The skyline selfie, the desert jump and the inflatable flamingo in an infinity pool – everyone in the UAE with an Instagram account is guilty of it, and who can blame us?
With its world-renowned skylines, perfectly manicured beaches and a literal giant frame, the UAE was made to be photographed, but it’s the unexplored corners of the Emirates that hold the most charm.
In our new series of guides to the UAE's hidden gems, we speak to the experts – the tour guides, the foodies, the culture fiends and the nature-lovers – to find out where they spend their free time.
For our second instalment, we’re grabbing our cameras and going off the beaten track with the UAE’s most talented photographers, exploring every nook and cranny to scope out the country’s most photogenic spots.
Dubai's cityscapes and Fujairah's valleys
Self-taught photographer Kareem Mazhar has lived in Dubai for seven years and has spent a good chunk of that time exploring the UAE’s lesser-known spaces with his camera.
“The UAE has everything you can ever want in a picture,” says Mazhar, 35, whose Instagram handle is @keeksawy.
“There’s nature, mountains, desert, futuristic cityscapes and every year there’s a new spot to explore – that’s what makes it so special.
“I hike with my camera and I’m pretty sure that every single sunrise is different, every single day is different; I’ve been to the same spots twice and had totally different encounters each time.”
One spot where Mazhar feels most at peace is Wadi Abadilah in Fujairah, which runs north-east towards the coast of Dibba.
“People usually go to hike mountains, but this is an actual valley,” he explains.
“If you go after it’s rained, you’re going to find cold pools of water with very tiny frogs inside – in the middle of the desert – it’s fascinating.
“You’ll also find beautiful red dragonflies that I haven’t seen anywhere else in the world but here. If you’re not scared of insects, they are incredible to photograph.
“I love exploring and if there’s a hard trail that not a lot of people will take, then I will take it because I enjoy finding and seeing stuff that people haven’t seen before.
“Anything that relates to earth draws me in, right down to the tiniest flower growing between two rocks, because they’re so unique.”
Back in the city, Mazhar has a sneaky suggestion for getting the most incredible cityscape images of the Dubai skyline.
“At Central Park Towers, there’s a balcony accessible to the public if you arrange it in advance,” he reveals.
“If you go during sunset, you get an amazing reflection of the sun on the Burj Khalifa with really cool colours in the background – it’s sort of like an insider secret.”
Down the road in Dubai Design District is what Mazhar calls a portrait photographer's “dream”.
“If you walk in between the buildings, there’s some incredible coloured walls that you can use as a background,” he says.
“D3 Playground has a really colourful basketball court and nearby is a vibrant climbing wall where you can get a range of backgrounds in the same shoot.”
Mazhar refers to his final destination as a “forgotten gem”, as opposed to a secret one, though his stunning shots from Al Qudra Lakes are impossible not to remember.
“If you’re looking for a background of a lake with trees and an abundance of sand dunes, then this is your spot,” he says. “There won’t be anyone else in sight if you go there for a sunrise shoot.
“This is one of my personal favourites. It’s not far, it’s easy to reach and you don’t need a 4x4 to get there.”
Sharjah's ghost town and Abu Dhabi's fossil dunes
Fellow photographer Mohammad Azizi, 23, has 41,000 followers on his photography Instagram account @alphaspotting.
He has lived in Dubai all his life and says most of the UAE’s most photogenic shots are hidden in the desert.
“The tree road on Al Qudra cycle track is literally a road that has been built to accommodate a huge tree in the desert,” he says.
“It’s a very unique Dubai location and I don’t think there’s anything else like that in the world.”
Out in Sharjah, Azizi’s favourite spot is Al Madam abandoned village, also known as the Ghost Town.
“Again, I think it’s something that’s totally unique to the UAE,” says Azizi. “You’re not going to see this anywhere else on the planet.
“I love it there. You feel like you could be Lawrence of Arabia or on the set of an apocalyptic film.
“It’s an eerie feeling, but in a good way and if you go for sunrise, the sounds of the desert winds are all you’ll hear for miles.”
Lastly, Azizi recommends aspiring photographers head to Al Wathba Fossil Dunes in Abu Dhabi.
“I would describe The Fossil Rocks as an alien land,” he smiles. “If you click the picture at the right angle and edit it right, you could be on Mars. It’s completely fascinating.”
House of Wisdom and Mosque of Light
Altamash Javed, who has 78,000 Instagram followers at @aljvd, was also raised in Dubai, and believes that nowhere quite compares to Sharjah for capturing the UAE’s rich culture.
“One of the latest places in the UAE that I have absolutely fallen in love with is Al Suhub Rest House in Khor Fakkan,” says the photographer, 36.
“Perched on top of Khor Fakkan’s highest viewpoint, you not only get great views but there’s also a restaurant up there.
“I would highly recommend going up for sunset, the views are just incredible.”
While in the area, Javed recommends stopping off at the House of Wisdom in the Al Juraina 1 neighbourhood, a landmark that was also recommended by tour guide Nada Badran in our last hidden gems guide.
“As a photographer, it's a dream to shoot as I love architecture,” he says.
“You must take a walk around the building to really appreciate it, especially The Scroll monument, which has what seems like infinite shooting angles.”
Finally, Javed recommends heading to Mohamed Abdulkhaliq Gargash Masjid, better known as Mosque of Light, in Dubai’s Al Quoz, which was designed by Dabbagh Architects.
“It is surrounded by a tonne of warehouses, making the mosque really stand out,” he explains.
“You feel a sense of calm and tranquillity there despite being in one of the busiest parts of the city.
“It’s incredible, but I'll let the pictures speak for themselves.”
Top 10 secret UAE spots for photographers at a glance:
- Wadi Abadilah, Fujairah
- Central Park Towers balcony, Dubai
- Dubai Design District, Dubai
- Al Qudra Lakes, Dubai
- Al Madam abandoned village, Sharjah
- Al Wathba Fossil Dunes, Abu Dhabi
- Al Suhub Rest House, Sharjah
- House of Wisdom, Sharjah
- The Scroll monument, Sharjah
- Mosque of Light, Dubai