Black Sand Dunes At White Sands

The Scene

The largest pure gypsum dune field in the world lies in the Tularosa Basin of New Mexico and approximately 115 square miles of the field are located in White Sands National Monument. An especially notable feature of the sand is its brilliant white appearance.

A black & white photograph which featured the white sand was discussed in a previous blog on January 6, 2011. The bright gypsum dunes in that photo were contrasted with the dark mountains far away. The image was named “New Mexico Waves” to emphasize the transient nature of sand dunes as wind causes them to “flow” like water.

While at White Sands National Monument, I made a photograph using a different approach that will be discussed in today’s blog. My goal was to render the bright sand in very dark tones for the photo. To accomplish that, the photo emphasized shadowed areas of the dunes and the shadows were deepened substantially.

Many things are relative and photographers know that a particular object at a scene can be rendered bright if placed next to a darker object or rendered dark if placed next to a brighter object. This was an important key to rendering the dunes very dark in today’s photograph. Implementing the “relative brightness” idea at White Sands National Monument was challenging since the brilliant white gypsum dunes were easily the brightest objects in the area. What object could be placed next to the dunes to render them very dark in a photograph? The only option was to contrast the sand dunes with themselves. That is, I could place relatively dark shadow areas next to relatively bright sunlit areas of the dunes.

After all, Ansel Adams, Edward Weston and many others made beautiful sand dune photographs which contained dark shadowed areas. My goal was a bit different, however, because I wanted to render nearly all of the dunes very dark.

I realized that it would be best if the sun was behind the dunes and the camera faced the dunes and the sun. Then, most dune shadows would face the camera and I might be able to locate a dune area which was tilted to the sun at an angle that reflected much sunlight. In other words, I would take advantage of the old optical law, “the angle of incidence equals the angle of reflection” to locate a sufficiently bright dune area that could be placed next to dune shadows to render them in very dark tones.


The “relative brightness” idea made sense in theory but I wondered how well it would work in practice. A light meter provided information about that so I searched for a suitable location until I found one that I thought might work. It had plenty of dune shadows which faced me. As is the case with most shadows, these were colored slightly blue since they were illuminated mostly by blue skylight rather than direct sunlight. The location also had a broad, flat area of sand that reflected sunlight strongly toward me. The bright sand was more neutral colored than the dune shadows since it was illuminated mostly by white sunlight.

I made a few readings with a light meter and realized that the relative brightness idea might actually work because brightness values of shadowed and bright sand differed by several Zones (f-stops). When I placed the darkest dune shadows on Zone I (nearly pure black), the bright sunlit area fell on Zones IV (slightly darker than middle gray) and V (middle gray). Since I was at White Sands National Monument, I needed to render the bright sand considerably brighter. That is, image contrast needed to be increased substantially if the photograph was to succeed.

I apologize in advance for the diversion that follows in the next nine paragraphs.

The web is replete with arguments about which photographic approaches are superior to others. For example, many people argue that digital cameras are better than film cameras or vice versa. To me, these arguments are senseless without considering the specific photographic task to be achieved with the camera. I’ll have to admit, however, that I sometimes enter the fracas when people claim that film will soon be dead because digital cameras simply outperform film cameras.

A similar argument was made about painting 150 years ago. However, painting remains a viable artistic approach even though people claimed that the invention of photography would lead to the demise of painting. Each artistic approach has advantages and disadvantages and the same thing applies to cameras.

I have a long history in digital imaging for scientific applications that dates back to the days when digital imaging was only black & white. I spent many years developing computer controls to automate digital imaging and worked at both standard speeds and very high speeds (using pulsed laser illumination). However, I prefer to use a view camera with black & white film for my personal photography work because I enjoy the superb controls offered by a view camera, the benefits of film and the abstract nature of black & white images.

My current workflow consists of exposing large format black & white film, drum scanning the film and then editing/printing digitally. An advantage of this workflow is that it provides four different opportunities to modify contrast in images that require it. All of these opportunities were used to make today’s photograph as discussed below.

First, shooting black & white allowed me to increase contrast during exposure by placing a colored contrast filter over the camera lens. A dark red filter was used because it blocked much light from dune shadows (since they were colored blue) but blocked less light from the bright sand area (since it was neutral white). The filter produced less exposure for shadows (they were darkened a lot) than for the bright sand area (it was darkened only a little) so image contrast was increased overall. I believe the red filter increased contrast by one Zone (one f-stop) for today’s photograph.

Second, shooting black & white film allowed me to increase contrast by increasing film development time. I developed the film for today’s photograph N+2 to increase contrast of the brightest areas two Zones (two f-stops). The brightest image areas were clouds and the bright sand was less bright so the brightest clouds were brightened two Zones and the bright sand was brightened approximately one Zone (one f-stop).

