How to Photograph Sand

White Sands, New Mexico

This is a boring title, but a very exciting subject.  Mary and I have done several trips where we have had the opportunity to photograph different kinds of sand.  In this blog, I want to outline a few of the major issues you will face as you try to make good sand photographs and some suggestions around composition.  After a bit of experience, you will see that sand comes in many colors, for example, Death Valley sand is white-ish gray; White Sands, New Mexico is snow-white gypsum; and Monument Valley sand is a burnt orange.  Here is how to capture the color and texture of sand.

The major issue you will face when photographing sand is getting the exposure right.  I do not want to get into the Zone System here, just know that your camera may take the predominate color in your field of view and assume that it is a mid-tone gray or brown.  So, if you just point your camera at a white dune with nothing else around, your camera may assume that it is a mid-tone gray.  In order to deal with this you have a couple of choices.  If you have a digital SLR or Point and Shoot with Manual mode, use Manual mode with or without “live view” on your camera and adjust the exposure via shutter speed until the sand appears to be the right color.  You can also use exposure compensation in Aperture Priority mode and stop up to make the photograph brighter and thereby, making the sand whiter.  You may also have a “beach” setting in scenes that pre-sets the camera for bright sun on sand.  Lastly, if you can shoot in a RAW format, you can adjust the white balance and exposure and brightness when processing to get the sand the right color.  The key here is to take some test shots and review them to see if the sand is the right color.  If not, think about what you can do to have your camera meter on something darker, to get the sand whiter or the right color.

Death Valley sand ripples

Always inter-related to the issue of exposure is light.  In fact, I was not sure if I should start with the issue of light or the issue of exposure since they are intimately intertwined.  Like all landscape photography, early morning and late afternoon light is best, even more so here, not just because of the yellow color of the light, but because of side lighting.  The golden color of sunrise and sunset light will show well on any color dunes, but the side light will also produce sand ripple shadows that are not apparent in bright daylight with the sun directly overhead.  Also, side light creates deep shadows in dunes that create a contrast between the sand dune and the sand dune’s shadow creating dramatic shots.  In contrast, overcast days may be good for flower macro shooting, but do not produce side lighting for the classic sand dune and ripples shot.  In fact, the biggest disappoints I have had are overcast days in the middle of a beautiful dune field.

White Sands Black and White

Now, for the exception.  Sometimes, you can get great shoots in the middle of the day with bright light.  Look for shadows and “think and see” in black and white.  Often times, when you convert a color photo to black and white, it brings out the shadows and textures better than color.  So, in a pinch, when you have to photograph sand and, or dunes, in the middle of the day, think black and white.  You may get a pleasant surprise (see above).

After mastering the issues of light and exposure, the real fun starts.  There is an almost endless variety of compositional choices.  I am going to start with the biggest and widest and work my way to the smallest.  First, there is the big shot of dunes and, oftentimes, mountains in the background.  If you can, remember to use the theory of thirds…dunes 1/3, mountains…1/3, and sky…1/3 for a dramtic landscape (see cover photo of the blog).  If the sky or mountains are boring and you have interesting dunes, fill the frame with the dunes.  Next, shoot a single interesting dune.

Stovepipe Wells Dune, Death Valley, CA

Look for leading lines, like ripples and even animal footprints.  This is also a great place to use light as your leading line to the single interesting dune.  Look for dunes with interesting shapes.  There may be many “C” shaped dunes.  There are dunes that look like hump back whales.  Find an “S” shaped dune with interesting ripples and you have hit the jackpot.

Death Valley Dune at Sunrise

Look for plants that can accompany one of your dunes.  Again, the focus of the photo is still usually the dune, but the plant is complementary.  A great shot is leading lines to a single planet in a beautiful dune with a good sky.

White Sands, New Mexico

Going even smaller, just shoot the ripples in the dunes.  Soft side lighting is particularly good here to bring out the fineness of the sand and the shadows of the ripples.  This is one place where you can get as tight as you want with the composition.

Monument Valley Sand

Most of the time, I hate to see any kind of foot prints in the sand, but sometimes the footprints, whether man or beast, make a great leading line.  Use them.  Finally, look for natural abstracts in the shapes, patterns, and shadows.  Mary is particularly good about spotting these.

Dune “abstract” from White Sands
Using shadow to create shapes and textures

The more you can get some experience with different kinds of sand in different conditions, the more you will start to form your own opinions and techniques for the various situations.  I have to say, I have NEVER been bored in a dune field…almost lost, worried, cold, hot, tired, thirsty, but NEVER bored.  To see more of our photographs, go to www.pamphotography.com.

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7 thoughts on “How to Photograph Sand

  1. After 2 monumental sandstorms in Monument Valley on 2 workshops( yes the images were dramatic) I have seen enough sand for a lifetimg…. It is good to be back in the green or Oregon!
    JG

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