Photographing Wind-Swept Sand Dunes in Death Valley

At times, Death Valley can bring serene scenes of soft and picturesque sand waves, other times, as landscape photographer Michael Shainblum found out, it can also bring chaos, wind, and challenging shooting conditions.

Shainblum and several other landscape photographers recently visited the sand dunes of Death Valley National Park. Although one of the previous visits gave Shainblum clear skies and peaceful weather conditions, this time he was met with strong winds. Despite the shooting challenges, for Shainblum this trip was one of his best and he came home with a beautiful set of photos, shot with his trusted companion, the Sigma 100-400mm f/5.6 lens.

Finding Creativity in Landscape Through a Telephoto Lens

The reason why Shainblum is happy to revisit sand dunes for his photography is for the different challenges he has to face. For the most part, landscape photography is challenging enough, often putting photographers at the mercy of Mother Nature.

“But dunes specifically can be so chaotic and oftentimes the focus of the photo seems less obvious than in other types of landscape photography,” Shainblum tells PetaPixel.

Death valley sand dunes

“It really takes spending time in the landscape, getting to know the spot, and digging deep into the creative consciousness to find intriguing photographs on the dunes.”

Death valley sand dunes

Shainblum likes to use his telephoto lens to seek out those unique photos, looking for different shapes, textures, and patterns in the distance. The lens also helps him simplify the image because there is a limit on how much of a scene photographer can capture. Shooting with a lens like this can also help photographers think of landscapes in a more abstract manner.

Preparing Yourself for a Day Shooting Dunes

As with most landscape shoots, particularly those with extreme weather conditions, it’s essential to come well-prepared. When Shainblum travels to sand dunes, he brings the usual equipment he would bring on any other shooting adventure. Since he also films vlogs, he always brings an extra tripod and video gear.

“It gets to be really heavy lugging it up and down the dunes, so I just take my time,” he explains. “Make sure to bring extra water, snacks, and a jacket. Even if it is a hot day, chances are after sunset the temperature will drop quite a bit.”

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In addition, it’s a good idea to consider self-protection on the windy dunes, like a cover for the eyes and mouth. It could be a face mask, glasses, or just a t-shirt tied around. On the other hand, when it comes to camera protection, Shainblum doesn’t worry about it too much.

“I see the camera as a tool and I am fine if that tool wears down because I am creating work I am passionate about,” he says. “The first thing I do and the main thing that I tell people is do not change lenses on the dunes, that is the worst possible thing you can do, if you have to do it, make sure to do it inside your camera bag.”

Death valley sand dunes

“If sand gets all over your sensor it would be terrible,” he continues. “For lenses and the outside of your camera, you can use plastic covers (frankly they do not work all that great, and sand will still get in) but it does help a bit if you are concerned about the gear.”

He also suggests photographers use filters or UV filters to protect the front element. But, even regardless of all of the precautions, shooting windy dunes is a risky activity.

“You just have to ask yourself what you care more about, your camera or your photography,” Shainblum explains. “All that being said out of the countless times I have shot dunes over 10 and more years I have never broken a lens or a camera on the dunes. Sand might get in the focus ring or the zoom but eventually, it just comes out. I also do a good wipe down of the gear with a damp towel afterward.”

More videos like these can be found on Shainblum’s YouTube Channel, with more of his photography work on his website and Instagram.

Image credits: Photos by Michael Shainblum.