Many beginning photographers are afraid of sand dunes. They think they are big, scary things that will give them a heart attack if they try to photograph them. Not true. Sand dunes can be some of the most beautiful places on earth, and if you know how to shoot them, they will give you a wonderful gift of photos that will last a lifetime.
In this article, I will discuss the different ways you can use the unique characteristics of sand dunes to your advantage when you are photographing them.
Find The Perfect Dune
Canon EOS 5D Mark II – Focal Length 70mm – Aperture ƒ/2.8 – Shutter Speed 1/50s – ISO 100
The perfect sand dune is one that has just the right amount of slope and is in the right location. It should be near the sea, so you can use it for foreground interest and to provide a soft, bluish-grey color for the sky. The sand should be fairly smooth, with no large rocks or other debris.
Finally, the dune should be in a location where it is not crowded out by other dunes or other vegetation. Try to find a dune that is about 150 feet high and has an unobstructed view of the sky. That way you’ll have a great head start on composing your picture.
Essential Gear For Sand Dunes Photography
+ Choosing Lenses For Sand Dunes Photography
When shooting sand dunes, the most important consideration is obviously the lens you use. You need a wide-angle lens, one that lets you capture a lot of the scene in one shot.
You also need a lens with a long focal length (tele lens). This gives you the ability to compress the scene, to make it look less vast. It will also enable you to include the sky in your shots, and show its true color.
A good general purpose lens for sand dunes is a 70-200mm f/2.8. This is a zoom lens, s a moderate angle (70mm) or a close up (200mm) by simply zooming in or out. This lens doesn’t move externally while it zooms, which makes it great for working on the dunes.
+ Use A Good UV Filter
A good UV filter will cut down on the orange-ish cast you get from sand when it is bright daylight. This makes your photos more flattering to the tone of your subject. It also lets more of the detail in the sand dune show through, and makes it easier to see the patterns and structure of the dunes.
+ Use A Polarising Filter
This is a very useful filter to have in your kit, especially if you are photographing sand dunes. It gives the effect of making the colours more vivid and the dunes themselves more dramatic.
Polarising filters do this by allowing only certain wavelengths of light to pass through to the camera. Those that are blocked by the filter are either reflected or absorbed by the filter and therefore don’t reach the sensor. This has the effect of making the colours in the scene more saturated and the subjects in the scene more vivid.
+ Use A Lens Hood
A lens hood is a plastic or rubber appendage that goes over the front of your lens to prevent unwanted particles from hitting the front element of your lens.
This is particularly important when shooting in dusty or sandy environments where dust or dirt can easily get on the front of your lens and create aberrations or vignettes in your images. Dust or dirt on the front of your lens will show up as a dark smudge in your photos.
A lens hood is a cheap and easy way to avoid this problem.
+ Use A Tripod
If you are going to shoot sand dunes, use a tripod. Sand dunes are constantly in motion, and even a slight breeze will make them seem to dance. Use a slow shutter speed and be patient… and you will get some truly spectacular results.
Protect Your Camera From The Heat And Sand
Kelso Dunes – NIKON D800E – Focal Length 70mm – Aperture ƒ/8 – Shutter Speed 1/50s – ISO 100
The sun beating down on a hot sand dune can cause your camera to overheat and shut down. Make sure you are using a lens hood and that it is on your lens, and also that you are not baking your camera in direct sunlight. You should also carry a small plastic baggie filled with ice in your gear pouch or pocket just in case your camera does get too hot.
Sand is very bad for cameras and many lenses. It gets into the mechanism and can cause havoc. Even the most robust cameras and lenses need some type of protection. I use a cheap little plastic case that I bought in a camera shop. It doesn’t look like much but it really does the job. If you are going to be shooting in sand dunes, you should bring along a small baggie filled with silica gel to place on your camera and lens. Silica gel is an effective desiccant (drier) and will keep your equipment free from moisture, which in turn, keeps sand out.
Weatherproofing Your Other Gear
If used tripod even if it’s not windy, you’ll probably get plenty of sand on the lowest leg sections, just because they’ll be resting on the dunes. And, if you haven’t heard, sand is the number one killer of tripods.
So, what can you do to avoid this fate? My top suggestion is not to bury your tripod’s locking mechanisms under the sand. More than any other part of your tripod, those are highly susceptible to damage.
For example, if you have twist locks or flip locks on the tripod legs, be sure that they stay above ground. The best thing you can do here is to extend the bottom, thinnest section on your tripod before any of the others. (And this is one of the few times where I recommend doing so, since it’s the least stable section on your tripod.)
Then, when you’re collapsing your tripod after you’ve finished taking pictures, make sure that there aren’t any grains of sand on the tubes before you close them. If there are, you might end up scratching the tripod or making the legs stick in the future.
Take Photos After Sunset For Stunning Silhouettes
The best light for sand dune shots is often after sunset. At this time, the dunes have had their day of activity and they are bathed in a warm golden glow. This light tends to highlight all the patterns and textures of the dunes, making them look much more interesting and less like a flat desert.
Photographic Subjects In Sand Dunes Pictures
“This photo was captured on an adventure across the beautiful Namibian landscape, in Africa. Endless rolling dunes shadowed shapes onto the sand as far as the eye could see. The only trace of life is left in the wake of footprints briefly following your lead, before being swept away by the wind. What a beautiful place” @Finding Dan
The most common mistake when shooting sand dunes is to shoot the dunes themselves. It’s tempting because it seems like a simple way to “get it right” but the truth is, you will miss the entire point of what makes dunes so fascinating.
