Wednesday, November 30, 2011

White Sands New Mexico

White Sands is a dazzling place. The gypsum sands there are highly reflective so you will definitely want to bring your sunglasses and a hat. We were up early to try and get into park before the sun took all the magic out of the dunes and turned it into mother natures version of the "easy bake oven." (Ok, so "I" was up early and my brother was a good sport about keeping up with whatever crazy times I decided to set.) We managed to get there not long after they opened the gates so it all worked out ok. Truth be told, though, given how I was feeling, jello legs and all, I probably would not have fared any better on my own. Quite possibly even worse!

We took the main roads straight to the back area of the park where the larger dunes are and immediately struck out on foot to get into the heart of it all. It was nippy in the shade of the dunes, but in the sun things were already heating up nicely.  

Be forewarned about the conditions: you will get sand in your shoes. And your shorts. On your skin and in your hair. Pretty much everywhere. Walking up the dunes reminded me a bit of trudging through powder snow, which I have only experienced a few times, and never on such a scale. It was tricky. To hike upwards along the dunes you have manage your footsteps in a way that doesn't completely waste your efforts and still provide you with at least a little forward motion. If you adopt a standard hiking style you will dig deep postholes at close intervals all the way to the top. If you side-step along the edges of the sand ridges (my favored method) you will not dig quite as deep with each step, but it's still not easy. 

We had to trudge for a half an hour or so to find some locations where there were relatively few footprints left by others. Managed a few nice images. All in all it was hard work, but there were some very cool views for our efforts. 

Within a few short hours of our arrival it got downright warm, bordering on hot. So we made our way out and stopped by the gift shop. Lots of great stuff in there, and the prices were reasonable enough. 

Next stop, some petroglyphs as we make our way northward.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Carlsbad Underground

The trip out west has been over for close to a month, but it has taken me this long to get used to "normal" again. For weeks the reintegration was punctuated by the simple muscle aches and pains of the trip and I was surprised at how difficult it was to shake off a few thousand miles of travel... I am definitely getting older.

First stop was Carlsbad, NM to visit the famed caverns. They did not disappoint. We took the simple walk-in tour and decided to take the natural entrance down to the caverns. It's a long downhill walk underground but it gives you some nice views of the natural entrance along the way. On the way down I started trying to get the hang of how I was gonna photograph the caverns with the new camera (Sony 5n). My idea was to take advantage of the in-camera HDR function, and I forgot that this meant that I would be limited to using JPEG. It took a good deal of fiddling but I finally remembered to change to JPEG and enabled the HDR. It didn't help that the camera had arrived barely a week before the trip!

Once I got things set right, I tried, in vain, to get a reasonable shot of the natural entrance. Couldn't do it. The DR of the scene was far more than the in-camera HDR function could handle... and I kept getting what I thought were some very odd colors? In any event, I got the hang of squatting down and forcing the camera into my tiny beanbag while it was perched on the hand railing to get the necessary support to use the HDR function without a tripod. This was not easy. And it didn't help that the railing was constantly vibrating due to so many others using as it was intended. I found it was better to use the railing support columns where this wasn't an issue. Still, it was very much hit and miss on whether or not I was able to hold the camera steady enough for the series of multi-second exposures this HDR trick required. But eventually I managed to get a few sharp frames.

It took a good hour to get down to the main level of the cave where we took a break before exploring the main trail. It's all self-guided, so there was no rush. We purchased some drinks and filled out some postcards before getting back on the trail.

On the way down my brother had commented that he did not think the cave was that pretty. Too dry, and lacking in color. I thought it was quite nice, but then I had prepared myself by reading about how the cave conditions in NM were dryer than those in more temperate states (like Arkansas) and I was actually surprised to see that it was as wet as it was. Being below a desert, I saw more water than expected.

The main part of the caverns, though, was much more to his liking. It is a very large and nicely decorated cave by any standard, and ultimately I managed to shot just over 100 HDR frames. The image posted is one of those from the main trail.

Upon sorting through the images I was only mildly surprised to find that the number of sharp frames was so low. I could tell from chimping on location that I was not getting sharp frames every time. So I had bracketed the scenes I really wanted when I found a nice one. Overall I was not disappointed except for one large problem... white balance.

Before leaving Arkansas I had set the camera to Tungsten for some reason. Forgot all about it. Not a problem, of course, if you are shooting RAW, but now every image from the cavern was Tungsten. Oh well. They didn't look that bad, except for the failed entrance attempts, and after reading that the cavern had every color of lighting imaginable down there... but mostly tungsten, I guess it was just plain luck. AWB probably would not have managed much better.

The biggest problem with shooting Carlsbad turned out to be my technique. But I only discovered this the next morning. Remember how I mentioned that I was squatting down (often on my toes) to brace the camera on the available supports for long exposures... and that I did this over a hundred times? Yep, my thighs were jello for the rest of the trip, and for many days afterward.