I travelled in Oz years ago with a Swiss woman who always got the words “desert” and “dessert” mixed up. So in a restaurant we would be having “desert” and we would be camping in the Australian “dessert”. I love Swiss people, they’re crazy and they’re funny. I smile at their use of English, they laugh at my German 😀 I know her well (hi Susan if you read this!) so I’m sure she won’t mind me telling the story of how she once couldn’t recall the word “waitress” and instead made up “woman who gives desert around”. Not dessert of the cake or ice-cream variety mind you, no it was “desert” passed around the table! Whenever I visit a desert I smile and shout “dessert” and ignore the “now he’s bloody lost the plot!” look of the others!
I love the desert and after my Australia 2007 trip I like them even more, it is one of my favourite places to photograph. What most people see as “just a lot of bloody sand” I see as a magical mysterious otherworldly place. No man is an island wrote John Donne so apparently I cannot be an island but I can be a desert! (not dessert). Pictured above (click to see large) is one of my shots from the Pinnacles desert in Western Australia, the Pinnacles is one of the nominees for New 7 Wonders of Nature. (Would have been a better shot later in the day with long shadows but we couldn’t stay.)
“What a desolate place this is” says C-3PO disheartened when they crash land on the desert planet Tatooine in Star Wars, the robot clearly not liking the sight of the huge sand dunes. Me? I would love the desolate sandy deserts of Tatooine! My favourite shot in Star Wars: Luke Skywalker standing outside his uncle’s farm at dusk staring into infinity across the desert at the two (two! no wonder it’s a desert) setting suns of Tatooine. Magic.
So how do you capture this magical feeling in a camera? Not an easy task. Presenting something so large and so desolate on a small photo is difficult indeed, you want to make people “feel” the heat, the remoteness, the bright sunlight and arid sand of the desert in your photo. In Australia I played with different compositions and now I am toying with different post production techniques to try and bring the desert to you and here’s my tips so far for shooting in a desert:
- Bring water! It’s called a desert for a reason. It’s bloody hot and dry (except at night where it’s really cold…so remember warm stuff if you’re camping out!). Bring sunscreen as well.
- Use an ultra-wide angle lens to capture the big sweeping sand dunes of the desert…
- …but remember to have some sort of subject (maybe a lone tree or rock) and have some fore-, middle and background or everything will be so small and far away and flat that interest is lost for everyone but you (we tend to like our own shots, they’re connected with the experience of being there and shooting them…other viewers don’t have this experience).
- Use a polarizer filter, this is a must!
- As always – shoot early or late, seek shade in the middle of the day. Deserts may have little in the way of big subjects so the shadows are a very important part – and sand ripples and dunes create magnificent shadows!
- The sunlight is so bright, the reflections even brighter – that it is a good idea to underexpose by 1/3 or 1/2 of a stop to avoid blown highlights in that lovely sand…
- …but actually your problem if you use automatic metering will be too much underexposure by your camera due to the very bright scene. It’s a topic for a long and separate article about the matrix metering system but your camera’s light meter doesn’t know it’s sand or snow you’re pointing it at – it’s just trying to find the 18% gray value and since there’s nothing dark in the photo to contrast the brightness it underexposes.
- Maybe you want to use manual exposure and just use the “sunny-16” rule: f/16 at 1/160, f/11 at 1/250 and f/8 at 1/500 and then just underexpose that by about 1/2 of a stop. Remember when calculating this that the polarizer cuts up to 1 full f-stop!
- If all you can see is sand and you have no rocks or anything to put in the foreground of your composition – then get down really to the ground and use the grain of the sand and the sand ripples as your foreground.
- Watch your step. It may look desolate but lot’s of wildlife live in the desert. Don’t step into holes, don’t stick your hand in holes (they’re called Death Adders for a reason these snakes mate!)
- If you change lenses shield your camera! Desert dust create a lot of specks on your sensor (trust me I know!).
Here’s a few of my photos from desert experiences so far:
Sand dunes at Lancelin
(technically not in a desert, but an example of using sand with side lighting)
Uluru and tree in the desert
(Polarizer and max contrast to create the feeling of bright, hot desert)
Uluru and in the middle of the vast desert
(At sunset and at 24mm the long shadows of Uluru and the sand dunes expresses the remoteness and size of the rock and the desert)
Gibson Desert, Western Australia
(Driving into the Gibson Desert we are reminded of the dangers of crossing a desert)
My next photo trip is definitely going to include somewhere hot, dry and sandy – one desert for me please! The sand dunes and deserts of Namibia, Death Valley in USA, Morocco, Simpson Desert in Australia and of course Tatooine are at the top of on my list of next destinations.
“What a desolate place this is”. Indeed C-3PO – wouldn’t want it any other way!
The Gobi in Mongolia is a pretty nifty desert, too, as is White Sands in the southern part of New Mexico — part of the Great Chihuahua Desert, one of the few high deserts. I also loved Morocco, though Namibia and Death Valley are on my list, too.
Of course you already know how I feel about Australia's deserts. (I think I photographed that same cross in the Gibson.)
I guess from this post that you're back home again. Well, I guess one does have to sort slides and organize for the next trip. My next arid region? Egypt and Jordan.
Thanks for the tips Cynthia, yeah I'm back home again but have re-charged my batteries and am well ready to go again tomorrow!!!!
Egypt and Jordan sounds great, when are you off?
The trip to Egypt/Jordan is May 17-June 6. So not very soon — but soon enough. Have to earn some money for souvenirs. Also thinking of trying to go digital between now and then (yes, I'm still using film!). Gives me some time to practice — and figure out what gear to buy. Any advice?
Actually, as an added note to your post above — I have a few recipes on my site, one for the famous Australian dessert called the Pavlova. However, it's astonishing how many times I see in the blog stats that people are searching for the desert Pavlova. In light of your post, those searches now make me smile.
As for digital camera, would love to help – send me an email and tell me what you're after, compact or dslr and price range and if you already own any lenses etc.
The Desert Pavlova…yeah I heard of that, haven't been but gotta go see that someday 😀 Maybe it's as good as the dessert pavlova!