Photographing Desert Dunes

I’ve just returned from the Sultanate of Oman.  It is a fascinating Arab country on the Arabian Peninsula that has literally been built in the last 40 years from virtually nothing but sand. Where there were only camel paths, Bedouins and fisherman, there are now highways, homes, hospitals, schools and a modern society.

mu-area.gif

But untouched are two of Oman’s great desert areas: Wahiba Sands and Rub Al Khali (The Empty Quarter).  I spent about 40 hours in each, shooting a total of four sunrises and four sunsets.

I learned pretty quickly about how to capture the desert dunes (and how not to!) and this should give you the head start I didn’t have if you are able to get to a desert with your camera.

I have wanted to photograph the dunes ever since I saw my first screensaver. The beautiful warm orange sands, the deep contouring shadows, the luscious curves…it all seemed like the perfect photographic landscape subject and I wanted in.

   A giant dune in Rub Al Khali, about 200’ tall…screensaver style.

A giant dune in Rub Al Khali, about 200’ tall…screensaver style.

I was pretty sure that I was looking for those giant majestic dunes that must tower 200-300 feet from the desert floor in order to get those sweeping curves and contours.  And that was my very first mistake.  I discovered quickly that the sense of scale in the desert is almost impossible to assess, especially with no elements to create a perspective of size.  Without a frame of reference in a photograph, like a person, a shrub or an old animal skull, a 10 foot dune looks just like one 100 feet tall.  The only exception is the wind swept ripples in the sand that are often, but not always present.

   This dune rose a whopping 15 feet, shot from about ten inches off the sand.

This dune rose a whopping 15 feet, shot from about ten inches off the sand.

 And so if we are going to photograph small dunes and large ones, what focal length lenses are needed?  Because I wasn’t entirely sure, I brought 14-24, 24-70 and 70-200 for my full frame Nikon D850.  As it turned out, the 14-24 was the most used, and I did make a few images from about 70-100mm, and almost never used the 24-70.  

The next thing I discovered that there’s a lot of hiking involved!  And its hiking in soft sand which means that you are actually best off barefoot.  You are moving from dune to dune looking for that perfect shape, that perfect complex curve, that perfect shadow.  And no backtracking because your own footprints will ruin the shot!  

   Once you’ve made footprints, there’s no going back to shoot that area. Go slow.

Once you’ve made footprints, there’s no going back to shoot that area. Go slow.

So off you go with your lens of choice, your tripod and remote release and your bare feet.  Oh, and some kind of serious headcovering.  Why?  As the sun goes down the wind comes up.  The desert cools very quickly and the superheated desert air quickly drops as it cools creating convection winds that blow during your perfect golden hour of shooting.  So, unless you want a free microdermabrasion session, use your head and neck covering of choice.  And forget about changing lenses, there’s too much risk of sand into your camera body.

   My feeble attempt at a turban. But I found out how useful they are, those bedouins are pretty smart!

My feeble attempt at a turban. But I found out how useful they are, those bedouins are pretty smart!

 You will begin to see the colors of the sand change about 45 minutes before sunset and about 5 minutes after sunrise.  And in each case, you have about an hour of prime shooting time. One of the tricky things I discovered is getting the warm orange sand with the blue sky.  I had to shoot with a warmer white balance to really get the sand color which kind of wrecked the sky color.  I also made some images to favor the sky color.  I did make the needed adjustments in post production which is helped by shooting all files in RAW mode.

   Getting a blue sky and orange sand is tricky. They’re at opposite ends of the color spectrum.

Getting a blue sky and orange sand is tricky. They’re at opposite ends of the color spectrum.

I also shot at my camera’s base ISO (which is 64) to get the finest grain possible. The closer the sun is to the horizon, the longer your shutter speed will be.  You’ll want the maximum depth of field, so that means you’ll be shooting at f/11 or smaller, so you have a corresponding shutter speed of 1/15 or even slower.  Your tripod and remote release are a must.

After the shoot your post-processing with be pretty minimal.  You may want some color adjustment and some use of the neutral gradient filter if you use Lightroom.  You may also want to emphasize the form of the dunes by converting some of your images to monochrome.  Using black point and white point, a bit of tone curves and some sharpening and that’s about it.

   Monochrome conversion emphasizes the shape and texture of the dunes.

Monochrome conversion emphasizes the shape and texture of the dunes.

The desert is a beautiful, magical place that was even better than I expected. I hope you have a chance to get to a desert and make some beautiful photos of your own!

   The light gets low…and warm.

The light gets low…and warm.