Fujifilm has announced development of two new lenses for the GFX medium format system.
FUJINON GF 30mm F3.5 R WR: A wide-angle, prime lens. This wide angle 30mm lens is an equivalent 24mm focal length in the 35mm film format.
Of course, the FUJINONGF 80mm F1.7 creates the most excitement among photographers. Fujifilm in its official statement says about the GF 80mm F1.7, “A unique, wide-aperture, standard lens. A standard 80mm lens with an equivalent focal length of 63mm in the 35mm film format, which is incredibly suitable for portraiture and making images in low-light conditions. This will be the lens with the widest aperture among GF lenses and be an incredible solution for portrait photographers who want beautiful, creamy bokeh with their GFX System Cameras. This compact and lightweight lens will have a wider angle of view than the highly popular GF110mmF2 R LM WR and deliver the same level of incredible image quality.”
The team at MediumFormat.com is in touch with Fujifilm and as soon as this lens become available, we will bring you more information.
The original Hasselblad X1D was the first mirrorless medium format camera on the market. But that wasn’t the only first. The X1D was also the first medium format system which was small and light enough to take outside the studio and be comfortable to travel with. Of course, the accompanying XCD lenses were also relativity compact, matching the X1D and enhancing its portability.
In fact, I remember when I had the original X1D, and now its successor the X1DII, in my hands I couldn’t believe it was medium format. As someone who travels and teaches photography around the world, portability and image quality are of great importance. I usually travel with one camera and one lens combo.
Therefore, I believe that the latest lens release from Hasselblad—the XCD 45P—is an important and exciting development for Hasselblad users.
This is why:
First, the X1DII paired with the brand-new XCD 45P creates a small, light and portable combo, allowing those who seek medium format quality to travel and shoot medium format with a combo even smaller than some of the smallest full frame cameras.
Second, the XCD 45P lens offers a 35 mm full frame equivalent, which is a perfect focal length for most types of photography and certainly for travel, urban, street and even environmental portrait photography. For years I have travelled and shot with the one camera, one lens combo (35 mm focal length) and I never felt the need for more. This combination is not only highly liberating, but it has improved my photography drastically.
Third, in short, the image quality. Although there is plenty of grumbling online, especially in the context of medium format vs. full frame, those who appreciate the subtleties of medium format never look back. The tonal transitions, depth, flexibility of the files and so on are simply unmatched. Now with this new lens, Hasselblad shooters have it all in a small and portable package.
Fourth, the light and portable X1DII plus the XCD 45P combo matched with the Phocus Mobile 2 gives a window into a very portable workflow solution. Although I haven’t had a chance to test it just yet, I will certainly report on my findings.
Fifth, this may not appeal to the tech crowd but, personally, I find it is important. The X1DII paired with the XCD 45P lens is one of the most beautiful combos on the market. The camera feel, buttons and materials are among the best I have seen and the matching grey-titanium-like colour of the lens and the body proves an attractive match.
Sixth, one of the most common misconceptions is that medium format is very expensive. I also used to think so. As I work with many photographers, we often take a look at all the money spent on cameras and lenses. We found most photographers use only one or two lenses and leave all the rest gathering dust. For many, especially those shooting with higher-end full frame or even APS-C systems, total spend on such hoarding could easily purchase the Hasselblad X1DII with the XCD 45P. In fact, the new lens cost just US$1099, less than some full frame counterparts. That brings the total for all you need to craft great photography in stunning medium format quality to $6,849. It is cheaper than some full frame Leica offerings without the lens. Keep in mind that the replacement cycle for medium format cameras is much, much longer than for other formats. Or in other words, how much did you spend on all the gear sitting on your shelves? This equation becomes even more appealing once you consider investing in a medium format camera on the second-hand market with the ability to add an excellent lens for just US$1,099.
In sum, the addition of the new Hasselblad XCD 45P lens has made the X1D system even more appealing to those who seek medium format image quality and portability. We are currently testing the X1DII and will give you some comprehensive imagery and a review of this new lens.
