The Atacama Desert

Destination Introduction

Mountain Lake
A high-altitude mountain lake

The Atacama Desert has been in a hyper-arid state for over 40 million years making not only the driest place on earth but also the oldest desert ever. In some places rain has not fallen for 400 years! Consequently the region is unlike any other on the planet and offers special photographic opportunities found nowhere else on earth. The desert is located in the north of Chile and the Andes form a natural border with Argentina and Bolivia. On the west is the Pacific Coastal Mountain Range which has an average elevation of 2500 feet. The landscape is sparsely populated and resembles the moon. Contrary to common belief, the desert is not devoid of wildlife but actually offers excellent opportunities to photograph unique animals.

Photographic Subjects

Desert Fox
A wild desert fox

Some of the most stunning and picturesque subjects in the Atacama are the high altitude mountain lakes, the like of which can be seen nowhere else. The orangey-yellow ground contrasts greatly with the deep blue colour of the water and the sky which combines to give a striking effect. One of the more popular destinations are the hot springs and geysers of the Tatio which are also interesting photographic subjects. Another special destination is ‘the valley of the moon’ which, like the name suggests, is similar to a lunar landscape. The salt flats in the Atacama attract flamingos which can make interesting subjects together with the barren backdrop. The general landscape of the Atacama Desert, dotted with cactuses, is in itself spectacular. On the horizon lies the Andes mountain range. As well as flamingos, the desert also contains beautiful foxes, vicuñas (small llamas) and many other species of animal. One of the best ways to explore this wonderful place is by hiking.

Photography Tips

Cactus Silhouttes
Cactus Silhouttes making use of the sun

The high altitude of the Altiplano means that the amount of UV light is much higher than normal. A filter will eliminate a washed out effect of the photos caused by the harsh light. A polarising filter can increase the blueness of the sky which without a filter is very pale. It would be a mistake to take just a wide angle lens to the Atacama Desert although it is necessary, a zoom lens is also recommended to capture images of the wildlife that lives in the dry environment. A particularly useful tip to remember when taking landscape pictures is called the ‘rule of thirds’. It helps to improve composition of photos that otherwise will remain dull. The main point to remember is that the prominent subjects (i.e. the horizon) should be either 1/3 or 2/3 of the way up in the frame. Equally, an animal should be paced at intervals of 1/3 vertically in the frame. In other words do not place a subject directly in the middle of the image!