Using the foreground ripples and reflected light to connect the background

Introduction

Back in 2011, I wrote an article on photographing White Sands National Monument based on my first visit. You can click the link here if you would like to see the article. The reason I wrote that particular article, is that fact I learned a lot of hard lessons from my trip to White Sands and I wanted to help other photographers from my mistakes. Recently, I had the chance to visit White Sands again. On my second visit to White Sands, I came away learning even more than my previous adventure. While researching the internet for information on White Sands for suggestions on how and where to photograph within the sand dunes, I discovered that there was very little in the way of helpful suggestions. With the advice from my photography friend on the trip, I decided I wanted to share those important lessons again. This time I wanted to go more in-depth and share as many aspects of successful tips for photographing White Sands. While writing this article, I kept discovering new elements that had not been mentioned before on the internet. I came to the conclusion, that several articles are needed and hopefully I can start with some of the more important ones. The suggestions in this article are solely my thoughts from past experiences and not necessarily right or wrong. I have included several images from the trip with captions that describe the thought process behind the image.

White Sands National Monument is in the northern Chihuahuan Desert in the U.S. state of New Mexico. What makes this place so different than any other place is it’s white gypsum sand dunes. The unusual shapes and color blend together to attract people from all over the world. Access to White Sands can be located at designated pullouts or trails and boardwalks that wind through the dunes. Dunes Drive is a looped road from the White Sands Visitor Center to the dune field.

There are many subjects I will discuss on White Sands but for this particular article, I will stick to an introduction of when and where to photograph within White Sands. I will also discuss what makes this place like no other.  It is, without a doubt, one of the unique places on this planet.

When To Photograph

One of the most important factors to capturing great photos is to know when to photograph. In photography, we refer to this concept as the ‘magic hour’. This occurs for landscape photographers in general when the sun is close to the horizon and the light highlights the landscape.  White Sands National Monument is no different in terms of when to photograph than any other place except for one major difference. Access to the monument is not open for sunrise with the admission gate opening roughly half an hour after sunrise. The gate at night closes shortly after sunset as well.  It is for this particular reason, that planning must be made well in advance to apply for a permit or camp within the designated area in the monument. Even though it has fluctuated in the past in terms of timing, it is now requested that a permit is reserved at least two weeks in advance. The type of permit will depend on your objective and goals. Permits range from guided walking, sunrise, and even full moon walking tours. The other option is backcountry camping within White Sands itself. So it’s important if you’re planning to photograph here to know your dates, and what time of the day you are planning to photograph. If you’re looking to photograph sunrise then it’s highly advisable to request a permit or consider backcountry camping.

As I had no commitment to a certain date for this particular adventure to White Sands, I showed up at sunrise hoping they would open the gate. It came as no surprise they could not open the gate for me. If you choose to stay outside of the park the best place for access and distance is the town of Alamogordo in New Mexico. It is a quick 20-minute drive to White Sands. Accommodation and dining are inexpensive with several options for both. The nearest popular airport would be El Paso Texas which is about 85 miles from the monument.

I got as low and wide as I could to emphasize the ripples leading through the image

I have learned a couple of things from past visits that I hope to recommend to others looking to photograph White Sands.

First, I would allow several days to photograph this amazing and diverse place. Due to the time restrictions and size of the monument, it takes several days to become familiar with the layout of where things are in the monument. There is one main road called Dunes Drive that allows cars to drive through the middle of the park. Dunes Drive is an 8-mile scenic drive that begins at the visitor center and ends at a turnaround parking area within the dunes. So the round-trip is a 16-mile drive that takes roughly 45 minutes to an hour depending on traffic. As you drive along the scenic road you will notice immediately the dunes to either side of the road. Because of the height of the dunes, it is hard to know where to pull out and photograph. White Sands National Monument is more challenging than other places in that access to viewpoints and photography lookouts can’t be seen from the road. One must park the car in one of the few designated pullouts and walk through the sand dunes. Even though walking through sand dunes can be a challenge, the distance needed to reach the viewpoints are short. You can walk designated boardwalks or choose your own path through the sand dunes.

Images from White Sands National Monument in New Mexico

Scouting for good places to photograph is essential in this park. Because of its vastness and diversity, allow yourself several hours to explore. This can be done during the day but beware of hotter temperatures. I recommend allowing couple hours before sunset to find a place to avoid the hotter temperatures in the daytime. Because the park closes just after sunset it’s recommended to photograph near one’s vehicle if you are not backcountry camping. Depending on the time of year when photographing, the park closes roughly 30 minutes after sunset. This gives you depending on how far you’ve traveled from the vehicle a very small window to photograph both sunset and the blue hour. This is why the scouting is essential.

