Getting Lost (Almost Literally) in White Sands

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Waves of sand leading to the Dune Field west of Akali Flats Trail in White Sands National Monument.
Looking Southwest into the Dune Fields of White Sands National Monument.

There are more than a few places on this planet that can have a profound influence on you, but that can be a rare occurrence. I was fortunate to experience such a place this week when I wandered off the trail at White Sands National Monument

I’ve been out there so many times I don’t think I could count them. But I’d never gone with the express purpose of photographing the gypsum dunes; I’d also never hiked into the monument itself. On Tuesday, I departed on the Akali Flats Trail about an hour before sunset. 

White Sands National Monument, as seen near the Akali Flats Trail.

The weather was magnificent. While the notorious New Mexico winds were ferocious throughout the weekend, everything was still and calm as I hiked up, down and between the dunes. The biggest danger of the desert — high heat — was also a non-issue, with temps in the high 50s as I started my trek. 

Pretty much by chance, we’d arrived at the perfect time: I spent the next 90 minutes as witness to a dazzling light show put on by the setting sun, the gorgeous New Mexico skies, and the mountains to my west. As you can see, the sands took up the colors of the sunset, shifting and changing as I walked further and further into the dunes, and the sun fell further behind the mountain.

At one point, I lost sight of the other hikers I had seen in the area. The closest had been about 1/4 mile away, but as the sun sank below the horizon they all headed back. Turns out, I should have too. 

Where am I?

But I wasn’t thinking about that quite yet. I had a plan, and for the moment I was reveling in the quiet of the desert. I’ve never in my life felt (or been) so alone. There was no wildlife call or birdsong; no flow of trickling water in a mountain stream; or rustle of leaves in the forest. Just an eerie, complete silence.

I took my photos, setting up my tripod and bracketing exposures in case I wanted to try some HDR. And just like that, the light was gone. 

I admit: I panicked. It was brief, surely, but there it was. I knew I would be OK, ultimately. I had my jacket, I had some bars to eat, and I had plenty of water. 

On just about any other day I might have been in trouble. The moon wouldn’t rise for another 5 hours, and even with the white gypsum sand I couldn’t exactly see that far into the distance. Fortunately, I had an ace up my sleeve: the lack of wind. 

The last image I took in the fading light.

Most of the time, you can count on the wind to erase your footprints. But Tuesday night my tracks were very plain to see, along with a set of tire tracks that I had followed on my way into the dunes. I also had my GPS app on my phone, so I knew the direction I was going, but the tracks made my hike back easier. 

I rendezvoused back with my family (more on that below) and we drove out of the monument in dark.

36 Hours in Central New Mexico

Mom flew me to Albuquerque last week for a visit, ostensibly to work on a few projects at her house (I did paint her deck while I was there). But we also did some fun stuff. One of her mantras while she lived in D.C. was to always do something new, and she’d always try to tick that box at least once a month.

I decided to introduce her to a few places I knew she hadn’t yet seen in our home state, namely the Very Large Array and the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. But first, we went to White Sands. 

I’ve often seen the White Sands referred to as a moonscape, and once the sun begins to set you can completely understand why.

My Aunt Margarita lives in Alamogordo, and we were gonna crash at her place Tuesday night — so, it was only courteous to stop and pick her up on our way to the desert monument. 

Heading Back North to the VLA

Lines of pistachio trees in an orchard outside Alamogordo, New Mexico.
McGinn’s Pistachioland

Wednesday morning we set out from Alamogordo and took a route I hadn’t traveled on before: US 54 N to Carrizozo, and then NM 380 W toward I-25. We shopped at McGinn’s Pistachioland, saw pistachios growing in the orchard there, and passed through the Valley of Fires (though we didn’t stop for pictures). We were on our way to the VLA.

Three of the radio telescopes at the Very Large Array in New Mexico.

You’ve probably seen the Very Large Array, even if you didn’t know that’s what it was — it features quite prominently in the movie Contact. The VLA is a radio observatory: rather than a traditional optical telescope, astronomers and cosmologists study the universe with 27 huge radio telescopes.

Radio waves are at a much longer wavelength than visible light, and to accurately record them you need several things: a large open plain free from electronic interference (like TV signals and cell towers); and a network of radio telescopes that operate together. The 27 receivers at the VLA can be grouped in a small area, or can be moved into a configuration 22 miles wide.

Did I mention they’re big?

Our little tourist party: Steve, my Aunt Margie, Mom, her buddy Deborah, and myself.

The VLA is very out of the way (by design), but it’s a delightful place to visit and I highly recommend it when you’re in central New Mexico anyway.

