Though it may be small, White Sands National Park is mighty when it comes to the potential for landscape photography treasures. While other parks have their heralded viewpoints and iconic features, White Sands has none of that. Instead, it offers unlimited potential for creatively seeking unique compositions.
What’s more, the photography opportunities are as dynamic as the lighting itself. As the sun and moon rise and set, the textures and tones cover a spectacular gamut.
This photography guide to White Sands National Park (formerly White Sands National Monument) covers what I found most appealing to photograph in the park, and what to look for during different times of day.
Before planning your trip, be sure to consult our comprehensive guide to White Sands wherein we cover everything you need to know to plan your trip.
General Tips for White Sands Photography
- The best compositions tend to be west-facing. This is due to the direction of the winds that formed the dunes. Facing east, you lose the layers and shadow play that you get when facing west. Furthermore, you will have the San Andres mountains in your background when facing west to add another point of interest.
- The color gamut changes drastically with the light. Because the white sand appears truly white (though it is not truly sand funny enough), it will reflect the tones of the sun. When the sun is overhead, the sand looks as white as snow. As it transitions from golden hour to blue hour and beyond, so too does the sand.
- The human element is great for adding scale. I often prefer to focus on the landscape. However, I found most compositions benefitted greatly by having a silhouette atop a ridge to provide that sense of scale.
- Don’t bother getting there early! The park is (usually) gated closed for sunrise and the views to the east are not as dramatic as those to the west.
- Look for light and shadow play. It is this naturally occurring contrast that can make the same exact frame incredibly boring at noon but incredibly dramatic in any kind of angular light.
- PROTECT YOUR CAMERA! The winds are usually very aggressive and will blow the fine gypsum sand into your expensive electronic device! Avoid leaving your camera exposed for long periods of time and, if possible, protect with some kind of rain cover.
- Bring a tripod! There are some beautiful moments after sunset that will be impossible to shoot handheld without seeing motion blur in your pictures!
PLAN YOUR TRIP: The ULTIMATE Guide to White Sands National Park
Where to Photograph in White Sands National Park
As you are not allowed to photograph at Lake Lucero, even if you are able get a tour, the only place to photograph in White Sands NP is amongst the dunes along the Dunes Drive road.
There are a handful of trails, but one of the best parts about photography in White Sands is that there is no “one place” to go. Instead, you will be looking for the sections of the dunes that provide the most interesting shapes, textures, and light play.
Alkali Flats Trail
Technically, the Alkali Flats Trail is a 5-mile loop near the end of the Dunes Drive road. I absolutely recommend starting an evening journey here. However, I suggest exploring openly toward the San Andres Mountains to the west rather than following the trail markers. By doing so, you will find acres of unspoiled dunes free of footprints. Additionally, the possibilities for compositions become endless.
The reason I like this trail in particular is that these are the largest dunes in the park. The larger scale provides more interesting shapes and compositions. Additionally, being so close to the mountain range adds another dimension to the background of your White Sands photos.
Unmarked Lot Past Sunset Stroll
As you drive into the park on the Dunes Drive road, you will pass a sign and parking area on your right called “Sunset Stroll”. Drive just a few hundred feet further and find another large parking lot on your left with no signage. This was my favorite place to photograph in White Sands National Park.
It is pretty much identical to Alkali Flats, but because there is no sign there tends to be far fewer people and footprints in the sand. Additionally, there is a healthy, lonely tree in the distance that demands the spotlight. If you are photographing alone, it can be challenging to have a clear subject, or “hero”, in your images. This tree is exactly that.
I know I stated that I love how there is no iconic feature of White Sands like Half Dome in Yosemite or Old Faithful in Yellowstone, but I have a feeling that as this blog and our photos continue to make their rounds on Facebook and Instagram, this tree may become a central figure in most people’s landscape photos.
This is great, just please be respectful! Do not start climbing the tree or hanging from its delicate branches! I have seen too many beautiful features destroyed by people who claim to love it.
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When to Photograph White Sands National Park
Photography is always about light, but nowhere is this more true than when photographing landscapes in White Sands NP.
