As an aspiring landscape photographer, I have the opportunity to explore less traveled parks and remote wilderness areas. This blog shares of my "notes from the field," including photography techniques, hiking tips and lessons learned the hard way ... like the time I fell through the ice in the Merced River, Yosemite National Park. I welcome your comments and thank you for visiting our site. Marcus W. Reinkensmeyer, Field Photographer
"… life is a jewel box, is endless as the sand, impossible to count, pure …” Pablo Neruda on Engimas (1904 - 1973)
My lifetime fascination with sand dunes is now only heightened, having just spent some extended time at the pristine White Sands National Monument, New Mexico (elevation 4,235) feet. Growing up in Southwest Michigan, I developed a deep appreciation for sand dunes along the seemingly endless beaches of Lake Michigan.
NIKON D800E,f/20 @ 35 mm, 1/100, ISO 100
The dunes at White Sands hold similar visual elements, including concave and convex formations, intricate interlocking ripples and subtle gradations from shadow to light.
NIKON D800E,f/3.2 @ 35 mm, 1/100, ISO 100
Under ever changing lighting conditions, the White Sands gypsum crystal dunes provide endless photography opportunities akin to, yet distinctly unique from those of iconic Death Valley, picturesque Monument Valley and my home state’s Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.
Like pure white freshly fallen snow, the white sand reflects the subtle color hues of the overhead sky, long “golden hour” sunrays and moonlight. So, for today’s posting, we present fewer words and more images in celebration of White Sands and its many splendors.
NIKON D800E,f/22 @ 86 mm, 1/40, ISO 100
NIKON D800E,f/20 @ 70 mm, 1/25, ISO 100
Photographer Traversing Wind Sands Dune at Dusk, Nikon D800. Photo courtesy of my brother and wonderful travel companion, Brian G. Reinkensmeyer, Copyright 2014
NIKON D800E,f/16 @ 27 mm, 6s, ISO 100
VIDEO: White Sands Morning, Apple iPhone 5s
Marcus W. Reinkensmeyer
“To see a world in a grain of sand and a heaven in a wildflower, hold infinity in the palm of your hand and eternity in an hour.” - William Blake (1757 – 1827)
Our recent photography trek to White Sands National Monument (elevation 4,235 feet) exceeded my expectations. My brother, Brian Reinkensmeyer, and I were graced with excellent weather, superb lighting conditions and photo ops galore.
NIKON D800E,f/22 @ 70 mm, 1/40, ISO 100
While the winter season has shorter daylight hours, we were pleased to find that the soft light and low angle of the sun allowed us to photograph the dunes well beyond the recommended "golden hour."
NIKON D800E,f/20 @ 24 mm, 1/6, ISO 200
Located in south central New Mexico, the mountain ringed White Sands National Monument is situated in the vast Tularosa Basin. The white gypsum dunes occupy 115 square miles of a massive dunes field encompassing a total of 275 square miles. The remaining portion of the dunes and the perimeter mountain ranges (San Andres and Sacramento Mountain Ranges) are all part of the highly secure, strategic White Sands Missile Range. Just down the road is Holloman Air Force base. With this strong military presence, we noted lots of intrigue about the early years of weapons development, space technology and national security.
Our biggest challenge in photographing the dunes was working around the ubiquitous footprints left by hikers, sledders and other equally enthusiastic photographers. You can imagine our disappointment time after time, upon hiking to the summit of a dramatic convex sand formation only to find two or three sets of deep footprints. This situation was especially problematical on our arrival day, Sunday, in the aftermath of many weekend park visitors.
NIKON D800E,f/18 @ 36 mm, 1/80, ISO 100
As luck would have it, the dunes were swept clean of footprints in a fierce evening sand storm that same evening. Fortunately, having experienced these sand storms at Death Valley, we were outfitted with eye goggles, hats covering our ears and protective plastic sleeves for our cameras (Ruggard RC-P18 rain cover, available at B&H Photo). We've also found that it's helpful to wear Gaitors (Outdoor Research brand, available at REI stores) boot covers to keep the sand out of our shoes.
With or without the low visibility of a sandstorm, it’s all too easy to lose one’s sense of direction and to get lost in the ubiquitous white gypsum dunes. We find it imperative to carry two handheld Garman GPS units our hikes in the dunes, both at White Sands and Death Valley National Park (Eureka and Mesquite Flat Dunes). Navigating via GPS gives us true peace of mind, providing wayfinding ability in darkness and amidst blinding sandstorms alike.
D800E,f/20 @ 35 mm, 1/20, ISO 100
A special thanks to the highly knowledgeable White Sands rangers (Kelly, Kathy and Bob), who provided extensive information on the park and nearby areas. We could not have asked for better support, both on-site and prior to our visit. Kudos to the park service!
