Photography Tips For White Sands National Park - A Complete Guide
Located in southern New Mexico, White Sands National Park is the largest gypsum dune fiend in the world. The sand is actually clear but abrasions cause it to appear white. Stepping foot in White Sands for the first time is certainly an experience you’ll remember for the rest of your life. The surreal landscape is unlike anything on earth which makes it one of the most unique places you'll ever photograph. I have visited White Sands over 100 times and regularly lead small group photography workshops there. Keep reading if you’d you’d like the best photography tips for White Sands National Park.
Disclaimer: There are a few affiliate links within this article. Affiliate links help me produce high quality articles at no cost to you. Rest assured that I will never recommend products or services that I would not use myself. Now that we got that out of the way, keep reading to learn how to photograph White Sands National Park.
How To Photograph White Sands National Park
Getting to White Sands
The closest major airport to White Sands is El Paso Texas. The park is only about an hour and a half drive from ELP. If you’d like to increase your odds of getting good shots, you’ll most likely want to spend a few days in the area. Alamogordo NM is only a fifteen minute drive from the park entrance. Once you’re in the park there is only one road with a small loop at the end. It takes about fifteen minutes to drive from the entrance to the end of the road. There are a number of pullouts and parking areas along the road which makes accessing a variety of dunes relatively easy.
Camping and Lodging
There are no lodging options within White Sands National Park, so you’ll have to stay in Alamogordo if you plan on photographing the park over the course of a few days. The Holiday Inn Express, Hampton Inn and Fairfield Inn are the closest hotels to the park and they are also some of the nicest hotels in Alamogordo. There are a variety of cheaper motels in the area but remember that you get what you pay for.
White Sands has a back country camping program that allows visitors to stay overnight in the park. Unfortunately at the time of this writing, backcountry camping is not allowed. The program was halted at the start of Covid-19 and had not been reinstated due to park planning and short staffing. There’s a KOA campground in Alamogordo but it doesn’t quite offer the same experience as sleeping in the dunes.
Unlike most other national parks in the US, White Sands is not open 24-7. This is largely in part because it is located within the White Sands Missile Range. Park hours change by the season so it is best to check the park’s website before visiting.
If you’d like to shoot sunrise, you’ll need to obtain a special permit to get into the park early since the park never opens before 7am and 7am is typically after the light gets really good. The permit process can take between 4-6 weeks, so a little planning is required. You’ll also have to pay an early entry fee which makes sunset a little more of an attractive option. The park gate usually closes about an hour or so after sunset, but some times of the year offer more or less time. Keep in mind that you may have to hike out of the dunes in the dark so make sure to bring a bright headlamp. Late exit permits can be obtained in advance for folks who would like to shoot at night but the same permitting process applies to night shooting as well.
Weather & Seasons in white sands
The weather at White Sands can vary drastically depending on the time of year that you visit. The summer can produce beautiful monsoons but the temperature can often soar well over 100 degrees fahrenheit and make photographing in the summer rather uncomfortable, not to mention dangerous. It is not advisable to go deep into the dunes in the summer due to extreme heat. People have died from heat exposure in the dunes and no shot is worth risking your life.
The temperature becomes more tolerable in Fall with warm days and mild to cool nights. While Sands might not come to mind when you think of fall colors, but there are a few cottonwood trees in the dunes that begin to change color in late October and early November.
The winter is a great time to photograph White Sands and avoid the crowds, with the exception of Christmas time. Don’t go during Christmas! Families flock to the park to celebrate a white Christmas. The temperature in the winter can be pleasant to downright cold making the sand not only look but feel like snow. Mornings are especially cold.
As spring rolls around the temperature begins to warm up making the days quite comfortable for shooting. Spring in New Mexico can be quite windy though. It’s not uncommon to experience wind gust over 30 miles per hour in the spring. Wind in the dunes is your best and worst friend. It’s great because it resets all of the footprints and it makes for some really unique shots but it can also be very intense to shoot in if you’re not prepared. I’ll cover shooting in the wind in a little bit.
