Mesquite Dunes, Death Valley National Park

Mountains rise beyond the sand dunes of Mesquite Flat, Death Valley National Park
The Mesquite Dunes stretch across the valley just north of Stovepipe Wells, Death Valley National Park
The Mesquite Dunes stretch across the valley just north of Stovepipe Wells, Death Valley National Park

I just spent a week in Death Valley National Park attending a workshop with landscape photographer Jack Dykinga. It was an amazing week catching up with old friends, doing a ton of field work, and trying to soak in Jack’s incredible talent whenever possible. One of my favorite places to shoot was the sand dunes of Mesquite Flat, just north of Stovepipe Wells.

Wind and weather carve the Mesquite Dunes into endless shapes and textures, Death Valley National Park
Wind and weather carve the Mesquite Dunes into endless shapes and textures, Death Valley National Park

The dunes provided an amazing array of shapes and pattern with which to craft photographs. It was a place that really clicked for me, and it was a joy to shoot. An hour or two before sunset, the sun was still high enough to provide strong shadows and side lighting.

Death Valley's Mesquite Dunes are a study of form and lines
Death Valley’s Mesquite Dunes are a study of form and lines

At this time of the day, I really wanted to capture strong contrast which let the eye see the huge variety of patterns in the sand.

Visitors to Stovepipe Wells are treated to a view of wind carved sand dunes across Mesquite Flat, Death Valley National Park
Visitors to Stovepipe Wells are treated to a view of wind carved sand dunes across Mesquite Flat, Death Valley National Park

As we got closer to sunset, the dunes and mountains to the east began to reflect that sweet magic hour light. Using a longer lens to stack the dunes against the mountains helps to give the viewer a sense of place.

Mountains rise beyond the sand dunes of Mesquite Flat, Death Valley National Park
Mountains rise beyond the sand dunes of Mesquite Flat, Death Valley National Park

My favorite time of day to shoot however, was after the sun had set. The light across the dunes evened out, filling in the shadows and giving the dune contours a milky softness.

As the sun sets, the soft light give the sand dunes a buttery feel, Death Valley National Park
As the sun sets, the soft light give the sand dunes a buttery feel, Death Valley National Park

Black and white photos still worked well in this light. Instead of cranking up the contrast to show those sharp lines, the key here was to keep it soft and lower contrast. I tried to find compositions that allowed the eye to move easily up into the frame, flowing through the dunes.

Soft light across the dunes adds a milky texture to the wind carved lines, Death Valley National Park
Soft light across the dunes adds a milky texture to the wind carved lines, Death Valley National Park

As the valley settled into shadow, the sand was cast in a cool blue light.

In the moments after sunset, the light softens to accentuate the subtle curves of the sand dunes, Death Valley National Park
In the moments after sunset, the light softens to accentuate the subtle curves of the sand dunes, Death Valley National Park

As I had never spent much time photographing sand dunes before, I was thrilled with the experience. It is definitely a subject that offers endless variety and continual learning. These are my favorite kinds of photographic subjects – challenging and varied, forcing me to adapt and grow.

If you are serious about your photography and want to learn from one of the masters, I highly recommend putting Jack on your short list of workshop instructors.