Archive for the ‘White Sands’ Tag

Friday Foto Talk: Photography in National Parks, Part III   6 comments

Sunrise over Lake Powell at Lone Rock.

This is a follow-up to the recent series on photography in national parks.  For these mini-series, they just seem to naturally make up the nice round number of three parts.

Closures & Budget

In one of those posts I listed some of my likes and dislikes on shooting in national parks.  Here is one more pair:

Like:  National parks are open all the time.  Unlike state parks and some other protected areas, which are often closed from dusk to dawn, national parks are generally open 24/7/365.  That means you can go out with your flashlight and hike down a trail to an overlook to gaze at stars (and photograph them).  There are some exceptions, and because of the near universality of this always-open policy, it can be a rude surprise to learn after you’ve arrived to a park that it doesn’t really apply there.  Make sure to check their website before heading out.  A few of these exceptions are described below.

Dislike:  The Park Service has an extremely limited budget and yet in many cases does not seem to know how to spend it wisely.  They are constantly under threat of either being shut down or privatized.  Politically it’s the right-wingers & anti-government tea party types who push this agenda.   While I believe strongly that parks should remain public and that they’re too commercial as it is, I do notice the NPS wasting their limited funding.

For example, I think too much money is spent at Yellowstone and other popular parks on a police force that seems much more well-staffed than it needs to be.  A law-enforcement ranger in an SUV costs a lot of money, much more than an educational ranger who spends a lot of time outside, on foot.

Several decades back the NPS committed strongly to ramping up their law enforcement, replacing real rangers with police in ranger outfits.  I believe strongly that this was wrong, primarily because it took resources away from education and interpretation, the traditional role of a ranger.  It’s not that I disagree with having cops around; crime takes place in parks just like it does anywhere.  It’s just that in most cases the numbers of police is overkill.  There are neighborhoods in many cities that would love to have half the police presence that Yellowstone has.

Orange lichen and sandstone in the Grand Staircase, southern Utah.

Exception 1:  Chaco Canyon.  

This former center of the Ancestral Puebloan (aka Anasazi) culture in New Mexico has a scenic loop road that is the only way to access most of the ruins and trails in this national historic park.  In order to control potential poaching of archaeological resources, the park closes that road at dusk.  I can personally attest to their strict enforcement at Chaco; they want you out before the sun disappears below the horizon.  I had to talk to the superintendent to get a (spendy!) ticket dismissed because I was shooting at sunset and assumed a small grace period.

The supernova pictograph in Chaco Canyon is only accessible by hiking.

The supernova pictograph in Chaco Canyon is only accessible by hiking.


Exception 2:  Mesa Verde.  

Mesa Verde in Colorado is similar to Chaco.  That is, there is no access to the cliff dwellings after sunset.  The reason, as always, is to protect resources.  While that is certainly understandable, resources need protection all the time.  The real reason is the usual lack of staffing, a budget issue.

Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, Utah.

Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, Utah.

Exception 3:  White Sands National Monument.

This place in New Mexico has an unusual policy where they close the entrance gate from about dusk to dawn, with hours varying by season.  It’s very much like a state park or wildlife refuge.  The reason given is the adjacent missile range, so it’s a safety issue.  But it’s also because they don’t have money to patrol at night.  They are happy to open early for sunrise or stay late if you pay them $50 per extra hour, which is actually a pretty good deal if you have a group.  But really: the military doesn’t have money to patrol their own boundaries?

Early morning at White Sands, New Mexico.

Early morning at White Sands, New Mexico.


When protected areas are closed at night it can create a problem for landscape & nature photographers, even those who don’t want to shoot the stars.  Because of the need to concentrate our shooting at dawn and dusk, it can be quite difficult to properly shoot at sunset and get out by nightfall.  No good photographer packs up right after the sun dips below the horizon, for one thing.  The best light often comes after that.

I’ve found that many state parks will give you a decent grace period; you’re okay until it is fully dark.  Even so, when you hike a fair distance to a sunset spot, it’s well and truly dark when you return to the car.  A grace period won’t help in that case.

Another recent image from the Grand Staircase, Utah.

Another recent image from the Grand Staircase, Utah.

Although (some) state and other parks may show some flexibility, things are different at national and state wildlife refuges.  These sites are managed for wildlife not people, so don’t expect much if any consideration.  Some areas, in fact, are closed to entry day and night.  And it’s common to close areas seasonally for breeding birds.  I’ve heard of people being jailed for entering wildlife refuges, even those without firearms.  Poaching is a big problem at many refuges, so it’s perfectly understandable.

But I often wish for a world without so many rules.  Most are made and enforced because of a very small minority of people who can’t seem to figure out how to behave.  But it’s all of us who have to suffer for it.  I suppose it’s one of those things that can’t be helped, so why stress about it?