NIKON D800E,f/22 @ 62 mm, 1/15, ISO 100
VIDEO: White Sands, Apple iPhone 5s
Marcus W. Reinkensmeyer
“It is not a country of light on things. It is a country of things in light.” - Painter Georgia O’Keefe (1887 – 1986), commenting on the State of New Mexico.
Most every landscape photographer has a “bucket” list of scenic locations; places ripe with photo opportunities in the mind’s eye. For many years, White Sands National Monument has remained at the top of my ambitious list. Yet, I was somehow hesitant to invest the necessary time and energy into a White Sands trip, mistakenly thinking that it might not be worthwhile to visit this single location “just to shoot some dunes.”
Morning Light, White Sands, NIKON D800E, f/18 @ 70 mm, 1/10, ISO 200
Having just returned from a whirlwind trek to the White Sands dunes and other “nearby” scenic areas, I am most grateful for the incredible experience, a better understanding of this vast Southwest region and a batch of fresh photos.
In planning for the trip to White Sands, my brother, Brian Reinkensmeyer, and I charted visits to a number of other locations ideally suited for hiking and field photography: Carlsbad Caverns, historic petroglyphs at Three Rivers, lava beds at Valley of the Fires and Guadalupe National Park (Texas). All total, we drove approximately 1,500 miles over a five day period, starting our trip in Phoenix, Arizona.
Winter Dune Trees, White Sands, NIKON D800E, f/20 @ 55 mm, 1/40, ISO 100
To maximize our time photography, we scheduled much of the longer drives in the evening hours:
Day 1: Drive from Phoenix to hotel in Alamogordo, NM.
Day 2: Early morning photography at Three Rivers Petroglyphs (north of Tularosa) and the lava beds at Valley of the Fires recreation area, Carrizozo; Meeting with park rangers at White Sands to arrange and pay for off hours passes; Sunset photography at White Sands.
Day 3: Sunrise photography at White Sands, photography of dilapidated buildings in Alamogordo, sunset photography at White Sands; drive to Carlsbad Caverns (161 miles)
Summit Sand Ripples, White Sands, NIKON CORPORATION NIKON D800E, f/22 @ 70 mm, 1/20, ISO 100
Day 4: Guided tour and self guided photography tour at Carlsbad Caverns; sunset photography of El Capitan at Guadalupe Mountains National Park (elevation: 8,749 feet) and the nearby salt flats; drive back to Alamogordo.
Day 5: Sunset photography at White Sands; drive back to Phoenix for mini family reunion dinner.
Convergence, Carlsbad Cavern, NIKON CORPORATION NIKON D800E, f/8 @ 35 mm, 1/60, ISO 200, Flash
Our trip planning was guided by Laurent Martres’ Photographing the Southwest, Volume 2, an excellent resource for both hiking and photography in Arizona and New Mexico.
Experiencing the grandeur and solitude of Southern New Mexico has only prompted us to add a few more of this state's destinations to the ever growing bucket list.
El Capitan, Guadalupe Mountains, Texas, NIKON CORPORATION NIKON D800, f/4 @ 38 mm, 1/90, ISO 400
Marcus W. Reinkensmeyer
The contrast between my most recent visits to Upper and Lower Antelope Canyons could not be more stark, even more so in retrospect. While photographers often compare the formations and quality of light in the two slot canyons, my sense of bewilderment instead reflects the two entirely different experiences in visiting both photogenic canyons on the same day: One a sublime connection with nature and the other a hectic rush amidst crowds of tourists.
Upper Antelope Canyon Radiant Light, NIKON D800E, f/16 @ 70 mm, 0.6s, ISO 200
In short, my unguided photographer's tour in Lower Antelope Canyon that morning was self-paced and relaxed, allowing ample time for tripod set-up and careful camera calibrations. With my descent into this below ground slot canyon, time seemed to some to a standstill for thoughtful exploration. After shooting a series of bracketed photos, I would switch from vertical to horizontal format, zoom out for a wide angle perspective, adjust my circular polarizer, etc.
Lower Antelope Canyon Sand Floor, NIKON D800E, f/16 @ 19 mm, 0.5s, ISO 400
Regrettably, all sense of calm quickly vanished, given the large crowds of tourists and the loud sounds of tour trucks at popular Upper Antelope Canyon. This being my first Saturday primetime visit, I had never seen this area so busy. Looking back at the situation, I'm grateful we were able to walk-in and get tour passes without prior booking.
Our well meaning tour guide seemed equally flummoxed by the flurry of activity, shifting from pleasantries to terse directions about tour etiquette.
Once our group was assembled at the entry of this ground level canyon, the tour guide advised that this was not a photographer tour and no tripods would be allowed. Hearing an outburst of protests in many languages (this being an international destination), our guide quickly relented, saying, "Okay, fast with the tripods, but no f stops or that stuff." A sense of relief and calm came over the group, punctuated by a few chuckles and looks of puzzlement.
