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, along with other landscape photographers, recently visited Death Valley National Park’s sand dunes. Strong winds made this visit more challenging than the one before. Shainblum had previously experienced clear skies and calm weather, but this was his second time. 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 through a Telephoto Lens

Shainblum loves to return to sand dunes to photograph. This is because of the many challenges that he faces. 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.

“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. Because there are limits on the amount of scene a photographer can take, the lens helps to simplify his images. 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. You should bring water and snacks along with you. A jacket is a good idea. Even if it is a hot day, chances are after sunset the temperature will drop quite a bit.”

Death valley sand dunesDeath valley sand dunes

In addition, it’s a good idea to consider self-protection on the windy dunes, like a cover for the eyes and mouth. You could use a mask for your face, glasses or a simple t-shirt. Shainblum, on the other hand is not too concerned about camera protection.

I see my camera as a tool, and it is okay if the tool breaks down. I create work that I love,” he said. The first and most important thing that I advise people to do is not alter lenses on dunes. It is one of the worst things you could do. If you must do it, be sure it is done 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. Even with all the safety precautions taken, it is still dangerous to shoot windy dunes.

“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. It is possible for sand to get into the zoom or focus ring, but it eventually 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.