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  • Writer's pictureAlyce Bender

Location Scout: United Arab Emirates

Updated: May 3, 2020

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) - best known for the opulence and grandeur that has made Dubai a luxury travel destination. Home to the world's biggest mall, tallest man-made structure, largest artificial island, the only "7 star" hotel, and the list continues.

Yet none of this sounds remotely like something a traveling nature photographer would typically be interested in other then the travel part, right? Wrong. While these amazing shows of human and technological advances are stunning and worth the visit, there is so much more to this country. And those are the parts I was most interested in finding!

So, with a week layover on my way to explore parts of Germany and France (but that is for another post), I decided to do a bit of scouting around the UAE. My best friend flew in to join me and we road tripped around this golden land of sun, sea, and sand.

Obviously a week is not enough to cover absolutely everywhere, even in a relatively small country; but we did our best and made a large counter-clockwise loop around the majority of the country. Abu Dhabi was our start and end point, but a similar excursion could be made from Dubai as well. Airfare was just cheaper into Abu Dhabi at the time.

Location tip: While the UAE is one of the most open and accepting of the Middle Eastern countries, please be aware that you are choosing to visit their country! This means respecting local customs in regards to conservative dress and behavior. As two Western females not with a tour company, I can honestly say we never, not once, felt threatened or feared for our safety, even when having to walk several city blocks late at night. Everyone we meet was so very respectful, friendly, and helpful. But, once again, we were dressed conservatively (nothing above the knee, and no tank tops). If participating in water activities, two piece suites are acceptable during those activities, but both men and women should cover up before dining, shopping, or even walking around other then at the beach.

Special to photography location tip: It is illegal to take pictures of strangers, especially women and children, without consent in the UAE! Reference: Article 378 of the UAE Penal Code (Federal Law 3 of 1987) Thus, be very careful with your street photography.

OK, enough with the customs and courtesy protocol and on to the sights!

Abu Dhabi

This was our gateway in (and out) of the country. For me, it was the perfect starting point because, while large, it is not as busy and hectic as Dubai, so it allowed us to get familiar with the traffic, signage and parking; all good things to be comfortable with when road tripping in a foreign land.

As a scouting trip, I was here to see what there was to see. In my research beforehand, there was not much on photographing nature and landscapes in this country. To me, this was odd. Every country has landscapes and some sort of wildlife. I was here to find spots for such activities when I return in the future. That being said, we decided to see some of the other sights as well, because, well, why not?

Arriving in country the same week as the historic opening of one of the premiere museums in the world was so very exciting! Abu Dhabi Louvre had not been open a week yet, when we visited. Stunning, the architecture is unique and beautiful while the collection is an amazing collection of global art spanning many eras. They do allow photography both on the inside and out so make sure to bring your camera.

Gear tip: Tri/monopods and backpacks are not allowed inside so plan your gear accordingly. Be aware that, even though it is a large museum, the crowds can be dense, so shooting conditions will be a bit tricky for the foreseeable future. Remember this museum has been in the works for over ten years and is the only other Louvre outside Paris.

The other must see place to visit while in Abu Dhabi is, of course, the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. The Grand Mosque is an architecture photographer's dream, yet so beautiful everyone is sure to find a view they love. Details abound everywhere. With the changing light, the mosque continues to transform from one vibrant shade to another. I could have stayed here all day without issue. However, if only visiting once, I suggest arriving a little bit before golden hour and staying through blue hour. This will give you the most varied lighting and a chance to view the mosque in both daylight and see the unique up-lighting that illuminates the structures after the sun goes down.

Gear tip: Be aware: even though nowhere on any website, any literature, or signage was there any restriction on camera gear noted, upon entering I did have my 70-300mm lens seized. The security personnel stated that no lens 300mm or longer could be brought in and since my lens was 300mm it had to remain locked up for the duration of my visit. Needless to say, I was steaming (still am a bit if I'm honest) as I know images I have seen online have been taken with longer lenses. Also, had I know beforehand, I would have brought a different lens set to this location. So, hopefully, those reading this will be forewarned in case the same restriction is in place when you visit.