What makes this place so special, even when compared to more sizable dunes, is the way the white gypsum reflects the color palette of the sun. Beyond that, a keen observer will note the way the scenery transforms in angular light. Shapes and textures begin to show that were invisible before, often catching color that is completely unexpected.
I found the morning and most of the day the least interesting time to photograph. Instead, I recommend focusing on the time period from late afternoon through nightfall.
For reference, I spent a week in White Sands with sunset at roughly 7:45pm each night. The first day in the park, I was there early but didn’t keep any of the photos I took. From then on, I would begin exploring the dunes around 4:30pm, as the light became angular, loving many different shots for different reasons.
White Sands Afternoon Photography
While you will not yet be getting anything wild in the way of colors, the late afternoon is the best time to capture the essence of White Sands in a picture. This is because the sand will still be as pure white as fresh snow, accentuating the deep blue New Mexico sky.
Additionally, the sun will be far enough in its descent to cast some deep shadows and provide dramatic natural contrast. This light and shadow play is what your afternoon photography in White Sands should focus on capturing in a frame.
White Sands Golden Hour Photography
As the sun moves lower toward the mountains, you start to get a lot of warm tones reflected in the white sand. Additionally, the shadows and contrast deepen significantly.
Many beginners will find this a challenging time to shoot as the sun is still up and poses problems when shooting directly into it. How you solve this problem is very much up to the photographer! One option is to “blow out” your sky, meaning you accept that it will be too bright to have detail and lean into the bright feeling. If this is you, consider introducing the human element (which will be a silhouette) as this will add an element to your photo to compensate for the lack of sky interest and help accentuate that adventurous feeling for the viewer.
Another option is to find some diagonal angles to shoot at instead of looking straight into the sun. Depending on your conditions, the golden hour may be more photogenic north or south, away from the sun altogether. On one particular day of my visit, I was gifted with some incredibly brooding clouds to the north that I chose to feature during the golden hour instead. You still get the deep shadows and tones but avoid the issue of battling direct sunlight.
White Sands Sunset Photography
Of the six days I photographed White Sands, four of them had unbelievable color in the sky that really created some spectacular images. This is never a given, but is definitely something you should plan and be prepared for!
Note that the sun will set behind the San Andres mountains, so there will usually be a small window where the sun is blocked but the colors have not yet turned. The first night, I nearly made the mistake of heading back to the car before it got dark, but luckily I noticed how strange the sand was glowing and decided to wait to see what the sky did. 15 minutes later, the clouds EXPLODED with color.
The most amazing thing was watching how dramatically the sand changed tones even after the sun had set. It first turned fire red, then continued to cool to deep shades of blue. It was 50 shades of spectacular by the time it was over.
Even if you are not fortunate enough to get a once-in-a-lifetime sunset, there is a lot to watch for. I recommend getting yourself somewhere out in the high dunes and just being ready to chase the light and colors wherever they show up. Don’t be fooled, it is not always to the west that the best colors are showcased!
White Sands Blue Hour Photography
The magic is far from over after the sun goes down! The blue hour offers about a 20 minute window where the horizon is still bright and warm, but the colors in the sand have cooled significantly. Make sure you have a tripod ready as you will no longer be able to shoot handheld without blur as the light grows dim!
During this period, what I looked for was similar to what I was looking for in the daytime. That is, the light and shadow play between the layers of the dunes that are still touched with light. Suddenly, the flat landscape becomes extremely layered and far more interesting.
While the sky does not have as much interest, keeping the overall color palette in the cool blue range creates a feeling very unique from those shot just 15 minutes earlier when the world was red and orange!
For a more abstract photo, I also recommend removing the sky altogether and framing your shots tight to only include the dunes. The effect this has during blue hour closely resembles layers of fog or clouds!
White Sands Nautical Twilight Photography
After the color in the sky has nearly dropped off completely and only ambient light is available, we enter the period of time known as Nautical Twilight. At this point, your eyes will have trouble picking up the light and detail, but your camera (with a tripod!) still has plenty to work with.