Considerations when photographing White Sands
It’s possible to get some great shots in one day but allocating 2 - 4 days will help increase your chances of getting dramatic light and allow you a little time to get acquainted with the dunes.
At the time of this writing, there is a $25 per vehicle entry fee to get into the park. Interagency passes such as National Park, senior and military passes will get you in for free.
The dunes can be very disorienting. If you travel deep into the dunes it will be very difficult to find your way back to your vehicle. It’s a good idea to use a GPS and or a GPS app on your phone even if you do not plan on going deep into the dunes. The dunes are like the mythical sirens and they call photographers deeper and deeper in until they cannot find their way back.
There are a wide variety of GPS apps on the market and they all have their pros and cons. I recommend downloading Maps.me if you’re looking for a simple GPS app that is relatively easy to to use. The pro version of the app is a little pricy but they also offer a free version of the app. Make sure that you download the “Roswell” offline map before going into the dunes. Cell phone service is very spotty to non existent in most parts of the park. Don’t forget to mark where you park before heading into the dunes and bring a battery power bank to keep your phone charged. GPS apps drain phone batteries very quickly.
As mentioned above, White Sands National Park is located within a missile range. The park will sometimes open late or close early when missile testing is happening. Most missile tests happen in the morning and usually cause a two to four hour delay in the park opening. Be sure to check the parks website to see if any missile tests are scheduled during the time that you plan to photograph White Sands. Unfortunately, the missile test schedule is typically only posted two to three weeks in advance.
Photographing in Wind And Sand Storms
A raging wind can happen at any time of year so it is best to be prepared for extreme shooting conditions. Most importantly, you need to protect your eyes. You are a photographer after all. Goggles are absolutely essential when shooting in windy sand dunes. The white sand is very fine and it will scratch your cornea if you spend too much time in a storm without proper eye protection. Sun glasses will not protect your eyes in a sandstorm. You need completely sealed goggles. I recommend a clear pair for when it’s dark and a tinted pair for when the sun is shining. A bandana will also be extremely helpful in preventing you from breathing in sand.
You’ll want to use a very fast shutter speed if you are using a telephoto lens in a windstorm. The faster the better. I recommend aiming for 1/500th of a second or quicker. To do this you will most likely need to bump up your ISO. 400 - 800 is a good target depending on the available light. You may have to go much higher though.
In addition to ISO, you will most likely have to open up the aperture to f/8 or so. Keep in mind that this will result in a shallower depth of field though so it will be very important to pay attention to where you are focusing.
Metering and Histograms
Before we dive into shooting, it’s really important to talk about metering in the dunes. Your camera has a reflective light meter inside of it. This means that the meter measures the light that is reflecting from the scene. The meter is calibrated to neutral gray meaning that very light and dark scenes will throw it off. This means you will have to over expose the meter by a stop or two when shooting very light scenes such as snow or white sand. Matrix / evaluative metering modes will most likely give you the best results but you will still have to over expose the meter.
It’s important to check your camera's histogram when shooting very light scenes because they are very easy to under expose. An under exposed photograph might look decent on the back of your camera’s LCD screen but but it will be noticeably dark once you view it on a computer. The best way to avoid under exposed images is to look at the histogram. Try to push the right side of the histogram towards the right side of the graph. This will ensure proper exposure.
Camera Settings for White Sands
Like any landscape photography, the correct settings will change drastically depending on the scene and amount of available light. When on a tripod with low wind I recommend shooting at ISO 100 with a small Aperture such as f/16. Shutter speed is not too important as long as nothing is moving in the scene. A two second timer will help reduce camera shake from when you press the shutter. This is especially important when using telephoto lenses.
Autofocus vs Manual focus
Autofocus works very well in high contrast scenes but low contrast scene can often cause it to fail. You will most likely be able to trust your AF system when the dunes have deep shadows on them. I recommend setting your focus area to a single point of small grouping and then place that point where light and shadow meet. This autofocus technique will ensure that your photos are coming out the way you want.