Upper Antelope Canyon Endless Folds, NIKON D800E, f/14 @ 35 mm, 4s, ISO 200
"Fast" was a vast understatement, as our guide literally dragged and pushed the group through Upper Antelope Canyon. Admittedly, she pointed out some of the more intriguing formations and photo ops, even grabbing cameras and phones from the tourists to catch a quick point and shoot photo. As our group ripped through the canyon, I was a bit envious of some of the other tour groups. Somehow, they all seemed to be enjoying explanatory lectures on the geology and history of the area from their remarkably relaxed guides.
Upper Antelope Canyon Sculpted Walls, NIKON D800E, f/16 @ 35 mm, 3s, ISO 200
If there is really a silver lining in every cloud, ours was the excellent overhead skylight and radiant glow of the striated Navajo Sandstone walls. Ironically, the endless foot traffic had stirred up lots of dust (fine sand) into the air. With the thick dusty air as a "natural" filter, I was fortunate enough to capture one of my only acceptable photos of a canyon light beam photos to date .
Lower Antelope Canyon Aged to Perfection, NIKON D800E, f/16 @ 50 mm, 3s, ISO 400
What a unique "man made" opportunity in an otherwise unadulterated setting - winding canyon walls sculpted by years of erosion.
In all fairness, Upper Antelope Canyon also offers more slowly paced photographer tours, including those on slower weekdays. Time-wise, I was simply unable to schedule this kind of tour along with my longer photographer's tour at the lower canyon that same day.
VIDEO: Lower Antelope Canyon End of Hike, NIKON D800E
So, on balance, it was a memorable outing and I am most grateful to have a few photographs from both Upper and Lower Antelope Canyons. Despite the rush and significant challenges of the afternoon, these iconic slot canyons remain one of my favorite places for abstract captures of a true geological wonderland.
"The wilderness and the idea of wilderness is one of the permanent homes of the human spirit." - Joseph Wood Krutch Writer, critic and naturalist
Our Coyote Gulch hike was an incredible experience, exposing us to vast sand dunes, a winding streambed, waterfalls and an enormous shelter arch. The hike was more strenuous than we anticipated, mainly due to the steep incline of our return hike up a massive sand dune (total elevation gain of approximately 1,500 feet).
NIKON D800E,f/18 @ 17 mm, 1/60, ISO 200
Our movement through Coyote Gulch was also slow, as we traversed a number of massive boulders, strewn logs and water pools. Waterfalls and dry falls also required us to ascend to the upper ridgeways. Despite an early morning start, we were always aware of the time and the early sundown in February. We concluded that it would be best to be well out of gulch area before nightfall, even though we were equipped with headlamps and rations.
My adventurous son-in-law, Todd Severson, did a terrific job of mapping out the hike, considering a number of options for safe (meaning “non-technical” for this photographer’s sake) entry in Coyote Gulch. Ultimately, we opted to enter the Coyote Gulch via the Crack-in-the-Wall, a narrow slit rock parallel to the cliff wall. The name of this entry point was interesting enough, not to mention the extremely tight passageway (21 inches wide) and trailhead access by aptly named Hole-in-the-Rock road (leading to Forty Mile Ridge Road).
NIKON D800E,f/16 @ 20 mm, 1/60, ISO 640
A handheld GPS and Google Earth maps helped us navigate the plateau of slick rock and drifting sand, leading us directly to the Crack-in-the-Wall formation. Once we cleared this passageway, we found ourselves on a steep sand dune with a remarkable bird’s eye view of enormous rock monoliths, Coyote Gulch and the Escalante River. Hiking down the dunes, we encountered another party of two overnight hikers – the first people we had seen since entering the park the day before.
NIKON D800E,f/16 @ 30 mm, 1/500, ISO 400
Continuing our descent on the dunes, we were thrilled to see the spectacular Steven’s Arch. With an opening of some 220 feet across and varnished rock walls, this formation is truly a sight to behold. Escalante is home to other arches, including Jacob Hamlin Arch in Coyote Gulch and Broken Bow Arch in Willow Gulch.
Despite rather harsh mid-day light, we also managed to capture some images of Steven’s Arch and the amazing geology of Coyote Gulch.
We returned to our SUV sore and tired, with sand in our eyes and ears. That said, it was all so “worth it” and we’re talking about a return trip to this amazing stretch of the Grand Stair Case, Escalante, Utah.
<<< Video of Todd at Crack In the Wall
Related postings: Grand Staircase – Escalante Part 1: Trip Itinerary, Grand Staircase - Escalante Part 2: Zebra Canyon and Red Breaks, White Pockets at Paria Canyon – Vermilion Cliffs, Glen Canyon Recreation Area (Alstrom Point at Lake Powell), Arizona-Utah Border and Utah Landscape Photography.
Marcus W. Reinkensmeyer
Landscape photography techniques, photo expedition travel planning and hiking tips.