A photographer’s Guide to White Sands National Park

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Photographing the layered dunes and mountains at White Sands National Park is a breathtaking experience. Budding photographers get great practice outdoors with many lighting situations and stunning photos that practically take themselves. At the same time, experienced shutterbugs will find unique inspiration from sweeping landscapes to intimate close-ups of details and textures. So, whether you’re a seasoned photographer or someone who just enjoys taking pictures on your travels, White Sands National Park is a must-see destination.

White Sands National Park offers many unique photo opportunities with its sweeping dunes and ever-changing landscape. Here’s a photographer’s guide to getting the most out of your visit to White Sands.

The best time of day to visit White Sands National Park

The best time to visit is during the late afternoon when the long shadows created by the setting sun make for exquisite views and stunning photographs. Sunsets are breathtaking as they paint vibrant colors across the skyline, providing a truly remarkable sight. In addition, there’s a greater chance of spotting wildlife such as coyotes, roadrunners, jackrabbits, and mule deer as they come out to hunt or feed on vegetation in the fading light. The park is also great for stargazing in the evenings with its remote location free from light pollution.

White Sands National Park Shot List

Plant Life

Green yucca plants casting long shadows on the white sand of White Sands National Park
Green yucca plants casting long shadows on the white sand of White Sands National Park

With its shallow, sandy soils and intense sunlight, this park is home to countless species of flora that thrive in these conditions. Among them are cacti, Palo Verde trees, yucca plants, agave plants, sotols, prairie grasses, and a wide variety of flowering shrubs. The sun’s light against the white sands creates beautiful shadows that accentuate each species’ unique characteristics. 

Those who want to mix up their shots can explore different parts of the park that provide different environments for magical photos unique to the desert. Some areas are lush with vegetation, while others have sparse or no vegetation because of the sandy soils and arid climate. During springtime, wildflowers pop with vibrant shades of yellow, pink, and purple, which provide an excellent contrast against the white landscape. 

Desert Animals

Bird talons leave behind foot prints in the sand
Bird talons leave behind foot prints in the sand

The wildlife in White Sands has adapted to endure hot daytime temperatures by hiding during the day and venturing out only when it gets cooler in the evening. While these mammals may not always be visible, it is possible to capture their presence in photographs from wildlife tracks and trails left behind in the sand. Photographers hoping to capture images of these animals should plan on going out late in the evening or early morning when they are more likely to be active. 

Black and White

Yucca Plant Casts Shadow
Yucca Plant Casts Shadow

Black and white photography at White Sands National Park can showcase the beauty of its unique environment in a powerful, dramatic way. One of the many advantages of black and white photography is that it emphasizes the contrast between lights and shadows, which is especially striking on the park’s dunes with their soft curves. With this kind of photography, you can capture beautiful patterns and textures hidden in those subtle shifts between light and dark and a feeling of timelessness and mystery. In addition, the lack of color simplifies compositions, allowing viewers to focus on forms and shapes – like the bold shapes created by undulating dunes – creating an artistic interpretation. 

Lights and Shadows of the dunes

Shadows on a gloomy day at White Sands National Park create dramatic curves and lines for photography
Shadows on a gloomy day at White Sands National Park create dramatic curves and lines for photography

One of the unique features of White Sands National Park is the interplay between light and shadow, creating a patchwork of shapes across the landscape. Shadows stretch and contract as the sun moves throughout the day to paint ever-changing abstract pictures on the sand. The mid-day sun creates deep shadows that emphasize every curve, while the early morning or late evening hours bring out more vivid colors and create stunning silhouettes. If you stay later into the blue hour, you can achieve beautiful results as the last few rays of sunshine hit the dunes. Even if you are visiting on a cloudy day, there are still plenty of possibilities for unique shots highlighting the delicate contours and textures. 

Texture and Details

4 layers of white sand with 4 textures created by the ever changing landscape of White Sands National Park
4 layers of white sand with 4 textures created by the ever changing landscape of White Sands National Park

The landscape changes with every gust of wind; you’ll find sun-drenched dunes on one side while cool shadows ripple down a ridge on the other. Their majestic curves create an ever-changing landscape for photographers. As you explore closer to the dunes, you will find fascinating textures that photographers can capture in intimate detail. Close-up shots of these subtle patterns provide a sense of depth and perspective not found anywhere else. Even simple photos of footprints leading off into the distance or a rippled pattern from a recent rain will create breathtaking images.

