The unseasonable changes to the world’s weather brought on by climate change has led to many more people paying attention to the forecast and taking notice of extreme climatic events in other parts of the world. Until recently, our interest in the weather was a parochial concern – limited to the region where we lived, looking only a couple of days ahead and never beyond the next weekend. Now, global weather reports and forecasts have become of greater relevance and concern to more of us, and not just for helping to decide what to pack for the summer holidays.
However, there are still many parts of the world where the weather remains as predictable as ever. For instance, with summer in the Northern Hemisphere reaching its peak, long periods of hot, dry weather can be reliably expected in many countries of the Middle East, North Africa and the Indian sub-continent. Maximum temperatures in Cairo, Dubai and Karachi consistently reach more than 40°C at this time of year, making it unbearable – even dangerous – to stay outdoors for long periods.
These are desert cities with rapidly growing populations and limited supplies of water, and it’s not surprising that most visitors choose to avoid these locations at this time of year. Instead, visitors wait for the cooler months later in the year to travel to desert locations. While temperatures may be more bearable, the light and conditions will be similar.
A desert is defined by a lack of rainfall: just a few centimetres a year, on average, and some years with none at all. Unceasing heat, blinding sand and dust, and a bone-dry, waterless terrain may seem like the least attractive landscape for any photographer to venture into, so what’s the attraction?
With guaranteed sunshine and clear blue skies, deserts provide some of the best natural light to be found anywhere in the world. Once away from the air pollution of nearby cities, the clean, dry air of the desert carries a clarity of light that enables distant subjects to be seen in sharper relief.
For the photographer, being able to work outdoors knowing that there will be the same clear and consistent light day in, day out improves the likelihood of a day’s shoot going to plan, thereby improving your chances of creating some great pictures. So, instead of having to constantly alter exposure when a passing cloud blocks out the sun, more time can be devoted to compositional variations, to using different lenses and angles to arrange and emphasise the graphic elements
of the desert in a different way.
The ideal notion of a desert landscape as an endless sea of undulating dunes rolling into the distance rarely ceases to fire the imagination and inspire the photographer who appreciates a minimalist scene. There’s something comforting to the eye about layers of curving lines leading the eye across or into the frame. Such curves can be accentuated with the distortion of a wide-angle lens, while patterns of sand ripples, created by the wind blowing across the face of the dunes, provide enough foreground interest to please the eye.
SCALE AND DEPTH
Giant sand dunes are a spectacular desert feature and in the Namib and Sahara deserts of Africa or the Empty Quarter of the Arabian Peninsula, these shift constantly in the wind, making navigation extremely difficult. It’s a strange, uncluttered landscape where the only colour is the clean blue of the sky and sandy yellow of the dunes. Apart from a glimpse of the horizon, there are no straight lines and distances are difficult to gauge.
In a landscape reduced to rounded shapes, subtle tones and with few details, it pays to look out for something that breaks this soft-lined uniformity. In Namibia, the dead bleach-white trees of Dead Vlei provide a striking contrast to the massive orange dunes (as well as scale, depth and foreground interest).
Other foreground possibilities include large rocks and boulders, but care has to be taken with their size and position in the frame so that they don’t become the main focal point of the scene. There are exceptions to this of course: in California’s Death Valley, the famous ‘sliding stones’, which move unaided across the dry saltpans, are a subject in their own right. Compositional details
A well-worn trail vanishing in the distance, or a broken fenceline, can also add depth to the composition, as well as creating a lead-in line to the rest of the scene. The prominence of such objects in the overall composition depends largely on the choice of lens, shooting angle and where the photographer chooses to place such a feature in the frame.
Scale and depth are vital elements for any landscape, but in terrain ravaged by years of drought, signs of animal or plant life can be few, even non-existent. In such situations, a single conspicuous feature suddenly carries more importance.
For instance a drought-ridden landscape will turn to desert quickly, but without the spectacular beauty of desert dunes. Instead, the weathered skull of a sheep or cow, an empty water trough or derelict barn provide the visual evidence of more verdant times, when the climate was less extreme and rainfall more frequent.
