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January 29, 2007 Derek von Briesen

Well, it’s my turn to take a crack at the wondrous white sands of White Sands National Monument,
New Mexico. Inspired by the fine work of so many excellent P-Base photographers (Steven Noyes,
Fred Parsons, Brian Klimowski, Cesar Fernandez, Kipp Schoen come to mind), I recently made
the pilgrimage to this magical & iconic southwest landscape. I’ve dreamed of going for some time, and,
as is my want when it comes to such intensely photographed places, I was intent on trying to capture something a little different.

Checking the weather daily in pursuit of special photographic conditions, I pointed my radar
toward the Arizona-New Mexico borderlands and crossed my fingers. The National Weather Service
has a regional office in El Paso and their website provided me with all the usual tools—water vapor
satellite loop imagery, radar composites, detailed forecast discussions, seven day zone
forecasts—to get a good handle on conditions.

By Thursday, January 19, forecasts of a couple of storms—the first taking a southerly track and
connecting with a lot of subtropical moisture & maturing directly over the southwest corner
of New Mexico; the second a wandering little cutoff low moving almost straight south from the Rockies a day
later—looked likely to give me the winter conditions for which I’d been waiting.

My thought was that a good bit of snow would beautifully accent the surrounding mountains that
often play in compositions of White Sands. I was fairly certain that the Sacramento Mountains to
the east, and the San Andres Mountains to the west would be shrouded in snow as the forecasts were for anywhere from 8”-15” at higher elevations.

Arriving the day after the second storm passed (and the first day driving/road conditions were
really even thinkable), what surprised me was all the snow on the sand dunes themselves!! I
thought maybe some snow would remain in the lowlands of the Tularosa Basin where the Monument is
located but wasn’t exactly sure if snow on such white sand would really be all that distinguishable
or photographically desirable.

Boy, was I wrong! First, both storms dumped and the second left a cold mass of Rocky Mountain air
in its wake that kept overnight temperatures well below freezing, insuring that a good amount of
snow remained for the three days I got to shoot.

I was blessed with a special winter treat—4”-6” of fresh snow on the dunes—that only happens maybe once every other season or so.

And as it turned out, nothing could be more pleasing photographically than the contrasting colors
of the brilliantly white snow and the almost pure white sand (a slightly tan hue as you might
expect; it is sand after all!).

One of the things you quickly realize about White Sands is the incredible multiplicity of colors.
Even more so with snow, the reflective qualities are simply astounding. The dunes are sinuously
curved white canvases reflecting whatever is going on in the sky. Everyday almost every color imaginable
would be manifested by the earth’s shadow, the rising and setting sun, and light & dark clouds
of all shapes and sizes. Ice blues; soft yellows; gentle violets; subtle tans; baby blues; alpenglow crimson; pre-dawn pinks;
the almost lapis of snow deeply shadowed; the rusted orange, yellows & greens of winter desert
shrubbery: quite simply, the palette was just breathtaking.

And the shapes, lines, & curves of the dunes were just incredible. For an old surfer, echoes of
hundreds of days paddling out alone into frosty winter peaks were everywhere in the perfectly shaped
sand waves. A-frame lefts and rights were everywhere!! Standing on particularly high dunes,
looking southwest into fifteen miles of continuous dune fields, it felt like sets were stacked to the horizon.
Corduroy lines we used to call it.

For an old skateboarder, it looked like God’s ultimate skatepark, albeit quite a gnarly one at
that, what with drop-ins of 20’-30’ from the top of some perfect bowls!!

At first, photographically, it was overwhelming, akin to a walk up West Fork in the middle of fall
color change. So many colors, shapes, compositions, plants, curves, one didn’t know where to start.
I finally decided to shoot at an almost manic pace and not labor too much over the perfect
composition as they were everywhere. Shoot carefully but fast, taking advantage of rapidly changing light.

And walk a lot . . . ! ! ! Because of last summer season’s very wet monsoon, overflowing
groundwater has forced the closing of the last two miles of the only road in the monument. The weekend’s
storm and snow compelled the park personnel to close another two miles meaning that everyday to get to
the best photographic areas I had to hike a minimum of five miles in the morning and the
same again in the evening,

The daily routine: one to two miles up the muddy, squishy road, a mile or so into the dune fields
to escape the tracks of less hardy visitors, more hiking up, down & along dunes, a mile back to
the road, and another one to two miles back to the car. Morning temps an hour before sunrise were
23 degrees, necessitating full winter gear--down parka, thermals, parka pants, hat, gloves, glove liners
--while shooting.

