Step Aside and Let Nature Do Its Thing

Gary Hart Photography: Nature's Curves, Mesquite Flat Dunes, Death Valley

Nature’s Curves, Mesquite Flat Dunes, Death Valley
Sony a7RIV
Sony 24-105 G
1 second
ISO 125

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.

* Since this is my fantasy, I’ve chartered a spaceship that accommodates all of humankind and travels at 90 percent of the speed of light. While Earth has indeed aged 100 years during our holiday, we travelers return only a year older. (Dubious? Don’t take my word for it, ask Albert Einstein.)

Sand Dune Splendor

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Assembly Required

Gary Hart Photography: Dune Patterns, Mesquite Dunes, Death Valley

Dune Patterns, Mesquite Dunes, Death Valley
Sony a7RIV
Sony 100-400 GM
1/30 second
ISO 100

Some images are so obvious that all you need to do is frame the scene and click; others require a little assembly.

For example

There was a lot going on visually in this January sunrise at Mesquite Flat Dunes in Death Valley—some of it good, some of it not so good. The not-so-good was the sky, which was clear and infinitely blue—great for being outside, but lousy for photography. The good was the parallel arcs etched in the pristine sand, and the play of light on the dunes’ clean lines and sweeping curves.

My problem this morning was assembling all of this good stuff into a coherent photo. I usually start by finding something to anchor my scene, then construct an image around that anchor using positioning, focal length, and framing. But out on the dunes I couldn’t find a satisfying anchor and my muse was floundering without it. Compounding the difficulty, because I was out there with my Death Valley workshop group, my mobility was limited because when you move through someone’s frame, your footprints become a permanent stain in their scene.

Rather than concede defeat and settle for something not worthy of the morning’s beauty, I switched to my Sony 100-400 GM lens (on my Sony a7RIV), zoomed to 400mm, and slowly panned the dunes in long, sweeping, horizontal arcs, hoping to find the composition that had eluded me so far. The secret to this approach is to pan slowly and disengage conscious thought, allowing my unconscious to guide my eye until something stops it (easier said than done, but surprisingly effective when I can clear my mind). The element in this scene that stopped me was the large sunlit dune at least a mile away.

I started with compositions that emphasized the large dune at the expense of foreground sharpness. That was okay, but when I briefly focused on wind-etched ridges of nearby sand about 100 yards away, the spectacular patterns and intricate detail grabbed my eye and didn’t let go. Reluctant to give up the distant dune that had drawn me in the first place, I stopped all the way down to f/22, computed the hyperfocal distance with a hyperfocal app on my phone, and tried a variety of focus points before finally surrendering to the fact that I couldn’t get both the foreground and background sharp in one frame.

Today, most photographers would simply shoot two frames and blend them in post, a perfectly valid and ridiculously simple solution that (sadly) gives me no satisfaction. So I went the other way and used the limited depth of field to my advantage. Realizing that it was the distant dune’s shape that most appealed to me, not its detail, I went instead for a soft background that focused the frame’s primary attention on the exquisite detail in the nearby sand while retaining the background’s soft shapes and shadows.

I opened my lens to f/5.6, its widest aperture at 400mm, and focused near the middle of the nearby slope. This gave me a front-to-back range of sharpness of nearly 60 feet (according to my hyperfocal app)—enough to keep the entire slope sharp, a fact I later confirmed by magnifying my capture in my mirrorless viewfinder and moving the view around. I also confirmed that the softness of background dunes was sufficient to be clearly intentional (rather than a just-missed focus error).

In addition to using a soft background to emphasize detail on the closest dune slope, I slightly underexposed the entire scene to render the shaded mountainside in the extreme distance extremely dark. The nearly black background created contrast contrast that helped the dunes stand out even better, and virtually eliminated unattractive ruts and ravines in the barren brown slope.

A Death Valley Gallery

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Watch your back

Gary Hart Photography: Painted Dunes, Mesquite Flat Dunes, Death Valley

Painted Dunes, Mesquite Flat Dunes, Death Valley
Sony a7R II
Sony/Zeiss 16-35 f4
.4 seconds
ISO 100

Every once in a while we find ourselves at just the right place when Mother Nature delivers something special. When that happens, the best thing to do is stay calm and keep your head on a swivel.

