Tag Archives: desert

Wonderful White Sands

Just where does the time go? I simply can’t believe a month has gone by since I last posted on here – mind you we have had the snow and I’ve been to Scotland, Greece and as for catching up with last years processing…..

That said one of the most memorable places I managed to spend a short time at during a trip to New Mexico which was principally focussed on Snow Geese and Sandhill Cranes, was White Sands National Monument: an extraordinary and quite unique desert landscape to the west of Alamogordo that I had long wanted to visit and top of my pile as I endeavour to catch up.

WS1

This dune field is one of the largest in the United States covering nearly three hundred square miles but is truly unique in that it instead of the more normal quartz based sands it is composed solely of gypsum, a different texture altogether and pure white in appearance.  Dissolved gypsum from the mountain ranges either side of the Tularosa basin where the dunes are is carried into the occasionally present Lake Lucero which is dry during the summer months each year.  The gypsum crystalises in the dry lakebed and strong winds blow them into the wonderful expanse of dunes that make up the area.

WS2

The wind plays a key role in shaping and changing not just the dune field as a whole but creating the lovely ripples and patterns that make it so photogenic: I’ve seen it described as the wind made visible which is a great concept.

Add in some of the plant life such as these soaptree yuccas that are surprisingly frequent here especially as you head to the fringes of the main dune area and you have even more photographic subject matter to work with.

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During the heart of the day when the sun is high there’s a harshness to the dunes that their inherent brightness exaggerates but enter the last hour of the day and the light that looks to tie plant and dune together has the warmth that really adds another element again.

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I can’t resist silhouettes as well so this particular plant just had to be photographed from the other direction too – taking great care not to add my size 10 footprints into the sand on the way round!

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Throughout the trip we were blessed with some amazing sunrises and sunsets – New Mexico is always good for these at this time of year in my experience but this week was exceptional.  White Sands is still an area for regular missile testing by the US military and a mere 60 miles or so from the famous Trinity site where the first atomic bombs were tested during the second world war but the peace and tranquility of the place as the chilly night air started to fall but the colours started to rise couldn’t have offered more of a contrast

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All that remained as the final colours faded was a subtle shift in white balance to accentuate the cooling that was happening.

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A bewitching location that absolutely lived up to my expectations photographically and one I certainly hope will be able to offer even more files to my processing pile in the future too!

A lesson in light

It seems that this is turning into an admin and preparation month: books to write, processing for commissioned projects to complete, and a couple of new projects and different dimensions to long-standing hides locally gradually getting in place and which will hopefully make the effort worthwhile as the autumn and winter finally arrive.

In amongst times though I’m still trying to catch up on some old unprocessed material from southern Africa last year and in the process found a folder from an ultimately enjoyable evening spent photographing Quiver Trees in southern Namibia, and a good and salutory lesson it proved in terms of both the importance of and the patience needed to wait for good light.

Quiver trees are an almost iconic landmark to be found when travelling in the northern Cape and southern Namibian region, although they are not actually trees.  Rather they are a member of the Aloe family and goth their more common name from the fact that their hollow branches are traditionally used by Bushmen as quivers for their arrows.  They survive in this arid region by a combination of a white reflective outer coating to their trunk and branches and leaves that act as storage units for what rainfall there is in the wet season.

We arrived at this unusually large collection as the afternoon was coming to a close and much to my initial disappointment a thick bank of cloud (the first we had seen in days) had rolled in as the day drew on meaning that although the setting and the magnificent plants were inspiring things just weren’t as I had hoped for.

Of course, as in all genres of outdoor photography, patience and the right light are the key to everything and I could see a thin band of clear sky on the horizon to the west so it was a question of sitting and waiting and hoping to be rewarded.

When the last rays of the days sun finally burst through the narrow window about an hour later the difference to the scene was simply stunning by comparison.

If ever a lesson were necessary to remind me of just how important light is this was it, and of course the presence of the cloud, a curse earlier, was now a blessing providing even more drama to the skies and the chance after the sun finally gave up the ghost for the day (it does drop ever so quickly here) to take full advantage of the colours created by silhouetting the trees, the last of these images being my personal favourite from the whole session.

When I eventually manage to get away from the shackles of the office to start the side of the job I love the best with camera in hand, unearthing this folder and reliving the emotional roller-coaster of the afternoon is a great reminder of the continued need for patience and working in the best light to do any subject justice, even as dramatic a one as these remarkable plants.

