How to Shoot Portraits in the Desert

This post will kick off the first of many self-portrait photo shoot recaps! As a growing self-portrait photographer, I decided to share my adventures with you all to share the tips and tricks that I learn along the way. In addition, I’ll post behind-the-scenes videos of the shoots to my YouTube channel, which you can check out here

Earlier this week I went out to a nearby hiking trail to do a desert photo shoot. I got there around 4:30 pm to make sure I had plenty of time to ride out the perfect golden hour light. Because of the terrain and my limited equipment, I ran into some obstacles along the way. But once again, I learned so much in this shoot. 

First, check out my video tutorial about my desert photoshoot!



Equipment Details and Camera Settings…

Throughout the shoot, my settings stayed around ISO 100-200, wide apertures like f/1.8 – f/4, and shutter speeds of 1/1000 to 1/2000. 

Here’s the equipment I brought with me on the shoot: 

I hiked up a bit to the top of a small hill with a scenic view and boulders that would make great shots. Whenever I begin a shoot, I scope out the area and visualize good shots. I also make sure to keep it simple in the beginning to get used to my environment and understand the lighting situation. 

So to start off, I decided to do a simple sitting pose on one of the boulders using my Sony kit lens. It took a bit of adjusting with the tripod to get a better angle. At this point, the sun was still a little high and was creating some harsh shadows. I had to work around that, but figured that with the desert background it worked. 

My tripod doesn’t have the ability to turn the camera vertically, so I shot this in landscape but intentionally left a lot of headroom in order to crop it in editing. It worked out because it frames really nicely!

In editing, I added some noise to give it a rough feel. I did this for most of my shots in the desert because I wanted it to seem a bit gritty. You have to remember that little details like this matter to make sure your photos are cohesive and set a tone. 


Switching to the 50mm F/1.8 Lens…

Next, I switched lenses to get more close-ups. I stayed on this rock but changed my jacket to give a different vibe.

Using this lens is a lot harder to do for self-portraits, especially because I have to use manual focus on this one. I did my best to set my focus with a prop before going to that mark and taking the shot, but a lot of photos were out of focus. My final shots though had a nice depth of field where my face was in focus, but my legs that were closer to the camera were slightly blurred.

I also tried different posing in this spot. Because of the hard sunlight, I did a lot of shots with my hands over my face, playing with the shadows they cast. It gave it like a “stranded in the desert” type feel.

I tried to edit these to look like they were shot on film. I really like adding a bit of noise and a vignette as well as playing around with the color to achieve this effect. 

Finally, I moved on to some standing up shots. This definitely took a few tries to get right. I realized that I had to lean slightly into the camera below me so I wouldn’t appear as distorted. (Otherwise, my head would look tiny.) I knew I wanted to get the beautiful blue sky as a background, and the only way to achieve that would be shooting at a low angle.

Again, this was in somewhat harsher lighting, but I used that to my advantage. I also experimented with new posing. Here’s what I came up with. 

As I neared golden hour, I started taking more full-body shots, like the one below. I could now play with different angles, like facing diagonally away from the sun, without getting shadows that were too harsh. I still liked using the sky to fill most of the negative space, and again, shot at a lower angle. 

Finally, I moved slightly down the hill to sit in front of a large boulder and grab some closeups. I also changed into my red blazer, as I figured the contrasting color with the sky would create a cool shot. This portrait below was one of my favorites to wrap up the evening. 

I hope you enjoyed this recap of my photoshoot! A behind-the-scenes video is coming soon and will be added to this post, so stay tuned. If you have any questions about my camera settings, techniques, or equipment, let me know in the comments below or reach out here. 

Follow my NEW photography Instagram (@sheajordanphoto) here. 

If you’re interested in learning how I take my self-portraits, you can watch my instructional video below.


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