On the same trip that I visited Carlsbad Caverns, I also went to White Sands which in the grand scheme of things is nearby. If you’re going to one it makes sense to go to the other and since they’re such wild opposites, it’s a really interesting contrast. From deep underground where you pupils are dilated to their max and then to blinding sand where your darkest sunglasses are barely adequate. It’s great.
Over the years I’ve seen some amazing photography coming out of this area. Stark and otherworldly and so I had it in my head to replicate or try to replicate those images. I wasn’t prepared for how popular the park is despite being in the middle of nowhere (and next to a missile testing area). The place was CRAWLING with people. Mostly what they do is walk up the dunes and sled down them. Footprints everywhere. Very much NOT what I needed as a photographer.
So I got sneaky. Basically there is an out and back loop road that brings you to different sections of the dunes, some with or without picnic areas and/or comfort stations. Big parking lots. One of which was chained off so you couldn’t drive down it. But you could walk. It didn’t have a sign saying that was forbidden, so that’s what I did. It was the perfect solution and I couldn’t believe there wasn’t any monkey-see-monkey-do business that followed. Nope. My solitude (relatively speaking) sustained.
It was easy to get overawed by the immensity of the vistas. It’s a little overwhelming and sometimes challenging to put together a compelling and balanced landscape, but I slowed down and really tried to look and experiment.
One thing to remember if you visit is that you would shoot this desert like you would a snow scene – overexpose by a stop or so, that way you preserve the whiteness of the sand. And it really is white. Not really like snow since it doesn’t sparkle or reflect light the same way or take on the color of the sky so it can be a little more stark than a snow landscape.
Going to black and white seems like it would be perfect, but I didn’t do a lot of it. Mostly because there isn’t a lot of absolute black or white in the scenes. This one is close, but I wish the mountains had been darker; the angle of the sun lit them up. I actually darkened the blue value in Lightroom to get the shade down to something reasonable, but I’m still not sure it works well.
The sand is white because it’s gypsum and when formed it was not powered yet, which has happened by weather and wind. There are a few spots where the stone itself still exists in strange little outcrops that reminded me of Tatooine.
Even though it was early November, some plants were still flowering and you could hear them before you got close. Well, it wasn’t the plants specifically but the hundreds of bees feeding on the nectar. Everyone was so overwhelmed by their gorging that it was easy to isolate a few beauties. It was a little surprising they were so pristine this late in the season. At home the surviving butterflies are ragged at the end of summer.
It being so bright I hand held everything and left the tripod in the car. I went into this more casually than I do many photo sessions, but I still made an effort to create interesting views. Hope you enjoyed and can visit someday yourself. It’s amazing and a tremendous place to see.
An online photographer friend said that he doesn’t do much black and white landscape work because he feels he needs the color to be there because it was there. I agree with him up to a point. No, I’m no Ansel Adams, but I do like how a black and white photograph can work when the major elements come together.
My job as a photographer is to make you see, not just make you look and I’m afraid that color sometimes gets in the way of that. It makes you look, but often you still can’t see. Our wondrous human brains are really keyed to color. So much so that I can force you through a photograph the way I want you to experience it without you even knowing. Sometimes that works, but sometimes we are distracted by color. We don’t see the other “hidden” strengths of a photograph unless we’ve spent a lot of hours studying them and getting past the ‘ooh pretty colors’ thing.
Another online photographer blog I follow features a lot of monochrome images of the Eastern Sierras and while I am not emulating his style, I was mindful of how he presented things with his photos. This country was made for B&W as the early landscape photographers have shown. As a non-native, I didn’t make intimate portraits of high desert and snowy mountains. Instead I tried to capture what awes me about the western United States. My husband and I love it out there and I can only think of two major vacations spent east of the the Mississippi. So, without further ado, here are some of my favorite B&W images from my trip –
Rock Creek Lake in Inyo County. Still in the grip of winter in late May. I had to stop the car and shoot this. The clarity of the air was amazing. It was cold, sunny and invigorating. Incredible that the lake ice is just breaking up.
Next is a microscape (what, you thought I gave those up?) featuring some tiny flowers that looked like stranded water lilies to me. They were on slopes where we stopped on our way to the bristlecone pine forest. It’s probably 9,000 feet in elevation here and there were still patches of snow in the shade.
