Amateur photographers learn to see the desert

Rosemary Behan shares the advice of a National Geographic photographer, gleaned over a rare wet weekend at Abu Dhabi's Qasr Al Sarab resort, on how to best capture desert landscapes.

The Qasr Al Sarab resort complex. Duncan Chard for The National
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"It's important to dress right. If you're cold and wet all you're going to be thinking about is getting back indoors." Ira Block's words from 12 hours ago are ringing in my frozen ears. Never, in three years of living in the UAE, had I imagined I would experience a downpour in the desert.
But here we are, at six on a Friday morning, several miles away from Qasr Al Sarab resort, waiting for the sun to rise. On any other day, it seemed, it would have happened, just like it had done on numerous previous camping trips to the Empty Quarter. From a clear, crisp, star-filled night, sunrise would come quickly, a deep red strip of light cutting into the blue night along the horizon, bringing forth piercing layers of orange and yellow. Very soon after that, by 8am, the sky would be a bright blue and we would be basking in the warmth of the sun.
But not today. There were so many clouds there wasn't going to be a sunrise, merely a dull, slow brightening. It was a far cry from the previous afternoon, when Ira had wisely suggested we make the most of a few hours of sunshine after our arrival. This, effectively, was lesson one, probably the basis of all good photography and not a bad life lesson either. Whatever the situation, you have to make the most of it - because little did we know that we wouldn't see the sun again all weekend.
Ira, a seasoned National Geographic photographer who has spent most of his life travelling to remote corners of the Earth for such stories as "Race to save Incan mummies" and "The Samurai way: guardian of a ghost world", is in Abu Dhabi for the second part of his landscape and travel photography course in partnership with the Anantara hotel management group. The first part, on Sir Bani Yas Island last year, saw a small group of amateurs, myself included, hone their skills on the bizarre landscapes and varied wildlife of the island; this time, a larger group would apply ourselves to the arguably more challenging terrain of the desert. How best to capture the rippling vastness of the Rub al Khali? I was hoping to find out.
First, Ira says, it's important to choose the right time of day. "As the sun gets higher or lower in the sky, the angle the light hits the sand at changes, and those changes in light have an impact on the shadows and shapes of the sand and dunes. With stronger and longer shadows, the relief becomes more apparent. You not only see more shape in the dunes, you also see more definition in small things like the lines in the sand. Another interesting thing is that the colour of the sunlight changes as the sun gets closer to the horizon and the sand really emphasises the changes in colour."
Our impromptu first session had taken us onto the enormous sand dune in front of Qasr Al Sarab, from where we could practice taking photos of the resort and people as well as landscapes.
Nelli, a Russian journalist from Moscow, and I start by taking photos of each other in front of the resort. It proves instructive, with Ira showing how, by shooting me full-length, my head competes with the line of the resort in the background. By getting closer, and focusing on my top half only instead of trying to include all of me, the resort and the desert, Ira produces a much better shot. "It's the same with panoramas", Ira says. "Everyone sees landscapes wide but when you look at the picture, everything looks very small." It's far better, Ira argues, to go for a tighter shot which crops into the panorama but includes more detail in the foreground. It's basic stuff, but effective. Ira's photos are much more interesting.
We head up the sand dune and look down on a water hole backed by trees. Mohammed, a teacher from Buraimi, Oman, is taken aback by the difference it makes taking pictures of the water from two different places. In the first shot, the water is dull and the trees clumped together; in the second, the trees are more evenly spaced, and their reflection is showing clearly in the water. "It's all about the angle", Ira says. "You see from the second place you get a much better view, and without this bit of the sand dune in the foreground, the landscape looks much more dramatic." Mohammed is taken aback by the difference between his two pictures. One looks like a rushed snap, the other, more like something you'd see in National Geographic. "You have to move around because every little detail that you don't normally analyse makes a difference", Ira says. "Every little thing either makes a picture better or worse."
I've recently bought a new camera, a Nikon D5000, and, despite its myriad capabilities, haven't even worked out how to properly override the auto focus mechanism - an essential skill if you want to avoid boring photographs where the subject is always in the middle. "Just half-close the shutter on what you want to focus on, then, still keeping your finger in the same place, move the viewfinder to its final position, then push down," Ira says. After a few tries, the technique is mastered. "Tip one is learn to use your camera before you go on holiday," Ira says. "Tip two is if you can't do that, take the manual."
And tip three, I think, is for people like me, for whom the manual with its talk of shutter speeds and f-stops reads like gobbledegook, is to do a course such as this. Ira even gives us instruction on how to hold our cameras: most people, myself included, hold their cameras with one hand on each side, fingers poised over the shutter button. Yet unless you have a very steady hand, Ira says, this can often lead to disappointing results. Far better, he says, to use "one arm as a tripod" to increase stability and reduce the chance of camera shake when taking a photograph. It's welcome news to Haitham Alloughani, an electrical engineer and keen amateur photographer from Kuwait whose left hand has been fully bandaged after a goalkeeping accident. It might not be elegant, but by propping the camera on his left elbow, he can still take photographs.
