Thursday, April 14, 2011

Photographing Mesquite Flat Dunes in Death Valley National Park

Mesquite Flat Dunes at sunrise.
The Mesquite Flat Dunes are often referred to as Stovepipe Wells Dunes due to their close proximity to the town.  They are located about 2.2 miles east of Stovepipe Wells, to the north of CA 190.

The dunes are a popular draw to hikers, photographers, sand dune surfers, and more.  As a result, the dunes can get tracked up in a hurry, much to the frustration of photographers.

Though evening can provide excellent photography result with colorful skies to the north, sunrise is the ideal time to photograph the dunes.  The biggest reason for this is simply the tracks in the sand.  As the dunes are very popular during the day, evening finds the area victim to the evidence of all these visitors.  If you are lucky, overnight winds will erase such evidence, allowing you a fresh start in the early hours.

Sand ripples at Mesquite Flat Dunes
Clear skies at sunrise offer numerous photographic opportunities.  Early light turns the dunes golden, and ripple patterns in the sand are highlighted with shadow definition.  Light is best 15 to 30 minutes after sunrise.

As the sun rises shadows become more pronounced and one can play with negative space between the dunes and line patterns.

I recommend finding an area not recently visited by others, and looking for a prominent spot with lots of texture and offering views of higher, more prominent dunes for you subject matter.  This will give you lots of options and you will be surprised at how quickly time flies!

As the sun rises higher in the morning sky, you can wander down into the depressions and find other interesting compositions.  Rock "tile" and mesquite trees and offer additional elements to play with.  They can be an additional element to your composition, offer isolation opportunities, or in the case of the rock "tile", offer very fun abstract possibilities!

Mesquite Flat Dunes in spring.
In contrast to clear mornings, overcast light flattens out the dunes and will diminish the contrast that defines shapes, texture and patterns.

Be sure and keep your eyes open for critters and animal tracks.  Sidewinder, deer and coyote tracks can be fun to encounter and offer interesting photo ops.  Lizards are also a common sight.

All lenses should be made available during your visit to the dunes.  Normal range and wide angle lenses will allow you to play with the ripple patterns in the sand and add depth to your composition.  Zoom lenses will allow you to isolate distant dunes and work around tracked up sand.  They will also allow you to play with shadows and negative space.

I recommend taking an evening walk to scout the area you wish to photograph, then return in the morning to shoot.  Again, cross your fingers for overnight winds to erase the previous days tracks.  When planning your visit to the dunes, try to time it after a windy day or night, or even during a windy morning (make sure to protect your camera).  My visits were during calm conditions and I found the amount of tracks to be extremely frustrating.

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