I returned to Death Valley National Park in early March and was fortunate to be there in a high wind event. It was amazing and exhilarating to be on the sand dunes. In many places the sand was blowing up the side of the dune like an upward flowing river and over the crest like a waterfall.
In this backlit photo, a photographer is standing at the top of a small dune. The sun, just rising from behind a mountain, casts the photographer’s shadow down the dune. The “tidal wave of sand” in the second photo was the main thing drawing my attention and also that of the person on the dune.
The photo below is a panoramic stitch of 3 photos. I had not planned on creating a panorama while in the field. But there were two distinct areas of focus; the photographer on the dune and the tremendous “tidal wave of sand” to his left. I realized at home I had the pieces and let Lightroom do it’s magic to put it together.
When the wind whips across the dunes, most of the blowing sand hugs the ground as you can see in the photos below. If you stay standing the blowing sand is not so bad. Regardless, we were wore goggles and a mask to protect our face.
As the morning progressed the wind calmed some while a small group climbed a large dune.
On the previous evening the wind was also blowing. When I walked away from my tripod for a moment, the wind blew it over. Luckily another photographer was close enough to catch it before it hit the ground.
I made another short trip to Death Valley National Park in late January. On my first day, I headed into the dunes late in the day to capture the shadows and glow on the dunes. As I hiked in, I observed a couple climbing the tallest of the dunes, extending some already existing tracks to the top. As I wandered the dunes, they left and I observed another two people approaching the dunes. Eventually I wandering into the vicinity of these two guys, who were setting up a tent.
I spoke with them and asked if they were photographing the dunes and about following in other’s footprints so we don’t make new ones. They told me of a place they were thinking of for sunset photos. I did the same. We all liked the idea of climbing one of the large dunes for sunset. After I left them I realized there were footprints going up TWO large dunes. I knew about the 2nd set of prints because I watched those others earlier. So they followed footprints to the top of one dune and I followed footprints to the top of another. When they got up and saw where I was, they politely asked if they were in my photo. I said no problem, but thought darn, yes, but I’ll just go with it. I am glad I did and really like the scale and perspective they add to the photo.
The following morning I headed back to the dunes shortly after sunrise. It was about a mile walk across the open desert to get to there. I had no plan except that I hoped to find shadows and shapes to photograph. To my surprise, while I was still a half mile away, I noticed the sun highlighting select ridges. I put on my 100-400mm lens and starting composing!
I read an article by an outstanding photographer, Michael Bollino, in which he defines “found” photographs, where you have no concept ahead of time of what you will photograph. In my first “Top of the Dunes” photo I had pre-conceived ideas from a previous trip. I knew the set of dunes I wanted as my subject and I knew they catch the last rays of the sun. In addition, I had seen photos of others with a viewpoint from below. I checked out the scene, but seeing footprints, I choose to climb the dune. At this point I started exploring compositions. In the “Confluence” and “Convergence” photos, the compositions were a result of being there, being open, and finding something totally unexpectedly. When I set off that morning, my expectations were so low, I almost didn’t go. These turned out to be my favorites of this trip. Pre-conceived ideas often bring me to a location, but once there, I like to allow myself to explore and see with every step. It’s a balancing act.
Later in the morning, I noticed the two hikers from the previous day, hiking out below the dunes.
The next day I found another scene of distant mountains while approaching the dunes.
As the morning hours passed, I wandered around the base of the tall dunes marveling at the plants that survive this harsh climate.
To see more from this collection of images, click here.