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Exploring New Mexico’s White Sands

by Ben Hattenbach | January 15, 2010

In the heart of New Mexico lies White Sands National Monument, a 275 square mile field of gypsum dunes that sets a nearly perfect stage for those interested in creating minimalistic yet otherworldly landscape imagery. The serenity of this setting stands in contrast to its immediate surroundings, which include an active missile range, an air force base, and the “Trinity site” where the first atomic bomb was detonated. This and all other context rapidly fades away, however, as soon as one sets foot into the dunes. Within minutes of arrival, one can be immersed within a sea of white, with only their footprints as company.

Getting There

The entry to White Sands is located thirteen miles outside of Alamogordo, New Mexico. Once an outpost focused on the advancement of rocketry and space exploration, Alamogordo is a mid-sized town (population about 35,000) with at least a dozen chain hotels and scores of restaurants. It now bills itself as the “friendliest place on earth.” Whatever you need, short of high end photographic equipment or fine dining, you are likely to find it there.

The closest major airport is in El Paso, Texas, a two hour drive away. Alternatively, for those already visiting Bosque del Apache, the drive is about two and a half hours: take US-380 East to Carrizozo, turn right on US-54 West, drive through Alamogordo and then take US-70 West to the park entrance.

Geology

Gypsum is rarely found in the form of sand because it is water-soluble. Normally, gypsum is dissolved by rain and carried out to sea. The Tularosa Basin in which White Sands sits, however, has no outlet to the sea. Precipitation that dissolves gypsum from the surrounding San Andres and Sacramento Mountains is trapped within the basin, eventually evaporates, and leaves behind gypsum in a crystalline form called selenite. Most of the gypsum crystals now being added to the White Sands are formed in nearby Lake Lucero, and are distributed throughout the area by wind.

When to Photograph

White Sands can be uncomfortably warm during the summer months (average temperature 95° F), making extended hiking infeasible for many visitors. The weather and the light tend to be particularly good for photography in December, which happily coincides with the return of cranes and geese to the Bosque.

Perhaps more importantly, though, is the time of day during which you photograph. At mid-day, the sunlight at White Sands can be particularly harsh and is not well-suited for most photography. The light is better for a couple of hours after sunrise and before sunset, during the transitional periods when shadows begin to overtake the landscape. The most exceptional lighting, in my view, is typically present about 15 minutes before the sun rises and 15 minutes after the sun sets; this light is soft yet filled with pastel colors that ideally complement the dunes. Shooting perpendicular to the light, even when the sun has disappeared from view, will usually yield the most prominent separation between ridges.

Tasked with managing a park disposed between a missile range and an air force base, the National Park Service places greater emphasis on regulating access than on facilitating photography under this most exceptional lighting. During the winter months, the park opens promptly at 7:00 a.m. (usually right after sunrise) and closes at sunset, meaning most visitors never have an opportunity to experience the dunes at their best. The bad news is that, in the morning, “closed” genuinely means closed; before 7:00 a.m., the road is blocked by a formidable steel gate. The good news is that, at least when I visited, closing at “sunset” seemed to mean that new visitors could not enter after sunset and visitors already on the premises were supposed to leave within some reasonable period of time thereafter; I regularly departed about 45 minutes after sunset and never experienced a problem.

Only a few exceptions are made to these operating hours. First, one can arrange to be admitted early by making reservations and then paying a substantial fee ($50 per hour, at last check) to the park service. Second, there are occasional events on nights with a full moon when the park remains open later. Third, the park has ten backcountry camping permits available each day on a first-come, first-served basis, for a fee of $3. Applicants must request these permits in person on the day for which the permit is issued. Backcountry hikers are required to stay at specific, pre-determined campsites located about one mile into the sand. The backcountry camps consist, in their entirety, of a plastic stake in the sand where one is required to pitch their tent. This, it turns out, probably explained why I was the only one camping there. But I was also the only one, the next morning, in position to photograph during the best light—a benefit easily worth a little sand in one’s pants.

Photographic Suggestions

Every photographer can and should approach the dunes with a fresh eye, but a few hints will hopefully steer you closer to the right path from the outset. To begin with, some of the most compelling images from the dunes are those with the most simplistic compositions. Images littered with chaotic shrubbery, mountains, footprints, dunes extending the horizon, and so on, might provide high level documentation of the area but are unlikely to be artistically appealing. Look for a smaller, bite-sized story within the big picture.

As part of that story, pay careful attention to the palette of leading lines found throughout the dunes. Sources include the ridges of the dunes themselves, ripples on the dunes, plant life, the tracks of the snakes, lizards, foxes and other inhabitants, and the shadows cast by all of the foregoing. Look not just for a compelling scene, but for an angle from which these lines will naturally lead your viewer’s eye through that scene.

Just as importantly, but from a more technical perspective, be sure to dial in enough exposure compensation to account for the fact that the sands at White Sands are, indeed, white. Without an adjustment, your camera’s light meter will be inclined to expose the sand as light gray. Exactly how much added exposure is required will depend on your camera, but will probably be around a full stop to a stop and a half. Take a moment to confirm, using your histogram, the adjustment that is appropriate for your setup.

Recommended Equipment

If you intend to photograph during the best light of the day, you should plan for multi-second exposures and will therefore need a sturdy tripod and cable release. Keeping the bottom leg section extended at least slightly at all times will help keep sand out of the leg locks. A polarizer is also quite helpful, if not a necessity; the gypsum crystals are highly reflective, and a polarizer helps cut unwanted glare while darkening skies to taste. Also bear in mind that this is a destination well-suited to telephoto optics. This is not to say that wide and mid-angle lenses will be useless—but a telephoto lens will allow you to compress the dunes, to accentuate particularly interesting features while eliminating distractions, and at the golden hours to include only the most colorful elements of the sky.

Two pieces of non-photographic equipment are also highly recommended. First, to escape the footprints left by earlier visitors it will usually be necessary to hike at least 10 or 15 minutes, and many of the larger and more photogenic dunes are several miles out. But just moments into that hike, you will be surrounded by nothing but white sand, a few nondescript plants and, of course, footprints leading in many different directions. It is exceptionally easy to become disoriented and, consequently, lost; and you most certainly do not want to get lost among 275 square miles of waterless desert surrounded by an active missile range. A handheld hiking GPS device is invaluable in these circumstances. Second and less importantly, bring along a pair of above-the-ankle hiking boots, not for arch or ankle support but to prevent the gypsum particles from infiltrating your shoes. Unlike typical sand, gypsum will stick to your socks, insoles, and toes, becoming compressed into hardened accumulations that will cause blisters and may continue to disperse a fine white powder within your luggage for years to come.

With these few precautions and a dose of common sense, you are virtually guaranteed to enjoy the tranquility of this unusual setting while having a productive photographic journey.

All photos © Ben Hattenbach 2009. The photographs accompanying this article were all captured with a medium format Hasselblad H3D-39.

About the Author

When not photographing wild landscapes, Ben Hattenbach is a partner at a Los Angeles-based law firm where his practice focuses on the trial of complex intellectual property disputes. More of his images of White Sands, and other regions, can be seen at www.benhattenbach.com.

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