Cranes, geese and…red-winged blackbirds?

Our final tourist stop of the day was actually back the way we came: the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge was back along I-25 south of Socorro. First we grabbed some of those amazing Green Chile Cheeseburgers from The Owl, and then meandered down to the NWR.

A sandhill crane takes flight.

Despite my recollection otherwise, mom insists this was her first visit to the Bosque del Apache NWR. Deborah, being from Maryland, hadn’t seen it either. I hope they enjoyed it as much as I did.

We spotted a good number of sandhill cranes just off the road during our approach, along with some ducks and geese. We continued on to the main area, and hung out on the Flight Deck. For a while I was the only photographer there, a rare occurrence I’m sure. I was eventually joined by a volunteer from the Friends of the Bosque.

We watched the cranes comes in for about an hour; first in groups of 3–7, then later in larger numbers, up to three dozen at a time. The snow geese came in as well, arriving in one huge group. We watched a harrier harassing what I at first thought were starlings, but seeing the images on my computer I deduced to be red-winged blackbirds. I had never seen so many before!

Sandhill cranes returning to the NWR after a day spent feeding in the surrounding.

The sun went down again, and our roadtrip had come to its end. Also, the mosquitoes were eating us alive! I’d forgotten they can be a nuisance at the Bosque.

Fortunately, New Mexico had one last show in store for us as we returned to the Interstate: another magnificent sunset to keep us company.

Presenting the JustBlueGreen Baltimore Vision

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The Steering Committee of the Environmental Stewardship Summit hosted its third public event last week to unveil the results of our members’ Platform and Vision for a Blue, Green and Just Baltimore. The process was a continuation of our work from June, when 65 Baltimoreans gathered to brainstorm ideas to improve the air and water quality of our city, and reduce the inequalities that exist between our city’s richest and poorest neighborhoods.

Baltimore resident Arianna Koudounas asks about the proposed Platform and Vision.

At our June Summit, residents split into four groups to crowdsource solutions and opportunities along distinct areas: Air and Water; Land and Land Use; Climate, Resiliency and Justice; and Transparency and Accountability. The groups generated hundreds of ideas, and the Steering Committee met several times in the months since to categorize, refine and distill those ideas into a concise vision for our work.

The Steering Committee also crafted a draft Platform we will use to engage candidates in the upcoming primary in Baltimore City. We will offer our elected officials a bold, uplifting Vision for the future, and our Platform will prompt them to address our issues. It will also gives us a framework to hold them accountable once in office.

Jenn Aiosa, Executive Director of Blue Water Baltimore, skillfully presented the Steering Committee’s Vision and Platform.  You can view her presentation below, and read the full versions at the end of this piece.

This process isn’t finished. We received some incredible feedback during the Sept. 16 Summit, and we hope to incorporate that into a final version. If you have feedback or questions about the proposed Platform and Vision, send an e-mail to

Next Steps

Also during Monday’s summit, volunteers split into subgroups to begin planning the mayoral candidate’s forum in early 2020. We formed groups to discuss Planning, Communications, Outreach, Action and Research. These groups will help ensure we have the best representation at the event.

In the coming months, we’ll further our outreach efforts to find more Baltimoreans who share our desire for a Just, Blue and Green city. And, we’ll keep you in the loop about all of that. 

We’ve already secured a host location for the Mayoral Candidates Forum, and a notable broadcast journalist to serve as a moderator or co-moderator. Once plans for the Forum are finalized we’ll let you know.

Sharing Thoughts on Legacy

Niamh McQuillan, another member of our Steering Committee, asked our Summit attendees to think about their place in the community; how we all envision our work to improve the environment; and what we hope to leave as a legacy.

We then summarized those thoughts with a few words and phrases; these were submitted to Niamh and organized into the following word cloud!

Word cloud of the Environmental Stewardship Summit Shared Vision.
Word cloud of the Environmental Stewardship Summit Shared Legacy exercise.

Gwynns Falls Leakin Park Pipeline Update

Behind the curtain last year, Baltimore City and BGE cut a deal for the purchase of land in Gwynns Falls Leakin Park. By any measure, the finally negotiated purchase price was way under market value, (not to mention the damage to wildlife, destruction more than 700 mature trees, and damage to the park’s ecosystem).

As implied by Bridget McCusker’s announcement at the Summit, the Friends of Gwynns Falls Leakin Park’s (FOGWLP) lawsuit against the city is a case that motivates us in our quest for a Blue, Green and Just Baltimore City.  Jill Jones added that evening there’s more of this to come in future demolition/construction phases.

