Taking Photographs in the Desert
Tips for Photographing the Desert
By Abigail Harman: Professional Photographer
Photography is all about light: in fact the Greek word photo means light, or radiant energy. And nowhere is the light more intriguing, intricate and filled with possibilities than in the desert. When shooting in the desert how you use the light is crucial to creating a good image an image filled with feeling one that defines the place, the mood, even the time of day. For desert shooting, which mainly involves shooting in sand dunes, a creative use of light imparts dramatic impact and lends extra depth to the composition of your photographs.
Abigail pictured after receiving first and second place in the Mosman Park Photo Art Award 2008.
The following tips will help you use light to your advantage and may improve your desert photography.
Become a student of light! Always be observing the shadows that it creates and remember, it is the quality of the light that makes a good photograph. This is particularly true when photographing in a landscape of sand dunes the dunescape.
Early morning is best, when the sun is low, as this creates great directional lighting and deep, rich shadows that make for a rewarding composition. Be sure to get there before the sun rises, as the light quickly changes. Late afternoon is also a good time too, as long as it's not too windy. (You don't want to risk getting sand into your camera!) During the middle of the day the sand dunes can look flat and lifeless, so this is not the best time to take your photographs unless you are looking for that arid effect in your pictures.
Photography Equipment for the Desert:
Which lens to use?
These are my favourite: wide angle 16-35mm, Macro - 100 mm, Telephoto - 70-200mm.
Most people would think that a wide-angle lens would be the best choice for photographing the dunescape but in fact, a long lens is best for telephoto shots. Choose anything between 200 and 400mm and you will be able to capture exciting design elements. Use a polarising filter as this will add contrast to the final image. If you're using a digital camera, be sure to buy a circular polariser. In bright, low, early morning or evening light, angular shaped dunes and their shadows will form stark, geometric shapes whereas rounded dunes will make bold and sensuous designs. The depth of field is limited in a telephoto lenses, but using a small aperture and focusing a third of the way into your image will give the obtain the best possible result.
After the really great light of sunrise has passed, use the wide-angle lens, as there's still plenty of stuff to shoot that doesn't require the warm, dramatic quality of those first few rays of daylight. Experiment by setting your camera on a tripod and looking for a mini-landscape at your feet, one that is unsullied by footprints. The landscape' might have a plant or rock in it for visual interest.
As you will probably be using a slow shutter speed with a small aperture (e.g. f22) to ensure good depth of field, check your camera manual on how to use the mirror lock-up facility, as that will help to avoid any vibration as the shutter releases. If you don't have a shutter release cord, then set the camera on the self-timer as well. Using a wide-angle lens makes the foreground look big and the background seem small and can make very dramatic images. Capture the texture of actual grains of sand by getting really close using a tripod and macro lens.
The most important snippet of advice I can give you here is shoot a scene before you walk into it! Footprints (unless you want them to be in the picture) will ruin your shots.
One of the most exciting design elements in the dunescape are the ripples created by the wind. These are most sharply defined by low-angled light hence the point of shooting at sunrise or late afternoon. The dunescape offers endless opportunities to create really unique photo compositions... especially right after a big windstorm has cleaned up the dunes. Then the sand is virgin and unsullied and there are no footprints to deal with, other than the ones you make yourself. And don't forget, a beautiful sky will add to your images. When there are clouds, either those white, fluffy ones or some towering storm clouds, you can add a feeling of vastness or of drama to your composition. If you use a polarising filter you will make the blue sky darker, thus making the clouds really stand out.
Compose scenic shots using a wide-angle lens (16-35 mm) and use a hyperfocal chart. (For more information of hyperfocal distances visit www.dofmaster.com where you can download a chart for your specific lens.) For example, with a 24mm lens, at f/22, set the lens-focusing ring at 3.5 feet. (The image will look blurred in your viewfinder but don't worry). Set the tripod low, keeping the camera about 2 feet from the closest ripples in your viewfinder. Using the ripples for foreground, sand dunes for middle ground, and distant mountains as background, shoot some vertical as well as horizontal compositions. And where you can, include a few desert plants. They make interesting foreground elements.
Try viewing the dunes from some of the higher crests through a zoom lens (such as a 70-300 mm) and observe the shadows. You can isolate interesting patterns by combining the ripples across the dunes with their shadows. In some areas the ripples form swirls around desert plants. These leading lines make great compositions. Similarly, mud cracks and tumbling weeds also tell an interesting visual story.
The sand dunes are three-dimensional and therefore each side will be receiving different amounts of light. This makes bracketing a must. Meter off a grey card and bracket by a stop each side.
Abigal Harman is a prize-winning professional photographer based in Australia. In addition to taking pictures of the desert, she specialises in family, children and baby photography. She is particular adept in utilising natural light to create pleasing photographs of her subjects in both colour and in black and white: to view examples of her images visit her children and family photography website. She was assisted in writing this article by her husband, novelist, writing coach and ghost writer John Harman.