Yesterday's Light

Images in Space and Time

Stars and Moonlight, White Sands NM

Milky Way and White Sands NM

Milky Way and White Sands NM

This is an image I could see in my head before we ever packed up the Jeep and started west this past February.  I knew Milky Way “season” had begun, I knew that there would be a quarter moon setting behind me, and I knew the moon would “light up” the white sand given the exposure I would need for the stars.  The only real question was figuring out what I wanted to use for foreground.  So I was very eager to get to Alamogordo, NM, and to White Sands National Monument.  A photograph was waiting for me.  

But I never got it.  The picture you see here isn’t real.  The bottom portion is, in fact, part of White Sands NM and that’s certainly the Milky Way hanging above it.  Unfortunately, they’re two different images taken in two different places.  The Milky Way image is from Death Valley.  

Photoshop strikes again.

Actually, not getting the photograph – the real one, I mean – was pretty much my own fault.  My research was a little less than adequate on this occasion.  I assumed that getting into the Monument between sunset and sunrise wouldn’t be a problem (I needed to be there about 3:30 AM).  With few exceptions, National Parks – and Monuments – are open 24/7.  Most can be accessed at any time.  Just drive through the gate and do your thing.

Not at White Sands.  While I was there the gate wouldn’t open until 7:00 AM (opening and closing time changes as sunrise and sunset times change).  So I went into the Visitor Center and asked a Ranger how to get in during “off-hours”.  She handed me a pamphlet titled “Photography Before or After Hours FAQ”.  After reading one of the first sentences I knew I was in trouble:

“At White Sands NM we share our boundaries with the U. S. military at Holloman Air Force Base and White Sands Missile Range.  Due to security issues, the monument has specific posted hours of operation”.

There are two ways to get around this.  The first is to camp in the park in one of ten backcountry sites.  For me, not an option.  I have no camping gear.  The second way involves filing some formal paperwork and then waiting at least 3 days for “approval or denial” of your request.  Then, if it’s approved, you have to pay $50 for every hour – or part of an hour – that is earlier than the posted opening or later than the closing.  If I wanted to be inside at 3:30 AM, for example, that would be 3.5 hours early (200 bucks!).  And the payment has to be in some form of cash.  No checks or credit cards.  

Not to mention the fact that if you’re more than 10 minutes late to the gate the ranger assigned to open it for you will “go about their duties”.  No money will be refunded.

So scratch that option.  I wasn’t going to get my picture.  Not a real one, anyway.   I briefly considered parking on the road and hiking in but quickly rejected that idea.  Who knows how seriously they take their “security issues”?

I kinda like this picture, though.  I had to relearn some Photoshop techniques that I hadn’t used in a long time, but it worked out pretty well.  Heck, maybe I’ll print a big one and hang it on the wall.  

Or maybe I’ll send a copy to White Sands and tell them I snuck in.  And then wait for the FBI to show up…….  


7 Responses to “Stars and Moonlight, White Sands NM”

  1. TomDills

    That’s a very nice picture, Paul. I’m sure that some space geek could work out the math to determine that you’d never get that sky from White Sands, but so what. Close enough for most of us and the shot you “should” have gotten!

    It’s a shame that we have to share so many of our public lands with the military. But best not to test their defenses!

    • Paul Maxim

      Thanks Tom. Actually, the “space geek” might have a little trouble. I know – since I use Photopills to plan these shots – that the Milky Way was going to be visible south of White Sands. I also knew that the southern horizon there is fairly clear; there aren’t many visual obstacles to the southern sky. And since this composited image has no recognizable foreground objects in it, it’s difficult to say in which direction the camera was pointed. Well, except for the early evening sun’s rays that you can see.

      In any case, I don’t think I’d ever try to pass it off as “real”. But as you point out, it’s a very good approximation of what I thought I was going to get!

    • Paul Maxim

      Thanks Cedric. It’s certainly not brilliant, but people seem to like it. I’ll have to go on Flickr and see if anyone else has an image that looks like this but wasn’t created in PS. I’d really like to know if this is a possible composition.

  2. E. Brooks

    Nicely done turning vision to “reality,” Paul! 🙂 I’d notice the hours and rules at white sands were pretty restrictive and I never wanted to go the trouble or extra cost of trying a after/before hours shot.

    • Paul Maxim

      Thanks Brooks. Yes, “restrictive” is the right word. And it would be such a great place for nighttime photography, with or without the moon. I noticed something else on this visit, too. After visiting Death Valley and Great Sand Dunes NP the dunes at White Sands seemed awfully small. They were almost too easy to navigate! Weird.

      • E. Brooks

        Yes, I would agree the public part of White Sands seems a “small” after experiencing some other areas but when the total of the white dunes is viewed from a distance, and a little altitude, it stretches along the background mountains for a great distance. The military test range(s) definitely seem to get the lions share of those beautiful white dunes. And then it’s certainly also about our own changing perspectives as we experience more.


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