New Mexico Waves

The Scene

The largest pure gypsum dune field in the world lies in southern New Mexico’s Tularosa Basin and approximately 115 square miles of the field are contained in White Sands National Monument. I had admired several wonderful black and white photographs recorded by Edward Weston and Ansel Adams in this area. One photo that I thought was particularly strong was an image where Ansel photographed a beautifully shaped sand dune and emphasized its shape by rendering the dune’s shadowed areas in deep, strong tones. That photo was exciting and caused me to want to visit the White Sands area to try my hand at photographing dunes. I eventually got a chance to spend part of a day there.

One distinctive feature of the dunes is the enormous amount of brilliant white light that is reflected by the gypsum. I recall reading that Ansel used colored filters to darken and deepen shadows in the dunes. Once I got a firsthand look at the bright white gypsum and saw its intense reflections, I realized why filtration was useful for strengthening the dune’s shadows. That is, strong reflections by the gypsum directed light into shadowed areas of the dunes and “weakened” the shadows considerably. Using a colored filter “strengthened” the shadows by reducing their brightness.


My first impression was that a photograph should emphasize the white gypsum and the beautiful shapes of the dunes. As I studied the terrain, I concluded that a good composition could be achieved by contrasting the bright gypsum in the basin and the dark mountains far away. Realizing that sand dunes constantly change, I decided to compose an image which suggested that the terrain was composed of waves flowing across the earth’s surface. Of course, sand dunes are indeed transient as a result of the blowing wind and they indeed “flow,” albeit on a longer time scale than liquid water. I visualized a narrow image that did not include much foreground or sky since the emphasis was on the flow of solid terrain across the image.

I located a beautifully shaped dune for the foreground to “define” the scene and positioned my tripod as high as I could to see the tops of as many other dunes as possible. I thought the composition was sexy and was quite happy with it.

I put my longest lens (305 mm) on the 4×5 camera to compress the distance between the dunes and far mountains. I knew that I would use a colored contrast filter to enhance the dune shapes by darkening their shadowed areas. I also needed the filter to cut through atmospheric haze to render the far mountains with greater clarity since they were an integral part of the image’s “wave motion.” I contemplated using a strong red filter to deepen shadows greatly but realized that it would not preserve the feeling of brightness in the gypsum dunes. I ultimately decided to use a light orange filter to darken the dune shadows only moderately but cut atmospheric haze enough to record structural detail in the distant mountains.

The air was still so adequate depth-of-field was obtained easily by using a long shutter speed with a fairly small f-stop. Proper exposure and development of the film were critical since the dark mountains and bright dunes both required plenty of detail to make the image rich. Fortunately, I can place a colored filter over the barrel of my spot meter to determine its exact effect on every section of a scene. I planned an exposure with slightly increased film development (to increase image contrast) to achieve better separation of the dark mountains and bright dunes yet still retain plenty of detail in both areas.


As usual, I previewed the film on my drum scanner using a low resolution scan before conducting a high-resolution scan. The film looked a bit flat and its histogram showed that indeed it was a little flat. One of the major advantages of a Howtek drum scanner with Digital PhotoLab software is its ability to control the scanner’s hardware. This allows the operator to make hardware adjustments prior to scanning rather than adjusting the image data with software after a scan has been completed. After evaluating the low resolution preview scan, I instructed the scanner hardware to increase image contrast slightly and separate the darkest tones a bit more and then I acquired a high resolution digital file with my usual resolution of 5,000 dpi and 16-bit pixel depth.

Viewing the scanned image data on the computer monitor with PhotoShop showed that it looked good. However, numerous careful edits were required since crucial detail was needed in both highlights and dark tones of the image.

First, I cropped sky and foreground areas which would “dilute” the basic subject of the photograph – the flow of beautifully shaped sand dunes across the Tularosa Basin. This meant that I used only about 1.5inch x 5inch of the 4inch x 5inch film but it was planned from the beginning so I cropped the film as needed.

I carefully expanded image contrast slightly with a levels adjustment. Next, I applied a curve adjustment to shift tonal values slightly, being particularly careful with the darkest and brightest areas of the image. I ended up making at least half a dozen small edits to the curve as I cycled through test prints to get the dark and bright areas just right.

Then, I performed local dodging (lightening) and burning (darkening) to several areas of the dunes to emphasize their shapes. Finally, I brightened the white clouds slightly and increased the uniformity of the sky across the image width.

I printed this film several years ago in the wet darkroom and toned that print with selenium as I did nearly all silver prints. Selenium toning effectively enhanced all of my darkroom prints but the effect on this particular image was especially strong. I deduced that this occurred because brightness values in the image are separated quite distinctly since highlights/midtones only occupied the dunes/sky whereas dark shadows only occupied the mountains. That is, selenium intensification occurred mostly in the dark mountains (where the majority of silver was located) so, among other things, toning applied more color to the dark mountains than the dunes or sky.

Even though the color difference was subtle, it seemed to make the distant mountains “stand out” from the dune field. Restating this in terms related to the terrain, selenium toning made the mountains “rise” from the dune field and become more distinct from the sand dunes. Since this effect was logical for the scene, selenium toning strengthened the print substantially.

I was anxious to print the same film digitally using the drum-scanned file and a 12-ink, 44-inch wide inkjet printer (HP Z3100). The Z3100 is a nearly trouble-free printer that uses 3-4 black inks to produce high quality black & white prints. One of its features that I find to be particularly useful for black & white printing is the ability to tone highlights, midtones and dark tones individually.

Whereas the selenium toned darkroom print contained only one tone (in varying amounts for different print areas), digital printing could apply different tones to different areas of the print (so-called split toning). I envisioned applying one color to highlight/midtone areas and a different color to shadows. I expected that two different tones would cause the distant mountains to stand out from the dunes/sky more prominently than the case of a selenium toned darkroom print where only one tone was applied. I suspected this would make the mountains rise more distinctly from the dune field and thus create a greater feeling of depth in the image.

I experimented with several color combinations and seemed to achieve the best result when highlights/midtones were given a very subtle warm tone and shadows were given a very subtle cool tone. The amounts of color that were applied to the image were quite small and not observable unless the print is placed directly beside a more neutral print. That is, the print still looks like a black and white print when hung on the wall and few people notice the colors even when they are pointed out to them.

However, the influence of split toning on separating the mountains and dune field in this photo was huge. Split toning definitely caused the distant mountains to rise from the dune field more prominently and greatly increase the perception of depth in the image. Unfortunately for readers of this blog, toning was applied during printing so the image presented on the web here is not toned. To see the effect of split toning on the print, you have to look at an actual print.

I have printed this image at many different sizes and believe that it looks best when printed fairly large (say, 26-34 inch wide). At such a large size, it is easy to observe numerous details in both the sand dunes and the distant mountains. I framed a 34 inch wide print in a 40 inch wide frame and hung it above a fireplace mantel. The image shape works nicely at that location and its size fills the mantel space luxuriously.


The emphasis of this photograph was the beautiful shapes of the white sand dunes and their “flow” within the Tularosa Basin. I believe the print is quite beautiful and definitely has a feeling of transience in the dune field of the basin along with stability in the adjacent mountains which rise above the basin. Of course, the tiny image displayed on the web shows few details in the dunes or the dark mountains. As is the case for split toning, those features are crucial to image quality but an original print must be seen to appreciate them.

My sister-in-law reminded me that New Mexico is land locked and suggested that I name this image, “New Mexico Waves.” That was a good idea.

Any comments you might have on this image, the photographic approach used for it, the image composition or the workup of the film will be appreciated. For a slightly better view of this image, visit here.

Randall R Bresee

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