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Thursday, April 24, 2014

Carlsbad Caverns near Alamogordo New Mexico

One of the most interesting places to visit and the hardest to photograph is Carlsbad Caverns National Park in southeastern New Mexico. It’s 662 miles from Fort Collins and takes about 10 hours to get there, but worth every mile and minute. The cave itself lies tucked in the Guadalupe Mountains and there are more than 100 other caves that have been surveyed inside the boundary of the National Park. Formations within it’s known grottos include dazzling gypsum chandeliers, huge towering columns, sheet-like draperies, domes, millions of stalactites and stalagmites and even a bottomless pit. The BIG ROOM is 370 feet high and 14 acres in size. It’s the largest cave cave chamber in North America and the whole place is so incredible that it has been designated as a World Heritage Site.

You can enter the cavern by way of two self guided routes. The natural entrance is a one and a quarter mile steep trek that descends the equivalent  of a seventy nine story building. I’d highly recommend taking it because it gives you a unique perspective of discovery and allows time to adjust to cave photography. The Big Room can be accessed using an elevator or from the bottom of the natural entrance trail. The climate is cool and stays a constant 56 degrees. I took a jacket, but with all of the hiking and maneuvering while taking pictures it was just to much. Good boots are a must because of the steep and wet trails.

The entire place is beyond any words I could find to serve it justice.  It seems impossible to capture the full grandeur of the place on any but the smallest scale. Flash photography is pretty useless because the light is lost in its deep, ultra indigo vastness. The rooms are dimly lit and do provide enough light to take time exposures and yet that’s difficult too. A good tripod and cable release are the only way I found picture taking to be effective.  The cave lighting works to the photographers advantage and disadvantage.  Without it, there wouldn’t be any pictures to be had and you’d never find your way around the place.  On the other side, exposures necessary to capture the incredible formations are in the 10 to 30 second range.  Even the smallest amount of light in certain areas seem to be magnified and will burn out sections of an image.  I found that I had to stop down my Canon 7D two to three full stops in order counter burnouts. Hit and and miss were the order of the day so taking several exposures using different combinations was always necessary.  It was hard to change the settings on my camera because of the dim surroundings.  As always, practice with your photo gear and know how to make adjustments before taking on a big trek.  All in all, I took almost 1000 pictures in the course of the day with mixed results. There were however, a few keepers. Click

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The Great White Sand Dunes National Monument

White Sand Dunes - tricks to photograph

     Six hundred and twenty six miles south of Fort Collins, there's a place like no other place that I've photographed. The pristine white dunes of gypsum sand have covered about two hundred and seventy five miles of desert and when we arrived at White Sands National Monument in southern New Mexico last week to take pictures, we were blown away, sometimes quite literally.
      After a long drive, we arrived at Alamogordo about six in the evening.  Forty mph gusts were stirring up waves of dust for as far as you could see (which wasn't very far) and it looked like brewing thunderstorms on every horizon. Wayne and I decided to sit tight, check into a motel and grab some dinner rather than head out to the dunes for an evening sunset that didn't look very promising.  Although the monument's website said it opened at 8am, I thought it would be good to get there at sun up for some stunning sunrise images.  The alarm was set for 5:30 and the next morning dawned clear and windless.  Off to the dunes, but unlike the other parks I visit, this one locked the front gate.  There we sat for an hour and a half imagining how good another few winks of shut eye  would have felt.  It had rained violently during the night, and the dunes were pock marked with tiny craters that made for interesting pictures. The sky was a deep cerulean blue and the snow white gypsum painted a fairyland of waves against it.  In low lying areas, and occasionally on the dunes themselves, Soap-tree yucca plants grew and when photographed against the starkness of the environment made for incredible, artistic compositions. 
     Being the last of March, you wouldn't think that a desert could be so dry, especially with a hard rain the night before.  About 10 in the morning a light breeze began to stir from the west and the dunes began drying out.  The temperature eventually rose to seventy, but the wind steadily increased until gusts reached 40mph once again. We'd walk across the sand  and within a few minutes our tracks disappeared. I couldn't drink water fast enough and my lips, well let's just say Candi wouldn't have wanted to kiss them.  The place was incredibly hostile, but it was more beautiful than beautiful.  Every few steps seemed to create a new canvas and during the day I shot more than a 1000 images.   My photo hints  for a place like White Sands are to make sure you use a circular polarizing filter for contrast and let the waves in the dunes lead you into the picture.  Try to use interesting patterns of clouds to break up the expanse of sky and look for single plants trying to eke out a living as contrast to a never ending expanse of white.  Empty your hiking boots often, drink lots of water, use sunscreen and visit during the spring or fall when temperatures aren't too severe.  Click