Occupying over 275 square miles, White Sands National Monument is the largest gypsum dune field in the world. The dunes are constantly on the move – up to 25 feet a year – driven by strong southwest winds. As far as the eye can see, the dunes undulate in a series of connected waves broken only by flat, open plains. Native plants often take hold in these interstitial zones, and long, unbroken lines of hard sand, known as dune footprints, reveal the movement of the dunes. In the image above you can see the open plains that occupy the interstitial zones between the dunes. The day I made this image the winds were blowing over 25 mph and off along the horizon you can see the blowing gypsum. This is nature at work. Slowly and methodically, through the forces of wind, the dunes move across the landscape.
Photography on the dunes is truly other-worldly. By day, the dunes reside in strong, contrast-laden light. It's a visual collision of intense white and deep, dark shadows. The intensity of white against shadow is almost over powering. But this is an excellent time to use the strong, contrasty light, to explore black and white compositions. The dark shadows, in the first image above, accentuate the ripples of sand and creates a beautiful sense of line and movement against the dunes. For the middle image I shot straight into the sun using the clouds to help manage the strong light. I love the quality of light in this image and compositional balance I was able to achieve. The last image, though shot during mid-day, illustrates a softer light achieved by shooting in a sandstorm. There was so much gypsum in the air it blocked out most of the harsh light. It was like photographing inside of a giant soft-box.
As the day progresses the harsh light of the day slowly gives way to a softer light. This late afternoon light is often full of subtle colors that were missing in the mid-day glare. Pastel shades of blue, yellow, and pink appear in the sky and reflect upon the white gypsum. Clouds can help soften the light and add dramatic movement to you compositions. As the harsh light softens, sinuous curves and delicate surface textures are revealed.
As the heat of day dissipates and the night chill begins, you might think about packing up and heading back to the car. But this is the time to be patient; this is the time to wait and watch the light. Fifteen to twenty minutes into civil twilight an incredible phenomenon occurs. The dunes relight with an ever so subtle reflective glow. This subtle relight after sunset, evident in the image above, is a quality of light I describe as the "edge of light". This light is soft, subtle, and revealing. As dusk marches into inevitable night, the colors fade into monochromatic tones. Edges of delicately lit sand climb, undulate, twist, and turn. Dune faces reflect bounced light from the sky, and ripples and patterns disappear into the distance. It is here at the edge of light that White Sands revealed itself to me. It is this kind of light that I love to chase.