Types of Light Encountered in the Desert

Desert Photography Primer 3rd of a 5-part series

Text and Photos by Chris Wray


In the previous article, Part 2 of this series, I showed examples of desert landscapes and gave some ideas about how to create images that go beyond the ordinary. In this installment, I want to cover some of the different ways the desert is lit.

I am often surprised how many seasoned photographers do not understand the very light they use to make photographs. Talking with some friends recently, I realized that one man who had photographed for many years in sandstone canyons had no clue why all those different colors were revealed in his images. The explanation of desert lighting is really rather simple, if you think about where the light comes from.

As I did in the landscape article, I want to show some photographs and describe what is happening in each.

Direct Light

Although many photographers shun midday lighting as being bleak and boring, you often find yourself forced to create interesting images when it is impractical to wait for better conditions. Several of the slides used as examples in the previous articles offer some ways to avoid the pitfalls of monotony, such as isolating a specific area in the photograph and looking for intriguing forms. Direct sunlight is always striking surfaces at a glancing angle somewhere. You may have to look a bit, but the sun is not as bland as many people think.

Late-afternoon or early-morning sun offers the chance to photograph strong side- and back-lighting. Notice in the image of the backlit palms how the sun almost seems to halo the fronds in the distance. Back-lighting is tricky to expose, but its quality is quite striking.

When the sun is close to the horizon, two things happen. The view toward the sun is bright and colorful. The view away from the sun is often lit by a glowing light. Many sunrises and sunsets are far more interesting if you turn around and look away from the sun. I photographed an arch in Utah once with incredible warm light radiating from the stone. Under the arch sat a group of people looking westward, never realizing what was above their heads.

The sunset with the wind clouds at Joshua Tree is a somewhat typical view to the west. After I decided the sunset was over, we drove back to the north. I rounded the mountains, and the sun began to light the underside of the clouds. This happened long after the sun had disappeared. This "second sunset" was awe-inspiring. An image of this later sunset is shown as the opening for this article. The view was made with a 35mm lens, hand-held, bracing myself against the car. That was all I had time to do. That both of these sunset photographs were made the same evening is almost hard to believe.

After the sunlight is gone, the desert tends to become gray unless any coloring in the western sky remains to add warmth to the landscape. The detail of the palm was made in the same grove as the backlit photo, but after the sun was gone. The resulting light is very soft and rather gray.

Before we begin looking at slides with more complex lighting, I want to explain what our natural light sources are. The sun is obviously the main light. It not only sheds its rays on the earth, however, but lights the sky as well. The daytime sky may either be blue, greenish, white or anything in between. The chief difference between the sun and the things it lights is the color. The sun we all know is warm in tone. The sky is often quite blue. Therefore, if an area is only lit by an open sky, it may have a strong blue cast. This happens quite often with shadows, since they are mostly lit by skylight.

Reflected Light

The other natural light source happens when light from either the sun or sky is reflected. If the sun is bounced off a warm-colored surface, like the desert, the resulting light will be even warmer. The cool cast from the open sky may be warmed somewhat when reflected, but far less than sunlight.

With this I show the first canyon image. This is a sandstone canyon in Anza-Borrego. Notice how the higher areas are warm in tone and the floor of the wash is a cool blue. Sunlight is being bounced off the upper ridges, which lights the high walls. The floor is only being lit by blue sky. Color film will find these differences and exaggerate them, but they are naturally occurring. Incidentally, this is also a hand-held photograph. I was on a long day hike and knew a tripod would be a nuisance climbing around in the canyons.

The next view is another canyon. The same lighting idea applies, except the colors are arranged horizontally this time. I was standing in an area open to the blue sky, as were the close boulders. The distant rock surfaces were lit by reflected sun. The shape and exposure of a canyon to the different light sources creates endless variations. It is not uncommon to find a single boulder in a canyon lit from three sides by three different types and colors of light.

The image of the detail in the canyon shows the effect of isolating an area of reflected light. Since this scene is not blue, we know the source must be something warmer, like sunlight being reflected off tan walls. This light can sometimes be followed deeper into the rocks. The image inside a rock cave at Joshua Tree has some light probably reflected several times off warm-tone surfaces. The remaining light is wonderful in its direction and color. This type of image does require a tripod.



Alternative Light

Light reflecting from outside also works well for photographs made inside buildings. The old mine pulley was photographed in its existing light. We can also add to the natural light falling inside an overhang or shaded area. Using flash to fill in shadows is rather common. The technique can be taken to further extremes, however.


The mine tunnel was lit by a nervy friend who stopped at several points and tripped a flash pointed away from the camera. A small amount of outside light is visible on the uppermost rocks which are quite warm in color. Alternative light can include camera flash, electric light bulbs, car headlights, battery flash lights and fires. Some of my favorite sources of light at night are freight trains.

The last image is an example of photographing a scene you literally cannot see with your eyes. The Carrizo Badlands were exposed by direct moonlight several hours after dark. The image was made on 100 ISO film with a normal lens set at f 2.8. The exposure was two minutes. Obviously, a tripod and a cable release to hold the shutter open were required. I made several exposures of this scene, basically bracketing, by adding 30 seconds or a minute each time. I actually managed to overexpose two slides. The ridge in the middle distance was not visible, nor was the sky or snow on the distant dark mountains. The white blotches on the badlands are caused by water evaporating and leaving a salty residue.

As desert photographers, we need to make images in whatever light we encounter, whether it be midday sun or a deep canyon. If we look around and think about where the light falling on a scene originates, we may find a way to put existing light to use in an interesting and colorful way. When we find the light is insufficient for photography, we can often still find more and begin to add our own.


In the next article, Part 4 of this photographic primer, I will cover techniques for getting close to your subjects.


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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