Harsh light. Blown-out skies. Vast landscapes with no foreground elements.
Photographing the desert of the American Southwest can certainly be challenging. This is a truth that I've come to learn after moving here earlier this year and I've since figured out how to best approach these challenges. When you get it right and work through them... the photos that you will walk away with will drop the jaws of your friends and family.
Here's the thing: whether you already live in the Southwest, you're planning to visit the area someday, or you have similar wide-open spaces near where you live, these 3 photography tips will help you get photos to be proud of.
Tip #1: Use Prime Lenses
"But, I love my zoom lenses! They're way more convenient!"
I can hear you saying that right now, right? 😉
Here's the funny thing I've learned by spending more and more time photographing in this region: you don't need a lot of different focal lengths when you're shooting in the desert. Wildlife is pretty hard to find, so you're not going to need the 200-400mm range that much. You'll also likely not need to get wider than 18mm, although if I'm being honest, I do wish ZEISS did make a 12mm Batis lens. Still, I've never found this kit to leave me in the lurch.
Sony a7R IV | ZEISS Batis 2.8/18 | 4.0 sec at f/18; ISO 100
Wide-angle shots can be wonderful in the Southwest... if you've got a compelling foreground. Without one, your photos will be more likely to fall flat.
Heck, some of my favorite "wide" compositions were taken with my ZEISS Batis 135mm lens! That'd hardly be considered a wide focal length, but it didn't stop me from getting sweeping shots that I absolutely love. I'll talk a bit more about that in Tip #2.
Sony a7R III | ZEISS Batis 2.8/135 | 1/320 sec. at f/2.8; ISO 160
A composition like this looks like it would have been taken at 18mm - 24mm. Alas, it was taken at 135mm!
There are a number of substantial benefits to consider when deciding between a prime and zoom lens, especially when you factor in your primary surroundings: the desert. The first benefit is that prime lenses are generally smaller and lighter than zoom lenses. That is absolutely the case when I compare my prime lens trinity to the equivalent zoom lenses. Sure, I don't have the convenience of zooming in and out, but I have not come across a situation where that has hindered my ability to compose a strong photo. It may have made things more challenging, but I love to be challenged creatively and you should, too. It is also a pleasure to not have to lug around a bunch of heavy, bulky lenses when I'm hiking up and down sand dunes or steep and rocky terrain.
I brought up the desert deliberately just before because the next benefit of using a prime lens is pretty huge. All three of my zoom lenses (Sony 16-35mm f/2.8, 24-70mm f/2.8, and 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6) telescope in and out when I adjust the focal length, creating a suction action. Do you know what happens when you introduce a suction action like a telescopic zoom in an environment made up almost entirely of fine sand and dust?
It's not pretty. My 24-70mm lens got so bad that whenever I'd zoom in or out, I'd not only hear a crunching sound from the sand that got sucked in, I'd also feel it grinding. As a result, I had to send the lens in for comprehensive servicing, which wasn't cheap. That was one of the reasons why I have chosen to stick with prime lenses: they're far less prone to getting debris in them because there is no barrel to suck air and dust in. SO, if the sound of sand scratching the inside of your zoom lens makes you cringe, I recommend sticking with prime lenses.
Tip #2: Get Creative with Your Tools
Remember the Stitch
There are lots of ways to pump up a lackluster desert photo and you shouldn't be afraid to try them! Earlier, I mentioned getting wide-angle compositions using telephoto focal lengths, like with my ZEISS Batis 2.8/135 lens. The trick is to simply get a series of vertical images that overlap each other by at least 20% and then stitch them together using your favorite pano-stitching software. In my case, I use Adobe Lightroom CC to stitch these panos together.
Sony a7R III | ZEISS Batis 2.8/135 | 1/100 sec. at f/2.8; ISO 800
This 16:9 wide-angle pano is made up of five stitched vertical photos that I took handheld.
The thing is that the resulting images aren't necessarily what you typically expect to see when you stitch a pano. Usually, panoramic images are far wider than they are tall. However, because I limit the number of vertical panels in my shot (and sometimes take two rows of panels), I'm able to preserve the typical 4:3 and 16:9 aspect ratios of a single photo. Except by going this route, I'm able to produce a massive, high-megapixel photo that I can either crop in or print huge.
