Behind The Shot: Desert Waves

Mesquite Dunes, Death Valley National Park, California
Behind The Shot: Desert Waves—Mesquite Dunes, Death Valley National Park, California

Photo By Jennifer Fraser

Right light, right place, right equipment, right settings—how many of these conditions ever happen by chance? When all come together by luck, it really seems like magic. That wasn’t the case with this image, however; this was an image I “stalked.”

To prepare for this image, I planned a trip to Mesquite Dunes near Stovepipe Wells, in California’s Death Valley National Park, in midweek of early spring, hoping I’d avoid the crowds. The afternoon before the shot, I drove by the dunes to figure out where I should park the next morning and to estimate how long it would take to drive from my campsite in order to get there at least an hour before dawn to hike out and set up. I drove back, checked the chart for sunrise time and set my alarm clock.

The next early morning I pocketed my Rocket Air Blaster, in case of blowing sand, and headed out. I drove to the site counting the miles, parked, turned on my headlamp and walked out in the direction of the dunes. The only factor I hadn’t accounted for was the difficulty of trudging up dunes in deep sand for half a mile, but I certainly was alone!

Fortunately, a wind had come up the previous night, blowing away many of the footprints, and as the predawn light seeped into the sky, the ridges in the sand began to appear in deep shadow.

I set up my tripod and discovered that the lower the tripod, the more dramatic the ridges. Focusing a third of the way into the distance to maximize depth of field, I began shooting, making sure to bracket the shots. Every minute the changing light created new angles, new shadows, new compositions, and I was dizzy with the possibilities. When the sun came over the mountain, the parking lot began to fill up, as hikers and photographers flooded in. That was okay—I was packing up by then.

It was certainly one of the most magical photographic experiences I’ve had. The shots required very little post-processing in Photoshop: converting to black and white, adjusting the shadows for a true black and deciding whether or not to keep the tiny rock in shadow on the left. I kept it.

Nikon D800, AF-S Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8 ED. Exposure: 1/60 sec., f/11, ISO 125.

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