The cold meant special attention had to be paid to battery life and condensation/moisture on
equipment. I carried my spare battery in the inside pocket of my parka to keep it warm and chemically active, kept a cotton towel handy
for moisture, and made sure to place my camera body in a ziplock bag before moving back into the
warmer climes of car or hotel. Nightly charging sessions were de rigeur.

As was downloading and looking at images to see the day’s results. As a photographer in a strange
new place like White Sands nothing helps me more than taking the time every evening to look at images
on the Epson P-4000 Hard Drive Viewer. The 3.5” brightly lit LCD screen brings even relatively
dull RAW files to life and gives me a chance to scrutinize angles, compositions, light direction
—to see what works and what doesn’t. I rarely take the time in the field to use the camera LCD
for anything more than histogram exposure readings. It’s too small, dim, and in cold temperatures
“chimping” drains batteries rather quickly. The viewfinder is my in-the-field viewer, and
my nightly Epson sessions are where I really analyze, refine and plan for the next day.

As with any true camera junkie, I took every piece of equipment I owned on this trip. Not wanting
to miss a thing or be unprepared, I carried six or more lenses everyday, filters, extra
batteries, clothing layers, tripod, 100 oz. of water, snacks. This meant each day the pack
started at around 28 lbs.!! Heavy boots, three layers of clothing, tramping up & down dunes, lying in
snow and on frozen ground, getting up each day at 4:45am: needless to say it was exhausting . . .
but unbelievably satisfying.

I used every lens everyday. The most used was the Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L, principally for wide
angle, intense foreground perspective. Next most useful was probably the Canon EF 70-200mm
f/4L, which is a great “portrait” landscape lens at 70-100mm and over 135mm or so is wonderfully
adept at compressing the landscape. I even used my 2x teleconverter for even deeper
compressed landscape and dune curve closeups.

The 24mm, 45mm, and 90mm Canon Tilt/Shift Lenses came in very handy as they always do when I can
stand the extra weight. The 24mm T/S is always used for super close to far wide angle, using
the tilt to achieve maximum depth of field. The 45mm T/S is used for the same but as with the 90mm
T/S, it’s often used for three shot panoramas using the shift feature. Very effective and easy pano
shooting that creates files that stitch together with a minimum of processing.

But given the size of White Sands there were panoramas which required the mild telephoto of the 70-200mm so one
day I brought out the Really Right Stuff pano rail.

Last but not least, the Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 (the "nifty thrifty fifty") always goes with. This wonderfully sharp $350 autofocus prime is just so
damn light and sharp that I always find a shot for it. It has always helped fill the gap between
the 17-40 and the 70-200 and I just love the lens. Stopped down around 2 f/stops, this speedy
little f/1.4 is just a proven performer!!

Lastly, the story wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t mention how incredibly courteous, knowledgeable,
generous and professional the park personnel are at White Sands. They really get it that
photographers are an important part of the National Park legacy and for the most part are wonderful
ambassadors whose images stimulate the imagination of would-be visitors everywhere. They
have a special program that allows photographers access to the Monument both before and after
the park closes (sunrise & sunset!!). If you go, check with Kathy Denton, chief ranger in charge
of education (and special permitting!). I’d suggest calling before you go and getting the details.
It’s so worth it!!

Make sure you go prepared. Winter’s cold, summer swelters. Spring wildflowers, summer monsoons,
fall color, & winter snow are just a few of the reasons I’ll be returning. For my first trip,
it was incredible: as I said to my wife over the cell, the first morning was one of the most
beautiful and spiritual I’ve ever had the pleasure to experience!!

Enjoy the pix!!

PS: I'd also be remiss if I didn't offer a huge thank you to fellow P-Base photographer and friend BRIAN KLIMOWSKI. I owe you so much
for your continued inspiration and generous sharing of your invaluable knowledge!! Thanks again for everything!!

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comment | share
William 17-Apr-2008 23:10
I have visited the park several times but not in winter. Your story really encourages me to visit the park in winter in the future. Enjoy reading your story very much. Like your photos. Thanks a lot.