In January my Death Valley workshop group had one of those moments. We’d walked almost a mile to get out to dunes that hadn’t been trampled, then waited while a sky that was solid overcast broke up just as the sun dipped below the horizon. The result was about ten minutes of horizon-to-horizon red that at its peak painted the dunes as well.

We’d been watching a hole in the clouds to our north shift in our direction, and I started to get an inkling that the ingredients were there for a vivid sunset about fifteen minutes earlier, when peaks in the northeast, then the clouds overhead, started to glow with warm, late light. I’d been using my 70-200 telephoto lens to isolate areas of the dunes, but realized that if the sky did indeed light up, I’d almost certainly want something wider and switched to my 16-35. I also encouraged everyone to do the same, and to anticipate the color and identify sunset compositions now, before it happened. Shortly thereafter we got our first hints of pink and the show was on.

That evening was a great example of something I preach in my workshops: No matter how great the scene you’re photographing, every once in a while take a few seconds to look around. On this evening I was excitedly photographing in one direction when I realized everyone in the group was photographing in the opposite direction. Turning to admonish them, I saw what they were photographing and shut up, quickly aiming my camera in that direction instead.

Read more about that evening, and see a picture of the other direction, here: Finding  a new sandbox.

Sunset color

As I’ve written before, the ingredients for sunset (or sunrise) color are clouds, direct sunlight, and clean air (the cleaner the better). The idea that polluted or dusty air is good for sunset is a myth. (If that were true, Los Angeles and Beijing would be know for their sunsets, not Hawaii or the Caribbean.)

The red you see at sunset is the only color remaining after the white sunlight we see at midday has been stripped of all other wavelengths. It’s actually a rather interesting process (to me at least) that you can read more about here: Sunset Color.

Schedule of upcoming photo workshops

A gallery of sunset magic

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Improve your relationships

Gary Hart Photography: Sand and Sky, Mesquite Flat Dunes, Death Valley

Sand and Sky, Mesquite Flat Dunes, Death Valley
Sony a7R II
Sony/Zeiss 16-35 f4
.4 seconds
ISO 100

Following a nice sunrise on the dunes, my workshop group had started the undulating trek back to the cars. While we hadn’t gotten a lot of color that morning, we’d been blessed with virgin sand beneath a translucent layer of clouds. Quite content with the soft, low contrast light for most of the morning, right toward the end the sun snuck through to deliver high contrast, light-skimming drama that provided about five minutes of completely different photo opportunities. But the sun had left and it was time to go.

Camera gear secured and backpack hefted onto my shoulders, I pivoted with my mind already on our next stop. But my plan to beeline back to the cars was interrupted when I turned and saw that fingers of cirrus clouds had snuck up behind us. It wasn’t just the clouds, it was the way their shape was mirrored by the pristine, ribbed sand that started at my feet and climbed the dune in front of me.

I quickly dropped my bag and pulled out my a7RII and 16-35. Despite my rush, before extending my tripod, I paused to study the scene. As nice as it was, I realized there were a couple of things I could do to improve it. First I circled the dune until the clouds and ripples were more closely aligned. A good start, but at eye level, the barren slope of Tucki Mountain was too prominent in the frame. I found that by dropping my tripod to about a foot above the sand, I could perfectly frame the dune with the mountain.

I composed my frame at 16mm, as wide as my lens would go, to emphasize the nearby sand, make the dune appear much larger than it really was, and give the clouds enough room to spread. To ensure sufficient depth of field, I stopped down to f16 and manually focused about two feet into the frame. While I thought a vertical orientation would be the best way to move my viewers’ eyes from front to back and to emphasize the linear nature of the parallel clouds and sand, before packing up I captured a couple of horizontal frames too.

