Michael Deyoung: Great Sand Dunes National Park

The Image

Michael DeYoung

Great Sand Dunes National Park, San Luis Valley, near Alamosa, Colorado

Time / Date:
18:30 / May 4, 2008

The Technical

Camera Body:  Canon 5D
Lens:  Canon 70-200mm f/4
Filters:  Singh-Ray circular polarizer
Support:  Gitzo Reporter Carbon Fiber, Arca Swiss B1 Ballhead

Camera Settings:
Shutter Speed:  1/125
Aperture: f/5.6
ISO:  200
Focal Length: 78mm

The Story


The shot featured here and others from that day were pre conceived and part of a normal outdoor production that I do as often as possible. I am an outdoor shooter specializing in adventure, landscape and lifestyle imagery and I shoot a lot of stock. The Sand Dunes is one of my favorite locations close to home and I shoot there 3-5 times a year.  The quality of the light is great here and the warm colors of the dunes are appealing. I don’t use “models” on my stock productions but rather people who really do what I am shooting. This results in authenticity that I strive for. On this day I worked with a young couple whom I’ve worked with several times before and they are both intrepid hikers, skiers and adventure junkies. They have all the latest and greatest technical gear and apparel. Styling is a very important component of a commercial shoot and even though this shot is a distant view of them, other shots that day featured them much closer up to where proper styling was crucial. The plan was to arrive shortly after lunch, pick several outfits, load our packs and head out for the rest of the day and shoot until sunset way up on the dunes, which we did. We hiked back by headlamp, something I do frequently. Except for the peak of summer (late June to late August) the dunes can be surprisingly cold and often windy. On this early May day there were near record highs around the region. Even so, at close to 8800 feet it was maybe 55 with a stiff wind and we were doing mainly summery looking shots. The challenge on the dunes is to keep the sand out of your gear and that is not easy. The shot featured here has become a signature shot of mine. I have a strong landscape photography background. But we did lots of action running and tumbling shots with fun expressions and such. I knew I wanted a series of shots like this but when we left the trailhead I had no idea of where I would shoot this and at what time. I often decide on the fly what shots on my list I will execute based on lighting, background and sometimes, even the mood of the talent. I believe that in my genre, 80% of the success of a shot takes place before you even pull the camera out of the bag

The Scene:

We passed this scene several hours earlier when there was very little shadow. I knew I would shoot this later in the day after several hours of other fun action and tighter lifestyle shots.  It was a matter of pre-visualizing the scene and taking advantage of the leading lines that would be created later in the day by the shadowing on the east facing dunes. “Leading lines” is one of 6 composition techniques I employ to emphasize the subject in the image. This type of shot was on my shot list but I knew it was too early. Even though I typically shoot a wide variety of subject matter on a stock shoot, creating scenes like this is one of my strong points. Making images with a strong sense of scale by placing humans in a landscape can be more tricky than you think to make them successful. First, your landscape has to be a good landscape without human subjects. The addition of hikers just makes it better and in many cases more marketable. I knew that placing my hikers so they were completely surrounded by a homogenous background would allow me to get away with making them really small but instantly recognizable in the frame. Side lighting would create interesting shadow and texture on the sand and background mountains, but too much shadow is not flattering on human subjects especially faces. The sand is providing a little fill from below and because I couldn’t use fill light I knew it would be best for the hikers to face away from the camera eliminating unflattering face shadow.  From prior experience I also knew that this would be a 70-200 shot to pull the background in more. The 70-200/f4 is my favorite mountain landscape lens. The lighting could have been better but high clouds were on the western horizon so I decided to shoot before the sun dropped into the cloud layer.  My talent was standing at the camera when I set up the frame so I could tell the exactly where I wanted them to walk.


We were packing warm clothes and wardrobe for the talent, food and water in addition to camera gear in high end Gregory packs. For this shoot we took 1 body, 3 lenses, Canon 70-200mm f/4, Canon 17-40mm f/4 and Canon 24-105mm f/4, all Canon L lenses. Also took a 580EX speed light with ST-2 wireless transmitter for off camera firing and my standard tripod. The 5D was the lightest camera body I had and what I usually took on a hike/ski in shoot. (I currently use the 5Dmk3.) The 1D series bodies would have been better but much heavier. If wind blown sand trashed the 5D (a real threat here) I wouldn’t have a heart attack. It was slow, but focus was accurate and it was otherwise a damn fine camera.

