Photography Challenges at White Sands

There’s something about White Sands National Monument that just has my number as a photographer.  This article is called “photography challenges at White Sands”, but it could easily be called “White Sands Kicked My Butt as a Photographer”.  In fact, looking back at the last time that I visited White Sands, I didn’t exactly have the easiest time of it either.  The last article about this beautiful spot in New Mexico was called “Getting Lost in White Sands“.  It’s become my travel photography arch-enemy.

Although, unlike your typical counterpart, White Sands National Monument is an absolute joy to visit.  It really is one of the most underrated destinations in America, and one of my favourite places in the country to visit.  Unfortunately, my camera doesn’t have as easy a time there as my eyes do.

The Challenges of Photography in White Sands

Last time I was in White Sands I didn’t get too many photos I was really all too fond of.  I attributed most of that to the fact that I didn’t get there until fairly late in the day.  However, I didn’t have that excuse this time as I was in the site long before the light went down.  In general, I’d say there were 3 really big challenges to shooting here: the landscape is flat, the sand is white, and the area is massive.

White Sands National Monument

The flat landscape means that there’s nowhere you can stand above or below to give some scale to it all.  If you’ve ever taken landscape photos of flat places, you’ll know that they often end up looking like a simple sliver of land in the middle of your photo.  Even in the Canadian Prairies you have things like barns that can add scale to the photos.

In White Sands, there’s just endless sand.  Then, all that sand is white and nearly the exact same colour meaning that there is no contrast.  Of course like snow, it is also really difficult to show the details and get a proper exposure of the sand.  Then, to top it all off White Sands National Monument is a huge area and finding that perfect angle, line, or composition could take a life time.

How I Worked to Adjust to the Challenges

The biggest thing I did to adjust to the challenges of this location was switch up my equipment.  I think most landscape photographers prefer to go wide.  But using a long lens – I used a 70-200mm – allows you to compress the landscape into a small frame.  I helps make the landscape look taller, wider, and creates more layers.  I also decided to do most my shooting before sunset.  Doing so meant that I would still get shadows in my images and help create dimension, scale, and natural lines to the images.  Of course, I also did some post-processing to bring out the contrast of the images.

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You can see the challenge. Lots of white, no contrast. Hard on the camera’s dynamic range.

The Final Product

As you can see, the final product is good but not great.  I really think I did what I could given the short time period I had to shoot White Sands.  Had I week to scour the park for the absolute best line and composition, I obviously would have gotten better images.  But, that’s part of the challenge and joy of photography: not knowing what the outcome will be.  In far too many locations, when doing landscape photography, you can basically already tell the sort of image you’ll create before arriving on site.  That’s not the case with visiting a place like White Sands with only a couple hours to prepare and shoot.

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You can see how the contrasts are way better here before the sun goes down. Unfortunately, when the sun is up, there’s not a lot of colour or drama in the sky.
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I tried to play a bit with the shadows of light here. It came out OK, but would prefer more colour to the sky.
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Well the light wasn’t great for landscape photography. It was perfect for portraits, so I took a couple of Tiffany.
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Another one of the decent images. I think this scene was the most promising.
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The was actually my favourite photo from the shoot. I love how the photography workshop participants in the other group ahead look a bit like a group of Samurai on an epic journey.
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Definitely my favourite image. And, if you watched the video, you’ll notice that the edit made all the difference with this one. A small edit brought out all the colours and contrast as naturally it looked a bit flat.

What’s Next on the Travel Photography Blog?

Next stop on the US Road Trip is Austin, Texas where I’ll be photographing the State Capitol Building.  It was one of my favourite locations on my last road trip, so I’m looking forward to photographing it again!