Landscape Photography Guide to White Sands National Park, USA
White Sands National Park is located about 15 miles (24km) west of Alamogordo in New Mexico, USA. Rising from the heart of the Tularosa Basin, it is one of the world’s great natural wonders and is a fantastic place for landscape photography.
For thousands of years, the prevailing westerly winds have deposited gypsum powder (a relatively rare constituent of sand), eroded from the nearby San Andres Mountains and washed down by rainwater, creating the world’s largest gypsum dune field covering over 275 square miles (442km).
About half of the sands are within the boundaries of the White Sands National Park – one of the most unusual and magical places in the Southwest.
The climate for this region is dry and hot. This is a high desert area, averaging 1,219 metres in elevation and is subject to harsh, sometimes rapidly changing conditions. Summers are hot, with high temperatures averaging 35°C (95°F) in July and August.
Fortunately, unlike dunes made of quartz-based sand crystals, the gypsum does not readily convert the sun’s energy into heat and can be walked upon safely with bare feet, even in the hottest summer months.
Care must be taken though – whilst heat is reflected, the sun’s glare is not, so protect your eyes!
Winters are relatively mild, but nighttime temperatures often go below freezing. Snowfall is rare but does happen occasionally, and the sight of white snow on the gypsum is unusual and magical to see if you are lucky enough to catch it.
Wind is the dominant force here, especially from February through to May. Windstorms can last for days in the spring. Of course, these winds are what make the dunes so beautiful. Timing your trip here just after a major storm can reveal some amazing clouds, reflecting pools, and intense skies.
Walking through the dunes is an unforgettable experience. Often there are no other footprints ahead, no people, and no plants – nothing but wind-created ripples and the occasional set of Oryx tracks.
The gypsum is easy to walk on, and every crest and dip in the dunes presents another amazing photo opportunity. It is so peaceful and isolated here that you just want to keep seeing what’s over the next rise.
But mind yourself – it’s easy to wander off and totally lose your bearings. You can turn around and realize you have no idea where you are. Every dune looks the same and there are no landmarks, trail markers or anything to find your way back to your car.
With this in mind, I make a conscious effort to keep my bearings by lining up notches in the mountains to the east and to the west. This is an ideal place for a GPS unit like the Garmin Inreach.
This is a perfect place to play with the focal plane shifting ability of Tilt-Shift lenses too.
I use the 100-400mm lens for compressing the elements of the composition and capturing the details of the moon and distant terrain.
In my bag, I also have a LEE 6 and 10-stop Neutral Density filter for long exposures of moving clouds. I also carry a Breakthrough circular polarizer, although I am not always content with its use, especially with a wide-angle lens as it can produce some unrealistic gradients in the skies.
I will take an image with the polarizer at medium strength, then take another and back it off considerably. I also pack my Lightning Trigger for those dramatic flashes of lightning during typical afternoon monsoon storms – this is an integral piece of equipment!
Best time to visit White Sands National Park
The ideal times to shoot these dunes are sunrise and sunset, and if you can plan your trip for a couple of days prior to a full moon, you will have the opportunity to photograph the moonrise over the dunes, which is a truly magical experience in this other-worldly place.
The Park gates open at sunrise, but if you call a day ahead you can make arrangements for the Park Rangers to open the gates for you an hour earlier for a reasonable fee. This is well worth it to get in early and get situated for the glorious sunrise.
Another option is to camp in one of the 10 ‘first come first serve’ primitive walk-in sites inside the park.
Sunset is also well worth it. When daylight begins to fade, the shadows and lines in the dunes become more pronounced and the whole area takes on a mystical glow. The dunes reflect the colours of the sky and as the earth’s shadow appears the sands take on a reddish-pink hue.
It is worth knowing that shooting at White Sands is just like shooting in the snow. This means that between one and two stops of plus exposure compensation are needed to avoid the sand coming out grey.
I always recommend exposing to the right (ETTR) for landscape photography to achieve the greatest detail and dynamic range, being sure to review my histogram to avoid any blown-out highlights or blocked-up shadows. I also recommend utilizing hyperfocal distance techniques to achieve maximum focus throughout the composition.
Read more: Where to Focus in a Landscape Photo
My favourite times to shoot here are a day or two before a full moon as the sun is setting in the west, the moon rises to the east – early enough to still have ambient light from the sun to get great exposure and detail in the moon, and the dunes are bathed in the most magical light.
The monsoon season in the Southwest during July and August creates perfect conditions for amazing cloud formations and sunsets. And the chill of fall brings with it the changing colours of the cottonwoods which are scattered amongst the dunes. The orange and red colours are a stark and surprising contrast against the stark white dunes.
I would also recommend trying to time your visits for late September, as the Milky Way rises right after sunset. And sometimes in September, there is a Hot Air Balloon Festival which adds a whole other set of colourful and fun photo opportunities.
If you are lucky enough to be here in the winter after some snowfall, the sand is damp and pale tan, contrasting with patches of pure white snow. It is absolutely silent, and the feeling of immense open space is overwhelming.
It is easy to become disoriented in the dunes, especially when looking for the perfect photography spot. I always set a GPS track so I can find my way back, and I would highly recommend doing this if you are planning a visit.
The park does have four designated trails over the dunes that have markers, but like most photographers I prefer to wander away from the footprints of others.
It can get very hot out here in the summer with temperatures in the upper 90’s°F (38°C), and there is no water. You must carry at least a gallon (4L) of water per day.
During the warm season, wear a wide-brimmed hat, sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher, sunglasses, and lightweight, loose-fitting clothing.
Long sleeves and long pants will 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.
The weather out there can also change in a hurry. Temperatures can drop very quickly once the sun sets or during storms, and lightning and thunder can build up suddenly. Photographers need to be prepared for a variety of weather conditions.
As a workshop leader and landscape photographer, I am often asked where my favourite place is to shoot. Although narrowing that down is an almost impossible task, I often fall back on White Sands. It’s like a blank canvas, which can be overwhelming at first glance, but ultimately it is simplicity at its finest.
The dunes take on the colours and moods of the sky, and each time I visit, the palette shifts from pastel pinks to blue-grey hues and intense oranges and reds.
I have found endless compositions here, as I’m sure you will, and hope you will enjoy wandering for hours in peace and silence capturing its lights, shadows, colours and moods, as much as I have.