Mesquite Sand Dunes

Ripples in the Mesquite Sand Dunes

Last month I visited the Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes in Death Valley National Park. I wrote about my Moon photography on the dunes, but I’d also like to share some of the photographs I made around sunrise and sunset.

Mesquite Dunes Before Dawn, Death Valley National Park

When photographing sand dunes, I like to emphasize the texture of the sand and the ripples of sand across the dunes created by the wind. The best time to do that is close to sunrise and sunset when the sun is low in the sky. At those times the sunlight skims over the top of the sand and creates shadows in the ripples, which adds contrast and brings out the shape of the ripples. In the middle of the day, the ripples of sand are blasted with light from above, so you lose the contrast and texture.

Sunset on the Mesquite Dunes, Death Valley National Park

The other thing I love about the sand at these times is the pattern of curving lines it creates. Here’s another photograph I made around sunset that really shows those lines.

Ripples on Mesquite Dunes, Death Valley National Park

The challenge of photographing the sand dunes in Death Valley, in particular the very popular and easily accessible Mesquite Dunes, is that they are covered with footprints! You have to hike out for a while to get to cleaner dunes, and even there you will find at least one or two foot paths. It is still possible to find clean areas for a composition, however. When I was at the dunes last month, what was really needed was a good wind storm to clear away the footprints and refresh the dunes. On one of my trips a few years ago, I was there during just such a windstorm, and it presented its own challenges! But the ongoing winds allowed me to make a photograph like the one below, where I captured a larger panorama of the area without having to worry about footprints all over the place.

I love visiting the sand dunes of Death Valley. In both calm and windy conditions, they offer lots of great opportunities to create beautiful photographs.

Tranquility on Mesquite Dunes, Death Valley National Park

A Late Moon

I have wanted to make photographs by moonlight for a while, and one of the places I wanted to do this photography was on the sand dunes in Death Valley. I made my first attempt last week, and I’d like to share some of my results and the story of the Moon’s late arrival.

Moon rising over the Mesquite Sand Dunes, Death Valley National Park

Moonlight is just reflected sunlight, and one of the problems with these kinds of photographs is that depending on the exposure you use, the photographs tend to come out looking like they were taken during the day. But with a different choice of exposure there can be something special about photographing by moonlight. Moonlit photographs can take on a very surreal effect, or they can have a very strong mood to them.

During my moonlight photography trip to Death Valley I decided to adjust my color balance so that my photographs would all have a blue color cast to them. This was not a complete departure from reality. In the darkness of moonlight, an overall blue feeling was perfectly reasonable and realistic in most cases, and it established the correct mood of the photographs. I also chose not to expose long enough to see a lot of detail in the shadows. Had I made a longer exposure, the photographs would have looked much more like daylight images.

Technical details aside, none of the photographs I’m sharing here would have been possible without the Moon, and even though I knew when the Moon was supposed to rise, it was apparently running on its own schedule and decided to be late that night!

I hiked out on the Mesquite Sand Dunes in the late afternoon and made some photographs around sunset. Then I found where I wanted to be for the moonrise and settled in for the wait. I had looked up the moonrise time, which was 8:09 PM, so I had a few hours to wait.

Since it’s January, the sun had set early, and by 6:30 or 7:00 there was no sign of any light coming from the west. At this point, I was committed to staying until the Moon rose unless I wanted to hike back to the car in complete darkness with only a flashlight to guide me--not an appealing option. The whole reason I had come was to make the Moon photographs, so I wasn’t going anywhere, but as the time continued to pass and the temperature started to fall, I was thinking it would be nice just to leave and go home. After a short mental debate I would come back to my senses and continue to wait patiently.

At around 8:00, however, I started to worry because there was no sign of the Moon, which was supposed to be rising in nine minutes. I wasn’t truly worried because I knew the Moon was coming, but my mind started to play tricks on me. Is it really coming? Did I get the time wrong? Of course not. The moonrise time was based on a location of Furnace Creek, about 10-15 miles south of my position on the dunes. The time for me would have been essentially the same. By 8:00 there was not even a hint of twilight coming from the horizon, however. I’m not sure what I expected, but I thought there would at least be a small amount of light coming over the mountains by this time. So there I was, only nine minutes from the scheduled moonrise, out in complete darkness in the middle of the sand dunes with no sign of the Moon’s supposed arrival. Nothing.

Well, 8:09 came and went, and still nothing. What is going on here, I thought? Where is the Moon? All I could do was continue to wait. Finally, at around 8:20 or so, I started to see some light coming from the northeast horizon where I expected the Moon to rise. This photograph is from 8:27:

The Moon is just about to rise, Death Valley National Park

And at 8:30:

The Moon just beginning to rise, Death Valley National Park

The photograph at the start of the blog is from 8:33. Either the time was wrong on the calendar I was using, or the difference was caused by the difference in the apparent height of the horizon due to my location versus what it would be at Furnace Creek. In any case, the Moon had finally arrived, and now I was in business. It was really great. I had the Moon in my viewfinder zoomed in, and I watched it creep above the mountains until the whole Moon was visible. In all of my photographs, I allowed the Moon to overexpose to a white circle, but I also made this photograph correctly exposed for the Moon itself:

The Moon, Death Valley National Park

The Moon was not quite full that night, and you can see the well-defined craters on the top part of the image where the Moon starts to fall into shadow.

I moved around and made a few more photographs, like this one:

The Moon over the Mesquite Sand Dunes, Death Valley National Park

When the Moon got too high in the sky to be in my frame, I started to head back to my car--another adventure. At least I had the light of the Moon to guide me. I knew the general direction I needed to go. If I went in that direction I would run into the road, even if I was not right at my car. Navigating the sand dunes by moonlight for 30 minutes, however, meant I’d have to be very lucky to end up right at my car. Well, that’s exactly what happened. I thought I was close to the road, but I wasn’t sure. Then a car drove by, so I knew I was very close. I saw a strange shape ahead, and it looked to me like the underpass of a bridge. I have no idea why it looked like that, but in that light that’s what I saw. I didn’t remember a bridge being anywhere near where I was. My mind started playing tricks on me again. Could I be that far off course? When I got a few steps closer, however, I recognized the shape of my car! Somehow I ended up exactly where I needed to be.

The Moon may have been late that night, but it was great fun making these photographs, and I look forward to doing more of this kind of photography in other locations.

The Moon peaks through a desert plant in the sand dunes of Death Valley National Park.