After living in the city for years on end, it may be hard to find beauty in space. Open, bleak, dry. The desert flips the city on its head, where are all the massive skyscrapers? You walk down the street and see lights and color. Around the corner, people of all kinds walk down the sidewalk in vibrant clothes and makeup. With the infinite wave of subjects at your disposal, the city seems unmatched to hills of sand and bush. In all its odd allure, utilizing light, pattern, and the unusual makes the desert a great practice for creating subjects out of nothing.

Perey, Austin 2018 (Canon AE-1, 35mm Film).

Waiting for the Sun

Even in the city, light serves such a pivotal role in where you want your photograph to go. When it’s shiny, bright, and commanding, you may use flash at night to pull your subject right front and center. Or dark, distant, and fuzzy. This photograph may make the subject appear unconcerned, unmoved. Light has a lot to do with the attitude of the picture, balancing highlights with shadows, what is and is not in focus.

Perey, Austin 2018 (Canon AE-1, 35mm Film).

Unlike the nooks and crannies of city architecture, all you see in a desert is sand and minerals. And if you’re lucky, a tall, lone cactus standing like Buffalo Bill in a stand-off. When you’re playing with light, the best thing to do is 1) figure out what you want or don’t want in focus. Do you want more background or more on one subject? And 2) have that subject or background play with the sun. With so much open space, your subject gives more character the more shadow and contrast there is. The sun plays a primary role in desert photography, the only obstacle is knowing how to work with it.

Perey, Austin 2018 (Canon AE-1, 35mm Film).

Look for Patterns

Patterns you see on fabrics and shop windows are nice, but it’s not something you see every day in the desert. Natural patterns like hills, holes, and space permeate the desert and give it its appeal. Like a mirage, you can see one thing in the sand and then another in an instant. You’re walking down a beaten path and you notice the sand has tracks and grooves covered in shadows. An uncommon subject, it creates conflict in light and subject. The subject is indistinguishable from the background, it’s not your average photograph.

Perey, Austin 2018 (Canon AE-1, 35mm Film).

Even in cloudy weather, the light changes pattern and landscape in a way that the camera can catch in an instant. A fluffy, soft sky over a rocky horizon at sunset. A single cactus amongst other cacti behind it. Given you only have a day or two in the desert and you want to capture as much as possible, you can use the desert’s cloudy moodiness as an added character to your photos.

Perey, Austin 2018 (Canon AE-1, 35mm Film).

The Desert is Unusual

From black, sappy cacti to stark, villainous figures in the distance, the desert is a great place to highlight form. Depending on which desert you visit, its alien and bizarre fauna affects your composition and surroundings. You might want to look for arms in something that has no obvious arms, or substance in places that have nothing in it.

Perey, Austin 2018 (Canon AE-1, 35mm Film).

Play with space. With the desert’s play on intentional placement, mountains line up in the back creating a demand for the space in front of them. Where are the shadows aligning? Can you place subjects together in unusual harmony? The desert is a great place to practice placement and composition, the best way to angle your lenses, and finally, how to highlight the unseen.

Perey, Austin 2018 (Canon AE-1, 35mm Film).

The desert is a place that is easily missed. You’re able to skip one cactus and mistake it for the other. Focus on what makes subjects unique. Whether it be their natural patterns or unusual caricatures, the desert is a home to oddities. Light plays a role in every photo, but in the desert, it is a source of life. Learn and practice how to balance these together and you will return to the city finding balance on every street you pass.