I think the lesson here is how easy it is to miss opportunities to control the foreground/background relationships in our scenes. With my group already on its way back to the cars, I was in a hurry and could have very easily snapped off a couple of frames from where I stood when I saw the scene. Instead, I took just a little more time to align my visual elements. Despite my delay, I made it back to the cars with the rest of the group (no chance of anyone getting lost, since the cars were visible from the dunes)—I was a little more out of breath than I otherwise would have been, but that was a sacrifice I was happy to make.

Often the difference between an image that’s merely a well executed rendering of a beautiful scene, and an image that stands out for the (often missed) aspects of the natural world it reveals, are the relationships that connect the scene’s disparate elements.

In this case I only had to move a few feet to align the ridges in the sand with the clouds. But more than an alignment of sand and sky, dropping to the ground enabled me to reduce a less appealing middle-ground and replace it with much more interesting foreground and background. If I’d have dropped even lower, I could have hidden the mountain entirely, but I liked the way its outline mimicked the dune’s outline, and decided to leave in just enough mountain to frame the dune.

The next time you work on a composition, ask yourself what will change if  you were to reposition yourself. And don’t forget all the different ways that can happen—not just by moving left or right and between horizontal and vertical, but also by moving up and down, and forward and backward. Not to mention all the possible combinations of those shifts.

Photo workshop schedule

A gallery of relationships in nature

(Images with a not-so-accidental positioning of elements)

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Sand Storm, Mesquite Flat Dunes, Death Valley

Sandstorm, Mesquite Flat Dunes, Death Valley

*    *    *    *

Read my February 9 blog for more about this amazing evening on the dunes.


For nearly an hour my workshop group played in relative peace on the dunes, but about fifteen minutes before sunset the clouds dropped and our window of calm slammed shut. Just like that sand was everywhere, invading every camera, clothing, and exposed body orifice. After a few minutes of extreme photography packed up and started traipsing in the diminishing light in the general direction of the highway. Not only was the visibility limited, the tracks we’d just left and that might have guided us back to the cars had already been all but erased. But despite the difficulty it was impossible to ignore the photo opportunities brought by these new conditions and most in the group continued shooting until we were off the sand.

Looking east I saw the crest of Red Top, the tallest of the Death Valley Buttes, poking through the blowing sand, hovering like a spaceship above the dunes.  I moved around a bit until I found a complementary foreground of aligned ripples and curved ridges. Wanting to ensure that the exquisite sand at my feet was sharp I closed down to f16; to capture the steady stream of sand blowing parallel to the dunes I experimented with ISO/shutter combinations before finding the effect that worked. (And said a prayer of thanks to Gitzo and Really Right Stuff for keeping everything stable.)

Contrast the color of the sand between this image and the image in my February 9 blog. The earlier image was partially warmed by rays of unfiltered sunlight breaking through gaps in the clouds; today’s image is entirely illuminated by cool, diffused light spread by the thick clouds overhead. It’s a good reminder that color isn’t simply an inherent quality of an object, but rather is a function of the object and the light illuminating it. While white balancing a scene to ensure a fixed color cast might be great for a wedding (God forbid you get Aunt Mabel’s dress wrong), it can rob landscapes of the very qualities that make them special.

Incoming Storm, Mesquite Flat Dunes, Death Valley

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Pure as the driven sand

Incoming Storm, Mesquite Flat Dunes, Death Valley

Storm Brewing, Mesquite Flat Dunes, Death Valley
Canon EOS-5D Mark III
21 mm
1/6 second
ISO 400

February 2013

Sand dunes’ graceful curves and intricate textures move and intrigue the eye, and few things better convey nature’s purity than a windswept dune. Ironically, it’s the dunes’ aesthetic magnetism that hastens their demise as photographic subjects—their fragile sand, so easily sculpted by Mother Nature’s fickle winds, is hopelessly marred by any contact with the humans drawn by their beauty.

While Death Valley has several sets of dunes, by virtue of their ease of access, the most popular by far are the Mesquite Flat Dunes near Stovepipe Wells. Every day hundreds (thousands?) of gawkers seeking a closer look trudge up and down the undulating sand—with each footstep a small amount of purity is lost. Fortunately, it’s rarely long before Mother Natures has had enough and sends in scouring winds that erase the scars like a shaken Etch-A-Sketch.

