Desert Landscape Photography

Desert Photography Primer 2 of 5

Text and Photos by Chris Wray

Hiker on Ridge, Anza Borrego Desert State Park

Landscape photography not only allows us to show the desert in realistic ways, it also enables us to create a personalized view. Some of the techniques used in landscape photography are the topic of this article, the second in this series. In the introductory article, I discussed many of the problems of desert photography, including equipment and how the desert affects exposure.

Since you will hopefully be making photographs from places other than your car seat, you need to find your own way to carry your camera equipment. The desert photographer learns to carry their normal hiking supplies, then add the camera gear. The image of the photographer on the ridge is an example of someone hiking several miles from their car, but without a large amount of gear. Heavy cameras and lenses only hinder your mobility in the outdoors.

Twisted Pinyon, Joshua TreeIn a Sandstone Chute

Above right is a view is of me trying to climb up into a sandstone canyon. I had to wedge myself into a chute of smooth stone about 12 feet high and inch my way up. Challenging yourself to go into areas where you cannot drive is the best way to find scenes you and other people will find interesting and uncommon. While it is not always necessary to climb dry waterfalls, you should try to get away from the car and the campgrounds whenever possible. This will not only help your photography, you will also greatly expand your desert experience.

The successful desert photographer learns to deal with many situations offered in the outdoors. It is not realistic to think you can always have plenty of time with just the right equipment to create the perfect image. You have to think quickly and be able to use what you have at the moment. When I look through my portfolio of display photographs, I find images made in all hours, places, and weather. Some photos will be made from the car window, others 10 miles from the car. You need to be open to new places and situations to ensure variety in your work.

Carrizo Badlands

I want to show several desert landscapes and talk about them directly. The first image is a common desert scene. This view was made from the flanks of Carrizo Mountain in southern Anza-Borrego. This image is a great example of how the desert landscape tends to have very flat lighting and only slight variation in contrast and color. This badlands view was also made with a normal focal length lens. That is, the lens was neither wide-angle nor telephoto. The result is a documentary scene with little else in its favor.

Wide-Angle Lenses

Clouds at Yaqui WellLet's consider the next image of clouds above Yaqui Well, also in Anza-Borrego. The side lighting from the low sun adds dimension and color to the scene. In addition, I used a wide-angle lens. The lens allows for the inclusion of the near plants and a nice expanse of clouds. Wide-angle views allow the photographer to create a sense of distance in the image.

Wide-angle lenses also offer good depth-of-field. This is the photographic term for how much is in focus, near to far. Two items affect the depth-of-field. One is the focal length of the lens, wide angle having more depth than telephoto. The other effect is the f-stop, or aperture setting on the lens. The more you close down the aperture on any lens, the more you keep in focus. Unfortunately, you see through most lenses at their widest aperture, hence, their least depth-of-field. What the film sees when the camera closes the aperture down, say from f 1.8 to f 11, is quite different. Some cameras, especially ones that use larger film than 35mm, allow you to preview how the image appears at the chosen f-stop.

The choice of interesting light, combined with a lens and vantage point to enhance your subject, is the first step to avoid the boring view like the one from Carrizo Mountain above. As mentioned in the introductory article, you want to avoid scenes with too much range between the lights and darks. Yet, with care, you still can achieve a workable balance. Although the Yaqui Well image appears to have a strong mix of lighting, only the distant shadows on the hill are not in the sunlight. These shadows are not large enough to be a problem if they expose too dark to keep detail.

Telephoto Lenses

The next photograph shows another option for landscapes. This is a telephoto view from the Laguna Mountains looking into Mason Valley. This was also made during the late afternoon. I used a 300mm lens to isolate the light and shadow forms of the hills. The shadows are not well exposed, but that is ideal for this type of image, where a strong contrast is needed.

Mason Valley Hills

A telephoto also allows you to carefully frame the scene to exclude distracting details or overly bright and dark areas. The telephoto lens tends to flatten the depth perception of an image. This is the opposite effect from the wide-angle view. Telephoto lenses also have far less depth-of-field than normal or wide-angle lenses. You have seen this when you focus a pair of binoculars on a nearby object and everything behind it is out of focus. This effect can be used photographically to isolate subjects against distracting backgrounds.

Mudhills, Carrizo Badlands

Notice how the use of a telephoto lens, combined with afternoon light, allows for a badlands view much more intriguing than the first. The detail of the Carrizo Badlands was made not far from the earlier image. Though this view does not have the scope of the first, it has a greater sense of intimacy and wonder about what is not included.

Looking North from Whale Peak

One way to create a more dynamic sense of lighting on desert scenics is to include a larger area of contrasting tone. The view northward from Whale Peak is an example. The dark ridge is enough to set apart the bright hill, but the shadowed area still has enough exposure to keep the trees visible. The exposure on a view such as this can be tricky, as the range between the two areas must be within what the film can handle. This type of view is where bracketing two or three exposures may be necessary to obtain one good version.



Clouds are probably the most difficult feature of a landscape. They are often far brighter than the land underneath. A camera's meter will expose them for the standard middle gray, as described in Part 1. This leaves the land quite dark by contrast. I cannot offer any real solution to this problem except to show a couple examples of how to avoid the overcompensation problem. The obvious view would be to simply photograph clouds without the land. This is certainly feasible, but pure cloud photos rarely suffice for what we know we want.

Desert View, Laguna Mountains

The first example is of light clouds that would be a serious problem if not for their position. The scene is of the Anza-Borrego desert from the Laguna Mountains. The clouds were used to frame the desert. This allowed me to expose for the desert as normal and let the clouds go bright. Since they are not intruding on the impression of seeing the desert from a wintry mountain overlook, the clouds work well.

Rainbow at Canyon Sin Nombre

Of course, clouds are not always white. The image of the dark storm clouds with the rainbow was made near Canyon Sin Nombre in southern Anza-Borrego. Dark, looming clouds often lend a much greater emotional response to a scene than their bright cousins. This same cloud viewed from miles away may have been glaring white. Here, it broods.

Barrel, Salton SeaFilters

I would like to make quick mention of the only filter I commonly carry in the desert. The polarizing filter, like sunglasses of the same name, removes glare. On landscapes, the filter will deepen colors when it removes the small reflections from rocks and plants. It will also deepen the sky. The textbook example for the use of this filter is for photographing water. When I photographed the rusted barrel resting in the Salton Sea, the polarizing filter effectively removed all traces of blue in the water, leaving the Sea as its true self. Use of a polarizer requires care. You can quickly overdo the effect. Skies near the horizon may show a strong brown cast when the reflected blue is taken away.

Warming and cooling filters are often used by outdoor photographers as well. I actually own them too, but I like to find what colors the desert really has to offer instead of creating artificial casts. Remember, you are photographing a scene, not a filter effect. If you notice the filter's influence in the finished image, it was overused.

Since the appearance of the desert is strongly influenced by the type and quality of the light, the next installment of this photographic series will describe some of the different types of light you may encounter.

Desert Photography Primer

(1 of 5) - Basic Knowledge & Exposure
(2 of 5) - Desert Landscapes
(3 of 5) - Types of Desert Light
(4 of 5) - Details & Close-ups
(5 of 5) - Black & White Photography

More on Desert Photography


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