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Located west of Alamogordo, N.M., White Sands National Monument is the world's largest gypsum dune field, a surreal high-desert landscape created by the erosion of water-soluble gypsum deposits in the nearby San Andreas Mountains over thousands of years. This natural wonder extends over 275 square miles of the Tularosa Basin in the Chihuahuan Desert and is a landscape perpetually in flux, as winds continually shift and reshape the dunes.
The high-desert climate, approximately 4,000 feet in elevation, is generally warm and arid, with average high temperatures ranging from the mid-50s in winter months to the upper 90s in the peak of summer. Low temperatures are mild in the warmer months, and though temperatures can fall below freezing in the winter, snow is rare. Wind is the dominant weather condition, with some windstorms prevailing as long as several days during the windiest months, from February through May.
Walking through the dunes is an unforgettable experience; often there are no other footprints ahead—no people, no plants—nothing but wind-created ripples and the occasional gemsbok tracks. Every crest and dip in the dunes present another amazing photo opportunity. It's so peaceful and isolated here that you just want to keep seeing what's over the next rise. I spend a lot of time here with a wide-angle lens as close to the dunes as possible (often with my chin in the sand) to accentuate the lines and curves and to create a greater depth of field. This is a perfect environment to play with tilt-shift lenses, too. I travel mostly with my Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III, a Gitzo carbon-fiber tripod and the Canon 17mm, 24-105mm, 70-200mm and tilt-shift TS-E 24mm lenses. I use the 70-200mm lens for compressing the scene and capturing the details of the moon and distant terrain. I also use a Lee 2- or 3-stop neutral-density filter to control some of the more contrasty exposures and to assure I get all the details. I carry a B+W circular polarizer, although I'm miserly with its use—especially with a wide-angle lens.
If you can plan your trip for a couple of days prior to a full moon, you'll have the opportunity to capture the moonrise, which is a magical experience here. The park gates open at sunrise, but if you call a day ahead, you can make arrangements for the park rangers to open the gates for you an hour early for a $50 fee—well worth it to get in early and be situated for the glorious sunrise. Another option is to camp in one of the 10 first-come, first-served primitive campsites inside the park. When daylight begins to fade, the shadows and lines in the dunes become more pronounced, and the whole area takes on a mystical glow. The dunes reflect the colors of the sky and the sands take on a reddish-pink hue. The monsoon season during July and August creates perfect conditions for amazing cloud formations and dramatic sunsets. And the chill of fall brings with it the changing colors of the cottonwoods, which are scattered among the dunes. The orange-red colors provide a vibrant contrast against the stark white dunes. If you're lucky enough to be here in the winter after a snow, the sand is damp and pale tan, contrasting with patches of pure white snow. It's absolutely silent, and the feeling of immense open space is overwhelming.
Contact: White Sands National Monument, (575) 479-6124, www.nps.gov/whsa.
Some of the most dramatic compositions at White Sands are made by positioning the camera close to the ground and shooting with a wide-angle lens. Because the best times of the day to shoot here are when the light is low, you need a tripod that can spread out to get the camera down as low as possible.
The Really Right Stuff Versa tripods feature carbon-fiber legs, top-quality materials and thoughtful design, making them intuitive to use. There are several models with varying capacities and sizes. The TVC-33 has a maximum load capacity of 50 pounds while weighing just 4.25 pounds (without a head). All Really Right Stuff products are made in California. Estimated Street Price: $925. Contact: Really Right Stuff, reallyrightstuff.com.