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Your Guide to Stunning Desert Photography

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Read Time: 5 min

What I like about desert is that it feels like a place lost in time. Surrounded by nothing but sand and dirt, it feels prehistoric. Who knows how long that rock I’m standing next to has been there? By the look of it, dinosaurs have passed by and seen the exact same things I’m seeing. Today, let's take a look at capturing its aura in a photos.

Deserts exist throughout the world. From the Mojave to the the Sahara to the Australian Outback. They’re excellent places to create unique and stunning photos. There are also a lot of stories in the desert waiting to be told.

Here are some tips to get you inspired and to achieve the best images of the desert.

Photo by sandyseek

Look Up to the Sky

With no skyscrapers or telephone poles blocking your sight, the sky really opens up in the desert. You feel like you’re standing on the surface of the moon because the horizon extends so vastly in every way you look.

Use this open sky to create interesting negative space in your images. Minimalist photography works great here because of the amount of space you have to work with.

Also, keep your eyes and ears peeled for planes and jets that often fly by and leave a trail. The patterns they create can be captured in a way that enhances the overall image.

Photo by Victor Bezrukov

Expect The Unexpected

I’ve done a lot of driving through the desert, especially on off-road trails. And I can tell you that you’re always sure to come across something unexpected. There’s a lot of stuff people dump in the middle of nowhere, from cars to guitars to refrigerators. These things decay in the desert. They grow old, build character, and make for excellent subject matter.

In the desert, there are a lot of opportunities to find great “things" for shooting dereliction and decay. Abandoned restaurants, houses, and gas stations are also things that just “pop up" going through the desert. The history of them tells an excellent story.

Photo by Phillip Capper

Your Car is a Great Model

Photo by John O’Nolan

Even though the desert holds a lot of interesting things to be found, it is after all a big space. Sometimes you can go for miles and see nothing. If this happens, use your car as a subject. A car set against a desert background instantly creates a story.

Set up the shot in a way that suggests something is going on. Park it on the side of the road, near a cactus, or overlooking a view spot. You may not even have to stage anything! The adventure of shooting in the desert may bring along situations you can’t help but photograph.

Also - the contrast of a modern, functioning car against the wasteland of the desert can be intriguing and spark viewers interest.

Photo by Alfred Weidinger


The desert is dynamic, so it only makes sense to capture it with a photography style that’s just as dynamic. Hence HDR, or High Dynamic Range Photography.

Deep canyons create dark shadows. The sun overhead can be blindingly bright. Clouds roll in during the winter and cast dark spots all over the surface of the land. And you can have a combination of all these conditions and elements at once.

The trick with HDR photography is to not overdo it. The the resulting image should look similar to what you would see with your naked eye. Take 3-7 shots at different exposures - keeping in mind that it’s the shutter speed you’re going to change.

Changing the ISO and aperture would mean affecting the noise and depth-of-field of each exposure. It’s important to keep each image consistent in look when it comes to anything but the exposure. Next step is post processing the HDR image with your chosen software.

Photo by Wolfgang Staudt

Be Nocturnal

If you haven’t yet had the chance to experience the night sky away from city lights, then you’re in for a treat. As photographers, we’re always on the hunt for excellent natural light.

The stars seen from the empty desert shine more brightly and are far more numerous than anything you’ll see from the city. It’s the perfect place to shoot long exposures of star trails.

Bring a tripod and a cable release and be prepared to sit for long exposures. Factor in the phase of the moon as well because a full moon may be too bright while a new moon will require very long exposures, perhaps up to an hour.

Photo by Evan Blaser

Seek Elevation and Choose Your Lens

Add interest to your images by finding higher ground to shoot from. Hills and mountains are common in the desert and just a small change of elevation can dramatically change the scene. This kind of composition will better capture the vastness of the space and help define the emptiness of the desert.

Capture even more of this space by using a wide angle lens. Or, use a zoom lens to nicely compose subjects that are spread out by the land. For example, you could have a cactus and a mountain that are very far apart in reality.

Using a wide angle would only make the cactus look small and less appealing in relation to the mountain. But by using a zoom lens you can compress multiple subjects into one frame, creating more interest and better composition.

Photo by Kevin Dooley

Keep Yourself Prepared

It gets hotter than you can imagine in the desert. Even if you’re shooting when the sun is down and the temperatures are cooler, make sure you are physically prepared.

It’s too easy to forget about taking care of yourself while juggling bags and equipment. Taking water and supplies is imperative when setting out into the sands.

Photo by Fikret Onal

The Desert Awaits You!

Not many photographers use the beauty that the desert has to offer because it doesn’t seem like an ideal location, at first, that is. But as anyone who has been there can tell you, explore a little and you’ll find that the possibilities of capturing stunning photos are endless.

Photo by Bruce Fingerhood
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