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

Reading the Sky

I think I’m developing an uncanny ability to read the sky. I can tell when the sunset is going to be spectacular. As a landscape photographer, I am very interested in having beautiful skies with color and just the right kind of clouds in my photographs.

Five Palm Trees at Sunset, Palm Springs, CA

One afternoon a week or so ago, I looked out the window and saw the sky. It was still at least a couple of hours before sunset, but I thought to myself, if these clouds stay like this, it’s going to be an amazing sunset. The clouds did remain, and sure enough the sky was lit up with bright orange followed by deep magenta and red expanses of cloud formations. It was really amazing. Here’s an example of what I’m talking about.

Orange and yellow fill the sky at sunset.

I went to Palm Springs last month to photograph some of the landscape there. My primary goal was to make some photographs of palm trees, since they are so closely associated with Palm Springs. I had a couple of ideas in mind. I liked the idea of silhouetting the palm trees against the sky. I also wanted to make some photographs that featured both the palm trees and the surrounding mountains.

For the silhouettes, It didn’t matter to me what the sky was doing as long as there was deep color in it. For that, I simply had to photograph in the right direction at the right time. This is one of my results.

Palm Tree Silhouette, Palm Springs, CA

For the mountain photographs, I wanted to have a more interesting sky. On the day I was preparing to make my palm tree and mountain photographs, it was overcast all day. That wasn’t going to be good for my photography that evening. But I never give up in landscape photography, because you never know what can happen.

Later in the afternoon it was still overcast, and no shadows were being cast by any objects because of the fully diffuse light. I noticed a change in the conditions, however. At times the shadows of objects started to become more well-defined--still very hazy, but at least discernible. I looked up, and my sky reading ability kicked in. Even though the sun was still behind the clouds, enough light was filtering through to form these faint shadows. Yes, the clouds were just beginning to thin out. If this kept up without going too far, there would be enough light coming through to illuminate the clouds from below, and that would produce a beautiful display at sunset. I continued my wait now with guarded optimism and excitement for what might be coming.

I found my location and got situated 45 minutes before sunset. The conditions were similar to what they were an hour or two earlier, and I now had much higher expectations for the sunset. The mountains to the west block the sun long before the actual sunset time, and because I was located so close to the mountains, I could not see what was happening in the sky behind them. I waited patiently until the light show began, and it did begin! I started by making the photograph at the top of this blog. At this point the sunset light is mostly orange and yellow because the sun is still above the true horizon. I can’t see it because it’s blocked by the mountains, but the beautiful light was extensive enough for me to see it in the clouds above the mountains.

Three Palm Trees at Sunset, Palm Springs CA

Ten to fifteen minutes later, the sun had set, and now it was lighting up the clouds from below with beautiful magenta and red colors. Here’s the photograph I made then. I love when the sky puts on this kind of light show at sunrise or sunset. This time I anticipated these sky conditions, and thankfully they developed and allowed me to make these photographs.

Sunrise, Sunset - Bryce Canyon National Park

I last visited Bryce Canyon National Park almost three years ago. Bryce is an other-worldly place of hoodoos and other colorful, sculpted rock formations. When I make landscape photographs, I especially like to photograph at sunrise and sunset because the light is best at those times. During this trip to Bryce Canyon, I decided to create two panoramic photographs from the same location--one at sunrise, and one at sunset. Here’s the sunset photograph, which I made first.

Bryce Point Sunset, Bryce Canyon National Park

When I arrived at the viewpoint, the sky was cloudy and mostly blocking the sun. The entire landscape was in shadow, and these conditions were not good for the photograph I wanted to make. One thing I’ve learned from landscape photography, however, is to have patience. I’ve also learned that the sky conditions can change quickly, especially at sunset. It wasn’t completely overcast, and if the clouds broke enough to let some sunlight through, it would be a really good opportunity for a beautiful photograph. After an anxious wait, while the sun was still just above the horizon, the clouds started to break and the sun came through. The clouds above were lit up creating a beautiful sky, and the landscape on the southeast side of the canyon was glowing a deep orange color. My patience paid off, and I was very happy with the photograph I was able to make.

The next morning I returned, but unfortunately the clouds were completely blocking the sun. I couldn’t get what I wanted that morning, but I returned the following morning. It was perfectly clear that second morning, and now the sun was casting its early morning golden orange glow on the Bryce Canyon amphitheater to the northwest.

Bryce Point Sunrise, Bryce Canyon National Park

It’s really interesting to me to compare the two photographs. I like them both for different reasons. I like the way the sun lights up the landscape at sunrise. At sunset we get some of that light, but we also have a much more dramatic and interesting sky. The feel of the photographs is completely different, which I find fascinating. If you think about it, what’s the difference between sunrise and sunset? At both times, the sun is low in the sky, and the landscape fills with yellow, red, and orange colors. But when I look at these two photographs, they feel completely different. The sunset photograph feels like sunset. That couldn’t be sunrise. I don’t know why. And the sunrise photograph feels like sunrise. It feels like the start of the new day. Maybe it’s just me because I was there, but when I look at these photographs, those are some of the feelings I get from them. Whether you get those feelings from them or not, I hope you enjoy viewing these photographs.

The Colors of Sunset

One of the most enjoyable aspects of watching a sunset is experiencing the different colors that appear in the sky. I made the photograph below from the Watchman Trail in Zion National Park a couple weeks ago.

The Watchman, Zion National Park

Many sunsets are orange, yellow, and red, but other colors are possible depending on the sky conditions. Because of the arrangement of clouds this night in Zion, the sunset featured the colors pink and blue. I was excited to be going to Zion on this day because the skies were partly to mostly cloudy. On days like that, the sun may have an opportunity to light up the clouds from below just after sunset. In this case, the distribution and thickness of the cloud cover created these interesting colors.

Around the Watchman itself, the clouds were thinner, and the pink sky of dusk illuminated the clouds from behind. Meanwhile, the other half of the sky had thicker cloud cover, and that’s where the sun was setting. Not much light was shining through those clouds, and the deeper shadows created the blue color in that part of the sky.

Clouds make all the difference in landscape photography. Here’s a photograph I made a couple years ago from a similar location. This photograph has a completely different feel to it because of the different light and colors created by the clouds.

The Watchman over Springdale, Zion National Park

Without the clouds and the beautiful colors they help produce, I had to create interest in my photograph in other ways. For example, that night I chose to make my photograph a little earlier so I could include the sun in the frame. As a result, the photograph has a completely different color pallette from the one above.

That’s another one of the great things about landscape photography. Returning repeatedly to a beautiful place creates opportunities to make different kinds of photographs of the same subject. I was very happy to return to the Watchman Trail in Zion National Park to make a new photograph of one of my favorite mountains in the park.