If you are considering or are already shooting with medium format, make sure to join other medium formatters and subscribe to the Medium Format Magazine, the #1 publication dedicated to medium format photography. Subscribe now and gain access to the January edition and all previous issues.
In Computer Storage for Photographers in the August 2019 issue of Medium Format Magazine, I covered storage. Here in December 2019, I cover choosing a computer for photography.
There are some pretty awesome computing options that have emerged in late 2019. While I use Apple Macs exclusively, this article discusses the various choices of CPU/GPU/etc in a way that will also be useful to non-Mac users.
The size of my images has been increasing, what with cameras up to 100 megapixels, but it boils down to simple math: pushing around 100 megapixels instead of 50 takes twice the time. What once was reasonably speedy starts to feel sluggish. Compounding the issue, with focus stacking (Sept 2019 issue) and image scaling (Oct 2019 issue), routine tasks can take 5 minutes to an hour.
I have done consulting for nearly a thousand clients over the past years about choosing and configuring a system for photography, I’ve honed my skills at getting them the best possible solution for their actual workflow, sometimes saving my clients thousands of dollars they would have thrown at the problem, and yet been of little or no benefit, or even been worse. The gist of that is captured here, but I advise throwing away assumptions when it comes to one’s own work—don’t assume, but measure/test if possible—that’s what I do in order to advise my clients properly.
Desktop or laptop, or laptop as a desktop?
My judgment is that Apple’s latest 2019 MacBook Pro 16-inch model with 8-core CPU and 64GB memory can be a full-fledged desktop computer replacement, even for demanding users. That’s assuming for desktop usage the addition of a keyboard and mouse and external display (you can even close the lid and just use the external keyboard and display, pretending it really is a desktop computer). See my 2019-11-18 blog post at diglloyd.com for details: 2019 Apple MacBook Pro with 16″ Display: the Single Computer Solution At Last.
While desktop computers like the 2019 iMac 5K, iMac Pro and Mac Pro will outperform the 2019 MacBook Pro, meaningful differences will not be seen in real-world usage for 90% of the photographers out there (exceptions being when memory is a limiting factor).
Moreover, the convenience of a blazing fast 4TB or 8TB internal SSD is something no Apple desktop computer can match internally. An 8TB internal SSD along with 64GB memory and top-end GPU and 8-core CPU make the 2019 MacBook Pro 16-inch a worthy desktop replacement and an outlandishly strong travel computer—and it has dual Thunderbolt 3 busses with four TB3 ports too! Plus its thermal management is greatly improved, so it can run under load without thermal throttling longer than any previous Apple laptop.
If you do settle on an Apple laptop, note that CPU, GPU, SSD and memory are all soldered-on, and thus cannot be upgraded. It is thus unwise to down-spec such a machine. If it is to be the sole computer with a 3+ year lifespan, the smart move is to max it out, with the only choice worth debating is a 4TB or 8TB internal SSD. But even that seems a dubious debate, as the hassle of having to add external SSD storage is not worth it, and will be slower no matter what.
For perspective, what drives my decision
Everyone has their own particulars. Here I discuss how my own workflow and habits rule out seemingly better solutions.
First, I do not plan on getting the extremely capable 2019 Mac Pro, because for travel in my Sprinter van it is just not a good fit: power hungry, requires a separate display, bulk. Because I do a lot on the road, the all-in-one form factor of the Apple iMac 5K is ideal, with fast setup and teardown a mandatory feature (I can set it up and have it booted up in under two minutes). That, and the Mac Pro is insanely expensive even without a display.
While it might at first thought seem appropriate for travel, I also do not plan on getting the very capable Apple 2019 MacBook Pro 16-inch for travel. Its ergonomics are awful when used by itself, e.g., hunching over the built-in keyboard and screen. The screen is also too small for my work and my eyes too (presbyopia), so it still requires an external display, and that’s more setup/teardown hassle and desk space.
Thus for myself for those reasons and more, the only form factor that is viable for home and on the road in my van is the Apple iMac 5K form factor, which means the iMac 5K or iMac Pro. Were money not an issue, I’d have an Apple Mac Pro with Apple Pro Display XDR at home, plus the iMac 5K for van usage, using the OWC Thunderblade 8TB SSD for all my data between the two, but that total cost is prohibitive, and is a case of diminishing returns.