Dunes are sculpted by the wind and it is this process that gives them their otherworldly shapes. If you photograph dunes in the same way you would a rock or a tree, you will simply be recording the shape of the sand, not the wonderment and drama of the dune itself.
Instead, you should strive to photograph the unique patterns created by the wind, or the unique way the wind has shaped the sand into forms that resemble animals, people, vehicles, or whatever else your mind can imagine.
Creative Ideas For Sand Dunes Photography
Zagora Province, Morocco – NIKON D800 – Focal Length 16mm – Aperture ƒ/13 – Shutter Speed 1/60s – ISO 100
Sand dunes are some of the most visually interesting landscape features to photograph, and they offer endless possibilities for creative compositions. Here are some ideas to get your mind going:
+ Use the colors of the dunes to create a mood or tell a story.
+ Photograph the dunes at different times of day to see how the colors and shapes change with the light.
+ Use the contrast between the smoothness of the sand and the jaggedness of the dune ridges to make interesting patterns or shapes.
+ Use the movement of the wind on the dunes to create interesting patterns or shapes.
+ Photograph the dunes from different perspectives to show their three-dimensionality.
+ Try to find a way to incorporate the sky into your photos. Sky is often the dominant feature of a sand dune scene, so use it to add interest and variety to your compositions.
+ Incorporate a human element into your compositions. This could be a person standing or lying down in the dunes, a group of people, or even a single individual against a interesting background.
Pismo Beach, United States – Canon EOS 7D Mark II – Focal Length 35mm – Aperture ƒ/5 – Shutter Speed 1/320s – ISO 500
Geometry is the study of figures and shapes. It is a fundamental part of all great design, and is an important element in creating a strong photograph.
Sand dunes are very geometric, and the way they interact with the elements can be used to create some stunning abstract images.
For example, a simple geometric shape like a square or a circle will stand out clearly against a flat, featureless background, while the swirling movement of a sand dune will add interest and dynamism to such a shape.
Use Long Exposures To Soften Sand In The Wind
PHuacachina, Peru – Canon EOS 5D Mark IV – Focal Length 55mm – Aperture ƒ/14 – Shutter Speed 10s – ISO 100
A common complaint about photos of sand dunes is that they appear too hard and unyielding.
The answer is simple: use long exposures to melt away the hardness of the sand in the wind. Sand dunes are constantly changing, and long exposures allow you to capture this change.
This technique works especially well when the sun is low in the sky and there is a strong wind. In this case, the sand will appear to dance and swirl like a soft blanket of snow in a blizzard.
Telling A Story With Sand Dunes Images
Death Valley, United States – Sony ILCE-7RM3 – Focal Length 50mm – Aperture ƒ/4 – Shutter Speed 1/1000s – ISO 160
When you are shooting sand dunes, you are not just capturing an image, you are telling a story. What kind of story?
Well, let’s say you are photographing some dunes in the Sahara Desert. What kind of story is that photograph going to tell? Is it going to show the vastness and emptiness of the desert? Is it going to show the beauty and majesty of the dunes? Or is it going to show the grit and determination of the people who risked their lives to cross that desert? All of the above, and more.
Your images can be as strong as your storytelling. So, think about what you want your viewers to feel when they look at your images.
Use The Natural Forms Of The Sand Dunes To Build Effective Compositions
Deadvlei, Sossusvlei, Namibia – Fujifilm X100T – Focal Length 23mm – Aperture ƒ/5.6 – Shutter Speed 1/600s – ISO 200
You can use almost anything as a compositional element in your photos… even if it is just a natural form like the shape of a rock or the curving of a sand dune.
The dunes themselves are usually very symmetrical, so finding asymmetrical elements to include in your composition can make your image more effective.
You can use the darker shadows to help lead the eye into the middle of the frame, or you can use the lighter parts of the dune as a focal point.
Look For Contrast In Highlights And Shadows
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, DEATH VALLEY, United States – NIKON D810 – Focal Length 120mm – Aperture ƒ/16 – Shutter Speed 1/125s – ISO 100
When shooting sand dunes, it is important to know when to stop looking for interesting subjects and start looking for contrast. You will find it in the highlights and shadows.
In the case of sand dunes, the shadows are long and very dark. So, if you find a particularly dramatic looking dune, look for a spot where the sun is just grazing the top of it, and you will see that the shadow of the dune is only just beginning to get lighter. That means there is still dramatic contrast in the photo between the bright sunlight reflecting off the top of the dune and the deep shadow underneath.
Be Patient And Be Prepared For The Unexpected
If you are going to photograph sand dunes, you need to be prepared for the unexpected. Sometimes, the sun will not cooperate with your plans and you will be forced to shoot during the middle of the day when the light is too strong and you will get blown out photos.
Other times, the wind will kick up and the sand will start flying around making it almost impossible to keep your gear clean and free of sand.
And sometimes, you just might find yourself in the middle of nowhere with nothing but a camera and a few tens of meters of empty desert ahead of you.
In this case, the only thing you can do is be patient and wait for the right conditions. The good stuff will come out in the end.
If you are a nature lover, you should definitely visit the desert. There are many different types of deserts. But the most common ones are the sand dunes. If you ever go to the desert, you should spend some time photographing the sand dunes. The results will be amazing. You will be able to see the beauty of the desert through the pictures that you take.
Photography is the best way to capture the beauty of these places. But, it requires some skills. In this article, I will give you some tips about how to take good pictures of sand dunes.
Hope you enjoy this article!