This leads me to my next recommendation, which is having a GPS device to mark the spots that you would like to be at for sunset and blue hour. The window for photographing can be less than 30 minutes so it’s critical to be at the right spot for sunset and twilight. Having a plan and being organized where you would like to shoot will maximize shooting time.  Having a GPS unit and a printed map is also advisable to prevent getting lost.

Using the early morning light and shadow to lead to the subject of the Yucca Plant

What Can I Find To See in White Sands

White Sands National Monument is comprised of several elements that make it special.

First, there is a variety of wildlife that can be found amongst the sand dunes. Animals such as insects, spiders, scorpions, and lizards are quite often spotted. Mammals such as foxes, rodents, coyotes, bobcats, badgers, porcupines and even bobcats’ make White Sands their home. There is even the sighting of African gazelles called the Oryx, which has become quite the hot topic for its host of problems within the area. Definitely worth researching more to find out how it’s causing quite the commotion for the National Monument.

Second, there is the subject of plants and trees within the area. One of the most popular and photogenic elements is the soaptree yucca plant. The soaptree Yucca plant has become one of the most popular elements to photograph within White Sands. It is the plant you are most likely to see in all the postcards and pictures from this area. The Yucca makes for a great foreground when photographing the sand dunes. One of the many reasons is that its unique shape and color stand out against the white background of the sand dunes. When the two elements of the sand dunes and plant are combined it tells a story of survival and struggle.

Another subject that is stunning to photograph within the monument are the wildflowers. Due to the temperatures, wildflowers only make an appearance after spring and summer rains. The wildflowers can reach as high as a foot long in some places. Desert wildflowers that can be spotted are the Colorado Four O’Clock and Desert Mentzelia, Globe Mallow, and Greenthread. Make sure to contact the monument rangers ahead of time to find more specific information about wildflowers when visiting. It can fluctuate from year to year based on the rainfall and weather.

Third, the most popular subject when photographing White Sands is the fascinating white gypsum sand dunes. Getting a chance to witness these unbelievable white sand dunes within the scope of the monument is awe-inspiring. But even better is the opportunity to photograph the dunes in the magic hour of sunset and the twilight hour. Because the glistening white sand dunes reflect the colors of the of the current ambient light. The colors are accentuated and constantly changing based on the sun’s position and light. As the sun descends and gets closer to the horizon, the light becomes warmer and the shadows become longer. The sand dunes are bathed in warm tones and the textures of the sand come alive. This happens all within a short period. Moments later as the sun dips behind the mountain range and horizon, the white sands turn from a warm color tone to an almost immediate cool blue tone. The sands reflective nature reflects the magenta – pinkish hues of the twilight sky.

The soft subtle colors of twilight reflected in the dunes showcase the unique patterns and flow to the dunes themselves. The combination of the reflected color on the dunes and the patterns become a thing of beauty. This is the time to photograph the essence of White Sands National Monument. This is what makes this place magical and my favorite place to photograph.

Using the late light to accentuate the warm tones and textures in the foreground which lead the viewer to the distant mountain range and sun

Where To Photograph

Although there are many photography locations, nothing quite excites me like White Sands. There are many reasons that make this particular place my favorite to photograph. Unlike other popular photography locations, it’s very easy to get away from the crowds and find solitude amongst the sand dunes. The only problem is that you cannot stray too far from your vehicle unless you have a backcountry camping permit. So it’s critical to find a place to photograph that allows enough time to shoot before the monument closes 30 min after dark.

White Sands National Monument can be broken down into three major interest areas when it comes to photography. Each of the three areas is very distinct from one another. I will highlight each of these areas on a map provided at the end of the article. It’s important to note that there are vehicle pullouts for each area I am referring to. The first area is where you can find the most yucca plants within the monument. Along with the majority of the yucca plants, access to the sand dunes is easily achieved with easy boardwalk trails. These trails will allow you walk quite far distances into the sand dunes as well as see a diversity of plants. This area is a great place to begin scouting for photography opportunities. It’s a great way to see different things within a small area. The problem with this area from a photographer’s perspective is that it’s very crowded. The boardwalk is often very crowded with tourists. Places to photograph are restricted due to the confines of the boardwalk. To capture the magic of a location, it’s important to photograph in a style that is your own. The most challenging aspect of this area is the size of the white sand dunes. The size and magnitude of the dunes range dramatically within the park. But this area it is made up mostly of very small dunes and even though it has lots of yucca plants it lacks the balance of the larger white sand dunes.

