Photographing Salar de Uyuni – The Bolivian Salt Flats

“Home to a perfect infinite reflective surface, it is a photographer’s dream destination.”

Photo by Diego Delso CC by-sa

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There is nothing, an endless expansive nothing that continues to the distant horizon. The edge of the world is barely discernable, identified by a logical break in the blue gradient of the sky before it begins again. The land is a perfect mirror, echoing the whipped clouds of heaven on its ideal surface. This place is Salar de Uyuni, or the Bolivian Salt Flats, a natural impossibility where photographers flock to photograph infinity.

Mirror Surface of Bolivian Salt Flats - Photo by Boyan Lepoev
Mirror Surface of Bolivian Salt Flats - Photo by Boyan Lepoev

Salar de Uyuni

Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest Salt flat, comprising 10,000 square kilometres of unique beauty. It is endless, its surface alternating between a dry white hexagonal cracked surface or a thin sheet of motionless water. These Bolivian Salt Flats are utterly still and possess an utterly austere natural beauty.

Piles of Salt Salar de Uyuni Bolivia - Photo by Luca Galuzzi CC by-sa
Piles of Salt Salar de Uyuni Bolivia - Photo by Luca Galuzzi CC by-sa

Visiting Salar de Uyuni

First off, it is essential to remember that Salar de Uyuni is at a high elevation. At 12,000 feet above sea level, it is generally a good idea to spend a few days in a city to acclimatize. As well depending on the time of year, the temperatures here can swing between the extremes. Days can be warm and sunny with the evenings dropping below freezing. So dressing in layers is a good idea.

The largest city in Bolivia is La Paz and likely where your travels will begin. From there you can catch a bus, plane or train to Uyuni, the town closest to the salt flats.

Salt Flats Bolivia - Photo by Samuel Scrimshaw
Salt Flats Bolivia - Photo by Samuel Scrimshaw

Pick a Season

Depending on when you travel, you will have two very different experiences to your photographic adventure. You can visit Salar de Uyuni in either the dry or the wet season:

Dry Season (May to October)

  • The flats feature hexagonal patterns that stretch for miles.
  • Access to Isla Incahuasi is possible.
  • Roads, weather and daytime temperatures are better.

Wet Season (November to March)

  • The flats will be covered in water, resulting in a mirror-like surface that stretches to infinity.
  • Access to Isla Incahuasi is not possible due to the water levels.
  • The surrounding terrain is lusher, adding some green to your photos.
  • Roads to the slat flats can get quite muddy.
  • For photographers, we recommend the Wet Season because of the reflective possibilities.
Incahuasi Island at Salar de Uyuni - Photo by Martin St-Amant CC by-sa
Incahuasi Island at Salar de Uyuni - Photo by Martin St-Amant CC by-sa

Photographing the Salt Flats

First off consider a tour for your first visit. We recommend multi-day tours as there are more than just the salt flats to see in this region. In addition to the typical sights, you will get a chance to visit the coloured lagoons such as Laguna Colorada, a flamingo paradise. 

Photographing the flats themselves is easy enough. Enjoy playing with perspective and reflections and late evenings will present some epic sunsets at the right time of year, perfectly reflected on the mirror surface of the flats. As well, milky way photography is terrific at Salar de Uyuni, so be sure to do your research to capture amazing star-filled photos. 

Forced perspective can also be used to create some wild optical illusions in places with no discernable features. So packing a few props to incorporate into your shots can lead to some very creative images. The trick is finding new and unique ways to shoot the flats. So, do some research on what kind of shots have already been done and use them to inspire you to shoot differently. 

International Flags at Salar de Uyuni - Photo by Gabriel Rojas
International Flags at Salar de Uyuni - Photo by Gabriel Rojas

Some Final Tips

  • Pack toilet paper. Bolivian plumping sucks and toilet paper is rare. Having your own supply is a good idea.
  • Never go hiking without adequate gear. This preparation includes water, good hiking shoes and layers of clothing. 
  • Never venture outside the cities without a four-wheeled vehicle. 
  • Travel alone or take taxis without signage and reputation. Bolivian criminals prey on tourists, so plan appropriately. This criminality has extended to buses in recent years, where criminals even plant accomplices to pose as tourists. All that to say, book your travel through reputable agencies.
  • Stay hydrated. High altitudes can lead to dehydration and keeping a good supply of water is essential to staying healthy during your visit.  
  • Ask permission before shooting the locals. In some regions, the locals may even believe taking their photo will steal their soul. So don’t be rude, and be sure to respect them and their beliefs. 
Sunset at Salar de Uyuni - Photo by Deugchul Shin
Sunset at Salar de Uyuni - Photo by Deugchul Shin

Conclusion

Salar de Uyuni is one of the most fantastic travel photography destinations in the world. A well-planned and well-prepared photographer will have a tremendous experience shooting the salt flats. So, be sure to add this natural wonder to your photographic bucket list and add Bolivia to your list of must-visit photo locations.   

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