This is part 1 of a 4 part guide to photography in Joshua Tree National Park. Part 1 discusses the fundamentals of photography in Joshua Tree. Part 2 discusses the technical aspects of photography within Joshua Tree. Part 3 is about the specific locations within Joshua Tree. Part 4 covers night photography specifically in Joshua Tree.

I have always had a strange relationship with Joshua Tree National Park...

For many years, I lived only a few minutes away from the park, going frequently, sometimes daily for stretches of time. I never explored the park the way I’d explored other national parks I visit. I think living so close to something and visiting so regularly–and so casually–takes away the intentionality from the visit. I never felt pressured to explore the entire park the way I do when I travel. I’d go to my favorite places on a rotation–the Cholla Cactus Garden, Skull Rock, Keys View, and the Hall of Horrors trail–and enjoy them for a bit and go home. 

I'd always had trouble capturing the beauty I saw there with a camera. I just couldn’t translate it to photographs. I felt like I lacked the compositional language to work with the rather alien and otherworldly landscape. With other desert national parks like White Sands, Death Valley, and Arches, the pictures almost seem to take themselves, but Joshua Tree always frustrated and perplexed me. It’s especially ironic because many photographers find it to be one of the easier places to photograph. 

I'll be taking you with me on a photographic exploration of the park. We'll explore the best places and methods to photographically capture the essence of the JTNP. I've found that Joshua Tree National Park is especially sensitive to changes in lighting; one location will look completely different at sunrise, sunset, daytime, and nighttime and each time of day will lend itself to completely different compositions and challenges.

Within the context of Joshua Tree National Park. It makes the most sense to break photography at JTNP down by time of day. As the morning progresses into night, Joshua Tree evolves very dramatically. It feels like a completely different park in the middle of the day than it does at sunset. Photography, likewise, is completely different during these different times of day at the park; therefore, we’re going to discuss each of these times of day.

Late Morning to Early Afternoon

Late morning to early afternoon is a sort of no-mans-land at the park, photographically speaking. The harsh, overhead sunlight removes contrast from photos and washes landscapes out. The colors are muted and drab. It compresses photos and gives them a two-dimensional look, as well. It also challenges the resolving power of camera sensors and lenses, often leading to photographs with less-than-ideal image quality. I find it very difficult to photograph between 10am and 4pm at Joshua Tree. 

That’s not to say that its impossible, but it takes some creativity and outside the box thinking. Barring less-than-ordinary circumstances, it is difficult to get spectacular, expansive landscape photographs of fields of Joshua Trees at noon, so it’s important to adjust your expectations and plan accordingly. 

This late morning and early afternoon period is a good opportunity to explore smaller or more abstract subjects. It’s a good opportunity to explore how shadows create shapes and lines on the large rocks. It’s a good opportunity to explore the textures of the desert and even make them the subjects themselves

There are, however, still sometimes some good opportunities to do traditional landscape photography during the afternoon. The best of which comes when it’s cloudy or overcast. Any amount of clouds in the sky can really open up the opportunities for afternoon landscape photography in the park. Even a small number of clouds can add drama and compositional elements to a photograph. 

Moderate cloud cover can diffuse sunlight as the clouds pass under the sun and add tremendous amounts of drama to a landscape tableau. Completely overcast days totally diffuse the sunlight, removing contrast and shadows but also giving the park an otherworldly and unique look. When I see clouds in the sky or in the weather forecast, I often head to the park because it really changes the experience. The typical empty, vast, blue skies are beautiful, but they give you less to work with, photographically.

The photographs above were all taken in the afternoon and were made possible because of the clouds diffusing the sunlight and adding more compositional elements to the frame. There are many opportunities for black and white photography on cloudy afternoons, as well. Black and white photography on cloudy afternoons can underscore the drama and scale of Joshua Tree in ways that color can’t.

Late Afternoon

Late afternoon in Joshua Tree is when things start to come alive, photographically. The light becomes increasingly directional and warm, casting strong shadows and imbuing the landscape with a golden hue. This is also a good opportunity to explore backlighting your subject with the descending sun or capturing sunbursts. Below are some examples of both backlighting and using sunbursts as compositional elements.

