A Day in the Arabian Desert
Earlier this month, I flew out to Dubai to meet up with friend and photographer David Nightingale who runs the highly regarded photography training and photoblog website at www.chromasia.com. Together with two of the guys from Gulf Photo Plus, Michael and Simran, and Dubai-based Omani commercial photographer Issa AlKindy, we headed into the Arabian Desert. David was in Dubai to shoot some images for Sony to launch the ground-breaking new Sony SLT-A99 camera (if you’re interested in reading his thoughts on it, you can find his review here on his blog), teach at the GPP Fotoweekend, as well as give some one-to-one photography training. As part of his brief from Sony, he needed to produce some images while in Dubai, and the trip to the desert was intended to give him the opportunity to add to the images he had already shot in the city itself. I have been to Dubai many times, but never made it out into the surrounding desert, so this was a great opportunity to do just that, as well as hang out with David and meet Issa, Simran and Michael.
We had some problems initially finding our way back to the location David had found on a previous trip – there are few landmarks on the main road out of Dubai into the desert, and because of the rapidity of construction work, roads branching off the highway apparently appear and are subsequently closed and disappear without trace on a regular basis, making navigation to a specific location without satellite navigation difficult. We eventually gave up trying to find the location David had in mind, and simply peeled off the highway and into the dunes.
Confession time: we broke the first rule of desert driving: namely, don’t go into the desert alone. The trip was arranged at very short notice, so a backup vehicle was unfortunately not an option. Even for a driver skilled in off-road driving in desert terrain, it is very easy to become stuck: you don’t know for sure what is on the other side of a dune before you crest it , and if you crest it too slowly you can become stranded on the top. Having a support vehicle means that the second vehicle can be used to pull the first vehicle out of the sand. Vehicle breakdowns are another possibility, mobile-phone coverage is patchy, and it is easy to become disoriented by the terrain only a few hundred yards from the highway, as the sand dunes obscure the view of the road and the terrain looks the same in all directions. Issa, acting as our driver for the day, and an expert in driving in desert terrain, did a great job in keeping us safe as he skilfully navigated a route through and over the dunes while we scouted for good locations for a photo shoot. Despite Issa’s skill behind the wheel, we still became temporarily stuck a couple of times, and at one point the only way we were able to recover the vehicle from the depression in which it was trapped was to get out, leaving Issa alone in the car to accelerate up the slope and try to gain sufficient momentum to carry the car over the lip of the depression – and even then it took several nail-biting attempts before he was successful.
We eventually arrived at a location which looked reasonably promising, with a few large and interesting-looking dunes in the vicinity – although the flatter areas of desert surrounding the small dune field we were in were a lot less appealing photographically, and I was wondering whether I would be able to create images I liked (I had pre-visualised an endless dune field) working with the constraints of the uninspiring flat background terrain. I remember thinking that I might end up focusing on the detail of the patterns in the dunes, rather than looking for images showing the big picture, as it would be one way of avoiding photographing the flat desert in the background. On the plus side, there were some interesting-looking clouds in the heavens; I had resigned myself to a typical cloudless Middle Eastern sky, so this was a welcome bonus. As it was already late afternoon, we took care to position ourselves on the westward side of the dune range; if we had remained on the eastward side the light would have vanished when the sun sank below the dunes, taking any further photo opportunities with it.
We piled out of the vehicle, and clambered up the dune – no easy task, given the extremely fine, shifting sand, the temperature, and the fact that we were all carrying back packs with photo gear and tripods. This was my first attempt at desert photography: like many other photographers, I find the sand patterns created by the wind in the dunes fascinating, and hoped I might be able to capture some of the beauty of it. I was also struck by the redness of the sand, which was something I hadn’t anticipated nor been aware of prior to this trip.
One of the first shots I made was the image above at the top of this post, of the largest dune in the dune field: the natural ripples and waves in the sand were stunningly beautiful, and the low, late afternoon sun created wonderful shadows in the gullies of these patterns. I took great care not to tread on anywhere I was planning to photograph, for fear of spoiling the patterns with my own footprints. This first image, made at 16:31 Dubai time – about an hour before sunset – was shot towards the southwest, using a wide-angle lens to accentuate the beautiful lines of the dune. It’s not always easy to analyse why an image is successful, but I think that this image works – at least it does for me – because the eye is led from bottom left up to the right side of the picture by the powerful diagonal line formed by the patterns at the bottom of the dune, and from there left and up along the ridge of the dune to the peak where the dune meets the clouds, before traversing down the ripples in the dune back to the starting point bottom left, and beginning the same visual journey anew. The (unconscious) eye thus scans repeatedly on an anti-clockwise triangular path, and is prevented from exiting the image quickly. The result is that the viewer’s attention is retained for longer, with more time to explore the patterns, lines, tonal and colour contrasts, which results in a stronger, more engaging image. I hope!
As the primary attraction in this kind of photography is the wonderful lines and patterns in the image, I was anticipating rendering all the images in black and white, which removes the distraction of colour and allows the lines and patterns to speak even more strongly. However, when I looked at the images on the display after I had shot them, I realised that I liked the ‘vibration’ between the cool blue of the desert sky and the warm, rich tones of the sand, and that that colour contrast added another level of interest and visual enjoyment to the image. I therefore decided to retain the colour in the images. I find this happens to me often: I’d like to create more black & white photographs, as I do love black & white photography, but I respond to colour so strongly that I find it very hard to let it go. There are some images which unmistakably work better in black & white, but this wasn’t one of them.
