Sunday, May 10, 2015

The Shot: San Luis Valley

San Luis Valley

Canon 5D, 70-200/2.8, 100mm, 1/15, f/11, ISO 100, tripod, Lightroom 4

It takes over 30 minutes to get from Alamosa to Great Sand Dunes, which gives one time to think and observe. I came across this location along the way. There's a KFC sign right next to it, which is probably what most people notice, but it also makes a good landmark. Regardless, the specific location is 37° 28.427'N, 105° 46.970'W. There's a nice, wide shoulder, but make sure to pull off as much as you can since the cars are zipping along at a good clip on this unwavering portion of US-160.

This is obviously a sunrise shot, with the Sun coming up to the right of Blanca Peak. I'd hoped to capture more clouds, or to get a more active sky above the peaks, but that's all the more reason to return and try again. This shot could probably also work at sunset with Blanca Peak fully illuminated, though you'd have to ensure that the tree is darkened such that it would silhouette against the background.

Sunrise shots can be challenging in San Luis Valley with the mountains and extreme weather to the east. Don't even bother with sunrise at Great Sand Dunes, which buttes right up against the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Luckily there are plenty of other rewarding locations in the area. Nearby Alamosa National Wildlife Refuge even has some water that can make for a good foreground on a still morning. There's plenty of time to explore in the middle of the day when the light is bad.

Get out there.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

The Shot: Great Sand Dunes National Park

Star Dune and Cleveland Peak
Canon 5D, 70-200/2.8, 200mm, 1/125, f/8, ISO 200, polarizer, tripod, Lightroom 4

This was somewhat inspired by QT Luong's post. In other words, the best shots of the dunes are not on the dunes. In fact the location is quite accessible. I always get annoyed with obscure directions to photo locations though when GPS is so ubiquitous. Timing is everything, so there's no time to reposition.

In this case, proceed to 37° 41.240'N, 105° 33.213'W along CO-150 about an hour before sunset. Any later, and the shadows of the dunes may be too long.

Use a polarizer. This is very important for getting the right light reflecting off the sand dunes at this angle. You'll see the immense difference as you rotate the polarizer into position.

For this shot, I was using a 70-200/2.8, but I was shooting at f/8, so you don't need the 2.8ness; a cheaper, more travel-friendly f/4 or 5.6 should be fine. I was shooting zoomed all the way in to 200mm. I tried a 400mm lens, but that didn't allow me to get the mountains in the background. You could probably get away with a 300mm, but that wouldn't get you as much width in the frame. Obviously, I cropped some of the top and bottom of this photo a bit in post.

As you can see by the sand coming off the tops of the dunes, the wind was whippin'. It was pretty relentless too. I recommend using a very solid tripod. Normally people go for lighter tripods, but you'll be right along the road for this shot, so a heavy, solid tripod should actually work in your favor. If you can, use your vehicle as a wind block too. Even with a good tripod, I still had a few shots come out blurry due to camera shake; the lens hood is great at catching those gusts of wind.

The San Luis Valley is an amazing place, even without the dunes. I highly recommend a visit. Happy shooting!