It is in this late afternoon period that the ‘golden hour’ occurs, the hour or so prior to sunset where the sunlight casts a golden hue. The effect is especially pronounced on the large rocks of Joshua Tree.


Sunsets in Joshua Tree are a really special thing. They’re some of the most dramatic and beautiful sunsets I have ever seen. Interestingly, they can vary quite a lot day to day and even within the park itself; sunset is a very different experience in different areas of the park, even on the same day. This gives photography at sunset in Joshua Tree a sometimes frustrating and random feel where luck plays more of a role than one would like. 

There are a few core variables that impact photography at sunset within Joshua Tree. The biggest variable is where you are within the park. In my experience, sunsets are far more dramatic in the western portion of the park and far more muted in the eastern portion. This is because there is a natural boundary of mountains and hills kind of slicing the park in half that obstruct the most dramatic components of sunset from the eastern part of the park. 

If entering through the North Entrance Station in Twentynine Palms, the topography doesn’t really open up for sunset views until you get past Skull Rock. It helps to look at a topographical map of the park when planning sunset photography in the Park. Is there a relatively unobstructed westward view? If so, it’s probably a good place to try sunset photography. I’ll cover sunsets in specific locations throughout the park in part 3 of this guide. 

One thing to note about sunsets in Joshua Tree is that there are two components of the sunset: the western sky, where the sun sets, and the eastern sky, where there is a beautiful tapestry of pastel colors painted on the twilight sky. Sometimes, you can capture the moon rising against this eastern backdrop of gorgeous, pastel colors.

Some of my favorite photographs to take during sunset are the silhouettes of Joshua Trees against the sunset sky. In these images, you expose for the sky, but lower the exposure just a tiny bit, under exposing by about a third of a stop. These make for some dramatic and iconic images that are relatively easy to capture, technically and compositionally. Because of the underexposure and the already incredibly intense colors of sunset, I don’t strive for technicality in these types of photographs. I will often push contrast with a basic curves adjustment and increase saturation in post-processing to get the look I am going for. To me, these are more like paintings than photographs, in technical terms.

One struggle with sunset photography in Joshua Tree is dynamic range and exposure. I will touch on this in greater detail in Part 2, The Technical, but the crux of the issue is that it’s challenging to get the exposure right; if you expose for the sky, the ground will be very underexposed and not match what you’re seeing with your eyes. If you expose for the ground, then the sky will be ‘blown out’ and you will lose your detail and color in the sky. 

It’s important not to leave too early after the sun sets over the horizon; the colors and beauty of the sky increases for quite a while after sunset, creating a beautiful and dramatic segue into my favorite time at the park: Twilight.


Twilight and early night are beautiful times to be at Joshua Tree. The sky is often a heavily saturated periwinkle color, and sometimes even a deep, luminous purple. Despite how beautiful and otherworldly it is at the park at this time, it is incredibly difficult, technically, to take photographs during this time. Setting the exposure is often a Sophie’s choice of losing detail in the delicate sky or the dark ground. I always expose for the sky and then adjust the shadows and levels in post-processing, but this isn’t always possible, especially if you shoot jpeg and not raw.

As twilight transitions into early night, things get more complicated. Without doing actual ‘night photography’ with a tripod, you are pretty limited technically. At hand holdable shutter speeds, it is very difficult to get the exposure required to make usable photographs, and even if you sufficiently lower the shutter speed, aperture, or raise the ISO, the resulting images often falls short of what you’d hoped for, either being too noisy or lacking in contrast and color. In these situations, I like to use black and white. The high ISO noise gives the images a bit of a film-grain look and the photographs have unique eerie and dreamy quality to them. At this time black and white images at night can have a eerie and dreamy quality, sometimes better capturing the essence of night when doing handheld night photography. Black and white can sometimes be more technically forgiving, too.


I’ve always found sunrises in Joshua Tree National Park relatively underwhelming. There is a long barrier of mountains to the east of the park that obscure the most dramatic parts of sunrise. Those mountains block the intense colors and tones of sunrise and by the time the sun has cleared them, the sunrise is over and it’s the golden morning hour, which, while beautiful, isn’t the same as sunrise.

I’ve often seen more dramatic and color saturated sunrises outside the Twentynine Palms park entrance, on Utah Trail. It’s a long road that looks down into the city of Twentynine Palms and has views of the eastern horizon unobstructed by the mountains. The Cholla Garden is the only place in the park I’ve found where sunrise is better than sunset, by a very significant margin. 

