Sand dunes at sunrise, Death Valley NP, CA, USA

Sand dunes at sunrise, Death Valley. 1/15th sec. at f/11, 100 ISO, 127mm.

When our son Kevin was little he loved sand dunes. For him the dunes were like a giant sandbox – and what kid wouldn’t love that?

I also like to play in the dunes. I don’t usually dig in the sand (though maybe I should), but as a photographer the dunes seem like a giant visual playground. There are lines and curves and patterns and textures everywhere you look. Entering the dunes I feel like a kid walking into a candy store with a crisp twenty-dollar bill that grandma just gave me for my birthday.

Last week Claudia and I camped for a few days in Death Valley with our friend Robert Eckhardt. I made several trips out to the Mesquite Flat Dunes, which was pure fun. At times it seemed like there were compositions everywhere I looked. The only problem was that there was never enough time to capture all the compositions I saw while the light was good.

I’m always looking for patterns, and especially so in the dunes. Looking for patterns means finding repetition – lines or shapes that echo each other. It’s about creating rhythm and harmony within the frame (as I wrote about here). Repeating patterns are an essential element of nearly every successful photograph.

Telephoto lenses help to emphasize patterns by compressing space and bringing physically-distant objects into close visual proximity. In the next image, for example, the ripples at the bottom of the frame were only about 50 feet from the camera, while the dunes at the top of the picture were perhaps two hundred yards away. A telephoto lens (106mm on my 70-200mm zoom) brought those distant dunes in, making them look larger, and allowing them to become part of the overall pattern:

Forms and textures, Mesquite Flat Dunes, Death Valley NP, CA, USA

Forms and textures, Mesquite Flat Dunes, Death Valley. 1/20th sec. at f/16, ISO 100, 106mm (focus stacked).

I used my 70-200 zoom almost exclusively in the dunes, since it’s such a great tool for emphasizing patterns. In most cases the distance between foreground and background was great, making it challenging to get everything in focus with such long focal lengths. I kept the aperture small (usually at f/16) to increase the depth of field, and focused carefully, but sometimes that wasn’t enough to get everything in focus, so I often used focus-stacking.

And although I checked every direction, I was primarily looking toward the sun, or at right angles to it, as backlight and sidelight almost always work best for bringing out the forms and textures of the sand.

You’ll find a few more dune photographs from our recent trip below. If you’ve never photographed sand dunes I highly recommend it. The Mesquite Flat Dunes in Death Valley are quite popular, but there are many other dune fields in the California deserts, plus the Oceano Dunes near Pismo Beach. And of course there’s Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado, Coral Pink Dunes in Utah, and White Sands in New Mexico. Photographing dunes is great fun, and I can’t wait to do it again.

— Michael Frye

Folds, Mesquite Flat Dunes, Death Valley NP, CA, USA

Folds, Mesquite Flat Dunes, Death Valley. 1/60th sec. at f/16, 100 ISO, 155mm (focus stacked).

Sand and creosote bush, Death Valley NP, CA, USA

Sand and creosote bush, Death Valley, 1/4 sec. at f/16, 100 ISO, 160mm (focus stacked).

Waves, Mesquite Flat Dunes, Death Valley NP, CA, USA

Waves, Mesquite Flat Dunes, Death Valley. 1/60th sec. at f/11, 100 ISO, 200mm.

Dune forms, Death Valley NP, CA, USA

Dune forms, Death Valley, 1/60th sec. at f/16, 100 ISO, 81mm (focus stacked).

Related Posts: Finding Rhythm; Nice Curves

Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. He is the author or principal photographer of The Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite, Yosemite Meditations, Yosemite Meditations for Women, Yosemite Meditations for Adventurers, and Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters. He has also written three eBooks: Light & Land: Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom, Exposure for Outdoor Photography, and Landscapes in Lightroom: The Essential Step-by-Step Guide. Michael has written numerous magazine articles on the art and technique of photography, and his images have been published in over thirty countries around the world. Michael has lived either in or near Yosemite National Park since 1983, currently residing just outside the park in Mariposa, California.