How do photographers capture the harsh and arid beauty of vast desert landscapes? Learn the secrets of desert photography with tips from six established Shutterstock contributors.

From Ansel Adams to Dorothea Lange to Mark Ruwedel, generations of photographers have flocked to the desert in search of open spaces, wild terrain, winding roads, and human settlements that withstand the harshest of environments. The desert, in all its barrenness and infinite possibilities, offers up the promise of colorful flora, breathtaking vistas, stark shadows, and timeless photographs.

It’s no easy feat photographing in these arid landscapes; with miles and miles to travel without another soul in sight, those who brave the desert face the wind and the blistering sun, as well as chance encounters with scorpions and snakes. Despite the risks, few photographers can resist the pull of the desert, and the demand for this kind of imagery remains high.

According to Shutterstock’s 2018 Creative Trends report, searches for the word “cactus” have risen by 261% within the last year, driven in part by new age fads that celebrate desert culture. We reached out to six Shutterstock contributors and asked them to share the stories behind some of their most memorable images. Along the way, they told us their best tips for staying safe and taking unforgettable photographs in the desert.

1. “It’s too easy to forget about taking care of yourself while juggling bags and equipment. Take water, a hat, a white T-shirt with long sleeves, and supplies.”

Ilyshev Dmitry

6 Photographers on Capturing Timeless Images of the Desert — Remember to Take Care of Yourself

Image by Ilyshev Dmitry. Gear: Canon EOS 6D camera, Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 lens. Settings: Focal length 16mm; exposure 1/200 sec; f7.1; ISO 100.

What’s the story behind this photo?

This photo was taken in the Tatacoa Desert in November 2015 during my photography workshop in Colombia. One of the things I love about photographing in the desert is the wonderful lines that the wind makes in the sand. These can look fantastic in photos. Sometimes it’s worth looking down, instead of trying to capture the whole scene. Simply crouch down and focus on a detail in the sand.

Ilyshev Dmitry.
Ilyshev Dmitry.

Pictured: [1] Ilyshev Dmitry. [2] Ilyshev Dmitry.

Pro Tip:

Unfortunately, sand can be extremely destructive to cameras, so you should take extra care in the desert. I always have a UV filter on lenses to protect the glass, but in the desert, this is even more imperative. I would much rather have to replace a cheap filter than have to repair a scratched lens. Also, I never change lenses (I will take two cameras, if necessary), and I clean my camera as soon as I get to my hotel room.

It gets hotter than you can imagine in the desert. Even if you’re shooting when the sun is down and the temperatures are cooler, make sure you are physically prepared. It’s too easy to forget about taking care of yourself while juggling bags and equipment. Take water, a hat, a white T-shirt with long sleeves, and supplies.

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2. “Shoot away from the sun, unless you’re going for a sunburst effect. Colors are juicier in the afternoon.”

Charles Harker

6 Photographers on Capturing Timeless Images of the Desert — Play with Color

Image by Charles Harker. Gear: Canon Rebel T3 camera, 55mm lens. Settings: Exposure 1/100 sec; f16; ISO 100.

What’s the story behind this photo?

This flat, salty landscape is along the Sea of Cortez in Northern Mexico. While roaming in my car, I accidentally discovered it. This desert is quiet and extremely hot in the summer. Since there are so few people, it’s a good place to sweat out the noise of the city and concentrate. However, I did take care to watch out for and avoid rattlesnakes. It was an unplanned surprise that became a working retreat for a few hours. I consider the desert a modernist, introspective environment. It’s so simple—an incredibly flat plane with the bare minimum of natural decoration.

Back home in the city, reviewing the results of this shoot, my emotions settled on nostalgia. I decided to add to the foreground an antique, weathered gas pump from another adventure in a different part of the Sonora Desert in Arizona. On that adventure, I was driving up a rural dirt road far beyond the last suburb of Phoenix and suddenly saw an old abandoned gas station. Apparently, that forgotten road had once been the main one between two destinations.

6 Photographers on Capturing Timeless Images of the Desert — Direct the Image

Image by Charles Harker.

