Once upon a time, my most frequently asked question was some version of, “Did you put that leaf (or whatever) there?” (No.) When digital photography and Photoshop processing started to gather momentum, those questions expanded to whether or not I added the moon or the Milky Way to an image. (Again, no.) And now, with effortless sky replacement, any beautiful sunset seems to generate dubious looks. Sigh.
As discouraging as this cynicism is, given the number of photographers who seem willing to manipulate the natural world, viewers of today’s images have every right to be skeptical of their origin. But nature photography’s prime objective should to reveal natural beauty—and when we succeed, viewers’ first reaction shouldn’t be skepticism.
Order vs. chaos
The main reason I’ve always resisted manipulating scenes and manufacturing images is that I try to approach my photography with the mindset that Nature is inherently ordered and unimprovable. Sometimes natural beauty slaps us in the face; other times we have to look a little harder. But I’m afraid in a world where humans go to great lengths to suppress fires, divert rivers, raze forests, and in countless other ways try to control, contain, and otherwise manage the natural world, we’ve fostered the arrogant mindset that we can do it better.
When Nature gets “out of control,” we label it chaos and try to “fix” it. But what humans perceive as “chaos” is actually just a manifestation of the universe’s inexorable push toward natural order. I mean, think about it: Imagine that all humans leave Earth for an extended tour of the Milky Way. While we’re gone, no lawns are mowed, no buildings maintained, no fires extinguished, no floods controlled, no Starbucks built. Let’s say we return in 100 Earth years*. While the state of things upon our return would no doubt be perceived as chaotic, the reality is that our planet would in fact be closer to its natural state. And the longer we’re away, the more human-imposed “order” would be replaced by natural order—and I dare say, more beautiful.
I’m thinking about all this because there’s nothing like a visit to pristine sand dunes to remind a person that Nature doesn’t need our help when it comes to creating beauty. The exquisite choreography of dipping and soaring arcs, lines, and parallel grooves that form naturally when sand, wind, and gravity combine and are left alone is both beautiful and humbling.
I got my most recent dose of sand dune splendor last week, when I guided my Death Valley workshop group out onto the Mesquite Flat Dunes. Given their proximity to the highway and the tiny enclave of Stovepipe Wells, these dunes are almost aways swarmed by people and stained by enduring footprints. To avoid both, I take my groups on a one-mile cross-country (no trail) hike out to a spot much more likely to reward us with virgin sand.
When last week’s visit delivered as hoped, we made the trek twice—once for sunset, and again the next morning for sunrise. The sunset shoot featured a gorgeous red sky in all directions that had everyone spinning in circles to avoid missing something. But I actually enjoyed our sunrise shoot even more, when an 80-percent cloud cover created a natural softbox that let the dunes do their elegant thing.
It was still completely dark when we parked and started our morning hike—dark enough that I just kind of pointed my headlamp in the general direction I wanted to go, confident that it didn’t really matter exactly where in the dunes we’d end up. Because footprints in sand are forever (in the context of a 90 minute photoshoot), part of my job is finding a spot where we can all set up in relatively close proximity, then to play traffic cop to ensure no one strays into sand that might be photo-worthy. After scaling and descending several dunes, I finally paused atop an elevated sand platform. Surveying our surroundings in the first gray light of dawn, my eye was instantly drawn to a graceful serpentine ridge arcing across the face of the dune just opposite us. With enough space for the entire group, a view that spanned nearly 270 degrees, and a gorgeous foreground element, I decided that we’d found our spot.
One of the things I love about photographing sand dunes is that there are compositions for every lens in my bag, from my Sony 12-24 f/2.8 GM to the Sony 100-400 GM (and the Sony 200-600 if I hadn’t left it in the car). I played with several lenses before zeroing in on the arc that had originally grabbed my eye. For this feature I used my Sony 24-105 GM on my Sony a7RIV, starting fairly wide to include more dunes and some sky, then gradually zooming tighter to isolate the arc.
While I do all of my photography on a tripod, for dunes especially I like to take my camera off the tripod, put my eye to the viewfinder, and slowly scan the scene until something stops me. I can’t even tell you exactly why I stopped with this composition, except to say that it just felt right.
As these dunes illustrate (and I hope my image conveys), Nature creates the most astonishing beauty. I have no illusions I can improve on Nature’s offerings, but as long as I keep looking, I’m pretty confident that there’s enough naturally occurring beauty to keep me occupied for the rest of my life.
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.