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Winter's Dawn, Mesquite Dunes, Death Valley

Posted by
Don Smith (California, United States) on 11 February 2011 in Landscape & Rural.


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Sand Dunes have always held my fascination. Not that I have visited many, but I have resided near the the coast my entire life and used to spend hours exploring the dunes near Monterey, California as a child. When I got a bit older, my brother-in-law built a dune buggy and we'd head off to nearby Marina for some fun (those dunes are now off-limits to any human form - if only I was a snowy plover)!

Death Valley (the site of today's image) was my first experience with dessert dunes. The Mesquite Dunes near Stovepipe Wells is an awesome example of eons of wind creating a magnificent site. The largest dune (center) is called Star Dune and is relatively stable and stationary because it is at a point where the various winds that shape the dunes converge. The depth of the sand at its crest is 130–140 feet (40–43 m) but this is small compared to other dunes in the area that have sand depths of up to 600–700 feet (180–210 m) deep.

The primary source of the dune sands is probably the Cottonwood Mountains which lie to the north and northwest. The tiny grains of quartz and feldspar that form the sinuous sculptures that make up this dune field began as much larger pieces of solid rock. Eons of wind have served to form the present-day dunes.

In between many of the dunes are stands of creosote bush and some mesquite on the sand and on dried mud, which used to cover this part of the valley before the dunes intruded (mesquite was the dominant plant here before the sand dunes but creosote does much better in the sand dune conditions).

The dunes are perhaps the number one attraction for visitors to the Valley, which in turn, make it hard for photographers to find pristine sand. Wind is what is needed to sweep the dunes clean but is not always present. Though this particular dune line served to lead my viewer's eye through the frame, it was unfortunately scarred by a set of footprints to the left of the ridge line.

I captured this scene prior to sunrise with two other photographers while assisting Gary Hart in his annual Winter Death Valley workshop. While the majority of our group worked atop a dune to the right of this frame, a couple of workshop participants asked if we could walk here. I called out to the group that I was going and anyone was welcomed to join me.

I opted to photograph this scene with my 24 mm tilt/shift lens as I felt it was extremely important to hold sharp focus from foreground to background. As the rising sun neared the horizon, the stratus clouds lit uniformly and I made my frame. I used a Singh-Ray 2-stop hard edged graduated neutral density filter to balance the sky with the dunes.

Fortunately the footprints fell along the shadow side of the dune thus minimizing their appearance. I only allowed a small portion of the shadowed side of the dune to fill the frame as shadows hold a lot of visual weight. Had I tried to center the line or move it more towards the right side of the frame, the shadow (and it's accompanying visual weight) would have increased and made the frame appear off-balance. Careful placement of the two creosote bushes on the bottom right of the frame helped to further balance the overall scene (and shadow).

Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III 2 seconds F/16.0 ISO 250 24 mm

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