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Sleepwalking in a Sandstorm

White Sands National Monument in southern New Mexico has become one of those places I visit at least once a year. I love it there. If you have never been, you owe it to yourself to make it there someday, especially if you are a photographer who likes to shoot landscapes. It is unlike any other place on earth save, perhaps, for Antarctica. The rolling white sand dunes are mesmerizing, and the light can be absolutely magical. The sand is not really sand at all; it’s gypsum, which gives it the white color. And of course, the temperatures are quite a bit warmer than Antarctica. In fact, I’d suggest avoiding the monument during the summer, because it is quite warm. As you can see in Figure 5.10, the light and the clouds in particular were impressive on this day at White Sands. Little did we know that we were in for a wild night after this photo shoot.

Figure 5.10

Figure 5.10. Sadhana Woodman practicing yoga in White Sands National Monument near Alamogordo, New Mexico.

Nikon D2x, Nikon 17–35mm f/2.8 lens, ISO 100, 1/125th second at f/8

The Story

The trick at White Sands is to camp; otherwise, you’ll miss the best light. The only camping in White Sands is backcountry camping, and those campsites are about a mile or more away from the parking area, which means you have to come prepared for a hike. Also, because they are away from the crowds, the camping areas are the best place to find untracked dunes. Just about anywhere else in the park people are hiking and playing on the dunes, which means there are tracks all over the dunes, and that doesn’t help if you want images of pristine sand dunes.

For this stock shoot I hired an expert yoga instructor named Sadhana Woodman, who could perform a variety of yoga moves on the shifting gypsum at White Sands—a difficult task. Because it was August and incredibly hot, we planned to shoot at last light for a few hours, camp, shoot in the early morning light, and then get out of there quickly. The first evening went spectacularly well. This image was shot on that first evening. The clouds were massive and glowing in the evening light, creating an unbelievable backdrop. Shortly before dark, I asked Sadhana to pose on this dune while I shot a series of vertical and horizontal images. The idea was to silhouette her against the magnificent sky. I started relatively close to her, and when I moved farther away, I realized the images were only getting better and better. This image was shot from about 50 feet away. Her body position, with her arms pointing upward like an arrowhead at the wild clouds above her, is what makes this image work. This is also one of those rare images where having the subject dead center is the perfect composition. It just made sense visually.

After the evening shoot, we enjoyed a casual dinner with a bit of wine under a blanket of bright stars and wispy clouds. Just as we headed off to bed the wind picked up. What had been a nice evening turned brutal within minutes. The winds revved up and never stopped, and I was in a mesh tent! OK, so I should have known better than to take a mesh tent to a sandy desert environment, but the talent was sleeping in my full-on mountaineering tent along with her husband who came along for the adventure. Not that it mattered as Sadhana informed me the next morning, because she and her husband also got no sleep.

It was a comical night. We wrapped clothing over our faces to protect our eyes and took walks in the gypsum “white out.” Sleeping was out of the question. The three-season tent I was sleeping in was bent over in the wind so far that I had to constantly keep pressure on the side of the tent to keep the poles from snapping. White Sands felt more like Antarctica that night than I had ever seen it. At one point we couldn’t see more than 30 feet from the tents. Hiking back to the cars, which were over a mile away, would have been a fool’s errand. By morning, I had at least a few inches of white sand in my tent.

Fortunately, the wind died down at sunrise and we dug ourselves out to start shooting. Sadhana, frazzled from a rough night without sleep, announced that she felt “like crap” but still got up to appease the camera with a few yoga poses. What seemed like a miserable night turned in to a wonderful morning of spotty but clear light and more incredible images.

It just goes to show that no matter what happens on a shoot, it is imperative to get up and be there when the light happens, because you never know what will happen. The sleepless night was a wild adventure, and although it was not much fun, it was very exciting to see the desert in all its rage. However, I’m not sure my cohorts enjoyed it all that much.

It just goes to show that no matter what happens on a shoot, it is imperative to get up and be there when the light happens, because you never know what will happen.

My stock agency, Aurora Photos, accepted 76 of the 114 images I submitted from this shoot, which is the highest percentage of images any of my stock agencies have ever accepted. Hence, it was well worth the effort! This image has received a lot of praise and has been used by many different clients. It is also included in my print and Web portfolios.

The Gear

Because we had to carry in a full complement of camping gear, I pared down the camera gear to a minimal but versatile kit including two camera bodies and three zoom lenses: a 17–35mm, a 28–70mm, and a 70–200mm. My gear was also stored in a Pelican box, which as it turned out, was very prudent. This particular image was shot with a Nikon D2x and a 17–35mm Nikkor lens set at 17mm. I exposed for the brightest part of the cloud above Sadhana in manual mode and used a relatively small aperture of f/8 to keep her and the cloud sharp. During the sandstorm, I didn’t worry about my gear at all because it was in the Pelican box. They may be heavy, but Pelican cases are great when it comes to protecting gear.

One of the key takeaways learned with this image is to move around your subject and check all the angles if you have the time. If I had just stayed in one position, this image would not exist. This is one of the most important concepts I think about whenever I arrive at a location. I leave the camera in the bag for a few minutes and just walk around. It gives me time to think about the type of image I want to create and how I will go about creating that image. If there is an angle or position that is hard to get to, more often than not that is the best position to shoot from because it gives you something different and interesting. In this case, the best angle wasn’t a hard position to get to; it was just farther away.

The Postproduction

This is yet another image that only needed slight modifications in the postprocessing and a bit of retouching to make it sing. One of the first details you might notice in the Lightroom screen shot is that a few backpacks are on the horizon line to the right of Sadhana (Figure 5.11). Quite a few footprints are in the sand as well. I took the liberty of removing the backpacks and the footprints in Photoshop to clean up the look of the image. While shooting, the light was fading fast, and there wasn’t time to move the bags. Plus, doing so would have added a few more sets of footprints. For that reason, I elected to just shoot the image with everything included knowing I could take these elements out in the postprocessing.

Figure 5.11

Figure 5.11. The raw image as it was processed in Lightroom.

In Lightroom I adjusted the brightness of the image slightly by setting the Exposure slider to +0.08. The Highlights, Shadows, Whites, and Blacks sliders were set to -2, +2, 0, and -1, respectively. I set the Contrast slider to +2. And I pulled the Clarity, Vibrance, and Saturation sliders out to +20, +22, and +3, respectively. The final adjustment I made in the Basic panel was to set the White Balance to a temperature of 5000K and the tint to +2. The only other adjustment I made in Lightroom was to apply a Lens Correction Profile. As usual, I selected the Enable Profile Corrections check box and the Remove Chromatic Aberration check box. The profile was automatically selected by Lightroom. I also set the Distortion slider in the Lens Corrections panel to 0 so that no lens distortion was removed.

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