Last week I went to the Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado with my good friend and fellow photographer Lance Roth. We ended up going there just to get wind battered and beaten, and to have our pockets and camera bags filled with sand. The dunes are a special and unique place for me. Sometimes they provide a peaceful, majestic and almost surreal experience and sometimes they beat me up and send me home with nothing but gritty camera equipment. This trip was more or less the latter...
I knew it was going to be quite the experience when we saw a massive storm front moving in over the San Luis Valley on our way in. I pulled over and rushed to set up the camera. I had no idea it would come in so fast. I snapped this quick photo just to check composition before setting up the large format camera for a real shot, but as just a minute passed the storm was already upon us and it was snowing hard. The scene looked nothing like this anymore as a crack of thunder echoed above us. That's right, thundersnow... At least I have learned how quickly these storms roll in and I can try to get a shot if these conditions ever happen again. All I got this time was a wet camera.
We made our way to the dunes just a little later. They were now covered in patchy snow and very wet, which makes them a dark, dull brown color that has never really appealed to me photographically. We made our way up them anyway. The snow was quickly melting and the weather was peaceful. We had some time before the light would get better so I tried my hand at a quick time lapse just for fun. These are not something I normally do but I love the way the cloud shadows move about the dunes so I gave it a try.
Right as I finished up, it came: the wind. Howling, relentless wind. We both were quickly startled by a harsh blast of sand to the face and had to get up and moving. The wind is both a blessing and a curse at the sand dunes. It can make for dramatic photos of blowing sand but it also makes everything difficult, painful and covered in sand. The dunes were still frozen from the winter so there were no finely chiseled crests like you see in this photo below from a few years ago.
We still soldiered on for a while. I was so glad to have ski goggles on but Lance was not so fortunate. Here's a quick video of the conditions: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gb6S-T2SI9U
And here's a cool photo Lance took of me as I tried to photograph in the wind, you can barely see me from the knees down.
I was completely unable to use the large format camera in the winds and blowing sand and resorted to my trusty medium format camera to finish out the afternoon.
We kept at it for a few hours and then headed back down to camp for the night. We awoke for sunrise and started climbing back up, but now the wind had died down a bit and I was finally able to set up the large format camera. My favorite thing about the dunes is the simplicity of their shape, and my best compositions there are often visually simple and usually don't show the mountains that surround the dunefield. This makes for abstract images that give me a much deeper feeling for the place, without a real sense of location as if the image could have been taken in any exotic desert location. When I came upon this pristine wall of sand before sunrise I knew I had my location. The skies were empty, but just a few clouds moved in as the sun inched over the mountains behind me. There is a special moment of soft light that happens for just a few seconds as the sun peaks over a mountain, so I pulled the shutter release and got this.
After sunrise, we made our way down the dunes and took the scenic route back home including a stop at Zapata falls which were mostly frozen but starting to thaw out. All in all, it was a pretty good trip. Even when the dunes don't work out too well for photography I always have a good time!
I want to start writing about my photographic travels to give everyone some insight into the life of a landscape photographer so you will probably see more trip reports like this from me.