Thrilled to have my piece about photographing White Sands New Mexico in Aprils edition of Outdoor Photographer.
Some more of my White Sands images can be seen here
Definitely one of my Favorite Places
White Sands National Monument is located about 15 miles west of Alamogordo, New Mexico. Rising from the heart of the Tularosa Basin it is one of the world’s great natural wonders. For thousands of years the prevailing westerly winds have deposited gypsum powder eroded from the nearby San Andres Mountains and washed down by rainwater creating the worlds largest gypsum dunefield covering over 275 square miles. About half of the sands are within the boundaries of the White Sands National Monument, one of the most unusual and magical places in the Southwest. The brilliant white dunes are constantly changing. They grow and crest and are forever on the move creating sinuous and sensual curves and ripples that reflect every ray of light .
The climate for this region is dry and hot. This is a high desert area, averaging 4,000 in elevation, and is subject to harsh, sometimes rapidly changing conditions. Summers are hot, with high temperatures averaging 95°F in July and August. Fortunately unlike dunes made of quartz-based sand crystals, the gypsum does not readily convert the sun’s energy into heat and can be walked upon safely with bare feet, even in the hottest summer months. The Gypsum does not reflect the heat but it does reflect the suns glare so protect your eyes! Winters are relatively mild, but night time temperatures often go below freezing. Snowfall is rare but does happen occasionally and the sight of white snow on the gypsum is an unusual and magical sight to see if you are lucky enough to catch it. Wind is the dominant force here especially February through May. Wind storms can last for days in the spring. Of course, these winds are what make the dunes so beautiful. Timing your trip here just after a major storm can reveal some amazing clouds, reflecting pools and intense skies.
Walking through the dunes is an unforgettable experience; often there are no other footprints ahead, no people no plants, no nothing just wind-created ripples and occasional Oryx tracks. The gypsum is easy to walk on every crest and dip in the dunes presents another amazing photo op. It is so peaceful and isolated here that you just want to keep seeing what’s over the next rise. It’s easy to wander off and totally loose your bearings. You can turn around and realize you have no idea where you are. Every dune looks the same and there are no landmarks, trail markers or anything to find your way back to your car. I make a conscious effort to keep my bearings by lining up notches in the mountains to the east and to the west. This is an ideal place for a GPS unit.
I spend a lot of time here with a wide angle lens as close to the dunes as possible (chin in the sand) to extenuate the lines and curves and to create and greater depth of field. This is a perfect place to play with focal plane shifting ability of the Tilt Shift lenses too. I travel mostly with my Canon Mark 111 1Ds, a Gitzo Carbon Fiber Tripod, Canon 24-105, Canon 70-200mm, the super wide Canon 17mm and a 24mm Tilt Shift Lens.
I use the 70-200mm lens for compressing the elements of the composition and capturing the details of the moon and distant terrain.
In my bag I also have a Lee 2 or 3 stop Neutral Density filter to control some the more contrasty exposures and to assure I get all the details. I carry a B&W circular polarizer although I am very miserly with its use especially with a wide angle lens as it can produce some unrealistic gradients in the skies. I will take an image with the polarizer at medium strength then take another and back it off considerably.
The ideal times to shoot here are of course, sunrise and sunset and if you can plan your trip for a couple of days prior to a full moon you will have the opportunity to photograph the moonrise which is a truly magical experience in this other worldly place. The park gates open at sunrise but if you call a day ahead you can make arrangements for the Park Rangers to open the gates for you and hour early for a $50 fee. Well worth it to get in early and get situated for the glorious sunrise. Another option is to camp in the one of the 10, first come first serve primitive walk in sites inside the park.
When daylight begins to fade, the shadows and lines in the dunes become more pronounced and the whole area takes on a mystical glow. The dunes reflect the colors of the sky and as earths shadow appears the sands take on a reddish-pink hue.
Shooting at White Sands is just like shooting in snow. This means that between 1 and 2 stops of plus exposure compensation is needed to avoid the sand coming out gray.
My favorite times to shoot here are a day or two before a full moon as the sun is setting in the west, the moon rises to the East early enough to still have ambient light from the sun to get great exposure and detail in the moon and the dunes are bathed in magical light.
The monsoon season in the Southwest during July and August creates perfect conditions for amazing cloud formations and sunsets. And the chill of Fall brings with it the changing colors of the cottonwoods which a scattered amongst the dunes. The orange red colors are a stark and surprising contrast against the stark white dunes.
If you are lucky enough to be here in the winter after a snow, the sand is damp and pale tan, contrasting with patches of pure white snow. It is absolutely silent, and the feeling of immense open space is overwhelming.