Five days in White Sands Monument Park and the Making of White Dunes

White Sands Monument Park, in New Mexico, is the largest desert of its kind in the world, made of gypsum sand and white dunes all the way up to the horizon, the glistering whiteness looks like snow, almost tricking your senses into believing you are in front of a winter scene.

But it’s indeed a desert. A beautiful desert. 

I spent five days in White Sands and I had the chance to shoot four sunsets. Every evening I chose a different direction and walked into the desert until I found the composition I was looking for.

The average trip was about thirty minutes long and thirty minutes to walk back.

White Wave

white wave
Dune at sunset at White Sands desert in New Mexico

The wind was very strong for three of the four days, making shooting a challenge. The second day was especially challenging: despite my best efforts to stabilize the tripod, half of the exposures of this scene came out blurred. The sand wasn’t offering much support and using the backpack to weigh down the tripod was only partially effective.

I’m always looking for a simple, but original compositions for my images. In White Wave, I was very attracted by the graphical curves of the dunes, where the side away from the sun was immersed in a beautiful turquoise color caused by the diffused light from the sky, reflected on the white sand.

I’m very pleased with the result and the simple, uncluttered, composition of this image: the lack of size references makes it difficult to understand the scale of this dune, which is in fact relatively small, adding a lot of interest to the image.

Walking back to the main road against the wind felt like one more challenge to overcome in the quest for the One Image, a challenge I was more than happy to take on over and over again that week.

Timeless Sands

Timeless Sands
Timeless Sands

For this trip, I planned at least one wide panorama to immerse the viewer in the same environment where I was spending my evenings. The right weather conditions and a good location happened on the third day. 

I believe I captured a worthy panorama with Timeless Sands. Each frame shot at 160mm, this panorama is the result of three frames stitched together. The warm backlighting beautifully contoured the white dunes and I applied a healthy dose of gaussian blur to melt away the mountains at the back, which adds to the mystic quality of the image.

White Dunes

white dunes
White Sands desert in New Mexico at sunset.

On the fourth day, I set out to find Yuccas to shoot. I walked more than 20 minutes in the desert looking for one, but a bush in the distance eventually captured my attention instead.

When I reached the dune, about an hour before sunset, the angle with the sun was just right, the background clouds were very promising. Just the right amount of clouds, in a good position, with the enticing hope to be lit by the setting sun just right.

I carefully prepared the composition over about half an hour of testing and refining the framing.

I tried to avoid as much as possible the messy background on the top left of the frame while giving center stage to the beautiful bush in the foreground and the leading ripple lines in the sand. 

Again I was looking for simplicity, a strong composition to convey one single concept clearly.

I set up my composition and I waited. 

The waiting was in many ways the reward, wonderful pristine white dunes all around me, the peaceful sound of the wind to underline my contemplation of the beauty of the location. 

Anything that would come after the waiting would only be the cherry on top.

The build-up to taking the final image was gorgeous, with an amazingly strong and yellow side light casting a very defined shadow at a right angle with the camera. 

The real show was just about to begin when the sun went down and a magenta, soft and diffused light bathed the entire national park for just a few minutes. 

Only the time to take a bunch of exposures.

Upon downloading the images on my MacBook for processing, the initial impression of what later would become White Dunes was less than stellar. 

As much as I tried to avoid the messy background on the top left, the small plants in the distance were still in the frame and ruined for me the entire feel of image that, in my view, was about clarity and simplicity. 

Something overall was off: I could see some of the strengths of the simple composition, but somehow the image didn’t initially pass the bar to work further on it.

I put it aside to come back at a later time and worked on other images from the rest of the trip that felt more promising.

I eventually went back to working on White Dunes several times in the next few weeks. I chose two exposures to blend together, one focused on the foreground and one on the background, to achieve front to back sharpness.

My post-processing work mainly targeted the top left background to clone out the little messy plants in a clean way. I also spent several long and tedious hours cleaning the bush in the foreground from countless imperfections and more time scouting the sand for anything that would break the patterns. 

What was left after the cloning was leading lines in the sand and soft pastel colors.

And my feelings about the image changed dramatically. 

I kept going. 

To soften up the sky, I added a touch of the Orton effect to the top half of the image, which gives a dream-like quality to the overall look and emphasizes the pastel colors. Following key feedback on earlier versions of the image, I focused more of my work on the sky. The top-right portion of the sky itself proved to be especially difficult to manage. It required a lot of work and finesse to keep the brightness in check and even across the entire sky.

White Dunes is decidedly high key in nature to evoke peace and positivity, while the gentle dunes in the background echo the softness of the color palette, also reinforced by the beautiful unimposing colorful clouds in the sky. Everything in the image came together strongly through sheer work of polishing the details, with the goal of extracting the essence of the message from the image, without changing its core nature.

White Dunes is a good example of why we are often not good judges of our own images. I certainly am not a good judge of mine, which is why I go back to old exposures, from time to time, to make sure I didn’t miss anything of value.

I had left White Dunes in my catalog forgotten following my first impressions, I would have missed an image that would eventually end up in the International Photographic Competition Loan Collection and collect awards around the internet. 

I was very lucky this time to be in the right place at the right time and to stick to it until the final image that would eventually become a print.

I printed White Dunes in two editions on two very different papers. 

The first edition is designed for longevity and is included in my Limited Edition Collection: the paper of choice Hahnemuüle Museum Etching, a beautiful matte paper with very accurate color rendition and a medium-textured surface, which complements nicely the sand in the image, without distracting too much, while offering a beautiful tactile experience to the print.

The second edition is designed for competitions to achieve the highest emotional impact at first sight. For competitions, and some exhibitions, I’m now using the new Hahnemüle Photo Rag Metallic, a very thick and robust paper, with a unique texture. Instead of being glossy, the surface has a subtle texture, similar to “etching” papers, with a lot of character. It beautifully complements White Sands, because it reminds of the “matte” origin of the image, while still having the subtle sheen that comes from its metallic finish. 

I print the Limited Edition of White Dunes and each Competition print in my lab on a Canon Pro-2000.

Francesco Carucci
December 2019
Francesco Carucci
San Jose, California

For more than fifteen years Francesco has been working as Rendering Software Engineer, mostly creating computer graphics for video games: as a blend of creativity and technology, his job fostered not only his engineering side, but also his keen artistic sense by having been in constant contact with amazing creative people. Francesco's work can be found at Francesco originally picked up photography more than ten years ago to be able to understand the artists' minds and language, which is not the language of math, but that of colors and forms. Through mastering the technical aspects of photography, along with improving the artistic vision, Francesco's photographic work has been constantly growing since: started as commercial stock photographer, his work has been represented by stock agencies such as Getty Images, Shutterstock and Alamy. Francesco's work has been featured on several travel magazines, books, advertisement campaigns and used by companies such as Apple, Google and Hilton.

Article Type: Tutorials, Columns, MISC

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