Components: the display, where pixel density is a tiny problem
Here I refer readers to two of my blog posts which cover this matter in detail. The key issue is pixel density and its ramifications for image assessment. Please see the articles Too-High Pixel Density on 5K and 8K Displays Impedes Image Assessment and 2.5K or 4K or 5K Display for Image Editing and Viewing?, referenced on this page: https://diglloyd.com/computer+display
To cover it in a nutshell: when pixel density it very high (e.g., 220 dpi with Apple iMac 5K), it becomes difficult to assess image sharpness, how much sharpening to apply, etc. Accordingly, I still evaluate images on a 2560 X 1600 display with pixel density of 110 dpi. Viewing pleasure may drive the desire for a 5K or 6K display, but that is a distinctly different goal than image processing and assessment, or from choosing a display for its color accuracy and color management capabilities.
Components: CPU Cores
The 2019 MacBook Pro and the 2019 iMac 5K have all the performance in their 8-core CPUs that most photographers need. It is enough for me too, even though I’d like faster this and that now and again. Eight CPU cores should be considered a starting point—do not even consider 4-core or 6-core CPUs if performance is a key goal.
If you regularly do focus stacking as I do, the one thing I’d really like is a 16 core CPU (12 cores would suffice, and 24/28 would be fantastic). For image scaling with 16 CPU cores, even the fastest GPU might be put to shame with Gigapixel AI.
It is almost always the smart move to choose more CPU cores over some fancy GPU because CPU cores get used a lot more by imaging software these days and are far more general purpose.
Only the 2019 Mac Pro or iMac Pro qualify for the 10+ core CPUs, but you’ll pay a steep premium for high-core-count CPUs from Intel. So most of us will have to be content with 8 CPU cores.
The GPU is increasingly used by imaging software, and it is a big help for things like image upscaling with Gigapixel AI, Adobe Camera Raw Enhance Details, though most other Photoshopand Lightroom features hardly use the GPU. Capture One Pro also uses it. Video processing is a special case—I’m discussing still photography here. But if you get spendy on a fancy high-end external GPU expecting Photoshop to run batshit fast, you’ll be sorely disappointed— excepting a few special cases, Photoshop won’t run faster in any meaningful way. If those special cases are your thing then it might make sense, but few of us will be in that boat.
The 2019 iMac 5K and 2019 MacBook Pro both have solid GPU options that are plenty fast for the vast majority of photographers. The iMac Pro and Mac Pro move it up further. When buying, do move up from the base GPU to the next level, but if the cost escalates, spend your money on more CPU cores first unless you have a proven workflow case for the GPU.
Beware of external GPU (eGPU), which DO NOT WORK with some Macs (an Apple/Adobe API problem). While eGPUs are hyped, they are NOT a solution for most computing problems because they either do not get used at all, or their is marginal in the context of total task runtime. Indeed, if the Mac has a discrete GPU, then an eGPU is NEVER used by Photoshop (at least as I write this and until Apple and Adobe fix that).
A key boost for me when I got the 2019 iMac 5K was/is 128GB memory. That extra memory (vs 64GB) has really helped with multi-frame stitching, saving me gobs of time in some cases. The big speed win comes from Photoshop not having to swap things to and from disk.
A high performance system must have a very high speed SSD internally. That kind of speed lets CPUs and GPU have data when needed with minimum delay, lets the OS run a peak speed, etc. While Thunderbolt 3 can deliver about 2700 MB/sec, an internal SSD might hit 3400 MB/sec.
The smart move is to go with nothing less than a 2TB internal SSD, with 4TB strongly preferred given an assumed 3+ year lifespan of the computer—both capacity and resilience to wear.
In the Apple Mac lineup, the 2019 MacBook Pro can have up to a whopping 8TB internal SSD, whereas other models are limited to 2TB or 4TB. Consider carefully your storage capacity needs over a 3+ year timeframe; for example, were I going with the 2019 MacBook Pro as my sole computer, I would absolutely go with the 8TB SSD (all capacities are soldered onto the logic board, so there is no upgrading of any component, including the SSD).