The FOGWLP’s lawsuit against the city has an upcoming hearing in its case against Baltimore City regarding the Granite Pipeline through Gwynns Falls Leakin Park. Your attendance would be a huge sign of support.

Hearing Information

  • Tuesday, October 2, 2019 at 11am – those intending to witness the proceeding must be in front of Room 236 not later than 10:30.
  • Circuit Court for Baltimore City, Clarence M. Mitchell, Jr., Courthouse,
  • 100 North Calvert Street, Baltimroe 21202
  • In case of a possible change in courtroom assignment, please have handy Case No: 24 – C – 19 – 002271 OG.  The presiding Judge is Jeannie J. Hong
  • Directions/Parking information found at this link:

Our Vision

A Healthy Environment for Every Child

  • We envision a green, thriving, healthy and just city
  • Safe, nourishing green infrastructure that connects existing parks, forest patches, community gardens and farms, street trees and waterways
  • Every neighborhood be within a five-minute walk of community planned and well-maintained green space

Benefits of Green Infrastructure Proven

  • Philadelphia, Washington DC, and cities across the country have found that investing in green infrastructure provide a return-on-investment (ROI) exceeding costs
  • Benefits include improved health outcomes, reduced crime, leveraged investments in neighborhoods

Equity Is Central

  • Our most vulnerable neighborhoods deserve easy access nature and all the benefits of green infrastructure

Vision & Bold Action

  • Green infrastructure addresses multiple challenges simultaneously and positions Baltimore to attract significant outside investments

Our Platform

Climate and Resiliency

  1. Plant more trees everywhere, with immediate focus on low-canopy neighborhoods.
    • Increase tree planting by 20% year over year.
  2. Mandate Green Infrastructure as the design standard for all public and private development and redevelopment with equity as a primary goal.

Land and Land Use

  1. Limit the process for transferring ownership of derelict and vacant properties to no more than 8 months.
  2. Increase investment in green spaces and green infrastructure:
    • Care for and maintain what we have by increasing park maintenance fund by 25% over three years.
    • Dedicate at least $1M annually of the stormwater utility fee to community-based green infrastructure projects.
  3. Integrate and implement Baltimore’s existing Green Network Plan, 2019 Sustainability Plan, Climate Action Plan and neighborhood master plans by leveraging the state’s strategic demolition funds and similar resources and seeking major foundation and private support for large-scale projects.

Water and Air

  1. Accelerate the repair of existing water, wastewater, and stormwater infrastructure to improve the health of our streams and our communities before 2030.
  2. Invest in clean energy—not “green” incineration—for all city-owned schools and buildings.
  3. Realign the city’s stormwater and sewage construction plans to respect current forest conservation and erosion and sediment control best practices.

Transparency, Accountability, Inclusion and Communication

  1. Create a cabinet-level position in the Mayor’s Office, a Sustainability Director, dedicated to integrating various agencies’ goals and actions of green infrastructure implementation, ensuring forest, park and green space protection, and prioritizing community members ensuring they have a legitimate “seat at the table” on development, redevelopment, and all projects impacting our blue and green resources.
    • Hold quarterly meetings to facilitate community engagement, information sharing, and dispute resolution especially where decisions impact neighborhoods, parks, trees and streams.
  2. In advance of project approval, require city agencies use existing community meetings and events to share projects at project conception and then follow with regular and timely updates on plans, modifications, and progress.
  3. Reinstate the Baltimore City Parks Board

Early Summer in Patterson Park

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I had hoped to photograph the Blue Angels at an airshow in Virginia this past weekend, but was rained out. However, I’d rented my favorite aviation/wildlife photograph lens from, the Sigma 150-600mm Contemporary telezoom. I should be using it on an APS-C sensor body (like the Canon 7D mkII), but I’m still happy with the results from my 6D’s full frame.

A great blue heron at the Patterson Park Duck Pond.

I haven’t done a lot of photography while using my bike for transportation, and wanted to see how I could manage. It was hot, and there are very few places to park your bike at Patterson, but on the whole I managed fine.

I joked on Instagram that Patterson is one of the overlooked treasures in Baltimore, a city full of things its residents take for granted. It’s nothing quite as grand as NYC’s Central Park, of course, but it’s still a little jewel in Charm City that even I admit I should visit more frequently.

They’re incredible common, but I still find mallards beautiful.

At any rate, I settled in at the Duck Pond. For being such a warm, mid-day outing, there was plenty of waterfowl and other birds to photograph.