Third, contrast was increased while the film was scanned to obtain a digital image. Most scanners vary contrast using software after scanning is completed but my Howtek drum scanner uses Digital PhotoLab software to adjust scanner hardware during scanning. This is a serious advantage compared to most film scanners. The bright sand was brightened one Zone (one f-stop) during scanning.

My digital image file was now ready for the fourth and final method of contrast enhancement which involved digital software editing using PhotoShop as one can do with any digital image.

It is important to realize that image modifications generally produce better technical results if they are performed sooner rather than later in the photographic process. Shooting black & white film for today’s photo provided three early opportunities to increase image contrast before opening PhotoShop. Contrast was increased substantially during these three steps (by approximately three Zones) and was done before digital editing even began. Black & white film may not be such a bad workflow, eh?

Enough of this diversion so back to the discussion of composition!

I composed an image which included plenty of dune shadows and a large bright sand area. I used an area where the dune shadows had wonderful shapes. I used only a single area of bright sand to simplify the composition. Bright sand was important to the image but using a single flat area produced more uniform tones than a more complicated arrangement. In addition, the emphasis of the photograph was dark sand and bright sand was only needed to put the dark sand in tonal perspective.As a bonus, the bright sand area had a sexy curve at its interface with the dark sand.

I exposed one sheet of film and departed the area to search for something else to photograph.


I previewed the 4inch x 5inch negative on my drum scanner and the image looked flat. Its histogram showed that it was indeed flat. Consequently, I instructed the Digital PhotoLab scanning software to adjust the scanner’s hardware to increase image contrast during scanning. A high resolution digital file was recorded at 5,000 dpi and 16-bit pixel depth to produce a digital image of nearly one GB in size.

The image obtained from the scanner was viewed on a computer monitor with PhotoShop and it was evident that the image was quite dirty. I seldom experience such bad contamination and believe that the film holder had gotten contaminated with sand somehow. An hour using PhotoShop’s Healing Brush tool was needed to fix the contamination.

The overall contrast of the image was pretty good in the sense that dark dune areas appeared quite low in the gray-level histogram and bright clouds appeared quite high. This “success” was misleading, however, because the mood of the image did not represent what I envisioned at the scene. I realized that my composition could have been much better but recognized that it could be fixed with PhotoShop.

I dealt with the compositional shortcoming by removing two areas from the image using PhotoShop’s cropping tool. First, the bright clouds were cropped from the image because they were the brightest areas in the image. Excluding them allowed the next brightest and more important area (foreground sand) to be brightened later. Second, I realized that the area of bright sand in the foreground was too large so the lowest portion of it was excluded. This shifted more viewer attention toward the dark dunes and curved line which separates the dark and bright sand areas.

Next, a Levels adjustment layer was opened to modify image tones globally. The black slider of the histogram was moved to deepen dark areas and increase their visual weight. The white slider of the histogram was moved to brighten the foreground sand so it became the brightest area of the image.

Next, four relatively distinct image areas were adjusted individually. These were the bright foreground, black dunes, mountains and sky. PhotoShop’s Magnetic Lasso tool was used to select the bright foreground sand and a curve adjustment layer was opened for the selected area. The image was sampled to identify parts of the curve that corresponded to the brightest areas of sand as well as the slightly darker sand areas which provide texture. The brightest areas were brightened moderately by bending their portion of the curve upward. At the same time, darker textural areas were darkened somewhat by bending their portion of the curve downward. This edit emphasized the word “white” in white sands.

Then, PhotoShop’s Magnetic Lasso tool was used to select dark dunes and a curve adjustment layer was opened for the area. The image was sampled to identify parts of the curve that corresponded to dark but somewhat weak areas of the dunes. These areas were darkened by bending their portion of the curve downward to deepen shadows that were not dark enough. This edit added punch to the word “black” sand dunes.

PhotoShop’s Magnetic Lasso tool was used to select the mountains and a curve adjustment layer was opened for them. The image was sampled to identify parts of the curve which corresponded to the brightest (although still fairly dark) features of the mountains. These features were brightened by bending their portion of the curve upward. This adjustment increased contrast within the mountains so their structure was more visible and more visually interesting.

Finally, PhotoShop’s Magnetic Lasso tool was used to select the sky and a curve adjustment layer was opened for it. The curve was modified to brighten the darker cloud areas and darken the brighter cloud areas. This edit increased tonal uniformity in the sky and shifted viewer attention toward the dunes.


The goal of making this photograph was to render sand dunes very dark even though they were part of a dune field that was composed of blisteringly white sand. I believe the goal was achieved and a photograph was made which is quite distinctive and beautiful. Any comments you might have about the image, the photographic approach used for it, the image composition or its workup will be appreciated. For a slightly better view of this image, visit and click on the Galleries tab on top, select the “Western USA” gallery and then click twice on the image labeled, “Black Sand Dunes at White Sands.”

Randall R Bresee