Components: External I/O Speed and bandwidth
With adequate memory, I/O speed largely drops out of the picture when working in Photoshop or Lightroom, because images sit in memory and thus I/O is a blip in the overall context. For example, if it takes 0.4 seconds to read a Fujifilm GFX100 raw file off a fast hard drive (and much less on an SSD), it may still take 3-5 seconds for Photoshop or Lightroom to convert the raw file to usable form.
That said, Lightroom users will find it essential to store catalog on the fastest SSD on the system because Lightroom uses the drive for a lot more than just read raw files into memory. Ditto if the scratch drive(s) in Photoshop actually get used, or any use case where there is a lot of disk I/O.
Favor machines with at least two Thunderbolt 3 busses, all else being similar. This is critical if you intend to use an external 5K or 6K display—a 6K display will eat up 30 Gpbs of the write bandwidth available on the 40 Gbps Thunderbolt 3 bus. The other bus to which the display is not connected can thus run at full speed for high-speed I/O.
The 2019 Mac Pro rocks for Thunderbolt 3 busses and ports (with options). The 2019 MacBook Pro rocks in having dual Thunderbolt 3 busses with four ports. Ditto for the 2018 Mac mini, but its GPU is so slow that it is a very poor choice overall. The single Thunderbolt 3 bus of the 2019 iMac 5K (two ports) is a disappointing design, but for most photographic uses it will be of no concern.
I’ve selected several Apple Mac products here to illustrate the foregoing points.
High performance desktop machine — 2019 iMac 5K
This beautiful display includes a powerful computer with it. Get the 8-core CPU, Radeon Pro Vega 48, 8GB memory configuration, then add 128GB from OWC to double the max RAM and save a ton of money (see my website), and the 2TB SSD (no larger option available).
The 2019 iMac 5K is my workhorse machine as I write this, and has been for 6 months. By far the fastest and most powerful Mac I have ever used. Its only real drawback is its single Thunderbolt 3 bus, which makes it undesirable for connecting an external 5K or 6K display, or lots of Thunderbolt 3 peripherals.
Debuting in December 2019 or so as I write this. Total overkill for most photographers. Suitable for long-term aggressive usage with gobs of expansion possibility supported by its 1.4 kW power supply. More info: https://macperformanceguide.com/2019+Mac+Pro
Computing power on the Apple side is really outstanding with four excellent choices even for those shooting at 100 megapixels. On the PC side, similar if not the same considerations apply.
Lloyd’s photography blog is found at diglloyd.com. You will find Lloyd’s monthly column “Metapixel” in the Medium Format Magazine where he writes about technical issues related to medium format photography.
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From a fascinating opening piece from Denis Hocking to an exclusive and engaging interview with Victor Hamke, the November edition of Medium Format Magazine offers 140 pages of ad-free, highly curated content you won’t find anywhere else.
Denis Hocking opens the November issue with his account of an incredible voyage into the deep Arctic. In his reportage-style piece, “The High Arctic: The best photographic experience of my life,” Denis takes us on a true adventure which he describes this way: “It was very difficult for me but, in retrospect, my life is substantially richer for the experience.” I have to say the same after reading this captivating piece. I am confident you will enjoy it as much as I did.
Every month we bring you an interview with captivating medium format photographers and thinkers. This month we are so thrilled to share with you an exclusive interview with Victor Hamke, who in his own words “likes to drink a lot of coffee, loves to sleep and who always enjoys good conversation. A pretty normal dude.” We beg to disagree. Victor’s classy, intimate and powerful wedding imagery is anything but normal. Victor shares with us his beginnings, processes and his approach to this fascinating genre of photography. Whether you shoot wedding photography or not, you will love it.
Next, Steven Friedman in his series “Shoot to Print” presents his image titled “Zebra Aspens” and shares his story and philosophy behind this image. Steven also explores a variety of printing papers and the differences between them, including his own favourites. I cannot emphasis enough the importance of the subject of printing. Valuable and powerful advice!
