While boondocking near Yuma, Arizona, I had the pleasure of sharing one of my favourite photo locations with a photographer friend of mine. It’s always fun to share a great photo spot with like minded people!
The spot is called North Algodones Sand Dunes and it’s actually in California. You may have heard of Imperial Sand Dunes where ATVers go for some serious dune buggy fun. Well, it’s fun for them, but it ruins the dunes for photographers who are looking for pristine wilderness.
But, right across the street is the North Algodones Sand Dunes where no vehicles are allowed. The only marks you’ll find in the dunes there are human footprints and animal tracks.
Whether you’re going to the dunes in Oregon, California, Colorado, or even somewhere exotic like Namibia, these tips will help you come home with more dramatic sand dune photos.
1. No Changing Lenses in the Field
Blowing sand!! Need I say more? You don’t want that on your sensor.
Be prepared by taking more than one camera body so you can have two lenses to choose between. Get your cameras and your lenses set up before you venture into the dunes. I usually take a regular lens like my 18-55mm and a telephoto lens like my 55-210mm. I don’t usually use a wide angle because they make the dunes look small and insignificant.
2. Find the Perfect Dune
Lots of walking is required, and it’s not easy to walk on the dunes!
Sometimes it’s nice to have footprints in your scene if they lead the eye along the edge of a dune and off into the distance or something like that, but more often than not footprints ruin the scene. You’ll need to do lots of walking to get away from the nearest dunes, which are sure to have tons of footprints on them from other visitors.
Watch where you walk yourself! Think ahead about the dune you are about to walk on and what it might look like from the other direction. You may kick yourself for ruining your own scene!
3. Look for Shapes
While walking around looking for the perfect pristine sand dune, think about the shapes and lines the dunes will make in your photo. You want to find nice curves, sharp edges, and strong angles to make a photo with impact. If your sand dune is just a blob it wont be very impressive in the photo, even it if looks cool when you are there.
Sidelight is the best light for sand dune photography because it makes the texture in the ripples in the sand stand out and create a strong foreground. Also, the back of the dune will be in the shade which helps to define it’s shape.
Sand dunes are a good place to photograph in the afternoon when you have strong sidelight because it will create interesting shadows. But the best time to photograph, like any landscape photography, is at the edges of the day.
5. The Magic Minute
I know it’s usually called “The Golden Hour” but more often than not in the desert I find that the magic light lasts only a minute and you have to be ready for it. Go early and spend lots of time looking for your composition (see #3), get yourself at a good angle to take advantage of sidelight (see #4) and then wait for that magic moment when the last of the day’s sun lights up the dunes. You might be surprised how much the colour of the dunes change during this short moment in time.
Here’s an example: the photo above was taken while I was doing steps 3 and 4; then I waited, and when the magic moment came I got these photos:
I like them all, but I find the last two photos in this series to be more dramatic and drama is what is I’m looking for.
I hope these tips help you on your next sand dune adventure!