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Perfecting desert photography

  • Written by  Keith Wilson
  • Published in Geophoto
Perfecting desert photography
14 Aug
With guaranteed sunshine, bright blue skies and not a hint of air pollution, inland deserts provide some of the best and clearest natural light to be found anywhere on Earth, an ideal lure for photographers, says Keith Wilson

Unlike Africa, Australia and Asia, Europe is not a continent readily associated with deserts, but from Spain to Croatia, there are a surprising number of these arid areas. A desert region is defined by its lack of rainfall, receiving fewer than ten inches (25cm) a year. By this measure, Europe is home to more than a dozen deserts, although it is debatable as to which country is home to the largest, sandiest or even the geologically ‘truest’.

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For the record, the largest is the grandly named Oltenian Sahara in Romania, covering 81,000ha (200,000 acres). However, this is not a natural land formation, as it owes its existence to the significant deforestation of the 1960s, with the area’s low precipitation also contributing to the formation of the vast arid expanse seen today. Modest attempts to prevent further desertification in Oltenia have failed and the desert is expanding by approximately 1,000ha (2,500 acres) each year.

Europe’s largest sand desert is the Deliblato Sands in Serbia, covering a total of 300km2. It is a remnant of a larger desert formed by the evaporation of the shallow inland Pannonian Sea in the Pliocene epoch. But it is in the regular 40ºC summer heat of Andalusia, Spain, where mainland Europe’s ‘only true desert’ can be found. Commonly referred to as the ‘badlands of Spain, the Tabernas Desert most closely matches the common perception of an arid, sandy wasteland with searing summer temperatures and little precipitation. Film-makers have used this location for decades, most famously as a substitute for America’s deserts in director Sergio Leone’s series of 1960s ‘Spaghetti Westerns’, starring Clint Eastwood.

This connection with cinematic culture has made the Tabernas a popular location for tourists and photographers ever since, although the lack of animal and plant life means there are few alternatives to photographing the barren landscape and debris from old movie sets.

Namib desert, NamibiaNamib desert in the Namib Naukluft National Park, Namibia


Although Europe may not be renowned as a location for the massive, windswept sand dunes that define the Sahara Desert in North Africa or the Empty Quarter of the Arabian Peninsula, there is a coastal dune 60km from Bordeaux in the Arcachon Bay area of France that rises a hundred metres above this stretch of Atlantic seaboard.

The Great Dune of Pyla, is the tallest sand dune in Europe and measures three kilometres in length. Also known as the Great Dune of Pilat, the dune’s spectacular location and beauty attracts more than a million visitors every year, including paragliders who launch themselves from the top of the sandy crest to fly over the beach for a breathtaking view across the ocean and shoreline. With a GoPro and other similar helmet-mounted cameras, both stills and videos are frequently captured and uploaded to social media pages.

Beyond Europe’s great dune, one has to venture to the African continent to find the astonishing sight of massive desert sand dunes running right down to the breaking ocean waves. Along the North Atlantic shore from Western Sahara to Mauritania is the Atlantic Coastal Desert, which covers 39,900km2 and receives less than two inches of rain a year. Indeed, several years may pass without any rain at all.

Marking the western edge of the great Saharan Desert, this arid stretch of coast shares many of the geographical characteristics of the better-known Skeleton Coast of Namibia. Although at opposite ends of the African continent, both the Skeleton Coast and the Atlantic Coastal Desert are among the driest places on Earth, and yet many plants and insect species are able to survive on the sand dunes thanks to the thick sea fogs which engulf the coast and provide the precious airborne moisture needed to sustain life.

Almeria desert tree in SpainDesert Tabernas in Almeria Province, Spain


So what is the attraction of a seemingly lifeless, scorching and energy-sapping environment for photographers? One of the most alluring aspects of shooting in such places is the quality and consistency of the light. Working with the same consistent light day in and day out immediately improves the likelihood of returning home with a portfolio of pictures as originally envisaged – or a Hollywood blockbuster. Consistent light levels allow photographers to concentrate more on composition and to experiment with different lenses and viewpoints, comfortable in the knowledge that the prevailing lighting conditions won’t change.

Giant sand dunes are the most spectacular desert feature and rise like soft rounded hills, sometimes with sand swirling from their crests as the wind blows. The Namib Desert, which runs the full length of Namibia’s Atlantic coastline (including the Skeleton Coast), is renowned for the beauty and colour of its sand dunes and attracts landscape photographers from all over the world. The southern part of this geologically oldest of deserts comprises a vast sea of dunes, some among the tallest in the world and exceeding 300m in height. They are also remarkably colourful, ranging from pink to vivid orange.

At such heights, these dunes are constantly shifting in the wind, their shape and form never constant, but this remains an incredibly fine and uncluttered landscape where the only colour is the clean blue of the sky and yellow and orange hues of the dunes. Apart from a glimpse of the horizon, there are no straight lines and the clarity of the light and atmosphere makes distances hard to gauge.

