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Learn to Photograph Sand Dunes in Death Valley With Michael Shainblum

We have all seen the kind of incredible images that can be captured of sand dunes. In this video, we are given an informative look behind the scenes with renowned landscape photographer Michael Shainblum, as he makes the trek out through the dunes in Death Valley National Park. Don't miss out on this exciting look into his creative process. 

As landscape photographers, we are all familiar with the strange disdain for sunny days and perfect blue skies. In this video, Michael explains that when the light is less than epic, he likes to shift his focus to shapes and patterns. Luckily, as we can see in the image above, both can be found with abundance in the sand dunes. However, despite the seemingly endless compositions, it is important to slow down and carefully think about each image. As Michael discusses, it is easy to create a good sand dune image, but it is really difficult to create a great one.

Having a bit of experience trudging through the dunes myself, I can say that this is absolutely true, and I even remember thinking as much the first time I visited. Here are some things that I learned on that trip that will hopefully be helpful:

  • Begin your scouting several hours before sunset. Walking in the dunes is slow, and finding a composition can take some time.
  • Climb to the top of the taller dunes and look in every direction for a composition. The higher vantage point opens up more opportunities to play with layers.
  • Use a telephoto lens to start. I prefer to walk about with my Fujifilm XF 100-400mm for versatility while keeping a wide-angle lens in the bag in case I spot a composition.
  • Check the wind forecast. While heavy winds make for incredible photographic opportunities, they have the potential to ruin your equipment and present a health hazard. Do not venture out into the dunes without appropriate protective gear. This means goggles, a bandana or other mouth covering, and a rain cover for your camera (be warned, you still might ruin your gear). 
  • Stay for blue hour. After the sun has set, the light becomes very soft on the dunes and will give a different feeling to your images. The image below is one of my own, captured at blue hour prior to sunrise.

We hope these tips will be useful to any brave souls looking to venture out into the dunes. If you are interested in more exciting Death Valley adventures, check out Michael's previous photography vlog here, where he explores the sand dunes with professional photographer Nick Page. Please be sure to visit Michael's website for incredible prints, time-lapses, tutorials, and other exciting content. 

All images used with permission and courtesy of Michael Shainblum.

Devin is a landscape photographer based in the western United States. He enjoys capturing images of mountains, forests, waterfalls, deserts and seascapes. His passion for landscape photography extends to post processing and education. He offers live feedback and instruction for Lightroom and Photoshop via his website.

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That is so inspiring, I live in the middle of the desert and never know how to capture the beauty of dunes, I'll try now and let you know what I get

That's awesome Randa. Glad you found it inspiring! Happy shooting :)

So nice... amazing images.

I'm curious about visiting places like this. I'd imagine that you can't drive onto the dunes. Therefore, shooting near and after sunset might mean a long walk back to your vehicle in the dark. Are there markers to guide you back to the parking lot?

It's not necessarily a long walk, in some areas in UAE, It is road side, you actually driving through, it is really magnificent,

No markers in the Death Valley dunes. I typically just rely on my general sense of direction and the surrounding mountains. If you wanted to be certain you could use google maps or gaia or something similar that gives you offline maps and your phone will find your location via satellite, even without service