Photo Safari

Most of us have seen sand dunes in movies and pictures, or read about them in magazines and books. But to my surprise, many people I spoke with have not had the opportunity to experience walking on the warm shifting sands of a real sand dune.

When the DesertUSA crew arrived at Buttercup Valley, an OHV area in the Imperial Sand Dunes, we were all awed by the sight before us. Each of us has visited this same location before, but each time, we are surprised by the beauty and magnitude of the wave-like transverse dunes at Buttercup Valley.

Our crew was on assignment to photograph the Imperial Sand Dunes, the largest mass of sand dunes in California. Rising to heights of more than 300 feet above the surrounding desert floor, the dunes are a well-known landmark to local residents and the thousands of highway travelers who pass by them every year.

Overview of Area Video

The entire dune system extends for more than 40 miles along the eastern edge of the Imperial Valley agricultural region, in a band averaging five miles in width. It continues a number of miles south into Arizona and Mexico.

We drove our Jeep into a passable area of the dune field and found ourselves surrounded by towering sand dunes on all sides. A few sparse plants were growing in the lower sections of the dunes and few plants could be seen elsewhere. As we drove farther into the dunes, we would see an occasional lizard dash across the sand from one bush to the next, leaving an unusual pattern on the ground created by its feet and tail. We saw many different types of animal tracks, but few animals.

After unloading our gear, we headed toward one of the larger dunes to find the location of our first photo shoot. It was late afternoon, and the shadows were growing longer and more defined. The sun was slowly descending in the west, so we searched for an interesting landscape shot that would enable us to take full advantage of the afternoon sunlight.

wildflowers in dunes

Upon reaching the top of a large sand dune, we were surprised to discover a patch of bright yellow Dune Sunflowers (Helianthus niveus ssp. tephrodes). Our photographer decided the flowers would be a good subject and set his camera for a series of landscape shots. He soon switched from a 35 mm to a 200 mm zoom lens to capture some colorful close-ups of the yellow sunflowers.

With few shrubs, trees and grass, the most important elements in a photograph of the desert environment will be the textures and shapes created by sand and rock. The desert's sparseness creates a sense of space, and subjects can create an interesting contrast to the arid desert floor.

The following images were taken during our photo safari in the Imperial Sand Dunes at Buttercup Valley. All of the images were taken with a Canon 6D digital camera using either a 35 mm or 200 mm zoom lens. The images described below are identified with a corresponding number.

sand patterns
Image 1: Sand field with pattern and blue sky


In this image, the main subject is the pattern of the sand dunes. The unique patterns in the sand are created by the wind. In the late afternoon, when the sun is descending, the shadows grow longer. The sun provided natural side-lighting when this photograph was taken, and the effect can be seen in the shadows that become part of the pattern.

Image 2: Tracks in the sand


The subjects of this image are the unique tracks left in the sand. This photograph was taken facing into sun the which enhanced the shadows and made this image more interesting. The tracks are at a diagonal, not centered, which draws the viewer's eye through the picture, creating a sense of balance and movement.

Image 3: Vegetation on a dune

Vegetation is sparse in the sand dunes, and the plants that are able to grow on a dune system are few and far between. The contrast of the plant against the sand creates a sense of solitude and beauty found only in the desert. The combination of different textures, space and shadows are representative of the desert landscape.

Image 4: Sand dune field

Landscape images are created by a combination of lighting, weather and environmental elements. There are many rules that can be followed to capture a good landscape image. The 1/3 Rule is commonly used to produce an image that is balanced by dividing the image into thirds. For example, if your image shows 1/3 sky and 2/3 land or vice versa, then your image would comply with the 1/3 Rule. This image demonstrates the 1/3 Rule. The different layers and textures of the sand dunes create depth, and the sky emphasizes balance and distance.

Image 5: Sand dune system

The natural curve of this sand dune system draws the viewer's eye. The 1/3 Rule is implemented to create balance, and the sand dune patterns emphasize texture and movement.

Image 6: Sand dunes with shadows


As we were leaving the Imperial Sand Dunes, our eyes were drawn to these shadow-cast dunes with a variety of contrasting textures. It was one of our last photos of the day, and the sun was low in the sky creating long shadows. The photographer took this picture while facing into the sun. The 1/3 Rule was applied when this shot was taken.

Image 7: Dune hill


This particular scene is composed of shadows, sand, foot track and textures. Throughout the desert, especially in the sand dunes, textures, shadows and unusual landscapes are elements that make a photograph more interesting.

Image 8: The Fence on the Border

Image 9: The Old Plank Road




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