Of all the colorful locations within Death Valley National Park to photograph, none gets me more excited than a hike into Mesquite Dunes, either at dawn or sunset. Because Mesquite Dunes is such a park attraction, most visitors spend at least some time out tromping around in the sand, taking some photos, maybe sliding down the dunes on a piece of cardboard or plastic. I’ve heard the dunes called many things – Stovepipe Dunes, Mesquite Flat Dunes, etc.
This kind of attention leads to the human factor being present in just about every section of the dunes. It seems that no dune is without it’s hiker, or hikers, becoming ever present moving monuments on top of the sand – like gargoyles on a tall building, it is hard to hide them. This essay is about Mesquite Dunes, and the photo below is my anchor image for this article.
It’s not a perfect image, none usually are, but it minimizes some issues of human traffic without having to spend a lot of time copying them out of the image. People love the park, especially in the spring when temperatures are moderate and inviting and there is a chance of wildflowers. The dunes, however, are ever present at anytime of the year – making them an attractive target.
The first few safaris I did to Death Valley brought me to the dunes near sunset, when the receding sun cast off warmer and warmer light. The golden glow of the light created an intense color in the dunes. The lower the sun sunk the greater glow, the greater the color – until it reached a point of total saturation. If I was judging an image like this on its merits I would probably score an image like this down for the photographer adding too much color, too much saturation … just too much intensity. The colors overcome the subject and become the subject.
Here is the original image, with the color fully shown and not reduced at all.
Scroll up and down and look at the two images. First, ask yourself which image grabs your attention the quickest. Second, ask yourself why. These are subjective questions – and most people will probably like one or the other – and they might have a number of reasons to support their opinions. All those reasons are valid, that’s photography. But there are reasons why I prefer the black-and-white version over the color version and I want to go over some of those reasons.
First, there is a starkness to the bw version. It seems more foreboding, more dangerous, maybe more wild. There might even be a twinge of nostalgia, taking us (who are older) back to the days of black-and-white movies and TV, back when Tri-X was the dominant film in photography. The color version is a variation on the thousands of other images that I have seen of Mesquite Dunes. I don’t get the same feelings by viewing it. It seems a more common vista, easy to look at and not really examine.
Second, the darker shadows in the bw version seem to start at the mountains and come down into the shadow side of the dunes – almost like a continuous tone going vertically through the image. In the color version there is blue in the sky, and a blue/gray color in the mountains. The colorful dunes seem to caste a bit blacker shadow behind them than the tones in the background mountains and sky. None of that was done intentionally – it is just how it looked in the final jpg image after being converted from the original raw file.
Third, when I first looked at both images my eye spent more time examining the texture of the dunes in the foreground. I looked quicker at the color version before looking away. Our minds are extremely powerful, taking time to examine details and texture in one image, while overlooking (…the “I’ve seen it before” judgement) those same details in another image. I noticed right away how much longer I looked at the bw version.
Clearly, you can see how subjective my view is, and how your view could be different. Or, you might agree on all three points – but still like the color version better. There is another important principle that I have only touched on – and that is timing. Those first few spring safaris to Death Valley saw me in the dunes towards dusk, and I knew what to expect: intense light (given a clear sky), some wind and blowing sand, human tracks, and dunes marred by human gargoyles. (LOL) Thus, I came prepared to build on the images I had previously taken.
In 2010 I broke with my traditional timing and hiked out into the dunes before sunrise, mainly because I was frustrated by all the people. During that night the winds had scoured the dunes clean of human tracks, every ripple and wave in the dunes seemed to stand out in tremendous contrast – all the signs of human beings were gone. Campers at the parking lot indicated to me it wouldn’t be long before others entered the dunes as well – so I didn’t waste any time finding my subject and shooting series after series of images through the sunrise.
To be honest, I was surprised by how the dunes looked at sunrise. The gold hue of the dunes during the day and into dusk was changed, noticeably, to a whiter tone. The golden hue wasn’t completely gone, but it was considerably minimized. The dunes were pure in the sense that all the vestiges of man were gone. I thought this is how the dunes must have looked to the local Indians, hard rock miners, or pioneers crossing Death Valley for the first time – on horseback, in wagons, or walking – always in the cool of morning, climbing either Towne Pass or WildRose Pass to head into beautiful California.