Behind the Shot: Pyramid Dune

Death Valley has more extremes than almost any other place on earth. The weather is harsh and the landscape unforgiving. It’s a brilliant combination for landscape photography.

Conditions and Alternate Shots

On a windy day in March, I was taking pictures at the park’s Mesquite Sand Dunes. I always root for some wind when I’m doing sand dune photography, largely because it can erase distracting footprints, but also because it can lead to an interesting atmosphere and beautiful lighting conditions.

That was certainly the case here! The Mesquite Dunes often have a lot of footprints because they’re so popular, but not this evening. And the high wind led to dusty backgrounds that I liked a lot for photography.

This is actually the same evening that a sandstorm covered all of the Mesquite Dunes, one of the most chaotic experiences of my life and something I wrote about a couple years ago. The photo I’m discussing today, however, is from about an hour before the sandstorm hit.

It’s easy to take abstract photos of sand dunes, but if that’s not your goal, you generally need to make sure that your subject is clear and distinct. That’s why I was happy to find this pyramid-shaped mountain.

Compare it against the prior photo in this article (the one with the pointy mountain at the top) and you’ll see how much more interesting this sand dune is compared to most.

Sometimes, when I find an interesting subject, my first reaction is to fill the frame with it – either by zooming in or moving forward. I did that in this case as well.

In practice, though I actually like this second shot less than the first. The composition is too stuffy; notice that the left and right sides of the pyramid dune are off by the edges of my composition, whereas the first image includes the whole thing. I don’t really buy the concept of “filling the frame with your subject” as worth while in and of itself. Some subjects are better as small details in a wider world, with additional context or negative space around them.

Both photos of this sand dune so far are flawed in another way, too: the nearest dune just isn’t all that visually appealing. It curves in a competing direction from the triangular dune, and its awkward shadows and textures draw too much attention without being very interesting.

I walked around for a bit in hopes of finding a more pleasant foreground. Before long, I had found a higher vantage point that I liked much more. The nearest dune was smoother, the peak of the pyramid seemed sharper, and even the mountains in the distance looked better (with more breathing space between them and the pyramid dune).

It’s still not perfect – I think my composition is too high, cutting off some useful foreground – but it’s a clear improvement to me. I zoomed out a bit and angled my composition downward to capture my main photograph of the scene:

(You might notice that this photo’s composition is different from the picture at the top of this article; that’s just because I cropped out the sky in post-processing.)

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