Pro Tip:

The desert might be the easiest place for landscape photography. There are so many possibilities and so few people to interfere with your project. Basic practices apply. Shoot away from the sun, unless you’re going for a sunburst effect. Colors are juicier in the afternoon. I’ve found the best way to get emotional content is to art direct it—that is, combine elements in the studio. Nature doesn’t always arrange the scene with objects in the best place relative to each other. An artist can do that. Find a background you like and simplify it in the studio if it needs it. The same goes for the foreground. As for equipment, less is better for me, so I can focus on what inspires me.

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3. “For sunset shoots, don’t pack up when the sun hits the horizon…be patient! Some of my most dramatic sunset images were captured fifteen to thirty minutes post-sunset.”

Tim Murphy

6 Photographers on Capturing Timeless Images of the Desert — Follow Weather Reports

Image by Tim Murphy. Gear: Nikon D7100 camera, Nikkor 55-300mm f/4.5-5.6 lens. Settings: Focal length 55mm; exposure 1/60 sec; f8.0; ISO 100.

What’s the story behind this photo?

This shot was captured near my home in Scottsdale, Arizona, last January. We are located in the Sonoran Desert, which covers a large part of Southern Arizona, Eastern California, and Northern Mexico. With a cloud cover in the 50% range, I was hoping for dramatic skies, and I was rewarded. I shot straight into the sun and was able to capture sun flares through giant saguaro cacti. As the sun rose, light filtered through the desert flora, providing magical back-lighting. From my perch in Scottsdale, I shot across a residential area in Fountain Hills toward Red Mountain.

Pro Tip:

You can shoot desert photos in midday, but I prefer the morning and evening hours when the light is warm, providing for dramatic sunrise and sunset shots. An ancillary benefit to avoiding the midday desert sun is that it is cooler. That means less parched throats and fewer snakes! For sunrise shoots, arrive early to capture the Blue Hour. If time allows, arrive thirty to forty-five minutes before sunrise. For sunset shoots, don’t pack up when the sun hits the horizon…be patient! Some of my most dramatic sunset images were captured fifteen to thirty minutes post sunset.

Tim Murphy.
Tim Murphy.

Pictured: [1] Tim Murphy. [2] Tim Murphy.

As I primarily shoot sunrise/sunset shots in the desert, the lighting conditions are extreme. In order to capture the range of light from blaring to subtle, I typically shoot HDR (High Dynamic Range). I usually take five bracketed shots and digitally blend the images in post-processing software. I use Skylum’s Aurora 2018 software. Shooting in HDR requires a stationary camera, so additional equipment includes a tripod and cable release.

By the way, you don’t have to trek deep into the desert for your shoot. The Southwest can be captured in National Parks such as Saguaro National Park in Tucson, AZ, urban areas such as Phoenix, Scottsdale, and Tucson, or even from a roadside perch right by your car. It all comes down to researching your location, whether it is using the internet to research National and State Parks or using maps to identify sites that may be of interest.

My essential shoot research starts with consulting a weather site/app to ascertain sunrise/sunset times and cloud cover stats. I am far more likely to shoot with a 25-50% cloud cover forecast than 0%. My weather site of choice is Intellicast. Additional shoot research pertains to sun/moon positions. There are plenty of resources to help you track the exact sun and moon positions throughout the day/night of your shoot. Leave nothing to chance. The site that I use is The Photographer’s Ephemeris.

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4. “The key to successful desert photography is research. Do some googling and read a guidebook or two about the destination you’re visiting.”

Bram Reusen

6 Photographers on Capturing Timeless Images of the Desert — Research Before You Shoot

Image by Bram Reusen. Gear: Canon EOS Rebel T6i camera, 18-55mm lens. Settings: Focal length 29mm; exposure 1/200 sec; f9; ISO 100.

What’s the story behind this photo?