In the following article, “In the Moment,” Paul Sanders continues his series about contemplative photography. He writes, “Reflecting on an image is a valuable exercise in itself. Ask yourself how you felt about the original moment. How you saw things is very powerful. I often journal about my images, reflecting on the way I felt at the time and how I feel looking back at the way I collected the moment.” I don’t know about you, but this thought alone opened my mind and senses to a totally different way of thinking about my own photography. Paul’s text is accompanied by a tranquil photograph you can’t stop looking at. A must-read for everyone!
Chris Knight, whom we interviewed last month, has agreed to write this month’s column “How it Was Shot.” Chris presents one of his stunning images, “Queen of the North” and explains in great detail the story behind the image, including the mechanics of shooting it from inspiration to styling and from lighting to post-processing. You will see the entire process of creation. It cannot get better than that.
In his column “Metapixel,” Lloyd Chambers tackles the issue of “Multi-Frame Stitching and Panoramas.” Lloyd explains the technique and the process and provides multiple examples. He also recommends the gear which could help you achieve the best results. I wouldn’t be surprised if you started experimenting with these techniques for yourself.
In his article, “Sky is the Limit” Vieri Bottazzini makes a fascinating case for sky in landscape photography. Vieri shows us examples when the use of sky makes the images powerful and different. He also shares his thoughts about the use of different ratios in landscape photography and the power of medium format to achieve your own goals or, as Vieri describes it, when “the sky is the limit.” We definitely agree.
In the following article, Ludwig Hagelstein continues his series about medium format analogue photography. In Part 2 he writes about “choosing the right film for your project.” He counters a popular notion that there are not many types of film to choose from and gives us some signposts how to look for the film that you would like to pick up for yourself.
The topic of film doesn’t end with Ludwig’s piece. Alex Burke continues the subject “exploring the dynamic range of colour negative film.” He shares his experience of shooting film and makes a compelling technical case for it. As usual, his stunning landscape photography might make you pick up film again, if you are not already shooting with it.
Finally, the Readers’ Exhibition section makes a comeback so please make sure to see the great work submitted by our readers.
And if you are not subscribed to the Medium Format Magazine yet, join thousands of medium formatters from around the world and gain an immediate access to the November issue, all previous editions and MF Exclusives . It would be wonderful to have you with us.
The story was published in the November, 2018 edition of the Medium Format Magazine. You will find the second part “Driving North” by Benjamin Everett in the December, 2018 issue.
There was a dashed line and darkness. The headlights revealed a steep road plummeting through a blur of rock and sage. My main concern was heat. The overhead panel displayed a glowing 94 degrees and it was well past midnight. What would that read at midday?
Alongside me was a dream collection of Hasselblad gear: the 100 megapixel H6D and four lenses. I’d never shot medium format before and would be getting used to this kit over the next few days in the depths of Death Valley. Thereafter I’d be a free agent, logging nearly 4,000 miles of the American West in search of unique desert landscapes.
Six months before, on a whim, I’d entered the landscape category of the Hasselblad Masters competition, and won. In total, there were over 30,000 entrants across 11 categories. It felt a bit like winning the lottery. As part of the competition, winners were asked to shoot a series of images on Hasselblad equipment of their choice. These images would then be compiled into a beautiful hardcover collectors’ book. The pressure to live up to expectations was high.
Many of my artistic heroes were painters of the West. These wild landscapes lent themselves particularly well to interpretation. There is a fascinating correlation between the line quality found in art and design, and the lines nature tends to draw. For my series of images, I proposed exploring this across a variety of windswept dunes and Badlands. After a thousand miles driving from my home in the Pacific Northwest, Death Valley was the first real stop.
I spend a lot of time on the road. My Dodge Durango is getting close to the 200k mark, and I hope she can go as many more. Some may prefer the spaciousness of a camper van, but there’s something nice about the versatility of an unassuming SUV. The back seats fold completely flat and with a few foam pads, all six feet two of me sleeps blissfully.
