Among the wonders of our natural world is the world’s largest known gypsum dune field: White Sands National Monument. Located a few kilometers west of Alamogordo, New Mexico, it has an elevation of 4235 feet, and is a 275 sq mile national park comprised of cool white gypsum sand dunes.
For obvious reasons, WSNM is on the destination bucket list of many amateur and professional photographers. It sure was on mine. The nearest major airport is in El Paso, Texas, about 85 miles south. There is no public transportation to or through the park. Everywhere one looks there is spectacular scenery. Light shifts and reflects and bounces around the sands. It is captivating and enchanting. In my photographs, what you see is white sand; not a spec of snow.
The Park Service explains that while the wind piles the sand grains into dunes, the dunes move forward under the force of gravity. As the leading edge of the dune (“slipface”) gets steeper, gravity pulls an avalanche of sand down the slipface, moving the dune forward. They are constantly on the move. Wind moves small sand grains by bouncing them along the surface in a process called “saltation.” Saltating sand grains create beautiful ripple patterns on many dune surfaces.
The major issue faced when photographing this white sand is getting your exposure right. Yes, in the morning and afternoon I did use a polarizing filter on my lens. We entered the park not until 2 hours after sunrise; I was traveling with young children and we first stopped in town at the Waffle & Pancake Shoppe for a hearty breakfast; then the kids pursued Junior Ranger booklets at the visitor center after watching the informative film. We drove in, and were blessed with a cloudless, sunny day. Great for hiking around. Less so for exciting photographs that include sky. I removed the filter an hour before sunset when it was no longer necessary and the softest colors were present, even as the shadows elongated.
For subject matter, one is greeted with sensitive shadows and textures, areas with desert plant life, animals or evidence of animals, abstractions of shape, large landscapes ideally suited for wide angles, sunrises and sunsets, visitors exploring nature and enjoying the scenery, and people demonstrating scale.