Fortunately, even the longest drought can be broken and the driest desert transformed by rain. Dry saltpans fill with water, attracting hundreds of birds from nowhere and brilliantly coloured wildflowers suddenly bloom.
FILTERS AND EQUIPMENT CARE
In deserts and drought-hit areas, the glare of the sun can create difficulties for both camera lenses and the photographer’s eyes. Direct sunlight leads to flare in your images. Zoom lenses are more susceptible to this aberration because they have a greater number of optical elements – and therefore more reflective surfaces – in their construction.
Thankfully, any flare will be visible in the viewfinder. In bright, intense sunlight, the undervalued lens hood proves its worth by shielding out from the frame the peripheral lighting that causes flare.
Polarising filters are also very useful because they reduce glare, help to emphasise any cloud detail in the sky and reduce the amount of light reaching the image sensor by up to two stops. However tempting it might be, it’s advisable to avoid full polarisation in bright sun as this can lead to an unnaturally dark sky. Warm-up filters (81a, 81b or 81c) are worth considering to enrich the golden hues of sand, rocky outcrops and other geological features in the landscape.
Tripods are at risk in these environments from sand or grit getting between the leg joints, so ensure that the legs are sealed with O-rings. Also make sure that your camera doesn’t overheat; most camera bodies are black, so they warm up very quickly. To prevent this happening, you should always put your camera away in a bag or backpack as soon as you’ve finished taking pictures.
When working in the heat, don’t overlook your own needs, either. Take plenty of water, wear a hat and sunglasses, and cover exposed skin with sunscreen. Conditions such as heat exhaustion or sunstroke can take effect long before you become aware of the situation. The best practice, therefore, is to conduct your photography early in the morning or late in the afternoon, which, conveniently, is also when the light will be at its best.
Carry plenty of water. Deserts and drought-hit areas can be deadly, so keep well hydrated and avoid going out in the midday sun – hazy vertical light at the hottest part of the day doesn’t make for a good picture anyway
Look for natural patterns in the landscape, such as ripples in dunes or bands of rock strata, and accentuate any curving lines by using a wide-angle lens
Use a lens hood to control the amount of peripheral light that passes through your lens and thereby reduce the chance of flare
Change lenses if its windy. Grains of sand can be devastating to the image sensor and camera electronics if they find their way inside
Include too much sky in the frame unless there are some interesting cloud formations developing, or spectacular colours at sunrise and sunset
Leave your camera exposed to the sun when not in use – it will overheat quickly. Always return it to your backpack or bag after taking a picture
The Kalahari Desert by Molly Alolan, Crabtree Publishing, pb, £8.99
Sahara by Michael Palin, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, hb, £20
Deserts of the Earth by Michael Martin et al, Thames & Hudson, hb, £35
Accessory option: Polarising filter
When fitted to the front of a lens, a polariser (from £15) will reduce the glare caused by reflections off bright surfaces, including sand. It will also help emphasise any cloud formations and saturate the sky’s blue light. Remember, however, that polarisers also reduce the amount of light reaching your image sensor by up to two stops.
Lens option: Superzoom
When working in dusty and windy environments, changing lenses can result in dust and sand getting into the camera. A superzoom such as Tamron’s new 16–300mm f/3.5-6.3 Di II (£530) reduces the need to switch lenses by covering every focal length from wide-angle to telephoto. This lens also features vibration control and focuses down to 39 centimetres at all focal lengths. Available in Canon, Nikon and Sony mounts.
Camera option: Olympus OM-D E-M10
The latest mirrorless compact system camera from Olympus continues the trend for smaller and lighter cameras with interchangeable lenses. Their portability and wide selection of lenses makes them a popular choice among travel photographers. The new E-M10 (£550, with 14–42mm zoom lens) features a 16-megapixel image sensor, 81-point AF system,1.44-million-dot electronic viewfinder, 3.0in LCD touchscreen and 8fps burst mode.
This story was published in the July 2014 edition of Geographical Magazine