Pulling into a quiet corner of the Mesquite Flats parking lot around 2 am, I shook my head while setting the alarm for 4:30. When it went off, just two and a half short hours later, I swung my legs down to the ground, and wondered how awake I was. Everything about the medium format gear was surreal, including its weight. The full kit came to about 40 pounds. I hefted this and took off for the dunes, enjoying cool sand under my bare feet.
Oceans and deserts are remarkably alike, silent and clean. Thoughts are distant like ships on the horizon, you see them a mile off cresting waves they roll towards you. For me, that space is a key to creativity. It’s an expansive emptiness that must exist before the good that fills it.
You have to go away from the parking lot to a place where there are fewer footprints and pretty soon, none. I set up the tripod and locked down the H6D. It was time to start experimenting with compositions. The camera was friendly. We got along straightaway. The menu is sleek and intuitive, as are the controls. The large kachunk of the shutter was a startling transition from a DSLR, but I see it as symbolic of the effort required to lock in a 100mp file. It’s like the vault door slamming shut on a newly minted gold bar.
It would be nearly month before I would see that digital gold on the screen, but yes, the files really are that good.
Drifting along, the lack of wind provided a perfect opportunity to experiment with lenses, something I’d appreciate later when the elements were not so kind. Quickly, the 35-90mm f/4-5.6. became a favorite. I’m used to prime lenses on my usual Nikon D810, so this range allowed me to move quickly. In the desert, it’s nice to have the freedom to compose different shots without disturbing the sand. As the sun crested the horizon, I made my way to the top of a large dune. Here, the 300mm f/4.5 shone. Abstract layer combinations lay in all directions. As raking light began to fall across the textured ripples underfoot, I switched to the wide angle of the 24mm f/4.8. The last of the four lenses, the Macro 120mm f/4 II, didn’t get used that day but after discovering its incredible sharpness, I wouldn’t make that mistake again.
As the sun rose further, so did the heat. This kicked up wind and wind brought sand and the lens now on the camera stayed on the camera. My initial concerns about temperature were valid. By midday it was 111 degrees. I protected myself and the gear as well as could be expected. But that wind! If I’d only known how it would become a constant issue.
Having wandered far into the dunes, I was low on water and ready to return. The path back was punctuated by stops and starts. The light went flat with a slight heat haze, but the forms were still there, teasing you. Countless times I pulled the tripod from my shoulder saying, “Just one more.”
On the road again, heading further south. There was a day lost to Las Vegas. During an oil change, the attendant showed me a tire gauge. “See this red area indicating danger?” “Sure.” “You’re way past it.” I pictured blowouts and precipitous plunges down canyon walls. “Go ahead with the replacements.”
Then it was over the Hoover dam and onward through Flagstaff. I spent the night on a utility road among sage and volcanic rock. Highway lights twinkled in the distance.
Arriving at the Petrified Forest National Park, I was shocked to learn the gates close several hours before sunset. Apparently, it’s harsh light or nothing.
Sitting in the Visitors Center, swirling a bad cup of coffee and concerned about the project, I had a moment of exasperation. Maybe Google has some answers. Pinching maps towards dark patches of crimson and gold, paved gray arteries led to dusty veins, and I’d found a road of new possibilities.
Upon arrival, there was a slight hesitation. This appeared to be the remains of a Navajo State Park. I steered my new tires around broken bottles, potholes, a lopsided park bench, and the graffiti-covered remains of a derelict restroom. Towards the end of the road, on the horizon, a sliver of red indicated hope. The color grew. A band of white, a band of gold, another band of red – I jumped from the car and ran to the edge. Draped across the horizon was a giant Navajo blanket of rippling color, geometric ridges and geologic patterns. The connection between the indigenous people of the southwest, their art and their land is immediate. Everything is connected. I laughed out loud.
It was the most beautiful thing I’d seen all day. There was a desire to turn and say to someone, “Can you believe this!?” but there was not a living soul in sight.
Later that evening, soft golden light exaggerated the beauty of those rolling forms. I walked about, aligning compositions and timing exposures. This was exactly the light and location I’d hoped for, but the wind was becoming a problem and appeared to be getting stronger. Soon I imagined great towering waves of air, cresting and falling in explosive gusts across the entire ridge line. Bracing low, I was thankful for a sturdy tripod and hoped things would be better in the morning. Unfortunately, the wind buffeted the car all night and the sun rose behind racing stripes of grey cloud. It was clearly time to move on.
