Revisiting the Sand Dunes

I have visited the Great Sand Dunes National Park twice in the past two years. Back in 2016 it was a quick add-on to a trip to see the Sandhill Crane migration in Alamosa. At that time I was shooting with my Nikon D3200. I had some kit lenses and a 35mm prime. More recently I visited it again with new gear. This time I spend two full days there and had my Nikon D750, 28-300mm lens and my tripod. But more importantly I had two years and thousands more photos under my belt.

While there is a noticeable difference in the quality of my gear more importantly there are skills that I learned just in those two years… and some I forgot. First let me give a little primer of what to expect and what I would suggest you bring on a photography trip to the Great Sand Dunes.

What to bring

  • polarizer – Definitely a great accessory to get a strong contrast between the sand and sky.
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  • tripod – If you’re like me you tend to leave this home because it feels too cumbersome. During the day the lighting is usually bright enough to skip the tripod but in the evening and at night it is a must.
  • lens cleaner and brush – The sand gets everywhere. It’s not ultra fine but you’ll want to bring some cleaning gear. Use a rocket blaster or brush when you’re out and about and wet cleaners when you back in your hotel room at the end of the day.
  • plastic bags – I would highly recommend storing your cell phone in a plastic bag just for added protection. Your pockets are useless against the sand.
  • water – Colorado is a dry place to begin with. It felt like the sand dunes just sucked the moisture out of me.

Tips

  • Don’t change lenses out on the dunes. The dunes were formed by the wind which means you should expect it to be blowing while you’re there.
  • Keep your zippers and closures tight. Sand will get into anything left open. I found sand in every compartment of my bag, in my pockets, in my shoes… everywhere!
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  • If the sand isn’t too hot plan on ditching your shoes. I found it much more comfortable to hike in bare feet or even just socks. The sand got into my shoes filling under my arches make my shoes rather uncomfortable.
  • Go wide! I’m going to share some photos from each trip and you’ll see that the wider angle shots of my 28-300 look better than the ones that were shot on my 35mm lens on a cropped sensor.
  • Use that zoom! I’ve see a few videos lately about how a zoom lens can be a great lens for landscape photography. There are great patterns in the dunes that can be isolated with a nice zoom.
  • Evenings are better than mornings. The dunes are right up against the Sangre de Cristo mountains which block the morning light.

 Photo Comparison

Now let’s get into comparing some of the shots over the years so the tips I just gave you make a little more sense.

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Nikon D3200, f/10, 1/160 sec, ISO 100, 35mm

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Nikon D750, f/16, 1/60 sec, ISO 100, 28mm

Now, ignoring the difference in white balance you can see how the two lenses present a similar shot quite differently. The 35mm on the D3200 is actually closer to 50mm narrowing the view even more. Being able to get low and wide really brings you closer to the landscape and lets it spill out in front of you. The dunes are big and the sand is all around you. I think that’s something you want to convey in your photos.

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Nikon D3200, f/9, 1/160 sec, ISO 100, 35mm

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Nikon D750, f/16, 1/60 sec, ISO 140, 55mm

These next two photos speak more to my evolution as a photographer. You can see the difference in composition and lighting. When I visited the sand dunes in 2016 I was there in the middle the day and had little concern or thought about lighting. There was some thought to the composition with the footprints in the sand but it clearly misses the mark. The more recent photo has a much more interesting sky, yes, but it also has a lot more foreground and mid-ground interest. The low sun light highlights every little ripple in the sand and directs your eye toward the dunes in the distance. In this instance I forgot my lens hood leaving me with sun flares in the image that had to be removed in Photoshop. Just goes to show you that there’s always room for improvement.

Now the next series of shots were all taken with my D750 since I had a 28-300mm lens. One thing I mentioned at the beginning, in my tips, was zooming in on the landscape. You can watch a video like this one from Thomas Heaton about using a long lens for landscape photography. Ironically that video was posted by Thomas about two weeks after I visited the Great Sand Dunes.

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f/9, 1/320 sec, ISO 500, 300mm, handheld

The photo above really focuses in on the lines of the dunes. Again, it was taken late in the day so there’s a great contrast between the light and dark sides of the dunes. One thing I realized is that this lighting starts happening before the normal “golden hour” so get there a little early.

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f/9, 1/160 sec, ISO 360, 135mm

A zoom lens also lets you dive into those small details as well. The dunes are quite overwhelming from a photography standpoint because there’s just so much subject matter to potentially capture. The 28-300mm lens is definitely not the sharpest or a member of the lens trinity but, as I said, you don’t want to be changing lenses on the dunes so it does provide a lot of versatility.

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f/13, 1/200 sec, ISO 100, 160mm

The shot above is just another shot that I love and that would not have been possible with my 35mm prime lens.

The Great Sand Dunes in Colorado are some of the best dunes in the world. They’re not hard to get to and they can be enjoyed by just about everyone. I looked back at the time stamps on my images and found the sunset time online. The latest trip was at the end of March 2018 and the sunset time was about 7:30pm. We were at the parking lot just after 5pm and the lighting was really good. We were actually heading back to the car before 7pm and from what I remember the high dunes to the west were casting a shadow on all the dunes near the parking lot.

I’ll end this post with one shot from later that evening after the full moon had risen over the Sangre de Cristo mountains. I still had my 28-300mm lens on but next time I’ll go with an even wider and faster lens! Until next time…

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