Near Mono Lake (post coming, I promise) are the Mono Craters, remnants of the volcanoes that created the valley eons ago. Snaking through the desert are many roads winding around sagebrush and poking into canyons. A year or two ago they had a fire and, boy, was it eerie. Nothing living as far as you could see. No sound except the incredibly fierce wind that picked up handfuls of pumice dust and flung it. Good thing there was no need to change lenses. Processing-wise I didn’t really do anything to this one. I liked the conversion the way it came out and I left it pretty much alone.
Believe me when I say this was by far the best road we’d been on since leaving the pavement that day. It’s West Portal Road and it used to lead to mining camps that sprang up in the 19th century. Now it leads to other roads that wind their way into the canyons of the Mono Craters. I felt that a sepia tone would work really well here and low and behold –
This next one is Convict Lake. The water is a crystal aqua blue and so clear that I wished for a wider angle lens to get more of the submerged rocks in the shot (this was at my widest 12mm or 24mm in 35mm film terms). The lake was named after an incident in 1871, where a group of convicts escaped from prison in Carson City. A posse, led by Sheriff Robert Morrison, encountered the convicts near the head of what is now Convict Creek. Morrison was killed in the encounter, and Mount Morrison was named after him. That’s it on the left. I never did really capture the color of the water and so with it being so-so and a distraction, I deleted it.
This next one was taken just as we started to climb Black Point on the shores of Mono Lake. It’s a volcano remnant, too, and a quite easy climb. The pumice here is very dark and despite the sky being a brilliant blue, I decided on monochrome to bring out the texture and highlight the huge tonal range in this photo. I messed with some color sliders as usual to bring up some contrasts and used the graduated filter a bit, too.
I didn’t envision each on in monochrome specifically, but I knew instinctively that pretty much anything I shot would work as long as it had white and black and so…
To many people the word desert conjures up images of dunes, rippling sand, cactus and brutal temperatures. While some of that might be true, many deserts are far from that. Their lushness and color just might surprise you. Even though I’ve never lived near one, I’ve always loved the desert. High desert especially. That’s one of the reasons I keep returning to the west. The immensity of it just gets to me. The ever-changing face of it. Here are some of my favorite desert images from my recent trip to California.
First is a sunset taken just outside Bishop at the start of Silver Canyon. Unfortunately no clouds came to play so I was very glad the earth brought its own colors.
I just love this next one. It’s the same sunset, but with the hill in shadow and the sun lighting up that terrifically fluffy plant. I have no idea what it is, but I love it. I think it’s the ribbon of trail leading up and out of the frame that makes it so magical for me.
Ok, so this next one isn’t so much desert as mountains, but in the Sierras they go together. The colors in this are just amazing and again, made up for the lack of clouds. I think this is my first ever shot of alpenglow – that pink glow of wonderfullness on the snowy peaks.
Of course the desert is not all soft colors and gentle hills. It’s mostly a harsh environment that takes willpower to survive in. Except for the sunrise shot, the others were all taken with a pretty stiff wind blowing. So much so that my long exposures lack clarity because my lightweight, travel tripod wasn’t heavy enough. That wind was nothing. A few days later in Mono Basin we had steady wind in the 20 mph range with frequent gusts up to 50mph. Unreal. It made it very difficult to deal with and I worried that my camera would be clogged. The grit flew everywhere! Up my nose. In my eyes. I swear it took 10 minutes to rinse my hair in the shower that night. Mostly it was pumice from the volcanoes that created this whole valley. It’s so light that it flies in wind.
Anyway, these next two shots are taken right near the Mono Craters. It was one of the only times the harsh light actually worked in my favor. The fire was recent; in the last couple of years and not a thing is growing yet. Nothing. Zip. It was pretty creepy actually because other than the unrelenting wind, nothing moved or made a sound. No birds. That was the most noticeable. Compare it to the next shot where the desert has come back after a much earlier fire.
The proximity of a big lake, mountains and desert makes for some extreme weather. No doubt these clouds had something to do with the wind. Aren’t they great? Like the clouds that hid the alien ships in Independence Day.
Not the most intimate of portraits. Believe me I felt my visitor status the whole time I was out there. So overawed by it all I had very little time to really get to know it. Besides that I had to balance my photography with our vacation and not drive my ever-patient husband crazy. Only once during the whole trip did I feel my photo mania irritated him, so I dialed back and we were good.