Sand dunes are so much fun to photograph. They’re full of interesting lines, shapes, curves, and textures – almost as if they were sculpted for photographers. And they keep changing. Every big windstorm reshapes the dunes, creating new possibilities.
So when Claudia and I traveled to Death Valley last month to photograph the lunar eclipse, I had to make a couple of trips to the dunes during the day as well, just to fill my eyes and viewfinder with all that abstract beauty.
Dunes are great compositional training grounds. In the dunes, you can’t just find an interesting subject and point your camera at it. That approach never really works anywhere, but it definitely doesn’t work in the dunes, where you’re surrounded by the “subject.” Instead, you have to see abstractly. You have to look for designs. You have to find lines, shapes, patterns, and textures, and build compositions that emphasize those elements.
This ability to see abstractly is one of the most important compositional skills you can develop. I believe that the less you think in terms of subjects, and the more you think about lines, shapes, and patterns, the better your compositions will be.
It’s not that subjects aren’t important. They are. Subjects and their symbolism give the photograph meaning, and help tell a story. But you can tell that story more effectively when you arrange the elements of the scene into a coherent design with clarity, rhythm, and visual flow. And that requires seeing abstractly – looking beyond the mental concept of a tree, or mountain, or dune, seeing the actual lines, shapes, and patterns that these objects form, and then arranging those lines and shapes into a clear, cohesive, rhythmic design.
Dunes, with all their curves and textures, are one of the best places to practice this kind of seeing. But you can do this anywhere – in a forest, in a city, or even in your living room.
Here are some dune abstracts from trips to Death Valley last year and last month that I haven’t had a chance to post yet. In every case I was trying to see abstractly and make a photograph with an interesting design. In these images the subject isn’t really the dunes; it’s the lines, shapes, forms, textures, and colors of the sand.
— Michael Frye
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.