Pic of the Week 9/9/16: Milky Way Over White Sands National Monument

September 09, 2016  •  2 Comments

I had planned to be away for Labor Day. After all, three-day weekends don’t come along very often. The question was where did I want to go? I was between two locations first the Guadalupe Mountains and then White Sands. Both were an 8hr drive, but after talking with my friend who was joining me on the trip we settled for White Sands. Resting in the Tularosa basin between the Sand Andres and Sacramento mountain ranges, White Sands National Monument is home to the largest gypsum dune field in the world. The sand dunes extend for an impressive 275 square miles. Thousands of years of erosion of selenite crystals formed the dunes. They are quite spectacular to say the least.

Our plan was to arrive at the visitor center early in order to reserve our campsite. We pulled in to the parking lot about 40 minutes before they opened and there were already people waiting in line. They only have ten campsites and they are done on a first come first serve basis. Camping at White Sands was a unique experience. I don’t think I’ve ever felt more isolated. The campsites are located in between the sand dunes and staring out at the dune field at night was intimidating. They seemed to go on forever and if you didn’t know your location you could very easily get lost. Luckily, that didn’t happen to us. After scouting out our campsite and potential locations for sunset, we drove back into town to kill some time. We didn’t want to be out there all day with our limited supply of food and water.

When we arrived at White Sands to hike in a set up camp it was late afternoon and the sun was beating down on our faces. The sand, while beautiful, made the perfect reflector to the sun’s harsh light and intense heat. It was so bright you needed to wear sunglasses to keep your eyes from getting burned. And the heat coming off the dunes made you feel like you were being cooked in an oven. We gathered up all our gear and made the arduous journey to our camp. The hike is not long (less than a mile), but with 40+lbs of gear and traversing large sand dunes it was strenuous. We reached our campsite just before 6pm. We set up our tent and immediately began to search for locations for the milky way. After a few hours we decided on our spot and went off to photograph the sunset. The sunset was amazing. Beautiful orange/red light was stretching across the sky and softly reflecting off our sand dunes. I shot so many photos during this time. Once the sun sank below the horizon it was time to get ready for our milky way photos.

We found our location earlier in the day and marked it with our footprints. Since no one else came by our location we were certain the footprints were ours. We set up our tripods and cameras and waited for the stars to come out. A waxing crescent moon was setting and giving our foreground a nice soft glow. I made a blue hour exposure just before dark in case I needed to for later—and it turns out I did. We photographed the milky way for a few hours before the galactic center fell below our horizon behind the mountains. This made for an excellent timelapse sequence. When we finished our timelapse we turned in for the night hoping to get some rest for tomorrow. The wind really picked up at this point and sand was being blasted along our tent. The gusts were strong enough to keep the tent shaking and moving all night. It was difficult to sleep, but I knew it was all going to be worth it in the end.

I had an idea for the type of shot I wanted to share first. I knew it was going to be the milky way photo with the sand dunes and when I started my preliminary processing I couldn’t get the detail I wanted for the foreground. So I went back to my blue hour exposure and blended it into the image. This gave me some great detail in the foreground. You can see the ripples and that great curvature in the sand much better and it brings the image a little closer to what my eyes actually saw. It was such an awesome time and we came home with some inspiring pictures. I can’t wait to share the rest of them!  


Milkyway at White Sands National Monument. © Ben Jacobi


Magical and wonderful
Mike Hicks(non-registered)
Very cool! Never been there but looks like I should add it to the bucket list.
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