Desert photography has many unique challenges that make it so interesting and fun. The long, vast expanses provide a unique challenge when looking for compositions in the field. As well, the heat can be incredibly challenging for many traveling from more temperate climates. But when you get it just right, sand dune photography can be incredible! And there are scenes out here that you’ll never find anywhere else.
But how do you start out?
As a general rule when photographing sand dunes, use a telephoto lens at sunrise or sunset to isolate your subject and look for contrast and leading lines. Look for large, Parabolic, or Barchan dunes and use the crest to lead the viewer’s attention from one side to the next.
Sand dunes travel throughout the year, so the best locations are constantly shifting and changing with the wind and vegetation. This is one of the biggest challenges, as the perfect dune location could be completely gone within the next few years.
The beautiful thing is that the desert sand dune formations are fairly predictable. There’s a simple science to how they’re formed. The wind only blows in one direction through most deserts. This wind picks up and deposits sand in one direction, leaving mounds with a defined crest where it’s deposited the sand in large volumes.
But there’s a lot more to it than just that. Here’s what I’ve learned about sand dune photography over the last couple of years.
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1. Plan your trip at the end of the windy season
Just like any other environment, the desert goes through cycles. Typically there’s a time of year when the sand dunes are windy, and another when it’s relatively calm. The windy season is when the sand dunes move, but it’s also the time of year when the crests will have the most defined peaks!
Those sharp crests will create brilliant leading lines in your images, which by now you might have noticed is a theme throughout this article.
But the windy season is also when the desert is by far the least tolerable to be in. A wind storm isn’t just uncomfortable — it’s also near impossible to breathe in! So give yourself some breathing room when booking your vacation. The end of the windy season will have more calm days. So if you give yourself 3-5 days, you’re more likely to find the optimal conditions for perfect sand-dune photography.
Like every other landscape, sand dune photography takes planning to make the photography trip successful.
2. Why Telephoto lenses work better than wide-angle lenses
Sand dunes can be huge! So it’s always tempting to bring along a wide-angle lens to make sure you’re able to capture the entire view within a single frame. But the issue with wide-angle lenses is that they make the background appear smaller than it is in real life. So it’s hard for the viewer to feel like they’re really there.
Telephoto lenses, like an 85mm, or a 70-200mm lens will bring the background closer to you and will magnify the effect of the leading lines. This allows you to isolate your scene, and fill the frame with interesting details. Set up the lines so they travel through the Rule of Thirds or The Golden Ratio. This will balance your image and make for a truly stunning image.
3. Use a sealed, waterproof bag to keep sand out
Nothing is safe from sand even when the wind isn’t at its strongest. When photographing in the desert, I always make sure to use a waterproof bag. Waterproof bags are much better sealed than traditional bags, which tend to have open spaces that sand can sneak through.
And when you need to get something out of your bag, zip it back up as soon as possible! Try to shield your bags and equipment from the wind as much as you can, otherwise, you’re going to get sand in between the lens elements. It’s not that big of an issue, but if some particularly large ones worm their way in there, it can leave little shadows on the sensor over time.
Because of this, it’s best to bring a weather-sealed camera. As one without it can leak some amount of sand inside the device. If it happens, the sand will create a rattling inside the camera that you can never quite get out. Luckily, most modern cameras today are so tightly packed with electronics that it’s not an issue, but it’s still a factor to be aware of.
The speckled crest of the sand dune is where most of the wind lands. When changing lenses, keep your camera body close to your chest to keep it as safe as possible. But even then, you’ll have to spend some time cleaning equipment when you get back.
5. Search for texture
Often, one side of the sand dune will be soft, while the other side has a wavy texture. These ripples occur in the wind. These textures hold the viewer’s attention extremely well, especially if there is some contrasting light scattered across them.
