White Sands National Monument is the home of the world's largest gypsum dune field; nearly 275 sq. miles in area. White Sands is located in south central New Mexico. It is about 3.5 hours from Albuquerque International Airport and less than two hours from El Paso International Airport. The nearest town is Alamogordo, NM which is 14 miles northeast of the monument. Alamogordo and has many motels and restaurants. There is no RV or car camping within White Sands park boundaries. Backcountry camping is available at ten designated sites. Sites cannot be reserved in advance. All are available only on a first come first served basis. Sites are between .7and 1.1 miles from the backcountry camping parking lot. The backcountry camping lot is at 32.809658°, -106.263098°. It's the first parking lot on the left side of Loop Drive when driving it clockwise.
Climate at White Sands is very similar to that of Alamogordo, shown here. Overnight temperatures at White Sands in winter months are usually below freezing, and zero degree days are possible. Keep this in mind if you choose to winter camp at the backcountry sites. During winter there is little precipitation and temperatures at dusk are pleasant. Summers at White Sands are hot but hiking distances are short and dramatic weather is possible. Visitation is high in summer, so you'll need to hike further out into the dune fields to avoid footprints. Winds peak in the Spring so I wouldn't plan a long distance trip to the monument then. If you live in the southwest Spring can be a good time to visit though. Just pick a day when the winds aren't blowing. The many yucca's in White Sands bloom in April. If you wish to shoot these call the visitor center in April to see if they're flowering. I suggest you avoid Spring Break and Easter weeks when the park can be crowded. Alcohol is now banned in the park from February through May so Spring Break is no longer the problem for the park that it once was. Probably the best time to visit is late October / early November when the Cottonwoods are changing color. By mid November moist of the Cottonwoods have changed color. This past year the Cottonwood just outside the visitor center still had color on December 1st.
Like most landscapes White Sands photographs best at sunrise and sunset, or in the blue hour. Unfortunately White Sands is closed between sunset and sunrise. White Sands opens at 7AM every day of the year which is usually 30 minutes to one hour after sunrise, to late for the best sunrise shots considering the time to drive into the park and to hike in. White Sands normally closes thirty minutes to one hour after sunset so late day photography is normally possible provided you do not hike too far into the dune fields. Here is a schedule of 2015 closing times:
It is possible to extend your shooting time in one of two ways: either stay at one of the backcountry campsites, or use the White Sands early entry/stay late program. This program lets you and your party enter before opening time, or stay past closing time. The fee is $50 per hour per group. Your group can consist of up to four vehicles. If you wish to enter early or stay late you need to apply at least a week in advance, see the White Sands website for more information and an entry form.
Expose to the Right - When shooting increase your exposure as much as possible while avoiding blown out highlights. Exposing to the right maximizes the amount of light striking the sensor and improves the technical quality of your images. In practice "Expose to the Right" means reviewing the histogram after shooting and adjusting aperture, ISO, or shutter speed accordingly. The histogram should just reach the right edge of the chart, if it doesn't increase the exposure until it does. Normally after exposing to the right you need to darken the image in post so as to increase contrast or saturation or get a more natural looking image. This adjustment is not needed for White Sands NM images since you want the sand to look as white as possible while still retaining detail.
Low dunes often produce the best shots - Lower dunes often present interesting lines and curves and allow for more varied compositions than higher dunes do. The highest dunes in White Sands are present in the western end of the park, off of Loop Drive. In this area there is very little vegetation present. When shooting the western end include sand ripples or animal tracks as foreground, and use dune edges as leading lines and S curves. When shooting the lower dunes include some foreground in the composition as well. Yuccas, grasses, and their shadows make excellent foreground.
Simplify - My favorite images are often of a single cluster of grass or a single yucca. Unfortunately yuccas and grasses usually cluster in groups resulting in busy compositions. The area on Dunes Drive where the pavement ends is the rough boundary between too much vegetation and the high dunes area. It is is a good place to begin looking for simpler compositions.
Shoot some compressed landscapes - Include a long lens in your bag when you shoot the high dunes at the western end of the park. A zoom of 200 - 300mm at the long end works well.
Shoot in the Blue - The blue hour is the hour before sunrise or after sunset. I've missed many good shots by quitting as soon as the sun went down. During the blue hour shadows are softer resulting in subtler pictures than those made in the sometimes harsh light of the desert. Color in the sky and reflected color on the dunes can be present for as long as 45 minutes after the sun sets. If you do shoot in the blue you'll probably need an early entry / stay late permit.
Cottonwoods and Fall Color - normally peak in early November. The yellow/orange complements the blue skies and is a very effective color combination. A little color in the monochromatic White Sands environment goes a long way.
Shoot the dunes lit by a full moon - Ranger led Full moon hikes are available during much of the year on days with a Full Moon. There is something magical about seeing the white dunes under a full moon. When the moon isn't full consider light painting a single yucca or sand ripples or an animal track.
Avoid footprints - if possible. This can be done by hiking further into the dune field, or by shooting at dawn after the night winds (when strong) have erased the prints of the prior day. If you cannot avoid footprints they can be effectively removed in post using Photoshop's "Content Aware Delete" tool.
In post - bring out the detail and contrast of the sand ripples. NIK Software's Color Effects Pro is very good at this, use the Detail Extractor tool.
Below is the official White Sands map as a jpeg. Click on the image below to see a higher resolution version in a new window. The map below can be downloaded by right clicking on it and choosing "Save Image as" in Chrome or Firefox or "Save Picture As" in IE. A links to the official park map in PDF format can be found here. Note that no stopping or parking is allowed on the the first four miles of the main park road ("Dunes Drive"). This includes the "Playa Trail" and "Dunes Life Nature Trail" parking areas which are now closed. The first open parking area is the "Interdune Boardwalk" parking area.