Morning and late evening light will be flat and these conditions will most likely result in missed autofocus. When the light is very low, I suggest placing your camera in manual focus. The best way to focus manually on a digital camera is to use the magnify option and digitally zoom into 5x or 10x. Once you are digitally zoomed in, rack the focus ring on the lens back and forth until the image is as sharp as possible. When the light is very low you may have to bump up the ISO and open the aperture temporarily just to achieve a manual focus. Once you achieve focus you can drop your settings back down.
Photographing White Sands is an absolute joy. It’s unlike anything else. There are a wide variety of shots that you can get in the dunes from ultra wide to super telephoto. The amount of gear that you carry into the dunes will depend on your physical stamina. In most cases I recommend pairing down your camera bag and only bring in the essential items.
Cameras & Lenses
I typically recommend bringing two camera bodies and two lenses in order to prevent the need to change lenses while in the dunes. The first body will have a long telephoto lens on it. A 100-400 or similar is very useful for photographing the the texture and layers of the dunes since they are not very high. A 1.4x tele extended is a nice addition to whichever telephoto lens you bring with you and highly recommended. For the second body you could use a midrange or wide angle zoom. Wide angle lenses are good for capturing the spines of the dunes when they are well defined. While a mid range lens will get wide enough for most situations and allow for a little more reach when needed.
TRIPOD vs HANDHELD
When the light is bright you can often get away with hand held shots. Remember to keep your shutter speed as fast if not faster than the focal length of your lens in order to prevent camera shake. Using image stabilization and a burst shutter will also greatly improve your hand held results.
For best results, use a sturdy tripod. (BIG EMPHASIS ON STURDY) Click here to see a variety of tripod recommendations. A tripod will allow you to shoot at a low ISO and small apertures which will equate to sharper images with more depth of field.
Filters can be useful when shooting in the dunes. They need to be used carefully though. You should remove all filters when shooting towards the sun because the filter will increase lens flare artifacts. The one exception to this rule is when there are enough clouds to block the sun and you want to use a solid ND filter. (More on this below)
Polarizing filters can deepen shadows and darken the sky. Keep in mind that they only work when shooting at an angle from the sun though. The only thing they do when shooting into or away from the sun is cut about a stop of light and increase the risk of artifacts.
UV filters will not improve the sidling of your photos but they can be useful to protect the front of your lens in the event of a sand storm.
Neutral density filters and Polarizing ND filters can be useful when you want to create long exposures with streaking clouds across the sky. I don’t recommend trying this if it is windy though. Click here to read my “How To Use A Neutral Density Filter Article”
If you plan on getting a late exit permit to shoot at night, I highly recommend a night filter to minimize the light pollution that is put off by Holloman Air Force Base and Alamogordo.
CAMERA BAG SETUP
I use a Tilopa camera bag by f-stop. This bag is great for photographing sand dunes because the "internal camera unit" (ICU) is removable allowing you to save on weight and space. I will often remove the ICU and place cameras with lenses attached into two Navin bags by f-stop. The extras space in my bag can then be used for jackets water and snacks. Don't head into the dune without water!
THE ELUSIVE ORYX
The White Sands missile rang is home to thousands of Oryx. What?!?! An Oryx is an an African mammal within the antelope family. These large animals are native to the Kalahari Desert that covers much of Botswana, as well as parts of Namibia and South Africa. So what are they doing in New Mexico? Oryx were introduced to the White Sands Missile Range between 1969 and 1977 as a large game animal for hunters. In response, White Sands National Park has erected a fence around the perimeter of the park to keep them out. Once in a while one gets in though. While I have never seen an oryx in White Sands, I have seen their foot prints and fresh scat. Maybe one day I’ll get that dream shot of the lone Oryx in the dunes. If you go to White Sands and see and Orayx, make sure to send me a photo.
PHOTOGRAPHY WORKSHOPS IN WHITE SANDS
One if the best ways to make the most of your time in White Sands is to join a photography workshop. Workshops help increase your odds of getting incredible shots because you’ll be going with someone who knows the lay of the land. You’ll also have someone to suggest composition ideas and camera settings for the given shooting scenario. I typically lead one to two photography workshops per year in White Sands and would love to see you on a trip some day.