A very strange thing happens around this time. At the base of the biggest dunes tend to be hard lines formed carved by sand that are not as noticeable during the daytime hours. During Nautical Twilight, however, they suddenly become aglow. Just when I thought my favorite photos were logged, I started noticing these racetrack lines and fell in love all over again! I cannot recommend exploring these enough!
I also really enjoyed the moody feeling that my White Sand photos took on around this period. While most of the daytime and evening shots feel bright and fun and adventurous, those frames captured at the very, very end of the day had a much more dramatic feeling which is easy to embrace.
Rather than looking to replicate any pictures in this White Sands photography guide, I recommend just using them to understand how the opportunities change as the light does! Perhaps you hate my photos, and that’s completely ok, they can still be valuable in planning your own visit!
White Sands Night Photography
I am so sad to say that the park closed at 9pm during my visit, so I was unable to stay after dark and photograph the lunar lightscapes that I had come for, as well as the Milky Way shots I had imagined. However, it is very clear that if you are able to procure a backcountry permit or visit during a time when the park is not closing the gates, the opportunities for night photography in White Sands are endless!
Because the white sand will pick up even the faintest starlight, you will have an easier time capturing the foreground even at night than in most other places. Additionally, even a sliver of white moonlight will have this place glowing like a Christmas Tree!
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What to Photograph in White Sands NP
There are many natural elements that culminate to make White Sands NP an amazing place for landscape photography. If you have never photographed sand dunes before, this section will help you develop an eye on the types of features that create pleasing compositions for your photographs.
It sounds obvious, but the most amazing thing about sand dunes are the layers they form. Much like rolling hills in the countryside, they can look flat and uninspiring in the wrong light. As you begin to get that light and shadow action, however, you see the layers form in a spectacular way.
Look to use a decent zoom lens to punch in on isolated sections of the sand dunes that frame the intricate layering and you will be on your way to capturing the essence of White Sands NP in your pictures.
The most amazing thing you will notice when hiking the dunes is the patterns and lines in the sand-blown ripples. Use these for powerful leading lines to other points of interest, or zoom in tight and isolate them in your frame! Either way, the ripples in the sand will be an integral component of your White Sands photography.
The sections at the base of the largest dunes will be hard and flat, but also have some incredible texture to them! It will not always be apparent, but as the light becomes increasingly angular, these will stand out more and more.
In addition to photographing the dunes and mountains, be sure to turn your attention to these flat areas from time to time to see if another view exists!
If you are fortunate enough to visit during spring, you will be amazed at the beautiful desert wildflowers that thrive in White Sands National Park! In fact, many photographers will come just for those!
Personally, I find greater joy in photographing landscapes than in macro photography, so I tend to seek compositions that feature the wildflowers in context to the scene. However, many of you will want to zoom in nice and tight, capturing the flowers exclusively with the ripples of the white sand framing the shot.
This is a bit broad, but it is only to say that beyond the dunes and ripples, there are so many textures that have been carved by the wind in White Sands. Keep your eyes and lens open at all times to come up with interesting ways to translate these textures into pleasing compositions.
I truly believe this small park is one of the best places in the world to unlock your creative photography!
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Other Relevant Park and Photography Guides
If you find the writing and photos in our guides helpful, below is a collection of other guides that may be relevant to your literal or photography journey! Particularly if White Sands National Park is just one stop on your National Park road trip!
- Complete Guide to Visiting White Sands National Park
- Comprehensive guide to Chiricahua National Monument
- Carlsbad Caverns National Park Guide
- Guadalupe Mountains National Park Guide
- Photography Guide to Big Bend National Park
- We Dream of Travel Photography Tutorials
White Sands Photography Final Thoughts
It must be abundantly clear that I absolutely loved photographing White Sands National Park for reasons beyond the conditions I was lucky enough to receive. Every day it seemed the park had a new magic, unique to all prior visits, and every day I found some new wrinkle to photograph.
I truly hope you have found some inspiration in this guide and that you are able to come away with your own personal photographic treasures. Please feel free to leave a comment if you had any questions or felt anything covered was inaccurate!