Namib desert alongside Atlantic OceanThe Namib desert along side the Atlantic Ocean


There is something aesthetically pleasing to the eye about a series of curving lines leading the eye into the frame. Such sweeping lines can be accentuated by the optical distortion that occurs at the edge of the frame when using a wide-angle lens. Look closely for ripple patterns in the sand, created by the wind blowing across the face of the dunes, to provide some pleasing foreground interest.

In a landscape consisting of little more than round shapes, gentle lines and tones, a cloudless sky and little detail, it pays to look out for something that breaks this soft-lined uniformity. The bleached trunk of a dead tree, an exposed piece of jagged rock, or an old fence line partially buried by the shifting sands – each can add scale and depth to the composition.

Flatter, scrubbier deserts are less attractive, unless there is an outstanding geological feature such as a rock arch or mesa to break up the distant expanse. But even the most monotonous desert can be transformed by rain – dry saltpans fill with water to become oases for hundreds of birds seemingly flying-in from nowhere and the hard, barren ground is quickly carpeted with brilliantly coloured wildflowers.

Deserts are also habitat for wildlife. Although plants and animals may not be conspicuously present, the species that do live in these environments are worth seeking out as their adaptability to this extreme and specific climate means many are endemic and therefore not found anywhere else, including other deserts!

Sahara desert at sunsetSunset in the Sahara


Unsurprisingly, shooting in extreme heat under the constant glare of direct sunlight can create difficulties for your pictures. Shooting too close to the direction of the sun will cause flare to appear in some images. Zoom lenses are more susceptible to flare because they have a greater number of optical elements, and therefore more reflective surfaces, in their construction than a fixed focal length lens. If you’re using a DSLR camera any flare occurring through the lens will be visible in the viewfinder, and checking the image on the monitor will confirm the degree of this aberration.

On a bright day, sand is highly reflective, so controlling the quantity and quality of light entering your lens requires the help of few simple accessories. Firstly, the much-overlooked lens hood sold with every new telephoto or zoom lens is helpful at shielding out peripheral and reflected light from the front lens element. Polarising filters are another useful lens attachment as they cut out glare most effectively while also helping to emphasise any clouds in the sky. But remember that attaching a polarizer to your lens will reduce the amount of light reaching the image sensor by up to two stops.

When working in such extreme temperatures, it is important not to let your camera overheat. Most cameras are black so they warm up quickly and should therefore be put away as soon as you’ve finished taking pictures. Finally, don’t overlook your own needs when working in the heat. Take plenty of water, wear a hat and slap on plenty of sunscreen. Heat exhaustion and sunstroke can affect you before you become aware of the situation. The best practice is to conduct your photography early in the morning or late in the afternoon – that is when the air is coolest and the light at its best. In between, have a siesta.

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hoya super pro1 revo filter SMC CIR PL

ACCESSORY: Polarising Filter

When photographing in harsh direct light, reflections tend to be stronger, even from sandy surfaces. High contrast and pinpoints of bright reflective light remain a constant feature throughout a cloudless day. By adding a polarising filter to your lens, glare and hotspots of light bouncing from smooth surfaces can be reduced. The Japanese-made Hoya Super Pro 1 D Revo SMC circular polariser (up to £115) is one of the best filters of this type and available to fit most lens filter thread sizes, from 37mm up to 82mm.


sigma 24 70os art 02

LENS: Standard Zoom

Standard zooms cover the most heavily-used focal length ranges from wide-angle to short telephoto and therefore lessen the need to change lenses while shooting; well worth observing in a sandy environment, especially if the wind gets up. The Sigma 24-70mm f/2.8 DG OS HSM (£1,200)is notable for a constant f/2.8 aperture throughout its focal range. It is robustly constructed with a metal barrel and rubber sealed lens mount to keep out moisture and grit.


Canon EOS 5D Mark IV FSL w EF 24 70mm

CAMERA: Weather-sealed DSLR

Hot, dry summer days can throw up a lot of dust inland while salt spray, sand and surf are a constant presence along the ocean shore, so using a camera that can withstand these extremes will allow you to work with greater confidence. The Canon EOS 5D Mk IV (£2,500 body only) is a full-frame DSLR with a magnesium alloy and polycarbonate body that is an ideal camera to use in the most testing of conditions.


Recommended reading

The Namib Desert: Art. Structures. Colors by Jurgen Wettke • £50

Sahara: Call of the Desert by Philippe Bourseiller • £31

Flamingos in the Desert: Exploring Almeria by Kevin Borman • £8.99


• Carry plenty of water and avoid going out in the midday sun – deserts can be deadly and hazy light at the hottest part of the day drains the scene of colour and shadow definition.
• Look for natural patterns in the landscape, such as ripples in dunes or bands of rock strata. Try focusing on details too using longer lens focal lengths.
• Use lens hoods to reduce the amount of direct or reflected sunlight entering the front lens element and causing flare in your pictures.

• Change lenses if the wind blows – grains of sand can cause great damage to your camera and lens electronics and motors if lodged 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 camera bag after taking a picture.

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