Now is a Great time to visit the desert. When much of the country is still gripped in snow and ice, temperatures in the desert start to reach that justright point in late winter and early spring, and clear skies mean brilliant light at sunrise and sunset. As a bonus, desert flowers bloom in March, adding a rare splash of color to an otherwise barren landscape.
So pack your gear, some sunscreen, and lots of water, and head on out. Here are a few of the extraordinary things that the desert offers to nature photographers, and the best places to find them.
Many desert areas have significant dune fields. For the best shots, wait for heavy winds to blow them clean of footprints and create ripples and other formations in the sand. Try using this heavily rippled sand as a foreground element when shooting grand landscapes.
The colorful, low-angled light of sunrise and sunset works best to show the landscape in clearest relief. The crests of dunes often make the best subjects, as you can juxtapose sunlit and shadow areas of the dune for dramatic effect. Be careful when exploring dunes; you don’t want to ruin that perfect shot by tracking up the sand before you realize its full potential. When working in blowing sand, avoid changing lenses to keep sand from getting inside your camera. Typically, a wide-to-short telephoto zoom lens (like a 24–105mm on a full-framer, 16–70mm for APS-C sensors) will give you more than adequate coverage.
Where to find the country’s best desert dunes: Death Valley National Park (CA) has one of the most accessible dune fields—Mesquite Flat Dunes—and one of the tallest, Eureka Dunes, although you might need four-wheel drive to get to those. Great Sand Dunes National Park (CO) has a huge field, its 800-foot high dunes dwarfed only by a backdrop of the massive Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
The dunes of White Sands National Monument (NM), although much smaller in size, are unique for their white color, which reflects the hues of sunrise and sunset.
Where there is sand, there’s likely to be sandstone. This soft rock is typically colorful and easily eroded by water and wind into fantastic shapes. Natural arches, rock sculptures, and flowing rock striations make excellent photographic subjects. Be careful when photographing delicate sandstone features: You don’t want to break anything and ruin the fun for others.
The warm light of sunrise and sunset can really bring out the brilliant colors in sandstone. Also, sandstone in the shade appears to glow when it is illuminated by light bouncing off of other sandstone in direct light. Usually, overcast light is not ideal when photographing sandstone.
Try Valley of Fire State Park (NV) for some of the most colorful sandstone you’ll ever see, with a rainbow of pastel colors including reds, pinks, yellows, oranges, and blues— all just one hour outside of Las Vegas. Bonus features include abundant natural arches and Native American petroglyphs.
Arches National Park (UT) lives up to its name—with more than 2,000 sandstone arches, this must-see park should be near the top of every shooter’s life list.
Last but certainly not least, the Bisti Wilderness (NM) contains bizarre, sculpted rock features that carry intriguing names such as The Egg Factory and Angel Wings.