One of my favorite parts of sunrise in the park is the highly directional light that appears as the sun peaks over the horizon. The shadows it casts can make for compelling photographs. This time also provides opportunities to explore backlit subjects.

It’s a good idea to have a general idea of the compositions and framing you want in your photographs before you arrive at your location for sunrise pictures. I highly recommend scouting your sunrise photography location the day before. You’ll be arriving in the dark and sunrise happens pretty quickly. You’ll get much more out of your photography session if you plan your shots ahead of time.  Sunrises in specific locations will be covered in part 3 of this guide, Locations.


Despite being an arid desert, there are some beautiful plants, flowers, and cacti that provide photographic opportunities throughout the park. The desert landscape often makes them stand out more. In a sea of sage green and brown, a little bit of color goes a long way. 


In the spring and summer months in Joshua Tree, a yellow flower called Cinchweed can sometimes be seen blanketing the ground. It usually blooms during monsoon rains and after wet periods. 2023 has been a pretty extraordinary season for Cinchweed; it’s quite rare to get such an impressive bloom in the late summer months, but the recent tropical storm brought significant amounts of rainfall and has had a significant impact on the ecosystem of Joshua Tree.

It’s been extraordinary to witness. This is the first year I’ve seen such impressive and beautiful cinchweed blooms. Despite how striking they are in person, their beauty can be a bit tricky to capture, photographically. Underexpose, and they look flat and dark. Overexpose, and they look washed out while the landscape looks harsh and the sky blown out. It’s important to get the exposure right. If you don’t get it right in camera, it helps to adjust, during post processing, the luminance levels for the yellow color channel specifically. This gives you a bit more control in getting the photograph closer to what the eye sees. 


One of my favorite photographic subjects in Joshua Tree National Park is the datura that prolifically grows around the park. Though it grows everywhere in the park, I’ve found it most common on the eastern part, closer to the northern entrance in Twentynine Palms. Pretty much the only time to photograph datura is morning and night. It’s a nocturnal flower that closes late morning and reopens again at night. In the morning, it is beautiful and the strongly directional morning sun can create a beautiful backlit effect. 

Contrast can be increased or reduced in post-processing and both will yield beautiful, yet different, results. An image with high contrast results in a study of light and drama and a low contrast image results in a study of delicacy and texture. Additionally, color works equally as well as black and white. There are so many ways to approach datura, photographically. It’s one of my all time favorite flowers. It smells fantastic, as well. It’s not always easy to catch in bloom, but generally any time between April and October is your best bet.

Fringed Amaranth

Another plant of which I am particularly fond of photographing in Joshua Tree is fringed amaranth. It is a tall, wheat like grass that blooms in the summer months. During the late morning and throughout the afternoon, it is unassuming and doesn’t offer many photographic opportunities, but with the highly directional sunlight of sunrise and sunset and the golden hours surrounding them, it comes alive, glowing luminously, almost magically so. The more directional the sunlight, the more dramatic it becomes and the more it adds to photographic subjects. It can be a useful compositional tool or it can become the subject itself.

There are countless photographic opportunities of plants, flowers, and cacti in Joshua Tree National Park. The cactus blooms in April through May present incredible photographic opportunities, these include the Cholla and Beavertail cactus, along with many others. The wildflower blooming season is from January all the way through June, depending on the elevation. The National Park Service website has some more information on wildflower blooms in the park Here

A dedicated photography guide to the plants, flowers, and cacti of Joshua Tree could be as long as this entire guide. It is a subject that deserves its own guide, perhaps at a later date. But, for the scope of this guide and for the sake of brevity, I have only included a few of my favorite flowers to photograph


This concludes part 1 of the Photography Guide to Joshua Tree National Park. It touches–though not in great depth–on a few of the fundamentals, realities, and constraints of photography in the park. This is by no means a comprehensive guide to photography in the park, but rather serves as a primer, or orientation, for those planning a photographic visit to park.

Part 2 will cover the technical aspects of photography in Joshua Tree, to include black and white photography vs color, dynamic range and shooting raw, post processing and editing, lenses, and camera settings. Stay tuned.