Photographing sand dunes can be a very productive photographic endeavor if you find a stretch of desert remote enough that not every inch of it is covered in footprints. In this article, I show you my favorite place to photograph dunes, and I give tips on how to get the most out of this sandy subject matter.
The USA has its fair share of spectacular dune fields. You can also find them in South America — Huacachina is one example. If you think of Asia, the Gobi Desert might come to mind, and for the Middle East, the Empty Quarter. For Africa, the Namib desert and the Sahara might sound familiar. For Europe, on the other hand, there aren't that many dune fields, which I should say is a positive thing in the context of climate change.
But as a landscape photographer, I was still looking for a sand-covered landscape to photograph not too far away. I found it in Morocco, just a 3-hour flight from central Europe. It has two large dune fields. Some of you will have heard of the Erg Chebbi close to Merzouga. You can reach it from Marrakesh by car in about nine hours via the Dadés gorge, or by bus in two days via Casablanca. There you'll find hotels close enough to the dunes so you can walk right into the desert. For a unique experience, you can stay in one of the Berber camps in the desert. It will increase your chance of finding a view for yourself.
When I visited Morocco for the first time in 2019, I wanted to get farther away from civilization. After some research, I learned that aside from the Erg Chebbi, there's a desert close to the southern border of Morocco called the Erg Chigaga. It covers an area of around 35 by 15 kilometers, can only be reached by 4x4 vehicles, and there are no hotels. If you decide to visit the Erg Chigaga, you'll typically stay in one of the Berber camps in the area.
When planning my trip to the Erg, my first objective was to find the right camp. There are several options, but not every one of them is in a spot where you can walk out of the tent and start taking photos. I was looking for a camp close to some of the larger dunes, so I could hike there for sunrise and sunset. On Google Earth, I tried to identify the best camps — you can actually spot them if you zoom in close enough.
This way, I found the camp Al Koutban. It's located right in the middle of the dunes, with the highest dune of the Erg Chigaga just a 45-minute hike away. You typically book a tour that has one or two stops along the way to get there. I did so with Wild Morocco, and I loved the experience so much that I returned to do a photography workshop together with them in early 2020.
Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, I haven't been back since then. But I can't wait to head back into the desert in the future. Especially if you don't enjoy crowded areas, it's the right place to go. There's nothing like sitting on top of a remote dune, looking across the surrounding sea of sand and listening to the whisper of the wind.
How to Photograph Dunes
The best way to photograph the desert is to find a high vantage point that gives you a 360° view of the surrounding landscape. That's also why I selected the camp Al Koutban. It's surrounded by several high dunes, which I would climb every sunrise and sunset to find my subjects.
Shooting from a high vantage point allows you to angle your camera downwards and include less sky on those cloudless days you'll often get in the desert. Find a ridge and use it as a leading line that guides the viewer down into the sea of sand. When the light hits that ridge from the side, you'll get a beautiful play of light and shadow that'll keep the viewer engaged.
To unlock the full photographic potential of a desert like the Erg Chigaga, you should also have a long lens in your arsenal. Zooming in on distant dunes, you'll find countless subjects. You can completely exclude the sky and fill your frame exclusively with the forms and shapes around you. When you do this, try to find large dunes that can serve as your main subject and balance them with similar, smaller dunes in the distance. It creates depth in such a photo.
The best light to photograph the dunes is just after sunrise and before sunset. When the sun is close to the horizon, its light kisses only the top of the dunes. It creates beautiful lines and simplifies the scene by introducing darker areas with less detail. You can use this light by shooting at an angle to the sun, as in the example above, or you can point your camera directly in its direction to create more drama.
If you are lucky and the haze above the landscape is not so thick that it swallows the sun before it sets behind the horizon, you might also experience the desert turning red just before the sun is gone.
It's marvelous to witness this change of colors while the shadows get longer and longer. But it doesn't have to stop there. The great thing about remote places like the Erg Chigaga is the lack of light pollution. That's why you shouldn't pack up your gear right after sunset. If you wait about 90 minutes longer, you'll be able to experience a night sky you'll only find in a few other places.
If you decide to photograph the night sky in the desert, you must be careful. Navigating the dunes during the daytime is already hard, but after the sun has set, you will quickly lose all orientation. To be safe, stay close enough to camp to not get lost. In addition, you should also mark the camp and your photo location on Google Maps. It will help you find your way in the dark. If you plan to explore areas farther away, having a guide might be the best option.
Nomads and Dromedaries
Many camps in the Erg Chigaga work together with nomads living in the area. While staying there, you'll usually be offered a camel ride. The nomads will then come to the camps and provide guided camel tours to various sunset locations. I didn't fancy riding a camel, but I wanted to photograph a nomad with his caravan of dromedaries in golden light.
On my second visit to the camp Al Koutban, Wild Morocco arranged this for me and the participants of my workshop. It was an unforgettable experience, and we were able to take some amazing desert photos. Getting such images needs planning. If you ever visit the Erg Chigaga and have the opportunity for such a photo shoot, scout both the ridges on which you want the caravan to walk and the vantage point from which you will photograph it.
I wanted to exclude the sky in those photos, so I had to find a viewpoint higher up in the dunes than the ridge on which Mohamed and his dromedaries were supposed to walk that evening. I also used PhotoPills during scouting to help me previsualize where the sun would be during the shoot and to anticipate the orientation of the shadows in the final images.
Editing Desert Photos
Even in a remote place like the Erg Chigaga, you will encounter footprints in the sand. After several days without wind, the people in the various camps will create trails through the desert during their exploration. To avoid those, you will have to walk deeper and deeper into the Erg or use the editing techniques I shared in a previous article. A mix of cloning and frequency separation will usually do the trick and can be helpful for any fine structure you want to clean up.