Photographing the White Sands National Monument in New Mexico

White Sands Sunset February 4, 2012 (High Dynamic Range Composite)

The White Sands National Monument is a 300 square mile white gypsum dune field located in Southern New Mexico between Las Cruces and Alamogordo.  It is the largest gypsum dune field in the world.  It is the result of an ancient lake that dried up millions of years ago leaving the mineral deposits behind.  There are three types of dunes here – dome, parabolic, and transverse-barchan.  Each looks and feels different as you walk on them.  Consult the park map for the different fields.  Here are a few key shots to get while you are visiting.

The Two Best Hints for Photographing Sand

ONE: The major issue you will face when photographing sand is getting the exposure right.  Your camera may take the predominate color in your field of view and assume that it is a mid-tone gray.  So, if you just point your camera at a white dune with nothing else around, your camera may assume that it is gray and not white (same issue with snow).  In order to deal with this you have a couple of choices.  If you have a digital SLR or Point and Shoot with Manual mode, use Manual mode with or without “live view” on your camera and adjust the exposure via shutter speed until the sand appears to be the right color.  You can also use exposure compensation in Aperture Priority mode and stop up to make the photograph brighter and thereby, making the sand whiter.  You may also have a “beach” setting in the “scenes” pre-sets on your camera for bright sun on sand.  Lastly, if you can shoot in a RAW format, you can adjust the white balance and exposure and brightness later when processing to get the sand the right color.  The key here is to take some test shots and review them to see if the sand is the right color.  If not, think about what you can do to have your camera meter on something darker, to get the sand whiter or the right color.

An interplay of shadow and texture

TWO: Most of the time, great photos are made in the sweet light of sunrise and sunset.  It is the same here in the dunes.  However, sometimes, you can get great shoots in the middle of the day with bright light.  Look for shadows and “think and see” in black and white.  Often times, when you convert a color photo to black and white, it brings out the shadows and textures better than color.  So, in a pinch, when you have to photograph sand and, or dunes, in the middle of the day, think black and white.

The Best Warning About Photographing Sand

If you do not have direct light, either from overhead or better yet, from the side, you will not have shadows; you will not have contrast; you will not have ripples; you will not have a photograph.  Usually, we photographers like diffuse light, especially if there are good clouds because we can get consistent light and a good moody sky.  However, if the light is too diffused with sand dunes, you will not be able to get any detail and drama.  The last trip to White Sands, I was excited to get the sunset shot above, but is was preceded by 45 minutes of painfully bad shooting beforehand, because there was no direct sunlight on the dunes.  We did what we could.  The lesson here is to prepare for both direct sunlight (especially side lighting) to get the dunes detail and diffused light to get a dramatic sunset or sunrise.  See my blog on photographing sand.

Photograph Plant Life

Find the few plants out here and isolate them against the white sand and blue sky.

Create Natural Abstracts

Look for patterns, shadows, and shapes.

Capture Large Landscapes

Frame the big picture by including the sky, mountains, and sand.

Sunrise and Sunset

If you can be here for sunrise or sunset, you have a unique opportunity to combine many of the elements above.

Nature's lightshow

Use People for Action Shots and to Show Scale

I usually don’t put people in many landscape shots, but the size, scale, and color here makes adding people fun and enlightening.

Another photographer (in our shot) at White Sands

To see more of our photos, please go to


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