Soap tree yuccas on dunes
New Mexico's state flower, the soaptree yucca, is a very popular plant to take pictures of.

NPS Photo

With the shifting light, shadows, and truly out-of-this world landscape make White Sands a photographer's paradise. You do not need an expensive camera to capture the beauty of the dunes. Great pictures, however, require the same techniques and way of looking at things that pros have learned.

Camera Care

The dunes can be a dangerous environment for your digital camera. Blowing sand can cause irreversible damage to your camera.

It's important to protect your camera from the elements when you're in the dunes, particularly avoiding sand. When your camera is inundated with tiny grains of sand, the grains can scratch the lens, penetrate the case, ruin the internal electronics, and clog buttons and dials. Be careful when and where you change your camera lenses. Always take a camera bag or backpack with you to store your camera when not in use. Use a soft microfiber cloth to clean the sand off your camera. Do not use canned air to clean your camera.

Photo Tips

Time of day

Most professionals know the golden hours are around two hours after sunrise and the same before sunset. Every day is different. Sometimes there are crystal clear views of the surrounding mountains and sometimes awesome cloud formations that change hues by the minute. The Sacramento Mountains to the east are especially beautiful just after the sun dips below the horizon. They are bathed in a pink afterglow followed by the rise of the earth's shadow.

Change Your Point of View

  • Climb high! Hike to the top of the tallest dune around and take in the bird's eye view. The tallest dunes are toward the end of Dunes Drive near the Alkali Flat trailhead.
  • Get down! Drop to your knees and look up. Yuccas against the sky and the delicacy of dune grasses are especially interesting from a low angle.
  • Get close! The patterns left in the sand by grasses and leaves blown by the wind are fascinating. Sometimes you will find the tiny tracks of a darkling beetle just waiting to be recorded, and sometimes you'll find the actual beetle. The interdunal areas are great places to find animal tracks and rugged, gnarly plant growth.
  • Avoid symmetry!Most beginners tend to center objects and include the entire object in the frame. However, you'll end up with a more interesting photo when you shoot slightly off center and occasionally only include half of the object or two-thirds of it in the frame. This results in an unexpected look for the photo and in interesting composition.
  • Show depth! Placing a plant or rock in the near foreground of your photo will help the viewer see the depth and distance in your photograph. Give the viewer an object which will help them understand size and distance of your intended subject.

Watch Where You Walk

Avoid walking through the middle of dunes, since that'll mess up those nice lines in the sand and ruin any opportunity to photograph the dune. Instead, walk around dunes, or only walk through dunes you know you don't want to photograph.

Avoid the Biggest Dunes

When you first see a large field of sand dunes, you might think of always heading to the tallest dunes in the field, but these dunes don't always make the best photographs. These dunes are often the most visited, so they'll likely have human footprints all over them. If you're looking to photograph some undisturbed dunes, then head out towards the edges of the dunefield.

Look for Layers

Many dune fields are surrounded by large mountain ranges, so you can also create some nice images by layering the dunes with mountains in the background. This works especially well when the mountains are much darker or lighter than the dunes and provide a nice contrast.

Control your Subject Matter

Try to not include too much of the surrounding mountains or the viewer's eye may lose focus on the sand dunes as your main subject in the foreground.

The most important thing to remember is that the photographs you take are your own view of the subject and you have recorded these images for your own enjoyment.Taking good photographs is a way to record your memories of White Sands and other places you visit and to share those memories with family and friends.

If you see a good photo, take it. Don't get so wrapped up in all the technical aspects of taking the photo that you miss the opportunity. Go out, have fun, enjoy the dunes and remember "leave footprints and take only pictures."

Find the Right Location

The Playa Trail is the first trail you will encounter from the entrance station. Follow the green trail markers with a heart symbol that leads to a small playa. The playa undergoing constant change. It may be brown, white, filled with water, or have growing crystals.

The Dune Life Nature Trail is a mix of dunes and native plants. Follow the blue trail markers with a club symbol that leads to an array of Rio Grande Cottonwoods and animals tracks.

Backcountry Camping Trail is a shorter hike through the heart of the dunes. Follow the orange trail markers with a spade symbol into an area of beautifully varied dunes and vegetation

The Alkali Flat Trail skirts the edge of what is now the final remnant of Lake Otero. Follow the red trail markers with a diamond symbol into the tallest dunes in the monument with little vegetation.

Safety Tips

It is easy to become disoriented in the dunefield especially when looking for the perfect photography spot. More than a few photographers have an unplanned night in the dunes after becoming lost while capturing sunset photos.

Have a plan. Tell someone, who is not with you, where you are going and when you plan to return.

Use park trail markers. Carry a park map and compass. Orient yourself to landmarks such as mountains or a water tower and know how to return to your car. GPS can be unreliable here. Have a fully charged cell phone. Bring a portable charger if you have one. Turn your cell phone off while hiking. Conserve battery power for emergencies. Be prepared for the unexpected.

Hike established trails to minimize safety concerns.

Know the temperature before you hike. It is recommended that you do not start a hike if the temperature is at or above 85°F (30°C).

Remember water is life! Bring enough to survive. Drink water before you start exploring. Have at least one gallon (4L) of water per person per day. Carry at least 2 quarts/liter of water per person even for short trips. Fill up water containers at the visitor center. There is no water available in the dunefield.

Weather in the Tularosa Basin can change quickly. Temperatures can drop very quickly once the sun sets or during storms. Visitors need to be prepared for a variety of weather conditions.

During the warm season, wear a wide-brimmed hat, sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher, sunglasses, and lightweight, loose-fitting clothing. Long sleeves and long pants help protect your skin from the sun. Sunburn reduces the skin's ability to release excess heat, making you more susceptible to heat-related illness.

An active missile range surrounds us. From time to time, debris from missile tests falls into the park and is buried by sand. If you see any strange objects, do not touch them, as they may still be able to detonate. Make a note of their location and tell a ranger what appropriate personnel to remove the object in question.

Last updated: January 3, 2020

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