6 Tips for Photographing White Sands, New Mexico

White Sands National Monument is a magical place. With a bit of creativity, lens switching, and a lot of determination here’s how you can get the best photos!

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If you’ve ever been to White Sands National Monument, you know what a magical place it is. The towering gypsum dunes span 275 square miles with gorgeous mountain ranges to the East and West. This obviously makes for some unique picture taking opportunities, but finding variety in the endless rolling white hills proved to be more difficult than I thought.

With a bit of creativity, some lens switching, and a lot of determination here’s how I got the best photos I could, with the most variety:

Tip 1: Light (Sunrise/Sunset)

Let’s face it - most landscape photography works best with dramatic lighting. It’s easy to get daytime shots of the dunes, but white sand and and blue skies is about all you’re going to come up with. Because the park closes at sunset, the only way to get the full gamut is to grab a permit, take a tent, and setup in the backcountry camping area.

As the sun starts going down, ripples and patterns in the surface of the sand become more visible with shadows and highlights. The mountains light up a deep violet. And the sky fades from a dark blue to pink, orange and purple.

This being the first time I would see White Sands in the morning, I was curious as to how it would be different at sunrise. It definitely felt different. There was a stillness and peace that doesn’t exist at the end of the day after the hordes of other people had left. Visually it felt different, too. The light felt new rather than old. But those are about the only words I can use to describe it. Best to just show you.

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Tip 2: Go Deep

During the day the park is flooded with adults and kids alike - hiking, picnicking and sledding down the dunes. And they leave a ton of footprints in their wake. If you want pristine, untouched sand, you’ll have to work for it.

The most remote trail is Alkalia Flats, but if you’re not feeling the grueling 5 mile trek in deep dunes, you can just take the backcountry camping trail to your campsite and start exploring. Most of these photos were taken within half a mile of our tents.

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Tip 3: Don’t Be Afraid To Tele

The vastness of the dunes combined with the lack of a high vantage point actually worked against the wide lens most of the time. It flattened things out quite a bit. But that gave the tele lens a chance to shine. It really brought out the depth of the dunes and captured the magic of the light against them.

The Tele was also great for highlighting unique plant life and bringing the mountain ranges closer.

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Tip 4: Unique Plant Life or Dunes

White sand dunes get a little old, so it was important to find some other things to focus on. Thankfully, White Sands has a diverse ecosystem with shrubs, trees, and bushes if you go out of your way to find them. The Soaptree Yucca stalks were especially unique in the winter before blooming.

Plus, it’s spiky base made for a stark visual contrast to the smooth dunes.

And then there’s this guy. A random mini mound-dune right over the hill from our tents. It was so unique I ended up taking photos of it at sunset, sunrise, and by moonlight (see below).

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Tip 5: Night Photography

Night Photography and mobile phones aren't the easiest combo, but we were overnighting the day after the full moon, so I had to try. Walking the dunes by moonlight is an experience I won’t soon forget. It was eerie, the silence was deafening, and the views were otherworldly.

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Tip 6: Patterns

Wind is constantly changing the landscape at White Sands, and creates all kinds of fascinating patterns - from repeating geometric to crazy weird.

You can’t see many of these until the sun is low in the sky, so morning or evening is where the patterns really start to shine for photography.

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Tip 7: Subjects

Finally, what better way to contrast the minimal vibes of the endless sand dunes than people! The wide angle works great here to increase the sense of scale, and the tele rocked the long range silhouette shot with style. It doesn’t hurt when your kids are the coolest :)

If you haven’t been to White Sands National Monument, make some plans and get there. Amazing photography awaits!

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Jonathan Longnecker is the strongly opinionated and bearded half of Tiny Shiny Home.  He and his family travel full-time in their renovated vintage Airstream, adventuring with their kids, taking lots of photos, and making fun videos

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