Extreme Deserts with Peter Coskun

By Claudia Posada

How do you survive when the desert is your 9-5? Multi-award-winning photographer Peter Coskun shares his story. 

Born in Philadelphia, fine art landscape and nature photographer Peter Coskun specialises in showcasing the beauty and the fragility of desert ecosystems. His images present a stark contrast between the pristine beauty of wild places and the reality of threatened environments, and he uses his art to raise awareness for their protection.

We speak about a close shave involving lightning strikes, the devastating effects of wildfires on deserts, and the challenges of working in extreme heat.

Photographer Peter Coskun
Peter has been fascinated by the desert from a young age. © Peter Coskun
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How did you find your passion for photography?

As a teenager, I loved riding BMX bikes in the desert behind my home. I had taken a photography class at school and used to take the school's film camera out with me on my bike rides so that I could practise. One afternoon, during a large BMX contest, I wandered up to a high ridge, and was stunned to see the desert looking unusually green, and it was a scene that I immediately wanted to capture. Over time, I acquired professional equipment and turned my lens towards the local wildlife. Bird and wildlife photography fascinated me, but I found my stride in landscape photography, which allows me to explore my surroundings and see things in the environment that I might otherwise overlook.

The desert is one of the most incredible and diverse environments on the planet."

What inspired your focus on arid landscapes?

When my family relocated from Pennsylvania to Arizona at the start of high school, I found myself in the midst of a desert landscape. Despite my initial assumptions – from watching movies I had thought that the desert was only made up of sand dunes, dirt, cacti and snakes – I began to discover that the desert is one of the most incredible and diverse environments on the planet. Although I sometimes get the itch to explore mountains and forests, the desert feels like home. I've been drawn more towards capturing its arid beauty in recent years. When people look at these images and say, “Wow, I had no idea this would be found in the desert,” I smile and feel like I have done my job.

A horizon of frosted peaks give a striking contrast against the foregrounded Sonoran desert, Arizona.
A horizon of frosted peaks give a striking contrast against the foregrounded Sonoran desert, Arizona. © Peter Coskun

Which photograph are you most proud of?

I think my proudest photograph is “Somewhere in Hiding”, which was taken during a 2016 houseboating trip on Lake Powell, in one of its many narrow canyons. It is a simple composition, a lone silhouetted figure at the top of a sand dune, but what makes it special is that the figure is silhouetted against the glow of orange sandstone, displaying the immense scale of this location. The canyons in the desert southwest are some of my favourite places to explore, so when the elements came together for this photograph, I knew it was a special moment.

A lone figure, silhouetted against orange sandstone.
The 'immense scale' of the desert, shown in 'Somewhere in Hiding.' © Peter Coskun

What has been your hairiest moment out in the desert?

Once, while shooting wildflowers under the Superstition Mountains, I found myself caught in a sudden, intense thunderstorm. Without any rain gear and miles away from my car, I took shelter under a small mesquite tree – really not the safest place to be, but being the desert, there were very few options for cover. There were lightning strikes in every direction. The blinding flashes followed by incredibly loud cracks of thunder were making me uneasy while I hunkered down, hoping not to get struck. The rain eventually stopped, and I could see an opening on the horizon. Soaked and on edge, I decided it was safe enough to get back to finding my shot. I chose a group of blooming brittlebushes as the colours of the sunset lit up the sky. Just as the colours were at their peak, one last lightning bolt struck over the mountain. I have never left without a rain jacket in my pack since.

A storm clears over the desert.
Photography in the desert can be dangerous, but Peter aims to inspire people to protect it. © Peter Coskun

What does a daily routine look like for you when out shooting?

On shooting days, I typically start prep the night before ­– formulating backup plans should my ideal shoot not work out, checking the weather multiple times and scouting locations via Google Earth to see what obstacles I might encounter. After that, I'll pack my camera gear. I usually arrive on location at least an hour before sunrise so I'll have enough time to scout for compositions. Once I choose my shot, I set up my gear and wait for the light to illuminate the landscape. The rest of the day involves scouting for sunset locations and capturing smaller details in more intimate photographs. Many of these hours are spent waiting for the right light and admiring the incredible scenery before me. Depending on cloud cover and moon phase, I may stay out after sunset to photograph the night sky, or in some cases, arrive on location in the middle of the night and photograph the stars prior to sunrise.

The night sky over the desert.
The desert can be spectacularly multidimensional. © Peter Coskun

What is the most amazing/unusual animal behaviour you’ve observed?

An unforgettable moment was watching local wild horses spar near a lake. It was evening and the herd emerged from the mesquite trees to cool off and get a drink by the shoreline. A lone stallion emerged and began to challenge a stallion within the herd. At first it seemed like they were just playing, but it quickly became clear there was some malicious intent, with one horse delivering a powerful kick to another's chin. Witnessing their raw power up close, accompanied by the resounding sound of the kick, was remarkable.

Horses fight near a desert lake.
Peter has witnessed fascinating animal behaviours in the desert. © Peter Coskun

What is the biggest challenge to working in extreme heat?

Comfort is the biggest challenge. You can only lose so many layers of clothing and even then, it is still going to be hot. Even though most of the desert has a dry heat, during the summer monsoons when it is hottest, the storms bring some strong humidity. Dry or humid, it makes no difference to me - hot is hot! With temperatures sometimes reaching 122 degrees Fahrenheit, the impact on my body and my camera gear is significant. I've experienced burns from touching sun-heated equipment, reduced battery life, and pixel damage on my camera sensor. My gear has almost never failed me, but it has, and it will in some situations. I once was shooting for a full day in the rain, and by late afternoon, my camera shut off on its own and wouldn’t turn back on. Even though I cannot stand the extreme heat, I know it's part of the deal of the desert that I love.

Even though I cannot stand the extreme heat, I know it's part of the deal of the desert that I love."

How does your work tie into sustainability and wildlife conservation?

Through my photography, I've worked with organisations to raise awareness of endangered environments.One of the things I strive to achieve is to inspire viewers to appreciate and protect the landscape and wildlife shown in my images. There are numerous areas of the desert that have been altered over the years, most notably by wildfires and while forest fires can be common, desert wildfires are not. The desert also does not heal in the same way a timber forest does and some of the vegetation may never grow back, like the saguaro cacti. I often focus on capturing images of the Sonoran Desert around my home to bring more awareness around this landscape as we are losing more of it.

Foregrounded cacti silhouettes are illuminated by brilliant sunshine on the horizon.
Peter hopes to inspire others to protect fragile wildlife and ecosystems like his beloved desert. © Peter Coskun

There are numerous areas of the desert that have been altered over the years, most notably by wildfires... we are losing more of it."

What is your favourite BBC Earth moment?

One moment that caught my attention was Sir David Attenborough handling a teddy bear cholla, as when I'm in the desert, I'm always trying to avoid them at all costs. What struck me was how calm he was, even knowing that the needles of this vicious cacti could go right through his glove (they did in fact pierce his skin). He also did a wonderful job explaining why these needles can be so painful as the ends of each needle have tiny hooks that make it difficult to pull them out of the skin. Even though he endured a little pain, he still seemed eager and excited to be there, which made me admire him all the more.

In Extremes

As part of our In Extremes series, we speak to fascinating nature photographers worldwide who withstand challenging conditions to tell stories about our amazing natural world and the wildlife species within it. Read all about Arctic Bray Falls’ experiences shooting the elusive night sky here.

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This interview was conducted over email.