This photo of the Garden of Eden in Arches National Park, Utah, was taken during a six-week cross-country national parks road trip I did in the spring of last year. The best time of year to explore the American Southwest is from March through April, so I tried to take in as many desert parks as I could. The last one on my list was Arches National Park. The park is home to more than 2,000 natural rock arches, as well as numerous rock walls, pinnacles, windows, and fins. The Garden of Eden is arguably the best place in the entire park for sunset photography. The collection of boulders, rock arches, and windows creates a real playground for photographers, especially when the sun’s approaching the horizon and casts shadows all over the place.

6 Photographers on Capturing Timeless Images of the Desert — Take Your Time

Image by Bram Reusen.

Pro Tip:

The key to successful desert photography is research. Do some googling and read a guidebook or two about the destination you’re visiting. It’s essential to know when the sun rises and when it sets and what the weather will be like. I always try to camp out when I’m in the desert. This puts you right in the middle of the action; you can literally crawl out of your tent in the morning, and you’re immediately in a landscape worth photographing.

It’s critical to not rush things. Set aside two or three days to explore the area. Spend the first day driving, hiking, or biking around. Check out the main sights, the recommended sunset spots, and the quietest places. The point is to find a few places to would make for a great photo. Once you’ve figured those out, you can spend the morning and evening of day two (and three) trying to capture it all. Also, because many desert landscapes are quite monotone, it’s important to include a point of interest. This could be anything from a person to add perspective to unusual lines or patterns on the desert floor. Be creative.

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5. “Bring plenty of water, some snacks, and sunscreen! Plan ahead. Tell someone where you’re going, and map out where you’ll be.”

Johnny Coate

6 Photographers on Capturing Timeless Images of the Desert — Adventure Responsibly

Image by Johnny Coate. Gear: iPhone 7 Plus back camera 6.6mm f2.8. Exposure 1/1700 sec; f2.8; ISO 20.

What’s the story behind this photo?

While hiking back down from the Romero Canyon Pools in Arizona’s Catalina State Park, I stopped for a minute in the shade of a saguaro cactus. I sometimes do that when the lighting is bright, and I’ll look for a shot if it’s in the middle of the day. When I saw the mountainside full of ocotillos and saguaro cacti with all their unique shapes, sizes, and colors, I took the shot.

Johnny Coate.
Johnny Coate.
Johnny Coate.

Pictured: [1] Johnny Coate. [2] Johnny Coate. [3] Johnny Coate.

Pro Tip:

Bring plenty of water, some snacks, and sunscreen! Plan ahead. Tell someone where you’re going, and map out where you’ll be. Every year in Arizona, you will hear stories on the news of people getting heat stroke during the summer months. You can also get some of the best desert landscape photos during the monsoon season, but be aware of flash floods; they are powerful, and they can catch you by surprise. Slow down, and be more intentional and unique about what you’re trying to capture.

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6. “Don’t limit yourself to just wide landscapes and sunrise/sunset shots. Be prepared to shoot everything from reptiles and mammals to birds and landscapes.”

Tom Tietz

6 Photographers on Capturing Timeless Images of the Desert — Don't Limit Your Subjects

Image by Tom Tietz. Gear: Canon 5D Mark II camera, 16-35mm f/4.0L lens. Settings: Exposure 1/30 sec; f11; ISO 100.

What’s the story behind this photo?

This image was taken in spring at sunset in the Sonoran Desert just outside of Phoenix, Arizona. We were shooting wildflowers all day but couldn’t resist the sunset on the way home that evening. On a good year, this desert can come alive with wildflowers in March and April (check DesertUSA for up-to-date and accurate information on the spring wildflowers).

6 Photographers on Capturing Timeless Images of the Desert — Protect Your Equipment from the Elements

Image by Tom Tietz.

Pro Tip:

It is important to stay hydrated and also to protect your gear from the inevitable dust. The desert is a fantastic and very diverse place full of photo ops. Don’t limit yourself to just wide landscapes and sunrise/sunset shots. Be prepared to shoot everything from reptiles and mammals to birds and landscapes. Bring lots of water, sunscreen, and a good variety of lenses, from wide-angle to macro to telephoto, and enjoy.

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Top Image by Tim Murphy.