That’s it for this week.  I may have come off as a bit of a grump, but that’s not really me at all.  I’m actually very happy having all these fantastic places to shoot and play.  But the main reason for my appreciation is that it’s unlike so much of what humans do, which is the result of rather selfish, short-term thinking.  But parks and preserves are set aside for future generations and thus arise from more enlightened long-term thinking.  Have a great weekend and happy shooting!

Sunset at Coral Pink Sand Dunes, a state park near the much more famous Zion National Park, Utah.

Sunset at Coral Pink Sand Dunes, a state park near the much more famous Zion National Park, Utah.

Friday Foto Talk: Using a Circular Polarizer, Part I   2 comments

Soap-tree yucca growing on the dunes of White Sands National Monument, New Mexico glow in the bright morning sun

The circular polarizer (or CPL) is a must-have for any landscape photographer.  This handy filter can be used in many different situations, but like any piece of photo gear it helps greatly to know exactly what it does and what its benefits and downsides are.  This is the first of two parts.


  • A circular polarizer is a filter that screws on to the threaded front end of your lens.  It has two pieces of glass sandwiched together.  So it also has two rings for you to grip.  If you grip the ring closest to the threads you will be able to screw the filter on and back off your lens.
  • Once it’s on (not too tight!), grasp the ring furthest from the threads to rotate the front piece of glass relative to the other (now fixed in place).  This is the way you adjust the filter’s strength.  It goes from minimum to maximum effect with 90 degrees of rotation, then back to minimum if you continue rotating all the way to 180 degrees.
I used a polarizer for this shot in Death Valley recently because I wanted to maximize the effects of the side-light and show the texture in the land.

I used a polarizer for this shot in Death Valley recently because I wanted to maximize the effects of side-light to show the texture in this awesome alluvial fan, visible in the lower part of the image.


  • The CPL filter works by polarizing light in a couple different ways.  When light is reflected it becomes polarized to one degree or another.  Light rays can be thought of as vibrating waves.  When emitted by some source (like the sun), the light waves vibrate in all directions.  When light hits a reflective surface and bounces off it, the waves vibrate mostly in one direction, parallel to the reflecting surface.  The light has become linearly (or plane-) polarized.



Light reflected from a lake becomes polarized.

Light reflected from a lake becomes polarized.


  • A circular polarizer works by first polarizing the light linearly, then turning it into circularly polarized light.  In the case of the plane-polarized reflected light above, the front glass element of the CPL acts as if it has slits, either allowing the polarized rays through or (partly or fully) blocking them.
  • The rear glass element, the 2nd one the light passes through, takes that linearly polarized light and polarizes it further, but this time circularly.  If you think of the linearly polarized light as a line on a graph, with both horizontal and vertical (X and Y) components, the CPL is blocking one component (vertical, for example) more than the other.  It turns it into a vibrating wave that sort of spirals.  The light that finally reaches your lens is now circularly polarized!


Diagram of a circular polarizer in action. Click on image to go to source website.

Diagram of a circular polarizer in action. Click on image to go to source website.

  • As described above, you adjust a CPL by rotating the front glass element.  This increases or decreases the degree of circular polarization.  And if you have reflected light, off a lake or river for example, rotating the filter also changes how much of that plane-polarized light you’re blocking.  Again, think of that front glass element as having ‘slits’, which when crossed at an angle to reflected light will prevent some of that naturally polarized light from getting through.

Yellowstone’s Lone Star geyser erupts.

  • By the way, that crossing of the slits to plane-polarized light is called cross-polarization, and it’s how polarized sunglasses work.  Their “slits” are fixed in a vertical position, enabling them to block the plane-polarized light reflected off of water, roadways and other horizontal surfaces.  Look at the reflection off a vertical store window  with your sunglasses on and you’ll see they allow that light right on through.

I used a polarizing filter at this pool in Ash Meadows Wildlife Refuge, Nevada in order to show some of the detail under the water.


  • Again the effect increases as you rotate the moveable (outer) ring.  In the case of light reflected off water or glass, rotating the filter to its max. position (90 degrees from minimum) will cut the reflection dramatically.
  • And for similar reasons, as you point the camera close to right angles (90 degrees) with the sun or other light source, the polarization effect increase dramatically as you rotate the filter to its max. position.

Those are just the two basic ways to use a circular polarizer in the field.  There are quite a number of other, more subtle ways to use a CPL in photography.  And next time we’ll look at using the filter to improve your images, all the while emphasizing its strengths and dodging the inevitable drawbacks.  Have a great weekend and happy shooting!

The barren, channeled nature of a Death Valley alluvial fan is highlighted by strong side-light. I used a CPL but not set to its max setting.

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