Behind The Shot: Sandblast Sunset At White Sands National Monument
Photo By Tim Williams

During the monsoon season of August 2015, I made my first trip to White Sands National Monument, accompanied by a great friend who had kindly invited me to join up for this adventure. The severity of the desert environment during the summer makes the concept of teamwork and mutual support a very wise mode of operation, and when you witness a display like we did that evening, you really are grateful to have a shared experience and someone to whom you can exclaim, “Is this real?” The lines and landforms were surreal, as was their interplay with the light. Remarkably, the image presented here was captured during our very first sunset at the location. Quite a welcome!

We’d intended to use the evening to get a “lay of the land” and perhaps identify interesting areas of the dune field to revisit. Late afternoon had been sweltering. Our tiny footprints on the 275 square miles of gypsum were made as we traversed a virtual heat reflector. Toward evening, after a nice period of softer light, things had turned decidedly dark, and cooler, which was welcomed. We ventured farther out. Now, the monsoonal weather pattern was about to teach us in dramatic fashion how quickly things can change.

Menacing darkness all around was punctuated by lightning from a billowing thunderhead off to our east. This was soon followed by a severe uptick in wind, as outflow from the storm reached us. The wind became gale force and bore a stinging mass of airborne sand. There was nothing to do but turn your back to it and brace yourself. Free dermabrasion! As we adjusted to this remarkable turn of events, hints of sunlight breaking through the cloud cover became apparent. The bursting forth of crepuscular rays seemed to happen all at once, creating a jaw-dropping, otherworldly scene across the dunescape. Severe wind or not, it was time to get the gear out!

Keeping hold of the tripod was a major factor, and I dared not let go. Even using the camera bag as weight, there was tripod movement. Despite the distant sunrays, the scene was actually rather dark overall, and the necessity for a higher ISO to obtain a shutter speed great enough to combat the windshake was evident. Thank goodness for modern full-frame sensors.

There was a dramatic bonus that came with the sandblasting: glowing against the darkness of the distant mountain range, a gleaming wall of sand that must have been hundreds of feet high. In fact, all of the cumulative airborne sand made the light rays that much more diffuse and magical. I found these wide, fanned beams and their interaction with the mountain layers to be one of my favorite shots from the event.

Needless to say, any discomfort was quickly forgotten while shooting this scene, and the trudge back out of the dunes after it subsided was quite satisfying. A memorable start to a great trip!

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Nikon D600, Tamron SP 70-300mm F/4-5.6 Di VC USD at 170mm, Induro CLT204 tripod and Induro BHD3 ballhead. Exposure: 1/125sec., ƒ/16, ISO 800.

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