What You Should Consider Before Going on a Photo Mission to the Desert.

Hello dear curious friend, tell me, are you fascinated by the desert?

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It is a place full of wonders, and obviously sand. But people who think that there is nothing in the desert couldn’t be more wrong. Recently my wonderful relationship with Gulf Photo Plus brought me to an opportunity to teach a class in landscape photography to someone who is not from here and haven’t ever really been to the desert. Of course I was super excited to be able to share my knowledge with someone who is genuinely interested in the subject, plus making a bit of money on the side is always a great idea.

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My student, Brian, was visitng his brother in Abu Dhabi, and was given a gift voucher for anything in GPP, so he decided to exchange it to a private class in landscape photography. Thank you for giving me a chance, Brian, you are a very talented photographer and I am sure you didn’t need half of my directions, but it was fun shooting together with you.

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However, when I woke up the day of the class, there was a bad sand storm even in the city. Bad to the point that when I went out of my building, I had troubles keeping my eyes open, and the outside temperature was at least 8 degrees hotter than it was the day before. Well, that’s gonna be fun, I thought to myself, but you never know how the weather would change in a few hours. I packed flip flops, a cap, water bottle and took a camera that I didn’t care so much to be sanded because that would happen no matter what you do.

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GPP booked us a proper 4×4 desert safari driver, who was very much insisting on selling us any kind of tourist entertainment (camel riding, dune bashing and so on) and couldn’t believe that all we wanted was to take beautiful pictures of the desert. But I have to give him credit, once I asked him to stop the car next to a tree or a bush, he figured that it was indeed what we had interest in and started proposing to take us to other landmarks (rocks).

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When we stepped out of the car first time, the desert was amazingly calm. It was quiet and no piece of sand was moving, but those of you who have been to the desert before can imagine how fast this situation can change. And indeed, in just 10 minutes we saw a big dark cloud coming out of the dunes, and the never-ending shower of sand started pouring on our heads. One other thing is, when you are out there, you don’t notice how hot it is (especially with a bit of wind), and all that sand ends up covering you completely in a thin layer that blends you in with desert even more.

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In terms of photography, desert is a tricky place to shoot. Being an ultra-wide angle shooter, it is especially tricky for me since one needs to find some point of interest in both the foreground and the background to make it work. If you manage to find cool patterned dunes, plus the mountains in the background and the clouds as a bonus – then you are in the money. But… in the UAE you have to be incredibly lucky to have all those elements lining up in front of you. So, if you are shooting the local desert, I would advise to go for mid-range lens, or even try a telephoto and really look for those patterns and geometric alignments. Most of the time you are in the desert, there will be sun (so don’t forget your hat), but in our case the light was actually quite flat because of that cloud. And though it added some interest in the skies that we didn’t even hope for, the sunset was completely non-existent.

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If you are out shooting the sunset in the desert, here is one piece of advice for you – find your angle, set up the tripod and wait for the moment when it is about 20 minutes before the sunset. Take 3 shots focusing on:

  1. front (foreground),
  2. half-way (middleground),
  3. and infinity or close (background).

then wait for the sunset to happen.

I will tell you why you should do it this way: when the sun is still high, the sand looks nice and textured, but it is quite washed out in colour because of the bright sun (that it reflects).  When the sun is not far from setting down, the sky starts turning red and orange, and these colours reflect in the sand making it the most colourful you ever going to have. However, when the sun is setting already, it is now too low to cast any light on the dunes and they turn grayish already (and stay like that throughout the blue hour). So be wise, and plan to blend your image if that’s what you would normally do.

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Being in the desert with Brian, I felt like a scout – running up and down the dunes, hunting for angles for him, telling him to shoot lower, to isolate, to follow the lines… and it was a challenge for myself too. I have never been to this particular location, and the weather was bad, the light was not amazing… but I think we nailed it. I am happy of the fact that I was able to shift my focus and look for patterns and textures instead of endless wide-angled compositions.

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What wasn’t so much fun though, trying to get that sand out of my bag, my hair and my zoom lens… but hey, you can’t have it all!

Thank you for reading and see you soon.

Much love,
Anna

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