How To Shoot In The Desert

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When you think about the desert, you might imagine a really hot, barren place with a few cactus plants and poisonous snakes. While those things can be true, there is much more to the desert environment than what first comes to mind. 

Deserts can be full of life with insects, birds, animals, and plants surviving in this intense environment. Temperatures can range from scorching hot to freezing cold with dramatic weather elements from the sun, rain, lightning storms, twisters, and bright or moody skies. The colors can be beautiful hues of reds, oranges, pinks, brown, blue and green. The landscapes can be harsh and jagged or smooth and elegant with sand, rock, mountain and dune features. This all gives photographers great opportunities for dramatic shots. 

Not only can you achieve epic imagery in the desert, but it's an area many photographers don't tackle. So you can stand out with unique and eye-catching images in your portfolio. 

It is a challenging environment, so you do need to be strong, determined, patient, and resilient to photograph desert scenes. It's not like going to the park to take pretty flower photos. If this adventurous photo assignment sounds like you, read on.

Be Prepared

Research and planning are essential for the photographer destined for the desert. There are many dangers including poisonous plants and creatures like snakes, spiders and scorpions and extreme changeable weather. You should always travel with a companion or group. 

Decide where you are going and make a plan that includes a detailed itinerary. Schedule times for walking, shooting, resting, meals and sleeping if you are going on an overnight trip. Include checklists with gear you are taking, food, drink, and other essentials. Write down medical conditions of any in the group. These checklists make sure you don't forget anything that you might need and might even save a life.

Check the local rules and regulations. If you are going into a national park, read up on what is and isn't allowed. For example, most national parks prohibit drones. 

Also, check what wildlife you can expect to encounter. Then you can be ready to photograph or retreat from whatever creature crosses your path.

Camera Gear

Here is a list of recommended camera equipment for shooting in the desert. It will vary depending on your purpose. You might be shooting for fun, shooting landscapes for stock and your portfolio, or have a model for a client. 

  • Camera body (plus spare body if possible)
  • Wide-angle lens
  • Zoom lens
  • Standard lens
  • Macro lens
  • Tripod or monopod
  • Filters and other accessories

Travel light if possible because walking and shooting in the desert are physically challenging, even for the fittest photographer. Take a point and shoot and use your phone camera for shooting when you need to rest. For example, you might stop for lunch and all be sitting in a shaded area on the ground. Snapping some documentary-style snaps on your phone will add an extra layer to your collection of desert images. But you do need to rest when it's time to rest and not be constantly lifting your heavy camera. Exhaustion and heat stroke are real threats and can hit you suddenly.

If you need to change lenses in the desert, be mindful of blowing sand. Don't hesitate to use a bag or hiking buddy as a windbreak for a fast, sheltered lens switch. You could also protect the front of your lens from blowing sand abrasion by using a UV filter or other filter of choice. Remember to keep your camera out of intense sun and heat when not actively shooting to mitigate temperature warnings and overheating downtimes. 

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How And What To Shoot

Wide-angle landscape shots give a great overview of what the desert looks like. Keep an eye on the weather and take these shots at different times of the day. Get lots of detail shots of rocks, plants, flowers, signs, footprints, trees and anything else you find on your way. Photograph your travel companions and remember people in images are a great way to show scale. You will also be acting as a model for your fellow travelers. 

Look for shapes and formations in the landscape and try your hand at creating abstract imagery. Get up high, get down low and find interesting perspectives and angles for eye-catching shots. A desert is a place where you can be very creative and let your imagination run free. You have the advantage of time because out in the desert, the pace of life is generally slow (unless a mountain lion is chasing you across the sand dunes). 

If you have a model to photograph in the desert, you can create some really epic imagery. Fashion photography in the desert can look high-end and exotic. The hair and make-up can be challenging in the extreme heat, but the results can be amazing. Engagement and bridal shoots in the desert can look cool if you can find a dessert that is easily accessible without traveling too far. The desert may initially look like a dry, empty place, but it can make a stunning backdrop full of interesting elements and colors. 

Mother Nature can give impressive shows at sunrise and sunset with brightly-hued skies that cast a gorgeous blanket of color over the contrasting desert landscape. Getting up early or staying at the desert until the very end of the day can give you some of the best shots of the day. Those golden hours after the sun comes up and as it goes down are often times you can capture the most flattering desert imagery. Use weather apps to see what is coming your way so you can predict how the light might be.

What To Wear

If this is your first time venturing into the desert with your camera, let's assume you are heading into a hot climate for a short day or overnight trip. Check the weather conditions for average highs and lows at the time of year you are going as well as current conditions just before you depart. Pack accordingly. Light clothing will keep you cool and protect you from the sun at the same time. Quality walking shoes are a must. Don't forget your hat, sunglasses and a scarf.

Safety Precautions

The desert is a harsh place to work, with temperatures soaring high and dropping low. So apart from your camera gear, ensure you carry essentials items including:

  • Plenty of food and water
  • Charged phone with spare batteries
  • Medicine and well-stocked first aid kit

Stay hydrated, be sensible and always keep together with your group or travel companion. Inform friends and family about your travel plans, including details about where you are going and when you will be back. Always use your common sense and stay alert.

Good luck out there in the desert and we are excited to see your desert shots and hear the stories that unfold behind the scenes!

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