Location tip: When visiting the Grand Mosque (or any mosque) appropriate clothing must be worn or you will be denied entry. For men: full length trousers and a sleeved shirt. For women: nothing tight, full length pants or skirt with full length sleeved top and a head covering (scarf or hijab). If not appropriately clothed, women will be offered a "rental" (they are free) hooded abaya to use while visiting.

Personally, I chose to purchase a traditional abaya and hijab the day before we visited. Not only was it relatively inexpensive, but it also makes my personal images a bit more personal as I'm not wearing the same outfit as most other tourist to the Grand Mosque. It also gives me an outfit to use in other locations around the country and for when I return.

Liwa Oasis

Leaving the city in the dust - literally- we left Abu Dhabi for the dunes of the Empty Quarter! Off the beaten path, I can honestly say these were by far my favorite days and the area I must revisit. Liwa Oasis is a small desert town surrounded by massive dunes, random camel farms, and salt flats. All of which make for great photography opportunities.

Location tip: It is called the Empty Quarter for good reason. As we drove from the city, we quickly entered the desert with service stations few and far between. Once we turned off the main highway heading inland towards Liwa, traffic became pretty much non-existent. Take precautions for the environment you are exploring. Always carry several liters of water per person, some spare energy bars, and blanket (to protect from sun and warm at night). While rare, if you did get into trouble, these are going to be the basic items to help you until help can arrive in this climate.

Gear tip: In almost every article I have mentioned the use of a polarizing filter. One would think that the desert, with its reflective sand and sunny disposition, would be the ideal place to use one; however, the opposite is true. Using a circular polarizing filter in the desert can lead to images turning out with oddly splotchy blue skies if the sun is not exactly 90 degrees from the angle of the lens. My suggestion, just go without unless absolutely certain you have the angle correct and the whole frame fits. Ultra wide lenses will have issues even if the primary angle is 90 degrees.

Spending only a day and a half in this area, made it painful to leave as I saw so many opportunities to shoot a variety of images. Even had several guys offer to take us over to the camel races to show off their stock when we pulled over to photograph the jockeys leading their mounts to the track. If we had not been pressed to get to our sunset location, I would have really like to take them up on the offer as I have never seen a camel race before!

Al Ain

Our next stop was the city of Al Ain. I dont have many images from this area as I was hit with severe GI problems shortly before reaching town and lasting until Dubai. It took a lot out of me, physically, and I am ever so grateful my friend was with me as, with her help, I was still able to visit some of the places on our itinerary. However, several others had to be cut for my health.

What first put this on the map for me was that it has the last remaining camel souk (market) in the country. Yes, there are infrequent mass gathering where camels are bought and sold, but the Al Ain camel souk is the only daily camel exchange open to the public.

Location tip: Please know it is free to enter and wonder around just like the other souks throughout the country! Be aware there will be men who come up and ask for money to take pictures of the camels or to "guide" you through the market. It is up to you if you want to pay, but just know you have the option to do it on your own. This was the only location where my friend and I thought it might have been better to go on a weekend when more tourists visit as we were the only visitors there and thus were constantly pressured to get a guide or pay for photos. Lucky for us, a pair of men interceded between us and a group of particularly insistent touts. They escorted us around, talked to us about the different types of camels that were for sale (racing vs beauty vs meat), and took a few pictures for us. They did it with smiles and kept commenting that it was a free market and the other guys had no right to ask for money. All they asked for at the end was a picture with us and then shook our hands bidding us a good day and safe travels.

Al Ain has an interesting backdrop to the east of the city. There is a random rocky outcropping/mountain that straddles the boarder between the UAE and Oman, known as Jabel Hafeet.

