Every spring the deserts in Southern California explode with color. Wildflowers and cacti are using this short period to put up a display of color that lasts only a few weeks until the scorching heat burns every patch of colors that did not fall prey to the caterpillars yet.
Anza Borrego Desert State Park is the largest State Park in the United States
How to get there
I usually stay somewhere near Escondido or San Diego and make my visit a round trip. I come via Highway 78 and leave on S2 south. At Ocotillo, I take I-8 west towards San Diego. S2 has a lot less traffic and much more things to see and explore. Once you are in the park, take S3 and follow the signs towards the visitor center.
Gasoline costs more in Borrego Springs, than in most other places. Fill up your car before you drive to the park.
Palm Canyon Parking:
Carrizo Badlands Overlook:
How to photograph Wildflowers in the Anza Borrego Desert
The blooming wildflowers are a heavenly opportunity for macro shooters. Whether there are two or two million flowers does not matter as much to you as it does to landscape artists like myself. There are many excellent resources on Wildflower Macro Photography (check the Resource section below). Fortunately, this means I can focus on the locale and give you some hints on the landscape aspects of flower photography. The wildflowers also bring out a lot of bugs and caterpillars.
Depth of Field
When you have subjects very close to your lens and very distant as I do in the two photographs of this article, you need to watch your Depth of Field closely. Fortunately in wide-angle photography, at f/9 I virtually get unlimited Depth of Field. I manually focus my Wide-Angle lens to 2m, which will automatically get everything sharp from about 0.5m to infinity on my camera, if I use an aperture of f/9 (the smallest aperture I can use without diffraction limitations). It took a lot of trial and error to find this and to familiarize myself with my lens and camera. I encourage you to do the same at home before you leave. Follow the two links above to understand more about getting sharp photographs and why the smallest possible aperture does not give you sharper photos despite increasing your depth of field.
Here are a couple of quick tips should you already be on your way out the door:
- Set your camera to f/8 to f/16 if you worry about depth of field
- With a 20mm lens (or equivalent) you need f/8, focus to 2m to get everything from 1m to infinity in focus. With f/16 you can focus to 1m and get everything from 0.5m to infinity in focus.
- Use your depth of field preview button that is next to your lens mount on your camera to get an idea about the sharpness in your shot
- Use the LCD afterward to see if something is grossly out of focus. The LCD is not good to judge critical sharpness but it will show obvious problems.
- Canon cameras have an A-Dep mode. If you can keep one focus point on your farthest subject and one focus point on your closest subject, the camera will automatically pick the aperture necessary to guarantee the correct depth.
Setting a small aperture to expand your depth of field will automatically lower your exposure time. If your exposure time drops below 1/125s, you need to pay attention to your flowers. Are they moving in the wind? If they are, check your LCD screen to see if everything is sharp while the flowers are blurry. This is a good indication that you need to increase your speed. The only option you have is to increase your ISO sensitivity, since you cannot open the aperture more. If there is no wind, you can probably get away with using a tripod and keeping your ISO low for better image quality.
To get a compelling composition with wildflowers in the foreground you need to get very low. If you shoot standing up, the flower field will look less dense and much less appealing. The yellow flowers in the vertical photograph were spaced out very far, but by getting very low with my tripod, I created the illusion of a field of flowers. In the first picture I was also crouching very close to the crowd to emphasize the flowers and the cactus.
Find an interesting subject in the foreground. If you are standing in a field of flowers, look for a patch of flowers with a different color, a cactus or something else to break up the field. This will become your focal point. Do not place it in the center of your image but in one of the four “golden mean” (or rule of thirds) spots. Create dynamic images by using uneven numbers of elements and by placing them in your frame at interesting points. This will create more interest and keep the viewer occupied longer.
Best Time of the Day and Best Season
March to April is the best time to visit the park. There is really no reason to endure the punishing heat of summer.
Trying to see everything in one day usually means to compromise. Luckily, I chose to see the sunset at the Carrizo Badlands overlook in hope for flowers instead of the Fonts Point Overlook that the park rangers always recommend. If you can afford the time, spend two days here but at least one day.
- Tripod and Cable Release
- Polarizing Filter
- UV Filter
- Sun Cream
There is no entrance fee to the park itself. The day use fee at the Palm Canyon Campground, start of the Palm Canyon Trail, costs $6 per car. The parking lot was full during our visit and although we could have walked here from the visitor center (0.6mi) we chose to explore other parts of the park instead.
Difficulty Getting There
The park is off the beaten path and not on the route of many tourists, which is fortunate for us photographers.
- Palm Canyon Hike
- Anza Borrego Wildflowers
- Borrego Badlands and Carrizo Badlands overlooks
- Salton Sea
- Slab City and Salvation Mountain
- Palomar Observatory
- San Diego Wild Animal Park (in Escondido)
- Legoland California
- Carlsbad Flower Fields
- Cholla Garden in Joshua Tree NP
- Wildflower Report and Wildflower Map for Anza Borrego
- Anza Borrego Wildflower Status Report on Desert USA
- Excellent Article on Wildflower Macro Photography
- Macro Flower Photography Article
- More of my Desert Photographs
- Park Tel: 760-767-5311
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