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White Sands Fine Art –A Minimalist Approach to Beauty
What makes White Sands so special? First off, the “sand dunes” are not truly sand but white gypsum that can reflect the colors of the sky). White Sands is an interesting mix of sands, ridges, and shadows which creates an out-of-world experience. I share in my Trip Report to White Sands some of the challenges to taking pictures of White Sands, including finding areas that are void of footprints and how to take photos of the ripples in the sand dunes.
How do you create amazing White Sands photography? Fine art photographs of the wind-blown sands are fascinating in their simplicity and can have an abstract art appearance. The landscape can be very minimal…. just sand and sky. This minimalist appearance can work in your favor as it brings the viewer’s focus directly to your subject. For example, fine art photography from White Sands often includes photographs of the Yucca plant as its unique shape and color provide an interesting contrast to the minimalist background—white sand dunes and pastel skies.
This, of course, brings to mind the question for you, the viewer and purchaser, what exactly is fine art landscape photography and what is its significance? I address this in my article, What Does Fine Art Photography Mean. Fine art photography is more than just being able to take a technically good photo….it is about using the camera as a tool to create a work of art… a photograph… that reveals more than just what the eye can see…. it captures the mood of the moment and “transports” you, the viewer, out from where you are standing to another place. It is greater than documenting what the photographer sees in front of the camera lens….it is capturing the seen and unseen beauty of the landscape in front of you.
My biggest tip to creating White Sands fine art photography: To create intimate scenes in the midst of vast expanses of the white dunes you need to keep it simple. A single Yucca on a sand dune at sunrise can appear lonely and yet, it seems personal—you feel as if it wants to speak to you. Photographs of Yucca plants symbolize survival…how do they grow in all that sand... and the photographs can capture their standing tall strength.
The fine art landscape photographs in my White Sands gallery capture sand dunes of gypsum, breathtaking sunsets, windblown patterns in the sand, and the beauty that comes from survival in the midst of challenging circumstances. My Limited Edition, Museum Quality White Sands photographs are available as Fine Art Prints and would make a welcome addition to your fine art collection.
Visiting and Photographing White Sands National Park
White Sands National Park is not one of the National Parks that immediately comes to mind when you’re thinking about going to one of our 63 national parks. The park is in a remote area of southern New Mexico between the cities of Alamogordo and Las Cruces. It’s about 15 minutes west of Alamogordo and 45 minutes east of Las Cruces.
Also, close to Las Cruces are the Organ Mountains. These mountains are stunning and have many compositional possibilities of their own. I was there in December for the low sun angles on the dunes, which did not appear to be the best time of the year for sun angles to shoot the mountains. I may have to find time to go back in the Spring.
Las Cruces is the larger of the two cities and the one I prefer when staying to photograph White Sands. For me, when staying somewhere for a week, I enjoy the larger selection of hotels and restaurants of the bigger city. Yes, there is the 45-minute drive to the park twice a day, but I don’t know of many places where that isn’t the case anyway.
The biggest difference between White Sands and other National Parks is that it is not open 24 hours every day. The park is adjacent to the White Sands Missile Range and the Holloman Air Force Base. The Missile Range still conducts their activities today and the Park is required to be closed during those tests as items from these tests can fall into the park.
For fine art landscape photography, one usually enters a National Park at least an hour before sunrise to get set up. Here the park does not open until sometime around sunrise and closes shortly after sunset. Fortunately, they have a permit system that allows photographers to purchase early-entry or late-exit permits. These need to be applied for at least a month in advance. They are well worth it and the only way to photograph early light on the dunes.
The white gypsum sand is substantially different from the beige-colored sand at places like Death Valley National Park, Great Sand Dunes National Park, or any other collection of sand dunes out west. The only other white sand dunes that I know of are on the coast of the Florida panhandle near Pensacola, Florida.
There are extensive hiking opportunities in the park for visitors, who also have fun sliding down the dunes on small sleds. Of course, this results in many footprints and heavily tracked areas that do not work well for photography. I was fortunate enough to have a day of high winds during my trip. This cleaned off most of the footprints and resulted in some great images. If you live not too far away, watch the weather for the wind forecast and plan accordingly.
Hiking on the dunes
The vast majority of the dunes are quite firm and easy to walk on. The dunes in Death Valley, by comparison, can be very soft like beach sand. At the same time, the sand is soft enough to kneel on to get those photographs from a low perspective. It really is just right.
I found that I had to hike out away from the road and search for areas that did not have tracks. If there were just a few tracks, those can be removed. It took a day of exploring just to find out where some good spots were. I also found the early morning light to be better than the light at the end of the day. The sun peaks just above the low horizon in the morning but is blocked by the mountains at the end of the day. Even the pre-sunrise light on the dunes was pretty special.
When heading out into the dunes, I recommend having both a super-wide zoom and a standard zoom. As a shooter of the Nikon Z7II mirrorless system, I have both the 14-30mm and 24-120mm lenses. I have them attached to two camera bodies so I don’t have to change lenses in the sandy environment. It’s a place where shooting super-wide at 14mm is so much fun.
Every day when I headed back to the park, I wondered if I would be able to come away with something new and different. To my surprise and joy, I did. As a landscape photographer, if you want something a little different along with the chance to capture great images, head down to White Sands National Park.
Fun Facts about White Sands National Park
In 1933, President Hoover designated White Sands National Monument. It continued as a National Monument for many years and in 2018 a bill was introduced in Congress to designate it as a National Park. Things can move a little slow at the Federal level, but everything fell into place with the signing of the bill on December 20, 2020, by President Donald Trump.
The Park is a vast field of gypsum crystals and dunes that averages 30 feet deep and is the largest gypsum field of its kind on Earth. The Park protects 115 square miles of the dunes with another 160 square miles being inside the White Sands Missile Range to the north.
Temperatures range widely, like any desert environment, with highs well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer and lows in the low 20s in the winter. Only about 10 inches of rain falls on the Park during the year, with about two-thirds of that falling between June and September.
The stark desert scenes and environment have resulted in quite a few motion pictures using the Park for filming locations. These include Hang ‘Em High (1968), Star Wars (1977), Young Guns II (1990), Transformers (2007), and quite a few more. Add to these television commercials and music videos and it has been a very busy place.
Other than photography, visitors take part in hiking and sledding down the dunes. The gypsum crystal sand is so white that it almost looks like people sledding on snow. It’s like snow in the desert!
White Sands National Park may not be a household name, it’s out of the way of most of the typical travel routes, and it’s different than any other National Park. With its history, amazing scenery, and all there is to do, it should be on anyone’s list.