Sand Dunes: Lessons for Photographing One of Nature’s Most Dynamic Landscapes
Shifting sand, massive hills, and steep slopes can make photographing sand dunes a challenging endeavor, both in terms of the effort it takes to haul heavy camera gear through such a landscape, and in terms of your ability to limit your options with your own footprints. While photographing sand dunes from afar is sometimes an option, exploring inside a field of dunes is often an integral part of working with this subject. Exploring sand dunes means traveling cross-country since sand dunes rarely have any marked trails. An essential first lesson, which I have learned the hard way a few times over, is that sand dunes can be disorienting, especially if you photograph near sunset and then need to return to your vehicle after dark. Unless there is a very obvious beacon that you know you can follow back after dark, like a light at a visitor center or campground, it is wise to bring along a GPS (along with hiking gear including a headlamp, water, snacks, warm clothing, and proper shoes).
At one remote dune field in Death Valley National Park, I usually convince myself that the mountains near the car are so distinctive that I will be able to find my way back by using them as a navigational aid. In every instance, I always pull out my GPS to guide me over the final half-mile since the mountains change shape as they get closer, guiding me off course. For navigation, I use the Gaia GPS app on my phone, and find it very reliable for this kind of off-trail, cross-country travel. I make sure my battery is fully charged, put the phone in airplane mode, and mark the location of my car when I depart. (Another benefit of using a GPS like Gaia is the ability to record a track, mark waypoints, and pair them with photographs for future reference.) This process helps ensure that I can safely get back to my car after I have finished up for the night.
The dynamic nature of sand dunes also means that every step you take leaves footprints until the next wind storm comes along, and those footprints have the potential to temporarily ruin a perfect composition. With this in mind, the second piece of advice I offer is to tread carefully, especially once you have a potential composition in mind. Sand dunes are often complex subjects, with fine texture and ripples that can be hard to “fix” in processing, so try to avoid the situation where you need to clone your own footprints out of your composition’s foreground. Moving slowly and deliberately can help preserve your options when working through composition ideas. Also, try to avoid ridges and crests to help preserve the crisp edges. At the most popular sand dunes in Death Valley National Park, for example, even the strongest windstorms do not erase the evidence of visitors, since so many people walk along the same ridges.
While certain sand dunes are iconic locations, there are very few iconic compositions; this means that exploration and finding your own subjects is an essential part of photographing sand dunes. When walking into any dune field, it is natural to feel overwhelmed. These can be complex ecosystems, with heavy vegetation, interdunal playas (small expanses of dried, cracked mud or rocks), and dunes with all sorts of visual characteristics. Some dunes will be incredibly tall, steep, and angular, with perfectly smooth sides. Others will be shorter and more sensual, often with fine texture and ripples.
All this visual stimulation and complexity can make composition a challenge, so I keep five ideas in mind: simplification, abstraction, exclusion, structure, and details. Even if I want to photograph an expansive scene, I still think about simplification, or coming up with a core concept and simplifying around that idea (for example, choosing a dune with an interesting shape and then simplifying a composition around that dune). I also try to look at the landscape in abstract terms. Instead of seeing sand, I look for elements of visual design like lines, shapes, patterns, light, color, contrast, motion, flow, and balance.
I think as much about what I am going to exclude as about what I am going to include, as excluding context can often elevate and simplify a composition. I also think about the structure for my composition. If I sketched just the main lines and elements of my framed-up scene on a piece of paper, would it work? If not, I have more information I can use to refine how I am interpreting my subject. And finally, I think about details. How do the lines enter and exit the scene? Are there any visual distractions? Could slightly reframing the scene improve it? Paying attention to little details and addressing them in the field can take a good photo and make it great. I also think about looking for ideas on all scales, from the grand landscape to abstract subjects, considering the options I could photograph with every lens in my bag (from 16mm to 500mm). If I am feeling overwhelmed, I find it helpful to start small, by isolating a few interesting details, to start working with the landscape.
When I share my sand dune photography, I sometimes receive questions about the colors, with the implication that I am manipulating the result during processing in a way that dramatically departs from the reality I experienced. Some viewers seem to assume that because most sand dunes look yellow or brown in the middle of the day, they will look yellow or brown at all times of the day. This is not the case. Since sand is reflective, a vibrant red sky can drape a rosy pink hue across the landscape, as seen in the example above. If dark, cool-toned storm clouds fill the sky, sand dunes can take on a silvery blue look. With bright sun, warm hues will dominate the ridges where direct light falls, with the shadows taking on more neutral or cooler color tones. Once the sun goes down, the contrast of direct light and shadows will fade into a much softer scene, with soft contrast and soft colors. All of these conditions can create opportunities for photographing sand dunes in both color and black and white.
Next time you head out to photograph sand dunes, I encourage you to seek out a broader range of interpretations of your subject than you might initially envision. If you are heading out for sunset, allow a lot of extra time and work with high contrast scenes. Strong light and deep shadows—a scene with high contrast—can work especially well for black and white interpretations. On clear days, you can focus on intimate landscapes and abstract interpretations by isolating smaller scenes with a longer lens. If you experience color in the sky, think about how that colorful light reflects onto the sand dunes, and how you might use those colors to create an interesting photograph. Try not to be tempted to always include the sky, as colorful light falling onto an interesting smaller composition can be more than enough to create a compelling photograph. After the sun sets, look for scenes that work with lower contrast. Take advantage of the blues of twilight, since a deep blue sky and silvery dunes can come together beautifully.
Photographing sand dunes during a sandstorm is one of the most exhilarating and intense experiences you can have in landscape photography. With wind, sand can swirl into the air, creating a soft atmosphere, or can blow in wisps off of each crest. This flowing sand can create a feeling of motion in an otherwise static photograph, adding another element of mystery and visual interest. These conditions come with difficulties: potential to damage sensitive camera equipment, breathing in fine particles, the potential to scratch your eyes, and the certainty of being completely covered in sand. All of these can be mitigated except for the final one. Make sure your camera equipment is insured, wear a face mask or buff, and bring eye protection.
Whenever I talk about photographing in these conditions, I always hear concerns about gear. I have photographed during sandstorms on many occasions and have never damaged my Canon gear, even with changing lenses. If a little sand gets into the focusing ring of a lens, it works itself out over time. And, even if I did damage my gear, I would feel like it was worthwhile. I have it to use it, and I would have missed taking some of my favorite photos if I worried about difficult conditions like working in windstorms, sandstorms, rain, snow, or exceptionally cold temperatures. So, if you are visiting an area with sand dunes and see strong winds in the forecast, I encourage you to gather your gear and head out for what might be one of the most fun experiences in nature you will ever have.
I hope this post provides you with some helpful ideas you can use for the next time you find yourself facing messy, beautiful piles of sand with your camera. And, if you will be at Out of Death Valley in January 2022, I look forward to discussing these ideas in person and possibly showing you some of my favorite sand dunes in the park.