


Speaking of contours on the sand, they can be a fascinating thing to photograph when you know what you are doing. Shooting from a high angle, such as your eye-level, will not be enough. You will have to shoot from a low angle, and use those contours on the sand as leading lines. Shooting from a low angle allows you to emphasize the subject, which in this case are the delicate contours on the sand. 

You also get to emphasize the vastness of the place. It is often the responsibility of the photographer to photograph a scene in such a way that the scale and the grandeur of the place is properly transmitted through a two dimensional capture. It is a difficult ask no doubt but not completely impossible.

4. Change the camera angle

Speaking of perspectives and camera angles, often changing the camera angle can really do the trick. Try to get into a position where you can get a completely fresh look at things. Shooting from the window of the car or from the eye-level standing up will only get you what everybody else gets. Instead climb to the top of a dune or over a rock formation and get a better view of things.

5. It’s in the stars


The deserts, when they are absolutely calm are one of the best places to shoot stars. If you ever wanted to shoot a sky full of stars at night this is the place to be in. There are a few things to note if you attempt at shooting stars. Use a pretty high ISO number, something like 3200 to start with. You need to be able to capture a lot of light in a short time when shooting stars. Set the white balance to auto and of course shot in RAW. 

Your camera’s auto-focusing will be haywire because it won’t have anything to help you focus on in the absence of light. So, switch to live-view and manual focusing. Use the smallest f-stop and the shortest focal length you can. Manually turn the lens to shoot at infinity (if your lens has a focusing distance indicator the infinity symbol will be like a sleeping 8). Don’t worry about out of focus stars. At that distance it won’t matter at all. A bit of post-processing would be required after the image has been made.

6. Take precautions to safeguard your camera

A final word on safety. Sand and electronic devices don’t go well together. If you have sand in your camera it can be curtains unless you get it off the camera immediately. So at all times be extra careful when shooting in sandy conditions. When camera is not in use cover it with your lens cap to protect the front element of the lens. Carry a plastic resalable bag or a weather jacket for protection in case of sand storms which can often come with no warnings.

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