This time last year….

I’ve enjoyed August this year for a different reason to last.  This year it has been a month of r and r after a pretty much non-stop spell since 2012 began – and well appreciated it has been on my part too. Last year it was almost all spent travelling in southern Africa and as seems to be increasingly the case these days unless the images have a very specific purpose that they are heading off for, I still have a considerable amount of Gb still to look at let alone process from the 4 weeks on the road then.

Given that the same is on the cards for this time next year too I have started to catch up with some of the images before they simply get superseded and in particular some of the floral highlights.

As a country South Africa is globally important for it’s flowers and plant life – the southern cape fynbos habitat representing the smallest of only six floral kingdoms in the world and found only here.  I certainly found them colourful and also good perches for the birdlife I might find myself more naturally drawn towards such as this Southern Double Collared Sunbird.

Head further north on the way to Namibia though and you pass through the Namaqualand region in Northern Cape province – famous for it’s fantastic show of flowers in the Spring months.  The timing was just about right for this so we planned a couple of nights stop over both heading north as well as south again a couple of weeks later as the precise timing of the displays depends very much on when precisely the first winter rains fell and we couldn’t be sure when this would be when we were making plans several months earlier.  Last year proved though to be one of the best for many in terms of both quantity and also just how early the fantastic sweeps of colour, in particular the bright orange Namaqua Daisies, were to be found all around the region.

Simply driving on the main N7 trunk road you couldn’t fail to be awestruck by the sweeping vistas of colour – at it’s peak in the middle hours of the day when all the flowers would be fully open and pointing towards the sun – and marvel at how they provided such a dramatic contrast to the otherwise bare rock of the surrounding habitat. The fact that the ubiquitous water pumps were able to provide additional man-made element to some compositions is a reminder of just how dry an environment this is and how sparse it looks for the remaining 11 or so months of the year.

Photographing here is certainly about the big vista – judicious use of a polariser and dropping down to ground level added some different angles to work with too.

Having said that I particularly enjoyed the close-up, narrow depth of field and solid blocks of colour approach in some of the Spring woodland flower photography I did at home earlier in the year so this array of species and shades gave me the opportunity to try to adapt some of that here too – it was just a bit more uncomfortable on the elbows on rocky scree like this compared to the mud and leaves of an oak woodland!

Seeing and photographing amazing scenes like this is a good reminder that nature photography is about so much more than birds and mammals, and although they will always remain favourites of mine then continuing to broaden my approach will be as much of an equal priority for sure, and we’re certainly coming into a good season to be doing so here in the UK now too: bring on autumn!

In Search of Sand

So just where does a person who spends their working life photographing wildlife go for their summer holidays?  This year it was only one of the S’s that are on so many others lists and it was in search of sand, and where better for that than the deserts of southern Africa.

Sand here comes in many shapes, forms and sizes and it’s a landscape photographers dream when the light is working in your favour.

Abandoned mining settlements like Kolmanskop are a reminder too of it’s power – here it’s taken over the houses in a matter of decades.

In a way that I was drawn to the patterns the wind made in the windblown ridges of snow in Yellowstone earlier in the year, I found myself constantly drawn to the visual record of a landscape permanently on the move.

It also comes in a wide variety of colours too, and in the Sossusvlei area of southern Namibia the textbook rich reds take over from the more sandy colours to be found further south.

This is a much photographed corner of the continent for sure and I guess that’s what made it feel more like a holiday than work as I know there will be little commercial return on images taken here: it made an early morning session with the trees at Dead Vlei, an afternoon seeking the wonderful contrasts that low light gives on such enormous dunes and the appreciation that the subtle light of dusk brings to completely change the atmosphere of the place nothing more than the pure pleasure being in such an extraordinary place should be.

But I can’t keep away from wildlife wherever I go and as stunning (and unusual) as it was to see Sossus Vlei itself full of water, it was the presence of Avocets in these desert oases that drew my attention and time – waders in the desert: who’d have planned for that?

With the iconic Gemsbok or Oryx also on hand to ofer the classic picture postcard type shot this sandy break was one that this wildlife photographer couldn’t help but enjoy.

For now it’s back to work though and after a monster catch up (this trip was nearly 4 weeks and covered lots more besides as I hope to touch on in further posts) a week in Norway with Musk Ox and Sea-Eagles beckons: it’s a tough life for some!