With plenty of open space, blue skies, and wonderful shadows, deserts are a fantastic place to photograph things.
However, if you do not pay attention to the location, lighting and protect your camera properly, then you might expect a substandard image.
Because there are plenty of obstacles facing you and your camera when you are in the desert.
For example, sand will almost certainly find its way into your camera and might permanently damage it.
Also, there are the right times of the day for ideal desert lighting, which will ensure fantastic photographs.
So, what is the best time of day for taking great desert photographs? How can you protect your camera equipment?
What things should you be looking out for? Well, we have a comprehensive guide to desert photography so that you can get the very best shots imaginable.
Why Take Desert Photographs?
Deserts are a natural wonder of the world because they are so different from our everyday environments of cities, towns and even the countryside.
These are sprawling open lands of nothing that could be alien landscapes.
Deserts can also be symbolic of so many things: isolation, relaxation, serenity, sophistication, the exotic, and the mysterious.
Lots of people have desert photographs in their homes to conjure up that sense of the far away.
You can also have a desert as a great location for a fashion or high art shoot.
This background is not too imposing, but it is very suggestive and will change the tone of your picture. You can also use it to shoot some amazing nature photography.
But what is the right lighting for your desert photograph? Is there an optimum time of day that you can shoot to get the right shadows and lighting color?
The Best Time Of Day To Take A Desert Photograph
The main thing about desert sand is that it is extremely reflective and will become almost luminous when you are under direct exposure to the cloudless sky.
This is why you’ll be waiting for what is known as the ‘Golden Hour’.
This usually occurs during the early morning or late evening when the sun is at its lowest point. This means that the sun is a lot redder, which will affect the color of the sand.
The shadows on the ground between the dunes are also longer, which makes for more dramatic scenery.
During this time, you can point your camera either directly at the sun or with it behind you.
If you shoot directly into the sun, then everything in the foreground will appear in shadow. Your shots will be much moodier and more suggestive, with the shape of the hills in shadow.
However, if you shoot with the sun behind you, then you can be sure of having vibrantly lit photographs with soft yellow lighting.
Depending on your angle, you can increase or decrease the length of the shadows in your picture.
If you want more striking colors in your picture, then you should opt for shooting during the evening, as there are much richer and deeper red colors.
The morning light will be a lot lighter and clearer than in the afternoon.
Putting your camera on a stand will also help you to get stiller photographs that will also be clearer.
Set your camera for long exposure, as this will capture the most light possible for your picture. It will also reduce blurring, which often happens with low-light photography.
How To Get Sharper Desert Photographs
The key to getting great shots of the landscape, in general, is to make sure that you have a narrow aperture.
You should keep your camera on a low ISO. This will result in more light getting into the lens.
If you set your camera to automatic, it will adjust the settings to make sure that the maximum amount of light is taken in.
This will affect the shutter speed, which will also adapt to get the clearest pictures.
You should be working at a range of between f/8 and f/11 for your pictures. Deserts always have blue skies above them, which means that your photographs might succumb to lens flare.
To avoid this, you can use a circular polarizing filter, which is designed to control the reflection from surfaces.
You’ll need to make sure that you remove your polarizer if you are filming directly into the sun, as this might damage the constitution of your camera.
How Can You Protect Your Camera Properly When You Are Shooting On Sand?
The worst thing about shooting in the desert is the sand. This stuff will almost certainly get into the body of your camera if you leave it unprotected.
This can lead to permanent scratches on the lens, which will require you to buy a new one.
You should protect your camera lens when you are not using it by applying a UV lens.
This will protect it from sun damage, which is a recurrent problem when you are shooting in arid environments.
You should make sure that you have a silicone jacket over your camera, as this will prevent sand from getting into it when it is being used and it is in your camera bag.
These jackets are usually customized, which makes them ideal for use with specific models of cameras.
Keeping your camera in a waterproof carry bag is also very important, as this will prevent moisture damage.
If you notice a change in weather and sand grains flying everywhere, then you should stop the shoot and put your camera in your bag immediately to avoid further damage.
Two tools that you won’t be able to do without are a retractable cleaning brush that you can use to sweep away the debris from the lens when you have finished shooting.
You should also make sure that you have a microfiber cloth to help get the more stubborn grains of sand that stick in the crevices.
Planning Your Desert Photoshoot
There are many deserts that exist out there, each one with different attributes such as dunes and the way the sand is patterned on the ground.
So how are you going to know what your desert is going to look like?
Well, the most important thing to do first is research. Look at existing desert photographs online and see which ones look the most like the idea that you have in your head.
You might have no idea what you want from your desert photograph, so look at photos for inspiration.
You should also speak to other photographers who have done desert photography (see also “Techniques For Photographing Deserts“), as they will be able to provide you with tips for getting great shots and protecting your equipment.
You should also look at the weather patterns over that month and go when the conditions are relatively stable.
One thing that we would recommend doing is visiting Google Earth and looking at the landscape from a satellite.
From here you will be able to plot out your journey without having to leave the comfort of your bedroom or office space.
You’ll need to make sure that you pack plenty of provisions for the trip and make sure that you can contact the outside world in case you get stranded.
The desert can be very unforgiving, and the weather conditions can change quickly, so make sure that you have water with you too.
Know where your nearest gas stations are too, as you will have to take the car to most desert areas, and you’ll need to know the best places to refuel.
Tips For Desert Night Shoots
Shooting during the night in the desert is a great thing to do, but just as challenging as shooting during the day.
Because of the lack of cloud coverage, it can get very cold in the desert at night, so make sure that you have plenty of thermal layers to keep you warm.
How To Photograph Sand Dunes
Sand dunes are one of the most unique things about deserts and could be one of the reasons why you are out there in the first place.
The first thing you’ll need to do is make sure that you don’t get too close to your dune, otherwise, you will track prints up the side and ruin its pristine coat.
You’ll also want to make sure that you get a sense of how big your dune is. You should do this by having something else in the shot too, either people or animals.
Having camels trekking across the outline of a dune is a great method of giving that sense of scale.
We hope that our guide to desert photography and what the best time of day is to shoot has helped you achieve great results.
Make sure that you shoot during the golden hour in the morning or the evening when the sun is at the lowest point in the sky to avoid harsh glare from the sun or the sand.