Next stop, White Sands National Monument. This would be the first time I’d laid eyes on New Mexico, the legendary home of so many of the early 20th century painters I admired, including Ernest L. Blumenschein, William Victor Higgins, E. Martin Hennings, and Georgia O’Keeffe.
The wind continued to howl as I headed south through rolling grasslands. Did the car swerve because of wind or distraction? At times, fields of small green juniper trees stretched to the horizon, endless in their arrangements of Zen. I passed perfect window-framed scenes at 70 mph and turned circles in the road to find them again. Did front-seat yoga, twisting to brace the camera against car-seat, steering-wheel and dash-board supports. Selective windows were raised and lowered to minimize wind and dust. When all batteries died, it was a relief. I might actually make it to a hotel in Alamogordo that night.
Lying spread out on the cool sheets of a king-sized bed, I listened to the air conditioner hum while battery lights blinked softly in the darkened room. Inspiration was electric. I’ve always admired these Southwest artists for their creativity and style. After the day’s drive it became apparent that half the gratitude goes to the landscape. It was exciting to feel so at home somewhere new.
These are the sexiest of dunes, their smooth curves fast and low. The best experience is to spend a night in the heart of them. I reserved a site with the rangers and by mid-afternoon had hiked in and set up camp. It was a world that existed of two colors: soft white walls under a hard blue distant ceiling. With some time to go before the ideal light, I sat in the shade to meditate. The barely heard sounds of the park became more apparent. The wind was distant and muffled, like some great hourglass slowly pouring itself into the future, each grain heard tumbling in time. And then, the time is now. I’m up and taking pictures. It’s rare that meditation has blurred so directly into the process of photography. There was no destination, just the gradual motion towards a focused observation. No paths retraced, each fresh scene destroyed by moving through it.
The White Sand Dunes are wildly different from the gold ones of Death Valley and not just in color. Sand size and wind patterns create all new shapes to play with. Sweeping arcs rise up western faces to drop down steep walls to the east. Between each dune is an area of dry earth, reptilian scales of hardened soil that reveal sparse vegetation between the cracks. Photography there is often about excluding these low zones. Two compositions predominate: aligning crests of the dunes with a telephoto lens or focusing wide angles on the texture of broad slopes.
The sun dipped lower in the west and glinted off the blowing sand. Again, this wind! Each dune gained an aura of gold. When asked about the weather sealing of the H6D, Hasselblad answered a disconcerting, “None.” I wrapped the sensitive camera tightly in my windbreaker, feeling more clever than necessary by using the hood as a lens cover and battled on, heading west. Ridge after ridge of new and fascinating compositions. I battled stability, battled visibility, and finally gave up as the sun withdrew its final rays. ISO and shutter speed were no match for the gale.
Turning east, darkness had crept up from behind. A moment of disorientation rushed over me. I’d neglected to bring any kind of light. There was no moon, no footprints, and there was no trail. The dunes were a uniform blue turning quickly to a swallowing black. Soon I’d barely make out my feet below me. I fought a rising sense of dread. How could I have been so foolish? I’d read the warnings but passed them off as guidelines for city-dwelling tourists used to road signs and street lights. The wilderness was my home, I don’t get lost. Any judgements passed on others swung back with full self-critical force.
Looking back, this was the halfway point of my trip. Standing there in darkness, I would never be as far from home.
Breathing deeply, I focused on the horizon. To the east, the lights of Alamogordo were fixed stars, my tent was that way too. I found the brightest and set sail. At the top of each dune, this guiding light was visible. Plunging down a blank face, there was nothing, and there was walking forward into nothing. But then the light reappeared and I was on course. Up and down, trust then reassurance. After 45 minutes, I walked straight into a trail marker, and my tent soon after. Sleep was deep and easy. The gravity of my trip had shifted. It’s fascinating to watch a simple compass orientation affect your entire outlook. The fortitude to push south into the unknown became just as strong to go north and home.
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