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The World’s Largest Salt Flat: Breathtaking Photos and Tips from Contributor Olga Kot

Image by Olga Kot. Gear: Nikon D5100 camera, Nikon 18-55 mm f/3.5-5.6G lens. Settings: Focal length 18mm; exposure 1/4000 sec; f3.5; ISO 160.
No matter how many tourists there are in Salar de Uyuni at any given time, photographer and Shutterstock Contributor Olga Kot says you can always find a spot to be entirely and utterly alone. Looking back on her trip to the Bolivian salt flat, she remembers, “All the smells and sounds kind of fade away, and you just float in this white infinity. There is even a moment when you fail to realize whether you’re standing on the firm ground, sailing in the endless ocean, or soaring high in the sky.”
Six years ago, the Saint Petersburg photographer packed up her life and embarked on a six-month adventure across Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru, Chile, and Colombia. She spent three days of those six months at the Altiplano in Bolivia, sometimes called the Bolivian Plateau.
“All the smells and sounds kind of fade away, and you just float in this white infinity”
She traveled by jeep from the city of Uyuni, spending each and every night in a different corner of the high plains and sleeping in huts with local hosts. Living conditions are extreme at such a high altitude, and Kot recalls needing “at least three blankets” to keep warm after dark. The food was simple, but according to the photographer, it seemed like the best food she’d ever had, probably due to the intensity of her surroundings.
Life near Salar de Uyuni is organized in part around the extraction of salt and lithium, and more recently, locals have found work in the tourism industry. Kot tells us that some have built hotels from the salt blocks. “You can even stay for a night in a salt palace on the edge of a salty desert,” she reports.
The salt flat itself is pretty inhospitable to wildlife for most of the year due to the lack of food sources, but Kot did encounter some flamingoes in the nearby salt lagoons. In November, she says, the birds visit Salar de Uyuni for breeding.
As the years have passed, Kot has longed to return to the Altiplano and to Salar de Uyuni. Her gear has changed (she now has a Nikon D800 and more lenses), and her techniques have evolved. Still, she says she remembers that first trip to Salar de Uyuni like it was yesterday.
“I would say that the simple fact of being in this place changes your mind somehow,” she admits. There were moments on that warm, sunny day when her body and brain couldn’t seem to process that all that white space was salt and not snow. The vastness of the void confuses the psyche and reconstructs it into something new. We asked Kot to share some of her beautiful photographs from the world’s largest salt flat along with her best tips for making pictures in this unusual place.
Image by Olga Kot. Gear: Nikon D5100 camera, Nikon 18-55 mm f/3.5-5.6G lens. Settings: Focal length 38mm; exposure 1/4000 sec; f5; ISO 160.
Image by Olga Kot. Gear: Nikon D5100 camera, Nikon 18-55 mm f/3.5-5.6G lens. Settings: Focal length 30mm; exposure 1/4000 sec; f4.5; ISO 160.

Tip 1

Protect your gear, your footwear, and your eyes. The main thing to keep in mind about the salt flat is actually… the salt! It is everywhere on the surface of the land, and it’s dissolved in the water at a high concentration. It gives the place its charm, but at the same time, it’s very toxic and corrosive. That’s why you need some protection to keep your gear and your footwear safe. If you don’t have any, just make sure not to forget to wash your tripod legs and your shoes thoroughly afterward. Also keep in mind that you’ll be completely surrounded by pure white, which is a real eye-killer on a sunny day. Don’t forget your sunglasses! Some face cream will also come in handy to save your skin from dryness and harsh sun.
Image by Olga Kot. Gear: Nikon D5100 camera, Nikon 55-300 mm f/4.5-5.6G lens. Settings: Focal length 300mm; exposure 1/2500 sec; f5.6; ISO 200.

Tip 2

Plan ahead and be there in the right season. The timing is vital. Each salt flat on our planet has its own seasonal features, so you’d better find them out beforehand. If we’re talking about Salar de Uyuni, the wet season is November through March, and the dry season is May through September. So first you need to decide whether you want Salar to be dry with its typical hexagonal surface formations or if your goal is to experiment with the surreal sky reflections, which is possible only when the flats are covered by water. Plan accordingly. Or you can try to catch it all and go in April, as I did.
Image by Olga Kot. Gear: Nikon D5100 camera, Nikon 18-55 mm f/3.5-5.6G lens. Settings: Focal length 29mm; exposure 1/4000 sec; f4.5; ISO 160.
Image by Olga Kot. Gear: Nikon D5100 camera, Nikon 55-300 mm f/4.5-5.6G lens. Settings: Focal length 116mm; exposure 1/3200 sec; f4.8; ISO 160.
Image by Olga Kot. Gear: Nikon D5100 camera, Nikon 18-55 mm f/3.5-5.6G lens. Settings: Focal length 55mm; exposure 1/3200 sec; f5.6; ISO 160.

Tip 3

Take your time and spend a couple of days here. This is a tip that I didn’t have a chance to follow myself when I visited. We had only half a day on Salar de Uyuni and couldn’t stay longer, but we were lucky with the weather and the cloud patterns that day. But if you have time to spare, stay in the town of Uyuni for a couple of days and visit the flats several times. You can catch sunrise and sunset there (don’t forget about the golden hour!), capture different weather conditions, and get totally different pictures from the same spot.
Image by Olga Kot. Gear: Nikon D5100 camera, Nikon 55-300 mm f/4.5-5.6G lens. Settings: Focal length 55mm; exposure 1/1000 sec; f5.6; ISO 200.
Image by Olga Kot. Gear: Nikon D5100 camera, Nikon 18-55 mm f/3.5-5.6G lens. Settings: Focal length 55mm; exposure 1/3200 sec; f4.5; ISO 160.

Tip 4:

Play with perspective. In any salt flat in the world, our perception and sense of perspective will be very different from what it is in our daily lives. You can put an object or a person several steps away from you, and it will look tiny, as if it were a kilometer away. This happens because the flats are absolutely endless and empty. There is nothing there to catch the eye and serve as a reference point for the brain to build an accurate picture. And if your brain (and your camera) gets fooled – well, it’s a great field for experiments! You can make normal objects and people look like toys and play with objects by making some of them huge and others tiny. Just don’t forget to close the aperture to keep all your objects sharp.
Image by Olga Kot. Gear: Nikon D5100 camera, Nikon 18-55 mm f/3.5-5.6G lens. Settings: Focal length 38mm; exposure 1/4000 sec; f5; ISO 160.

Tip 5

Keep it simple, and don’t overload the frame. Just one look at the endless patterns of the salt flat is enough to tell you that this place is absolutely self-sufficient. In fact, it doesn’t need anything to be added. Sometimes you can use an object or a person just as a juxtaposition against the serenity and tranquility of this place. In this case, try contrasting colors (a red jacket was a real find in my case). Most of all, just find your shooting points, use different angles, and see how the scenery changes without anything artificial brought in. Everything is already there. Your goal is simply to capture it.

Project Tags

  • Photography
  • Travel
  • Salt Flat

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