Learn to Master Desert Landscape Photography

Learn to Master Desert Landscape Photography

Are you daydreaming about traveling while on lockdown? Why not immerse yourself in the beauty of deserts and learn how to capture beautiful landscape images when we're allowed to travel the world once again?

For me, desert landscapes carry a lot of mystique and allure. As a destination that is on the other side of the world for me, I can only imagine the feeling one has while standing in the middle of nowhere, with sand covering horizon whichever direction you look. To bring the beauty of deserts into our homes, Anushka Eranga, a Sri Lankan born but Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE) based, landscape, travel, and fine art photographer, shares some of his expertise with us on how to photograph desert to achieve the best possible result. Who knows, maybe it will be a top destination for you once the travel restrictions are lifted?

Eranga started out in photography while in Dubai, after buying his first point-and-shoot camera. Initially, beginning with photographing friends' birthdays and weddings, Eranga found fascination in the cityscape and deserts that Dubai has to offer. Fast-forward to today, Eranga has worked for several well-known international brands in the hospitality, government, and fashion industry. 

An evening shot of a desert

The first several times Eranga tried his hand at shooting the local deserts, he shot everything he would come across. It certainly helped to live in close proximity to thousands of kilometers of desert sand, which he visited as part of his weekend relaxation and activities to practice photography. As more visits passed by, Eranga became more careful and thoughtful in his composition, lighting, and use of leading lines. 

The drastic changes in desert landscape from morning until the night is something that could attract any landscape and nature photographer. The wind will create different patterns in the sand every day, while the golden hour will give sky and sand matching colors. Eranga has since traveled extensively across the UAE, capturing deserts in various locations and highly recommends Abu Dhabi Liwa Desert if you want to photograph golden sand dunes. They extend all the way to Saudi Arabia and will give you plenty of photographic opportunities. This desert will give you pure sand everywhere you look, but if you want to photograph some lonely trees in the scene, you're better off traveling to Meliha Desert in Sharjah. 

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When planning your desert landscape images anywhere in the world, Eranga recommends a few things. Firstly, choose an appropriate location. Nature already provides us with plenty of beauty to feast our eyes on, but our job as a photographer is to pick out certain parts of it and create a visually appealing image out of it. Eranga believes that each and every photograph should carry a certain mood and style.

Instead of relying on luck, plan your trip ahead. Research the place you intend to travel to, not just based on what Google Images search gives you but also practical things that will affect your journey, such as visit permits. Eranga recommends using Photopills to plan your photographic trip. Once you've got your trip in the bag, spend time choosing your equipment. Eranga carries his camera, Sony a7R III, combined with a couple of lenses, giving a variety of focal lengths (Sony 16-35mm f/2.8 GM and 70-200mm f/2.8 GM), a Sirui tripodSirui square filter system, a remote shutter release, and a cleaning kit. In harsh outdoor conditions such as deserts, you'll likely need to be careful with your equipment and ensure it is clean. 

A shot of desert from above

Gear aside, Eranga also recommends always carrying a bottle of water, a towel, and some snacks in your bag, because it can be physically exhausting to walk across sand dunes, especially during summer, when temperatures can reach above 50 °C (122 °F). Make sure you also travel with a companion; it is better to be safe than sorry. The last thing you want is to feel unwell or faint in such high temperatures without anyone nearby to help you. Consider hiring a 4x4 vehicle with an experienced local driver, and when you're shooting, stay within a 50-70 m range to the vehicle.

When choosing the best time to travel, consider the quality of light. Do you want to shoot warm, fiery tones? Then, plan to travel for the golden hour. The blue hour also gives picturesque views for you to capture. As for the composition, Eranga does not necessarily follow the rule of thirds and other photography "laws," but he does pay attention to leading lines, diagonals, frames within frames, and more. You can be creative by picking a subject, such as a barren tree, or you can photograph more abstract lines and patterns created by the sand. If you own a drone, there is always an opportunity for scenic shots from higher above. 

A desert from above

Eranga always leaves his bag closed and on top of a dune, unless it's already on his shoulders, because the weather in such a barren place create perfect conditions for the wind to pick up, and you really don't want your bag to get filled with sand. When you're changing your lenses, be careful and check the direction of the wind so you can cover your equipment while changing without any sand getting blown into your camera or lens.

Generally, Eranga shoots with a narrow aperture, depending on the situation and the filter used. He also stacks or blends images to either get more detail in his shots or for creating dramatic long exposures. This part will depend on your style and preferences for shooting. After the shoot, Eranga uses post-processing to add the final touches. Whether you want to create drama or an appealing minimalist image, this is the time to add your unique personality and style into the image. Eranga uses Capture One Pro and Adobe Photoshop CC with DXO Nik Tools for his post-processing, and also InstaMask and Raya Pro for blending. Whether you choose color or monochrome, the desert landscape gives you plenty of opportunities to express yourself.

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Just because you did careful preparations, it doesn't mean that things can't go wrong. Eranga has had a car break down a few hundred kilometers away from the city of Abu Dhabi, and being unable to speak the local language combined with a bad network signal, it wasn't an easy task to receive help from emergency services. The silver lining in this terrible situation was the beautiful view around them, and luckily, a local camel farmer offered his help the next day. When shooting in the desert, enjoy nature, but also be prepared for the worst!

Will you be putting a photography trip to a desert location on your dream travel list?

Images used with the permission of Anushka Eranga.

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Anushka Eranga's picture

Thank you Fstopers & Anete.