The second area is my favorite area of the monument for many reasons. It has the most photography potential and opportunities. This area does not have a designated boardwalk trail but a short walk through the sand gets you to the best places to photograph. There is no boardwalk trail many tourists avoid this area so it’s easy to get away from the crowds and create your own compositions. A short 20 to 30-minute walk we’ll get you to places within the monument that very few people reach. This short walk will allow you to see the combination of all the elements in close proximity. You can find plenty of soap yucca plants as well as larger sand dunes. As well, there are plenty of elements to photograph in the foreground to complement the sand dunes.

The last area of White Sands is the very end of the monument. You will know you have reached this part of the park as vehicles can go no further and must turn around. In terms of elements, this part of White Sands has the largest sand dunes but lacks any sort of foreground elements to balance the sand dunes compositionally. More importantly, the yucca plants and other elements are limited here.

I used a 200-500 + 1.4 Teleconverter to compress the sand dunes and capture the rim light on the sand dune edges

Tell A Story When Photographing The Sand Dunes

Here are some suggestions for improving photography techniques when photographing White Sands. It is easy to photograph the sand dunes but it’s important to do more than just photograph a sand dune. Try to capture what makes a place special and convey that in your image. Personally, what this place so special is the combination of light and patterns when the right light is occurring. Pre-visualization is an important step that I consistently practice whenever I preparing to photograph. I research the Internet to find images that capture a certain mood. I figure out why that image is memorable to me. When I researched images based on White Sands, I discovered the pictures that stand out for me have the characteristics of color, patterns, and textures. A combination of these three things our concepts I found in each of the images that resonated with me. My objective was not to copy the images but to capture the same striking mood and color that made those images memorable. For each photographer, those concepts will be different. It’s essential for each photographer to pre-visualize. Identify the concepts that are important to you. For me, part of the pre-visualization was the combination of color, patterns, and texture. This meant shooting at the time just before and after sunset when shapes and patterns would be accentuated at its peak from the light. Twilight colors later in the night would be even more important to this concept of defining shape, pattern, and textures. With these concepts, I was able to more easily identify what to look for when photographing White Sands.

Using a combination of color and light to emphasize the patterns and shapes within the dunes from the twilight after color

Safety Recommendations For Both You And Your Camera

Here are safety tips for both you and your camera equipment when photographing within White Sands. This is helpful to both short and any long-distance hiking or camping.

  1. Plenty of fluid and food especially if you plan to hike during the day. This is also important if you are lost or stranded. It is easy to get lost and lose track of how far you have gone.
  1. It’s important to have both a printed map and if possible a GPS device. There are many GPS applications for your iPhone or Android. Just be aware that Internet is minimal so download offline maps are necessary.
  1. Become familiar with landmarks around you. Study the landmarks around you at all times. Example of this within White Sands would be identifying where the mountains are in relation to your position and vehicle.
  1. Bring with you only the lenses you will use. Be careful not to change lenses within the sand areas. Wind can easily wreck havoc and creep into the camera.
  1. Be careful of your surroundings. Make sure when picking up camera bag to look out for insects that can be dangerous like scorpions. It’s not uncommon to find one of these creatures the next time you open up your camera bag.
  1. Be aware of current weather conditions. Frequent windstorms within white sands can cause whiteouts and thus losing a sense of where things are.
  1. Because of the frequency of wind bring a cover for your bags as well as making sure you zip up your bag every time. The force from the wind can cause sand to reach everywhere in your bag.
  1. Bring lots of clothing-layers. Temperatures can be very high before sunset and dramatically reach cold temperatures shortly after sunset. Be prepared for all kinds of temperatures and weather.
  1. Be careful of where you are walking. This is especially relevant around the edges of sand dunes. It’s not uncommon for Sand dunes to have drop-offs that are quite significant and hidden. Be cognizant of where you walk and try to find footpaths that walk around them rather than over them.

10. For safety reasons try to go with another person or let someone know where you are going.

Atmospheric conditions caused by the sand/windstorm helped convey a sense of depth and 3-Dimensionality to the image

Conclusion

In conclusion, I highly recommend visiting White Sands National Monument. There are so many different aspects of the monument that make it special. Preparation and research is a critical component to achieving success from a photography standpoint. Finding what strikes you about White Sands is the key to a successful trip. Have fun and get some great images.

The combination of light and leading lines helps tie the foreground to the background and conveying a sense of place.

Website: www.kevinmcnealphotography.com
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Kevin McNeal is a landscape photographer who resides in the Pacific Northwest of the U.S. He focuses on grand colorful landscapes that reflect the most unique places on earth. Capturing moments of magic light and transferring this on print, images behold a combination of perseverance, patience, and dedication to capture the images in ways unseen before. The stories of how these images are rendered come across in the feelings the images convey.

More posts by Kevin

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