The sky has become hazy by sunset, but I tell Ira that I'm still disappointed that the what I'm seeing isn't matched by what's appearing on my camera's screen. "You have to learn to see like your camera," Ira tells me. "Try adjusting your white balance." I look blankly at him, as the auto function on my camera is so good I rarely dabble in any of the unit's other settings. "Auto white balance wants to make things neutral, which is usually good, but at sunset you need to put it on cloudy or shade to get the golden look that you want." It works: the grey, pallid-looking dunes become a gorgeous russet red and the whole picture, which previously looked flat, becomes full-bodied. "Colour helps to give depth and layers", Ira goes on. That's also why in most landscapes, you should avoid the midday light. "The midday light is harsh with no definition. The colours aren't as good."
And so it is that on the next wet morning we find ourselves focusing not on landscapes but on camels and people. Two Pakistanis and one Bangladeshi man, who usually take tourists on camel rides and are dressed in white thobes, become the centre of our attention as, when the rain stops, we are forced to seize the opportunity and focus on all the action and colour we can find. As usual, Ira is phlegmatic. "Photography is all about compromise. In bad weather you just have to pick things that you can shoot, do what works. It makes you think more about the picture."
We all do what we can, photographing the camels their handlers and a nearby tent. Ira has lots of useful tips: when shooting a posed portrait, do it against a plain background; switch your camera to sports mode when photographing moving animals and try to get the eyes sharp; and, for each potential shot, shoot three frames: "the one in the middle will probably be the best, and you're always better off having too many pictures than not having the picture at all."
After two hours, I've had enough. Though I'm dressed in long trousers, trainers and a fleece, the wind cuts through to the bone and all I can think about is breakfast. Curt Bidinger, an American petroleum engineer based in Abu Dhabi, is dressed in shorts and sandals and is much more stoic, moving in and around his subjects to capture every possible situation. At last we get back into our vehicles and head back to the resort for breakfast and the first of several critique sessions. We're each told to download no more than 12 of our best shots and convene in a meeting room.
First, using a projector, Ira takes us through some composition basics, using a small handful of his thousands of National Geographic photos as examples. "Three things make a good photo," he says, showing us a dramatic picture of a barn in Colorado with mountains in the background. "Light, composition and a 'moment'. It also helps to have different layers in the picture, to have a foreground, a middle ground and a background."
Then it's on to our pictures. The group likes a landscape I took yesterday, before the sun disappeared. "In photography there are rules, but rules only work some of the time, not all of the time," Ira says. "For example, this photo is shot into the light, but it works. Also, often I get persnickety about too much sky, but I don't mind this."
We move on to the others' photographs, and Ira's critiques are generous but instructive ("if the middle camel had been further forward it would have been better," "in animals you want the eyes sharp", "this would have been better on a plain background." Curt's photos are particularly accomplished, but Ira still finds room for improvement - one of his portraits of a man with his camel, for example, is spoiled by the fact that the otherwise traditionally-dressed man is sporting a giant gold watch. "I didn't realise this before but the background in the picture is as important as the subject itself," Curt says. "The background and small details can distract from the main subject. It's clear that to imporove these pictures I need to keep people and animals separated. When people or animals are blocking each other they don't look as good; also, shooting people against a darker background is generally preferable to a lighter background."
I broach the subject of the dreaded f-stops, and Ira explains that it's all to do with light. "Three things control the light coming into the camera - light sensitivity (ISO), shutter speed and aperture." ISO is the sensitivity of the sensor, the faster the shutter moves the less light comes in, and you cut the light down by adjusting the size of the aperture - the higher the number of stops, the smaller the hole. Ira shows us on a chart what he means, and, although I'm not nearly in a position to be able to switch to manual, I've begun to understand my camera enough to practice taking long exposures of the resort that night after dinner. I'm also happy to find that by making the most of the dwindling light, I'm able to take a well-focused picture of the gate of the resort without a tripod.
After another disappointing morning weather-wise, our second critique session takes place after breakfast. Petra Miebach, who is based in Dubai, shows a selection of photos she has taken around the hotel. Her pic of a watercourse running through the resort is striking - "diagonal lines give you strength and bring you into the picture," Ira says, "but the children are overlapping slightly. Like most photos, this could have been worse, but it could have been better." Ira talks about the feeling one gets when a photo is just right. "You just relax looking at a good picture" he says. "You know that it is right because there is nothing you would change. It brings you into the moment."
After showing us a selection of envy-inducing photos from a recent trip to Antarctica, Ira moves on to what he calls "workflow", or simply organising yourself. In our digital age, it doesn't take long before one's computers are full of tens of thousands of images, all of which should be backed up on (ideally) two separate external hard drives. "In any system workflow should match the way you think," Ira says, "but whatever it is it has to be consistent." He suggests creating a new master folder every year, naming it with letters that you recognise and creating folders within that to cover either each month or particular events or trips. Then, within those, individual images can be renamed in batches. A first edit, to eliminate the worst photos, is also a good idea, although I, like so many others, rarely make time to do it. The best approach is to self-edit even before you start taking pictures. "Try to get it as perfect as you can in the camera," Ira says. "Don't think about what you will do in Photoshop."
It's been a long weekend, but by the time we leave, the sun reappears. On the road out of Qasr al Sarab I stop the car and wander off into the dunes to make the most of the untracked wilderness and the light. As Ira says, "Photography is partly about luck, but as a photographer, it's also about making your luck."
Double rooms at Qasr al Sarab (; 02 886 2088) this month cost from Dh1,856 per night including breakfast and taxes. For details of special packages and future skills courses, visit