Incredible photography of the desert in Morocco
Photographing sand dunes can be a very productive photographic endeavor if you find a stretch of desert far enough away that every square inch isn’t covered in footprints. In this article, I show you my favorite place to photograph the dunes and give you tips for making the most of this sandy subject.
The United States has its fair share of spectacular dune fields. You can also find them in South America – Huacachina being an example. If you think of Asia, the Gobi Desert might come to mind, and for the Middle East, the Empty Quarter. For Africa, the Namib Desert and the Sahara may seem familiar. For Europe, on the other hand, there are not many dune fields, which I must say is a positive thing in the context of climate change.
But as a landscape photographer, I was always looking for a sandy landscape to shoot not too far away. I found it in Morocco, only 3 hours flight from central Europe. It has two large dune fields. Some of you have heard of Erg Chebbi near Merzouga. It can be reached from Marrakech by car in about nine hours via the Dades Gorge, or by bus in two days via Casablanca. You will find hotels close enough to the dunes to allow you to walk directly into the desert. For a unique experience, you can stay in one of the Berber desert camps. This will increase your chances of finding a view on your own.
When I first visited Morocco in 2019, I wanted to get further away from civilization. After some research, I learned that apart from Erg Chebbi, there is a desert near the southern border of Morocco called Erg Chigaga. It covers an area of approximately 35 kilometers by 15 kilometers, is only accessible by 4×4 vehicles and there are no hotels. If you decide to visit Erg Chigaga, you will usually stay in one of the Berber camps in the area.
When planning my trip to the Erg, my first goal was to find the right camp. There are several options, but not all of them are somewhere you can get out of the tent and start taking pictures. I was looking for a camp near some of the larger dunes, so I could hike there for sunrise and sunset. On Google Earth I tried to identify the best camps – you can spot them if you zoom in close enough.
That way I found the camp Al Kutban. It is located right in the middle of the dunes, with the highest dune of Erg Chigaga just a 45 minute walk away. You usually book a tour that has one or two stops along the way to get there. I did it with wild moroccoand loved the experience so much that I came back to do a photography workshop with them in early 2020.
Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, I haven’t been back since. But I look forward to returning to the desert in the future. Especially if you don’t like crowded areas, this is the right place to go. There’s nothing quite like sitting on top of an isolated dune, looking out over the surrounding sea of sand and listening to the whisper of the wind.
How to photograph the dunes
The best way to photograph the desert is to find a vantage point that gives you a 360° view of the surrounding landscape. This is also why I chose the Al Koutban camp. It is surrounded by several high dunes, which I would climb at every sunrise and sunset to find my subjects.
Shooting from a high vantage point allows you to tilt your camera downward and include less of the sky on the cloudless days you’ll often have in the desert. Find a ridge and use it as a guideline that guides the viewer through the sea of sand. When the light hits this ridge from the side, you get a beautiful play of light and shadow that will keep the viewer engaged.
To unleash the full photographic potential of a desert like Erg Chigaga, you also need to have a long lens in your arsenal. As you zoom in on the distant dunes, you will discover countless subjects. You can completely exclude the sky and fill your frame exclusively with the shapes and forms around you. When doing this, try to find large dunes that can serve as the main subject and balance them with similar smaller dunes in the distance. This creates depth in such a photo.
The best light for photographing the dunes is just after sunrise and before sunset. When the sun is close to the horizon, its light embraces only the top of the dunes. It creates beautiful lines and simplifies the scene by introducing darker areas with less detail. You can use this light when shooting at an angle to the sun, like in the example above, or you can point your camera directly at it to create more drama.
If you’re lucky and the mist above the landscape isn’t so thick that it swallows the sun before it sets behind the horizon, you might also see the desert turn red just before that the sun does not disappear.
It’s wonderful to witness this change of colors as the shadows grow longer and longer. But it shouldn’t stop there. The great thing about remote places like Erg Chigaga is the lack of light pollution. That’s why you shouldn’t pack your gear right after the sun goes down. If you wait about 90 minutes longer, you can experience night skies that you’ll only find in a few other places.
If you decide to photograph the night sky in the desert, you have to be careful. Navigating the dunes during the day is already difficult, but after sunset you will quickly lose all orientation. To be safe, stay close enough to the camp so you don’t get lost. Additionally, you should also mark the camp and location from your photo on Google Maps. It will help you find your way in the dark. If you plan to explore more remote areas, having a guide might be the best option.
Nomads and dromedaries
Many Erg Chigaga camps work with nomads living in the area. During your stay, you will usually be offered a camel ride. The nomads will then come to the camps and arrange guided camel tours to various sunset locations. I didn’t want to ride a camel, but I wanted to photograph a nomad with his camel caravan in golden light.
On my second visit to Al Koutban camp, Wild Morocco organized this for me and my workshop participants. It was an unforgettable experience and we were able to take some great photos of the desert. Obtaining such images requires planning. If you ever visit Erg Chigaga and have the opportunity for such a photo opportunity, locate both the ridges you want the caravan to walk on and the vantage point from which you will photograph it.
I wanted to exclude the sky from these photos, so I had to find a vantage point higher in the dunes than the ridge on which Mohamed and his camels were to walk that evening. I also used Photopills during location scouting to help me preview where the sun would be during filming and to anticipate the orientation of shadows in the final frames.
Edit desert photos
Even in a remote place like Erg Chigaga, you will encounter footprints in the sand. After several days without wind, the inhabitants of the various camps will create paths through the desert during their exploration. To avoid them, you’ll have to walk deeper and deeper into the erg or use the editing techniques I shared in a previous article. A mix of cloning and frequency separation will usually do the trick and can be useful for any fine structure you want to clean up.