The next image was shot exactly 14 seconds after the previous one, according to the image metadata captured by the camera; I moved a few steps to the right in order to centre myself in front of the dune, and shot towards the south, framing the dune to produce a more symmetrical composition. Once again, the wide-angle lens powerfully accentuates the diagonal lines in the frame, helping to give the picture dynamism; these converging lines draw the viewer’s eye into the image and then strongly upwards to the top of the dune where the cloud fortuitously halts the eye’s rapid trajectory up and out of the frame. Additionally, the perspective distortion (in this case, expansion) introduced by my extreme proximity to the patterns in the foreground at the bottom of the frame (I was lying on my belly in the sand at this point) serves to make those patterns look huge, and the peak of the dune much further away than it really was, which adds to the drama of the image. This perspective distortion is often mistakenly attributed to the optics of the lens itself, which is not quite correct: the truth is that the angle of view of the lens (which is an intrinsic property of a lens of a given focal length) forces us to position ourselves at a varying distance from the foreground in order to render the foreground object the same size in the frame as the focal length is varied. It is this proximity or otherwise to the foreground object(s) relative to the background object(s) – driven by the angle of view of the lens – which changes or ‘distorts’ the perspective, not the lens itself.
As well as photographing the dunes, I found it interesting to photograph the other guys with me on the trip. I normally work alone, so it was interesting for me to watch other photographers at work: the viewpoints they explore, and the process they follow. In particular, backlit images (i.e. shooting more or less towards the sun) seemed to work well, given that the sun was by now close the the horizon and shooting with backlight rendered foreground objects as dramatic silhouettes.
It became clear within a short space of time that we weren’t really very far from civilisation: the silence of the desert was frequently punctuated by the sound of screaming two-stroke engines as desert buggies and quad bikes raced each other over the dunes, or by the distant rumble of larger 4×4 vehicles moving in convoy at a more leisurely pace. This is an hour from Dubai after all – not the deserts of Namibia!
Just before sunset, the wind suddenly picked up very strongly, as you can see from the next two photographs. The sand was very fine – like flour – and because the particles of sand were so small, it took very little wind before you had a lot of airborne sand coming rapidly your way – particularly unpleasant if you happened to be in a depression at the time, as all the sand flew over the lip of the depression at eye level. I initially was a little worried about the camera, but fortunately the Nikon D700 body I was shooting with came through the sand-blasting test with flying colours. A couple of years ago I was caught in the full force of the Delhi monsoon for over an hour, and despite having no meaningful protection for the camera and being soaked to the skin myself, the camera was absolutely unfazed by the experience. I feel able to say with confidence that the magnesium alloy body and weather-sealing on the D700 are truly excellent – thank you Nikon.
As the sun sank below the horizon, the harsh contrast between blinding highlights and deep shadows abruptly vanished, and the light immediately became softer, suffusing the clouds over the dunes with the warm colours of an Arabian sunset. The light from the sky was reflected by the orange-red sand, lowering the colour temperature of the light illuminating the scene. In the next image, the cloud was perfectly placed over the dune, as if I had wished it there (I can recall mouthing a few silent ‘hallelujahs’, and a fervent ‘please don’t let me screw this frame up’ at the time.) Unless the desert gods were smiling on me that day, I can only assume this was orographic uplift at work. Thank God for orographic uplift, is all I can say!
We packed up and headed back to the car quickly: driving at night in the dunes is doubly hazardous as it becomes more difficult to assess the terrain ahead of the vehicle. We had already leaned heavily on Lady Luck by venturing out without a support vehicle; up to this point, the good Lady hadn’t let us down but it was time to cash in the poker chips and make it back to the road and civilisation before it was fully dark.
Once we reached the road – and a small outpost offering assorted desert and dune rides to tourists – we stopped to re-inflate the vehicle tyres to road pressure. (Driving on sand requires that the vehicle tyres are significantly deflated in order to increase the surface area of the tyre in contact with the sand. This serves to increase grip, and reduce the likelihood of the vehicle sinking as the weight of the vehicle is spread over a larger surface area.) There were a number of dragster-style buggies arriving and departing (together with high levels of testosterone, much revving of engines, squealing of tyres, and general bad-boy posturing.) These dragster buggies were kitted out for night driving in the dunes – in other words, lit up like a Christmas tree. I couldn’t resist making a few frames, and this was my favourite. Not what I set out to photograph that day, but I like it – looks like something out of Star Wars:
I’m on my way to London tomorrow, and from there, flying straight out to Dubai once again. On this trip, I shan’t be out in the desert – although I hope to have the chance to do more desert photography another time. Instead, I’m hoping to meet up with some friends, and shoot some of Dubai’s wonderful architecture. If the Force is with me and the images are any good, I’ll share some of them here at a later date.
As ever, click on any of the above images to see them larger – and if you have any questions or comments on my desert trip, please drop me a line in the comments here, email me, or get in touch on Facebook or Twitter.