Photographing sand dunes

White Sands New Mexico
White Sands New Mexico

Peter and I have been fortunate to visit many different types of sand dunes.  Some of our favorites are the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes in Death Valley, the Great Sand Dunes in Southern Colorado near Alamosa, and White Sands in New Mexico near Las Cruces.  We visited White Sands over the holiday weekend on a beautiful (and photographically challenging) sunny day.  I decided to use a very long telephoto lens and see if I could capture light and shadow from the different shapes of the dunes.  It was difficult.

When you first arrive, you encounter a large expanse of sameness  – a subject that is the same color covered in footprints and enjoyed by tons of people.


First you have to hike, usually to the top of a peak, and then survey the surroundings, looking for layers – layers of sand that will cast shadows on top of each other.  If you’re lucky enough to find this, then start to scan for dunes that aren’t covered in footprints.  Then its time to find abstract shapes.

  • I start with layers – isolating them down to their simplest forms.  Usually looking for the magic three.
  • Then I try to look for angles, diagonals, and lines that will break up the dune.
White Sands New Mexico
White Sands New Mexico
  • I try to mix it up by pulling back, and looking for a strong anchor point – like the moon or a bush.
White Sands New Mexico
White Sands New Mexico
White Sands New Mexico
White Sands New Mexico
  • If all else fails, I try to find a line.  A single line that is usually at the crest of the dune and is casting shadows onto the other side.  From there, its back to curves and diagonals.  This was what I did for the cover image.
White Sands New Mexico

Because we were photographing in the middle of the day, many of my images have a blue tone – they are not monochrome, this was the color of the light on the white dune when I made the image.  I mentioned to Peter it was a good challenge to be there in difficult light.  It forced us to really work and try to make the proverbial lemonade.


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