Sunset and Blue Hour

Sun setting over White Sands National Park, creating beautiful layers with lights and shadows
Sun setting over White Sands National Park, creating beautiful layers with lights and shadows

The setting sun’s light reflects off the shimmering white sands and gives them a golden hue as shadows slowly creep across the landscape. Photographing the park at this time of day captures the ethereal beauty of the desert landscape. The sunsets‘ vivid red and orange hues contrast with the stark white sand, creating a breathtaking view. Deep purples and blues gradually emerge in the sky as the sun sinks below the horizon, painting a unique backdrop for your photographs.

Dune Layers

Layers of Rolling Sand At White Sands
Layers of Rolling Sand At White Sands

White Sands boasts vast stretches of white gypsum sand that have been pushed into rolling hills, making for spectacular photographic opportunities. From a distance, these mounded formations look like snow-covered mountain peaks, but they reveal themselves to be soft, snow-white dunes up close. The many different vantage points offer photographers endless possibilities for stunning compositions – from panoramas of rippling sand hills to close-up shots revealing intricate patterns in the crests and valleys. 


The park is home to miles of stunning white dunes, providing the perfect backdrop for capturing beautiful staged and candid photos of people enjoying their time in the park. Photographing people at White Sands is a great way to capture unique and memorable moments of people enjoying riding dunes with sand sleds, hiking amidst picturesque scenery, or simply taking in the beauty. Photographing these activities will create beautiful memories and evoke emotions that tell a story in your pictures. 

Equipment to Bring to White Sands


I like to carry as little equipment as possible on shoots, so I usually am against tripods because you can always rest your camera on your bag, a bench, or a rock. Well, there is little to rest your camera on besides a bag or backpack. However, even this seemingly innocuous method could damage your gear if sand gets into the camera! If you’re interested in using long exposures, you’ll need the stability of a tripod.

Wide angle lens

Whether you’re capturing vast stretches of seemingly never-ending desert or creating unique perspectives on towering sand dunes, a wide-angle lens allows you to convey more in a single shot to tell a story that leaves a lasting impression.

Telephoto Lens

A telephoto lens compresses the distance between the foreground and background elements, creating a sense of depth and scale. Longer focal lengths allow photographers to isolate details from the background and create unique compositions. A telephoto lens also permits creating close-ups without getting in close and creating footprints or otherwise messing up the patterns in the sand. Photographers can also use telephoto lenses to capture wildlife from afar without disturbing them.

Lens Cleaning Kit And Camera Rain Jacket To Protect Your Equipment

Bring a lens cleaning kit with a brush and an air blower to free your lens from dust and dirt. Also, consider bringing a camera rain jacket in case of sudden showers or strong winds that could kick up unexpected dust or sand. 

Polarizing Filter

When visiting White Sands National Park, a polarizing filter is essential to capture this fantastic landscape’s beauty. The filter can help reduce glare and reflections in the sand while saturating colors to bring out the scene’s vibrancy. In addition, a polarizing filter will darken blue skies and make white clouds appear brighter and more vibrant for stunning photographs. Finally, a polarizing filter will help create sharper images by eliminating the haze caused by the sun’s light reflecting off the sand.

White Sands National Park is a photographer’s paradise. With its endless white sand dunes and clear blue skies, there are endless possibilities for beautiful shots. So if you’re planning on visiting White Sands, bring your camera and follow these tips for photographing this stunning park.

Author Bio

Author Bio Image

Delaney is a Business Analyst by day and a travel and wildlife photographer by night who is using her skills for translating complex technical language into easy to understand concepts to make photography achievable at all skill levels. You have questions; she has answers.

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2 Responses

  1. Hello Delaney,

    My husband and I are more or less new to photography. We have used print and shoot cameras when we do any photographing. We are going to White Sands. This is a new area for us to work with. What would you feel is a good shutter speed and aperture for our cameras for a site like this.

    1. For landscape photography I would keep the aperture around f/8-11. The shutter speed will vary depending on the lighting. The brighter it is the faster the shutter speed should be. The great thing about landscape is you have time to adjust your settings. The best way to learn will be to take several pictures of the same scene with different settings and see how it impacts the image. As a new photographer I would recommend one photo with auto settings as a “safety” shot, that way you can experiment without risking good vacation photos. Have fun!

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