This year’s Death Valley workshops landed in the middle of an extended static without significant wind, so I knew pristine sand would be hard to find. To minimize the footprints I take my groups to a spot that’s away from the tourist foot traffic, but this time I knew that wouldn’t be enough. Nevertheless we gave it a shot and managed to find enough patches of untouched sand to isolate with a telephoto and everyone was satisfied. Except me.

So when a stiff wind kicked up the afternoon of our final full day in Death Valley I took them back out to the dunes with fingers crossed. On our drive from Furnace Creek the cars were buffeted by gusts and the entire northern horizon was obscured by dark clouds that I soon realized were in part blowing sand—a very good sign indeed. I pulled up to a spot I’d scouted a few days earlier, far removed from the paved parking area and tall dunes that draw people, and surveyed the conditions. The wind whipped anything not buttoned down and pewter clouds were rapidly overtaking the late afternoon light skimming the Cottonwood Mountains.

The group prepared for strong wind and blowing sand similar to the way we’d prepare to photograph in the rain, but in the five minutes it took to get onto the dunes the wind had mysteriously diminished to an eery calm. Before us spread pure, rippled sand for as far as the eye could see. And except for one distant photographer who quickly passed out of sight, we were the only people out there.

Fearing a shotgun approach to setting the group free would result in inadvertent footprints marring the scenes of others, I gathered everyone and suggested that we move together and agree to stay behind a predetermined imaginary line. The problem, I explained, wasn’t just staying out of everyone’s frame, it was that each step in the sand would ruin all shots in that direction. So they all followed me until I found a nice scene with a good amount variety, which we all photographed for a few minutes before I guided them to another scene. After two or three of these cycles, it seemed everyone had become comfortable enough with the environment and the ground rules that we could scatter without interfering.

I have to say that there is no kind of photography that makes me happier than what we did that evening. With virgin, textured sand and a dramatic, rapidly changing sky, the creative possibilities were off the charts. Surveying the group, it was clear that everyone was as thrilled as I was, each fully engaged in their own photographic zone. I kept telling them that they had no idea how lucky they were to be photographing these dunes without a single footprint, but I’m not sure anyone was listening at that point.

About this image

Most successful images provide a clear path for the eye to follow, or an obvious place for the eye to rest—often both. With sand dunes, so much visual motion (curves and lines) and activity (texture) makes a visual resting point particularly important. The first place I stopped the group was in front of this solitary shrub atop a low, curving ridge of sand. The scene had all the compositional elements you could ask for: elegantly arcing sand, rich texture, a dramatic sky, and a potential focal point. After pointing all this out and encouraging the group to assemble the key elements into a composition that resonates with them, I was pleased to see lenses of all focal lengths, horizontal and vertical compositions, and lots of repositioning to arrange foreground and background relationships.

Surveying the scene for myself, I noticed clouds moving in from the north painted a texture overhead that complemented the ridged sand at my feet. The filtered sunlight on the western horizon, while waning, was still sufficient to warm the scene. Finding the sand and sky equally appealing, and the shrub more interesting for its lofty perch than its inherent beauty, I tried to identify a composition that incorporated these elements.

To emphasize the foreground and sky, and to shrink the shrub, I twisted on my widest lens and dropped to about a foot above the sand. A vertical composition allied the dune’s parallel ridges with the frame’s long side to move the eye from front to back and created the impression that the entire world is converging on my little shrub. The vertical composition also narrowed the frame enough to eliminate incongruous clouds lowering on my left and right. I stopped-down to f22 and focused about three feet in front of my lens, ensuring perfect close sharpness and acceptable distant sharpness. A soft breeze swayed the shrub intermittently so I bumped to ISO 400 to allow a faster shutter speed.

In typical Death Valley fashion, it never did rain that evening. As the storm approached, all menace and bluster, our cocoon of calmness soon gave way to sand-whipping, tripod-tipping winds that lowered a cloudy shroud onto the Death Valley Buttes and Funeral Mountains to the east, cooling the light and creating an altogether different mood (that I’ll share in a future post).

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A Death Valley Gallery

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Death Valley Winter Moon Photo Workshop

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