One of the really nice advantages of composing stitched wide-angle shots using a long lens is that you get this amazing sense of depth thanks to the lens compression introduced with telephoto focal lengths. Another advantage is that your background will appear closer and more proportionate than if you used a wide angle lens. If I used a wide-angle lens to get this photo, that rock face would be much smaller and appear farther away in the frame.
Become the Cloud-maker
Since moving to southern Utah, I've experienced more consecutive days with pure blue skies than I have in my entire life. I used to think that blue skies were great, but I've come to realize that I pretty much can't stand them... at least not for this duration and not without clouds. Clouds are wonderful elements to include in desert photography. They are perfect when you want to break up the monotony of a blue sky and they pair up so nicely against all of that red rock.
Sony a7R IV | ZEISS Batis 2.8/18 | 1/80 sec. at f/14; ISO 100
I am all for blue skies...
Sony a7R IV | ZEISS Batis 2.8/18 | 1/80 sec. at f/14; ISO 100
...but I'd much rather have some clouds to break things up
Here's the thing. If you're clutching your pearls or grabbing your pitchfork at the idea of masking in some clouds, then perhaps this part of Tip #2 isn't for you. I believe in the simple philosophy that you should be able to do whatever you want to your photos, so long as you don't try to pass them off in any sort of journalistic way. I wanted some clouds in this photo, so I masked them in. To clarify, I didn't replace the sky. That's the original sky. I just used a series of techniques in Photoshop to seamlessly add clouds to the sky and I'm way happier with the resulting image.
My point is that you should be as aware of the compositional and editing tools you have at your disposal as you are with your camera and lens.
Tip #3: Escape the Crowds
We all want this shot...
...but we don't want to deal with this reality.
We all want that classic shot of Delicate Arch in Arches National Park, but none of us want to actually deal with hundreds of other tourists and photographers also vying for the exact same photo.
Listen, I get it. It's easy for me to poke fun at this because I've been to Delicate Arch a number of times. I have the sunrise, sunset, and starry night photos from this location. But, I've also had to deal with hordes of tourists and photographers, many of whom have terrible manners and little sense of personal space. And at the end of the day, I will be getting the exact same photo as everyone else there. There's nothing wrong with that to a degree, however the truth is that there are SO MANY other amazing places in the Southwest to visit. Heck, there are tons of places in Arches National Park to explore beyond these super-popular locations, and they're just as beautiful and probably far more unique in their own ways.
There are tons of "undiscovered" (read: not Instagrammed) and off-the-beaten path locations in the Southwest. Rather than visit all the hot spots in this area, I've spent my time looking for places that no one really knows about or talks about, but that are just as stunning.
Sony a7R IV | Canon EF 15mm f/2.8 Fisheye | HDR at f/18; ISO 100
I was the only person photographing this arch at sunset and it was wonderful. Locations like this one can be found all over. You just need to be open to exploring.
In reality, the over-crowding and over-tourism of super popular locations in the region like Delicate Arch, Mesa Arch, and Horseshoe Bend are resulting in a variety of terrible outcomes. A lack of care and respect for the surrounding environment and ecosystems of these popular destinations have lead to long-term, if not permanent, change. It is also becoming unsustainable to accommodate the sheer number of tourists who all want to visit.
That's why I strongly encourage you to consider exploring different locations. Check out more of the state and city parks in this region. Maybe even consider hiring a local expert to guide you around to some of the lesser known—yet equally impressive—locations. Heck, take a minute to speak with a park ranger at Arches National Park, for example, and ask about the lesser-known and less popular trails to explore.
Sony a7R III | ZEISS Batis 2.8/135 | Pano at f/4.5; ISO 200
It's hard to not overstate just how many amazing locations there are with no crowds or queues to deal with. You just need to be willing to explore a bit... or hire a guide.
At this point, I've resigned myself to avoiding all of the popular national parks in the area unless I've got family or friends visiting who really want to see these attractions. Photography is a very personal and solitary practice for me and I'd much rather work to find locations that I can explore in peace and quiet, even if it means giving up the popular tourist traps.
What Do You Think?
Did these tips resonate with you? Do you have your own to contribute? Leave a comment below and let me know!
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