Making the Shot:

As mentioned before, I believe that 80% of the success of a shot takes place before you pull the camera out. This scenario was no exception. Execution was straight forward.  One of my pet peeves is magazines emphasizing technical data. Look, the settings that worked on your last shoot may be and usually are, completely wrong for the current shoot. And your current settings won’t work on your next scene. So don’t dwell on exposure info. Every scenario is a series of compromises between your three exposure settings. In this situation, a polarizer greatly improved the lighting but cost me 2 stops of light. I might get my sharpest shot at f/8 (2 stops down from max) but that would have put me at 1/60 sec., too slow to render even people walking sharp. I could have jacked up the ISO to 400 + but the original 5D didn’t have the noise reduction capability of the current cameras. So the compromise was 1/125 at f/5.6 which was sharp enough to stop the motion and f/5.6 was enough DOF if I placed everything at infinity. At the time, ISO 200 was as high as I was willing to go. Composition was easy, placing my subject off to the side with lots of negative space so that the shot could be formatted for different uses. In the field, you never know what shots or compositions will turn out to be the most successful. If I did, I would shoot a lot less!

Editing & Processing:

This shot was one of hundreds made that day. My workflow is pretty routine. Import files into Lightroom and do a technical edit. Then batch process in the develop module to get images “close” to optimal. I like bold, colorful images which I try to achieve mostly with lighting then enhance in ACR. I’ve been a Lightroom addict since it was born. And even though ACR is the same in Bridge, the interface is more intuitive for me in LR. I’ve been at this for a while and editing, while never simple, is part of what I do regularly. I have no trouble identifying the best shots and chucking the rest. I don’t keep “bests”, “second bests” and “maybes'” The shot is either “in” or “trashed.” I let my editors decide which shot is the best for their needs. This was one of dozens my stock agency picked from the shoot. The selects are optimized again in LR so there is no clipping of highlights and shadows and images are free of sensor dust, posterization, artifacting, aberrations, etc. My images have to pass a pretty ruthless Q-C process at my stock agencies. This image was very successful commercially with multiple stock sales including motivational calendar, Patagonia catalog, magazine cover and other uses. It has lots of negative space, and was formatted so it could be used as a double truck or with a vertical cover cropped from it. It is a single easily recognizable subject on a plain but colorful and simple background.  It has a strong sense of place and I think the scale of the people relative to the expanse of the landscape works. The lighting is decent but not stellar. In the end good enough to make it successful.

Looking Back:

Complacency is a creativity killer so I never cop a “been there, nailed that” attitude.  I always think I can go back and improve even my best shots. Seeing the success of this shot makes me want to go back and do more like it. That day, as usual, I did plenty of shots with hikers coming at the camera capturing some nice facial expressions and emotions but they were not the same as this. They were mostly with wide angle or much shallower DOF than this. I shoot more now with off camera speed lights than I used to because of the greatly improved 600RT system. If I were to make this image again I would do it in lower light with even stronger shadows, more snow on the peaks and craft a way to pop a fill light on my hikers heading toward camera.


Know your subject, know your location and don’t comprise on lighting. When shooting people in unpredictable and perhaps less than optimal lighting, learn to blend artificial with natural light to improve your lighting on the subject. If a shot is worth doing, it is worth overdoing so shoot the hell out of hit and get as much variety as you can from the situation.


Honestly, I don’t look at other photographers’ work as often as I used to. It is hard to find the time. My favorite contemporary photographer has always been Arte Wolfe. To me he is still the best nature shooter ever. His sense of design, color and simplicity still inspire me. I’m a big fan of Joe McNally too. I have 3 of his books and took a workshop from him. I love his ability to make magical and captivating light out of nothing with speed lights at virtually any location. His shooting style is different and more editorial but I’ve adopted some of his tactics to my own shooting. When I transitioned from landscape/nature photography to lifestyle 15 years ago the veteran adventure shooters that inspired me include Bill Hatcher, Jimmy Chin, Brian Bailey and David Stocklein. I would see their work in the stock agency catalogs that were abundant in the 90’s and I always strived to shoot as good as they did.


About the Photographer

Featured as one of American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP) Best of 2012 for a South Carolina ad campaign, named “Master of Outdoor Lifestyle” photographer by Digital Photo Pro, and a first place winner in PDN Great Outdoors Photo Contest in 2011 and runner up in 2013, Michael DeYoung is a left handed, right eyed commercial image creator, adventurer, and workshop instructor.

A long time former Alaska resident, he has photographed extensively for the Alaska tourism industry. The Taos, New Mexico based photographer specializes in adventure, landscape, lifestyle, fitness, and travel photography for advertising, corporate and editorial clients. His images are widely published in visitor guides, corporate websites, catalogs, annual reports, magazines, brochures, calendars, cards, and many other places.

Michael and wife and business partner, Lauri, live and run their business in a sustainable home office powered 100% by solar energy.

Website: www.michaeldeyoung.com
Twitter: @michaeldeyoung
Facebook: /MichaelDeYoungPhotography
Google+: +MichaelDeYoung
Workshops: www.deyoungoutdoorphotography.com

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Comments (1)

  1. Our First Photographers | The Image Story

    […] Michael DeYoung is a commercial photographer specializing in outdoor and adventure photography. Based in Taos, New Mexico and doing extensive work in Alaska and the American Southwest, Michael has shared a masterful image from the Great Sand Dunes National Park that combines his expertise in landscape photography with a keen commercial edge. View Michael DeYoung’s image story. […]