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Desert Dream - Ibex Sand Dunes, Death Valley National Park

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The Dumont Dunes north of Baker, California are beautiful: long, sloping, graceful lines and curves, almost no vegetation, and made of gorgeously reflective silica sand. How heartbreaking it was when I arrived at the dunes, all a-twitter with excitement, only to find out that they are an off-road vehicle park. All those pristine dune faces I saw from a distance were, in actuality, covered with tire tracks. There wasn't a single untouched dune in the place. And having arrived at the dunes only an hour before sunset, I didn't have time to drive back to the Kelso Dunes in the Mojave, or to drive to the Mesquite Dunes north in Death Valley. Epic clouds were building for sunset and I felt like crying.


But not one to sit around and curse the fates, I decided to do a little exploring, and set off down Harry Wade road into the very southern tip of Death Valley. After what felt like 10 spine-jarring, teeth-rattling miles of washboard road where I was searching frantically for some interesting desert feature to shoot, I happened to glance to my right and saw something amazing off in the distance: sand dunes.


SAND DUNES!! I yelled, and leapt out of the car in my excitement. I had no idea how far away the dunes were, but nothing was going to stop me from shooting them. After 40 minutes of olympic-class speed walking, I arrived at the base of the dunes, and practically exploded with elation: no tire tracks, no vegetation, not even any footprints. These dunes were as pristine as it gets.


The next 30 minutes were some of the best I've ever had as a photographer. It was one of those nights when you think all is lost and somehow it all just comes together beautifully in the end. You know what I mean: your heart is pounding, the blood is rushing through your veins, your A-game is on, and you can't keep yourself from shouting and smiling.


Though our workshop is still months away, thinking back to this trip has got me super pumped about teaching in Death Valley in November.



Tech Notes on this Photo


Nikon D300s

Tokina 12-24 mm @ 12 mm on a crop sensor

ISO200 - best dynamic respose of the D300

f/9 - nice, sharp sweet spot on my lens

2 sec

Lee 3-stop soft GND filter, handheld at an angle along the mountain ridge




In Raw Converter (Nikon Capture NX2)

- Processed single raw file three times, once for sky, once at +0.5ev for the foreground, and once at +0.3ev to beldn in to a dark corner of the sky in the upper right

- Global contrast for added pop

- Local contrast to add zip to the ridges

- Local contrast for color and clarity in the sky and mountains


In Photoshop:

- Blend of all three tiffs using layer masks, gradients, and hand brushing

- Selective sharpening of foreground patterns and mountains only

- Minor color correction to midground dunes

- Selective curves layer to reduce vignetting in lower corners

- Minor s-curve curves layer to add global contrast


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Taken on February 28, 2011