An excellent place for sunset, Jabel Hafeet is the second tallest natural point in the country. If the desert haze doesn't obliterate the view, one can see for miles in all directions when atop this martian-like landscape.

Location tip: I highly suggest trying to get a room at the Mercure Grand Jebel Hafeet Al Ain Hotel. It sits directly on top of the mountain and the rooms have amazing vistas. For being laid up, I managed to grab this shot from the mini golf area on the first floor. No traveling off property or hiking required.

One other place to note in Al Ain is the UNESCO site of Al Ain Oasis. Only opened a year or so ago, there is still development going into the site. Yet what they do have is quite nice and worth a small stop and a bit of a walk around.


Feeling a bit better, we hit the road once again to the city of cities: Dubai. Such an eclectic city with a distinct personality, Dubai was both awe-inspiring and frustrating at the same time.

So the Ras al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary lies on the outskirts of Dubai proper and is sandwiched between two major highways (think four to six lanes each direction). On the maps, there look to be access roads to the three wildlife viewing blinds the government have built for the public to observe such unique wildlife as wild flamingos and other birds that use this water source when transiting across the desert. However, this is not the case! After what took ages to finally figure out and get pointed in the right direction (no easy turn around options in Dubai's highway system), we finally figured out that it is literally just a small pull off on the side of the highway that you then walk out to the blind. Here are the coordinates for the exit ramp to the parking pull off: 25.190636, 55.310767.

Totally worth the effort though as, upon entering the blind, a parade of several hundred wild pink flamingos come walking from around the corner of the mangroves to start feeding directly in front of the blind. The game warden on duty said they had just been scared off by some Asian tourists who bypassed the blind walk, and decided to just hike to the waters edge. Dont be those people!

Gear tip: I used my Tamron G2 150-600mm the entire time at this location. That being said, a 70-300 or similar telephoto lens would have worked well too. The flamingos come in close enough to get some good images without the super-telephoto gear.

The Old Quarter is an array of historic alleys and buildings that have been restored and turned into museums, cafes, and local art shops. This area is also a good area to base yourself out of as it is walking distance to many of the famous souks of the city.

Location tip: Parking is a nightmare in Dubai, so do yourself a favor and walk where you can or take public transportation.

Housed in the area is the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding (SMCCU). If you do nothing else but shop and wander the city, I implore you to visit the SMCCU. They have a wonderful selection of activities for visitors. We attended the morning heritage tour and then the cultural dinner. Both were amazing and I learned so much. When I revisit, I would once again attend one of the cultural meals since it is an open forum with local Emiratis and a fascinating time.

This is also how we spent our Thanksgiving day and I can honestly say, its was the best Thanksgiving I have had while traveling.

Obviously, just as when in Abu Dhabi you cant miss the Grand Mosque, in Dubai, you cant miss Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest man-made structure. Its needle-like top can be seen from all over the city, but I think the best view is from the top. We watched the sunset from the 125th floor before moving down to the 124th exterior observation deck for blue hour and twilight.

Dubai from the 125th

Location tip: Pre-purchasing tickets is essential if you are going to try to photograph sunrise or sunset from the top. For sunrise, they only have sunrise slots available certain days of the week during the winter months, so realize that it is not always an option. As for sunset, decide if your time or money is worth more. If you purchase a 1530 ticket, it is cheaper than the tickets surrounding the hour of sunset. This meant I was willing to camp out at the top (no visitation time limit of the 124th and 125th floors) to save some extra cash. It also allows you to pick a spot and stake it before the crowds really start moving in as sunset looms.

Dubai from the 124th

The rest of the trip was mostly tourist type activities and not photo related until I reach Germany a few days later. Needless to say, it was a nonstop tour of the United Arab Emirates and gave me a much better idea of what to expect and where to go for nature related images when in that part of the world again. If you are planning on traveling to the UAE and have any further questions, please let me know as I would love to help you out if I can based on my experiences there.

Until next time, cheers!

Blue Hour Arch at the Grand Mosque

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