The wonderful thing about the way the sand dunes form is that the sharp side protected from wind usually has a uniquely smooth texture, while the windy side has a ripply texture. Use this to your advantage. The rippled lines can help bring the viewer’s attention to the soft, texture-free side. This is another form of contrast that can be used to keep the viewer’s attention on your images for as long as possible.
6. Take photos at Sunrise or Sunset
The best light for photography is always at sunset and sunrise. This is because the light appears warmer, and also costs long, harsh shadows across a scene. This light from the low-angle of the sun creates a light-dark contrast that is aesthetically pleasing and brings interest into your photos. Shadows, like soft, texture-free surfaces, bring the viewer’s attention back to the bright, detail-rich surfaces. In a way, the shadows hold in the light and make those sections more impactful.
The best sunrise and sunset sand dune images will show one side of the dune bright, and the other half dark. But if the sand dunes are always changing, how do you know if this effect will happen?
The answer to that is fairly simple and comes back to planning your photographs. One of the biggest parts of planning is knowing exactly where and when the sun is going to rise and fall. This information is surprisingly easy to find online, as there are plenty of free applications online that’ll show you this information. Likely, you’ll be able to find the ideal conditions lasting between two weeks and a month twice per year. Getting this planning down is one of the biggest steps in taking incredible, award-winning landscape photographs.
7. Use long exposures to soften sand in the wind
This is a really cool technique and one that you don’t see all that often. It requires a tripod, but it’s so easy to get right. Simply set up your tripod and make a 4-second exposure on a windy-ish day (again, don’t go out if it’s going to be too windy).
The sand blowing over the top of the dune’s crest will create wispy lines. It’s a beautiful effect for creating stunning, one-of-a-kind sand dune photographs. This effect can be even more stunning at night with long exposures! It’ll make the viewers feel like they’re there.
8. Travel to the desert during winter for the best weather
I’m currently living in the Pacific Northwest. I haven’t seen anything worse than rain, and a one-day-per-year snowfall for the majority of my life. I am not built for the desert.
So for me, getting there when it’s the coldest is an absolute must.
In the summers, the desert can get up to a hellish 117 degrees Fahrenheit (47 celsius for my friends in the rest of the world). I wouldn’t last 15 minutes in that kind of weather. So instead, try your best to plan a desert excursion during the winter months, when the temperatures become a more reasonable 77° (25°C).
No matter what time of year you plan to get out into the desert, bring some water, sunscreen, and proper clothing. There are only clouds over the desert a couple of times per year. Make sure to always tell friends or family where you are going, and how long you plan to be out there. The deserts don’t always have cellphone service, so it can be difficult to find help when you really need it.
9. Go out after a heavy wind storm
The best time to get into the desert is right after a heavy wind storm. That’s because these storms will erase all of the footsteps and tracks left behind by people offroading in the desert.
This time is also when there will be the most texture in the sand, adding interesting foreground elements to draw the viewer into the photograph.
10. Get low with a wide-angle lens pointed down
When you want to really show off the textures in your scene, you will want to get as low as possible with a wide-angle lens. Taking photos like this at sunrise or sunset, when the golden sunlight leaves large, dark shadows, will give the image a rich, almost abstract feeling.
Try to make 2/3rds of the image the foreground alone, with 1/3rd sky. By composing your image this way, you’ll be creating a sense of place for the viewer. Sky photos can be taken anywhere in the world. But deserts are only in a few remote places on earth. Show it off!
What other resources are available for learning photography?
These blogs are a great resource for beginning photographers. Over time, I’ve given away some of my biggest secrets towards taking great photographs, like this checklist to bring with you that’ll save your photos!
But the best way to learn photography is to take one of my courses! In these lessons, I’ll show you my biggest secrets for taking award-winning fine-art landscape photographs. I offer video lessons, and even personalized training and webinars where you can learn from and ask me questions face to face! If you’re not ready to sign up for one of those classes, I’m also offering a free online web class that’ll show you my four-step system for taking amazing photographs every time. Sign up today to learn more.