Chasing Shadows

The Art of Photographing Sand Dunes

By Chuck Graham Back to

chuck graham, sand dunes Trail runner stepping over perfectly groomed wind lines across the Guadalupe-Nipomo Sand Dunes National Wildlife Refuge

Northwest winds finally relented after midnight, so I was anticipating natural works of art the following morning, 90 minutes west of where I live in Santa Barbara, CA. By the time I arrived at my destination it was still dark but I could hear the surf crashing on the windswept deserted beach at the Guadalupe—Nipomo Sand Dunes National Wildlife Refuge.

The largest intact coastal dune ecosystem on the West Coast of the U.S., the refuge is one of my favorite places to photograph because of its 500-foot-tall dunes that ascend straight out of the Pacific Ocean. Stabilized by consistent northwest winds and native flora like coreopsis, sand verbena and silver lupine, over time these dunes have become sort of my own unique outdoor photography studio. They’ve afforded me the luxury to work on my dunescape photography with virtually little or no distractions except for Mother Nature’s unpredictability.

Landscape photographers create some of the most artistic images by photographing sand dunes. There’s something special about photographing long shadows creeping across a majestic dunescape as the sun sinks in the west. Established dune ecosystems are constantly evolving beginning with tiny granules of sand grounded up by pounding surf, then over time transported by wind and water. At this particular dune complex, the back dunes are stabilized by coastal sage. It’s the foredunes that constantly shift due to persistent northwest winds. Where one image is made, it’s probably a safe bet it won’t be there in a day or two because of consistent wind events.

chuck graham, sand dunes, guadalupe-nipomo sand dunes
The expanse of the Guadalupe-Nipomo Sand Dunes National Wildlife Refuge

Here are some helpful hints for those looking to expand their landscape photography to majestic sand dunes bordering along the Pacific Ocean and beyond.

1. Mind the wind. It can come up at any time and wreak havoc on camera gear. Keep zip lock bags and a blower handy. On the flipside of that, winds are the creator of perfectly groomed sand dunes especially the crests of dunes. After a big wind event, search for fish hook-shaped crests that can dominate a sand dune landscape. There are also many websites devoted to the weather. One I watch is

2. Another sculpted feature to search for following a big wind event is wind lines. They’re not on every dune, so you’ll have to comb potential dunescapes for evenly manicured wind lines. Sometimes they appear so perfect they look as if they were manmade with a ruler, but natural wonders like wind lines add incred- ible elements to dunescape photography. So mind the wind by keeping tabs on the weather patterns.

3. An opportunistic time to shoot sand dunes is following the tail end of a storm as it’s clearing out. Dark, moody clouds can really add to sand dune photography creating potentially dramatic images.

chuck graham, sand dunes
Jack Rabbit prints leading to nowhere on the Guadalupe-Nipomo Sand Dunes National Wildlife Refuge, Northern Santa Barbara County, CA

4. Like most other landscapes, sunrise and sunset are the optimal times to photograph sand dunes. Shadows are either receding or creeping in and add nice elements to the landscape. However, take advantage of the sun when it is overhead. That’s the best time to seek out potential landscapes that you can return to later in the day or first thing in the morning when the light is glowing.

5. Use native vegetation and detailed animal tracks for strong, impactful compositions. Endemic flora like sand verbena, morning glory and silver lupine have adapted to a harsh life in the Guadalupe—Nipomo Sand Dunes surviving on moist, salty air. However, they help stabilize sand dunes. As for animal tracks, most critters come out after sunset because there’s little cover from predators during the day, so early mornings are good for working fresh, detailed animal spoor into your compositions. Where I photograph most of my dunes that list consists of dune beetles and black bears to western snowy plovers and bobcats.

6. Tripods. You’re everyday tripod will suffice, but get real low and steady the camera with one of the small tripods with flexible Gumby-like legs, especially for those fine textures of rippling wind lines.

7. A wide angle lens will be your workhorse. There are a wide variety of lenses to choose from. My Canon 20-35mm lens has been a vital piece of gear in the majority of my sand dune photography. I always have it affixed to a camera and mounted to a tripod, and always at the ready as long shadows retreat or creep in across the dunes.

chuck graham, sand dunes
Wind lines on the Nipomo Dunes of the Guadalupe-Nipomo Sand Dunes National Wildlife Refuge

There’s not a lot of time in a day for great light, so you want to stay ready at all times when that fantastic landscape stops you in your tracks. I use slow shutter speeds and large f-stops for my sand dune photography.

One of the best experiences I have photographing sand dunes is watching dunes transform from those dull, bland, beige colors to those soft orange and gold hues at sunrise and sunset, signifying another good day as a landscape photographer, while capturing the natural moment as it unfolds.

About the Author

Chuck Graham
Chuck Graham is a freelance writer and photographer living in Carpinteria, CA. His work has appeared in Outdoor Photographer, Shutterbug, Nature Photographer, Men's Journal, Backpacker, Canoe & Kayak and The Surfer's Journal.