Have you ever read an article and thought, “I wish I had known about that a long time ago!”?

Well, this happened to me the other day. I was reading an article by landscape photographer Anne McKinnell with a title that interested me: 5 Tips for Sand Dune Photography

I have had the opportunity to shoot sand dunes only twice in my life. Once in the burning desert of Death Valley National Park in July, and once in the unforgettable cold of White Sands National Monument in April. Both experiences I would describe as epic. Sand dunes are such awesome subject to shoot! But like any other subject, the “epicness” of the subject will not guarantee the greatness of the picture. It’s the photographer, not the camera, that takes great photos. For example, this was the first picture I took of the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes in Death Valley NP. Definitely some potential, but definitely a snapshot!

3740_Death Valley National Park-California-USA_Canon EOS 5D Mark II, 17 mm, 1-20 sec at f - 16, ISO 100

So that’s why I was intrigued with this article on sand dunes. I wanted to know how the professionals did it. Now that I knew from experience now that photographing sand dunes was just as difficult as shooting any other subject, I wanted to learn more about how to shoot them so I could get better shots the next chance I had to shoot sand dunes.

And you know what? As I read the article, two thoughts came into my head. First, “I wish I had known these tips before going to those National Parks!”. Second, I thought “You know, these tips could apply to the subjects in my backyard.”

Read her article, 5 Tips for Sand Dune Photography, with that thought in mind. “How do these tips apply to shooting in my backyard?”

In this way, you can prepare yourself in your own backyard to heighten your chances of taking better shots when you’re actually presented with epic, once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.

Read the article? Well, now you can read my summary below, of how I learned those 5 tips on my trips. It’s amazing how I can totally relate!

Her first point was, no changing lenses in the field, right? I don’t have a good example image of that to display, but if you’ve never been on sand dunes before, then you can certainly expect there to be blowing sand, on top of the dunes at least, and during the day. At night I don’t recall there being much wind.

Her second point was, find the perfect dune. This is super important, just like determining what your main subject should be in any landscape photo you take. For me, this was my favorite shot at Death Valley, and now I think it’s because I had found my perfect sand dune.

3784_Death Valley National Park-California-USA_Canon EOS 5D Mark II, 200 mm, 1-8 sec at f - 5.6, ISO 400

The third point was to look for shapes. Is this not what I’m doing all the time, with any landscape photo? It’s easier in a field of sand dunes perhaps, but I can certainly be honing this idea in my backyard. What attracted me to this composition was the shapes in the distance. I zoomed in as far as I could to actually make the shapes more prominent in the frame.

6526_White Sands National Monument-New Mexico-_Canon EOS 5D Mark II, 169 mm, 30.0 sec at f - 16, ISO 100

Anne also stressed sidelight. If only I had thought of this earlier! I was in White Sands NM during a full moon, and (foolishly now in retrospect) opted to shoot under the full moon when it was high in the sky, instead of when it was just risen over the mountains. I walked around quite a bit under the unbelievably bright landscape under the full moon, but I really couldn’t find anything interesting to shoot because the light was so flat. If only I had shot the moonlight on the landscape when the light was angled, with the moonlight coming from the side! Instead I had to create my own sidelight with my flashlight.

6533_White Sands National Monument-New Mexico-_Canon EOS 5D Mark II, 26 mm, 30.0 sec at f - 8.0, ISO 800

Lastly, there was the idea that on desert landscapes, it’s more like the Magic Minute instead of the Golden Hour. This is less obvious in my backyard, but it’s neat to watch the sky or how the light falls on the landscape in the mornings and evenings to observe just how long it’s actually colorful. The magic minute was something else I wish I had known about. I feel I was only able to really take one good shot on the only morning I was able to shoot in White Sands NM.

Merge_White Sands National Monument-New Mexico-USA_Canon EOS 5D Mark II, 24 mm, 1-60 sec at f - 16, ISO 100

Are we preparing now for those epic opportunities of the future?

“Blessed are those servants, whom the lord when he cometh shall find watching: verily I say unto you, that he shall gird himself, and make them to sit down to meat, and will come forth and serve them” (Luke 12:37).

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