First Renwick Visit

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My friend Aly was in town this week (well, D.C. at least) and we met up for a photowalk around the Tidal Basin and the Renwick. I’d never been, and have definitely missed out on some of their more popular exhibits. Right now they’re showing art and other items from Burning Man. It’s an incredible show.

Home studio product photography

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When it comes to product photography, your number one goal should be steady consistency. You want a reproducible process that yields high-quality results time and time again over the long-term. This process can be improved for quality or simplified for efficiency, or even modified for experimental reasons. Ultimately, you’ll set yourself up for less work taking photos, so you can spend more time on your craft.

Is it really a studio?

You might question the terminology when applied to something that in many regards is makeshift and DIY. Most of us don’t have the resources to buy the lighting equipment and modifiers, backdrops, stands etc, that are the hallmarks of a photography studio. Setting aside the space for such an endeavor is also unrealistic.

However, if you consider the broad outlines of what you’re attempting, the definition is suitable. Your ultimate goal is good product photos, and you don’t want to spend a huge amount of time in pursuit of that goal. If you have an online shop, or a portfolio showcasing your work, you likely want a “clean” finished look to those photos, with a similar shared aesthetic. Doing your product photography under repeatable, controlled circumstances is basically bringing the techniques of the studio into your work space, wherever that might be.

What do you need?

First and foremost, you want good light. Whether you’re taking advantage of the natural light provided by a large window (or even outdoors), or if you’re using artificial lights, aim to capture your products with the best light possible. Regardless of your final approach, the strength of the light, its temperature, and the direction it is traveling all impact the final results.

You need a camera of some kind: if you have something besides your phone then I recommend you use that. However, in most instances these days your phone has a decent camera that can work really well under ideal conditions. Since the goal of a home studio is the creation of ideal conditions, you should be good!

You’ll need space, and the amount of space will depend on your subject matter. For smaller objects the corner of a room or the kitchen table will likely suffice. For larger works you might need an entire wall or room set aside. The space doesn’t have to be dedicated to your home studio — I recommend doing your product photos in batches to work most efficiently. That way, you can store your studio materials and only setup the studio when required.

Get yourself a computer or a really nice tablet. You can likely run your entire operation from a smartphone these days, but even a cheap ChromeBook will make cataloguing your files easier. If you want to establish an online storefront or website, I believe a computer is still necessary.

Finally, get a little notebook. Jot down ideas, or if something works particularly well (like camera settings or a particular bit of good light during a certain part of day) write it down so you can replicate it later.

On Light

I mentioned that the most important thing to your product photography is quality light. But what does that mean? Well, like everything else in life, there’s good light and there’s bad light.

Most honest and seasoned photographers will say that there’s no such thing as bad light. For them, it’s true: you can take a good photograph under almost any conditions, if you know what you’re doing and what you hope to accomplish. Our goals are different. We want perfect conditions that we can replicate over and over, so that our products look good consistently when we showcase them in our online stores or in a portfolio.

Now, I could nitpick a little here because the color balance is off a little bit in the above photos, but for the most part these look like there were shot under similar conditions and like the work is all by the same artist. That’s what you can get from consistency. That doesn’t mean you should sacrifice creativity in your shoots for uniformity — quite the contrary. Once you have a good lighting set up, you can use different backgrounds, camera angles, etc to achieve results that are different but not distracting from your overall look.

I selected the above storefront for another reason beyond the consistent look: it’s the quality of the light. Notice there are few reflections on the rings or gemstones. There are shadows under the rings but they’re faint. Everything is lit evenly. That’s your basic photoshoot checklist in a nutshell. You want to see the work your photographing without being distracted by shadows, reflections, or the background. You want the subject to stand out.

These rings were photographed under a diffused light source. You want your light to pass through a something to “soften” it a little bit. The most common, and easiest way to achieve this look, is via the sun: landscape and nature photographers often use clouds during the day to achieve even lighting. The harsh, direct light of the sun is distributed and diffused by cloud cover. In the studio, you can replicate this effect by shooting near a window that has soft white shears. Or, by using a flash/strobe with a light modifier, or by placing your product within a softbox.

One more thing to remember about light is something called white balance. Different light sources emit different wavelengths of light, they have a different “color” to them. The afternoon sun, for example, is very “cool” and has a bluish tint to it. The setting sun of the evening, on the other hand, is “warmer” with more yellow. Fluorescent lights have a different color than most streetlights, etc. What you need to know is this: getting white balance “correct” will make sure your product looks right. Here’s a video that really explains white balance.



Lighting equipment for cameras

If you’re using a camera to photograph, you’re in luck: setting up a small studio has become much easier and a whole lot less expensive in the past few years. Five years ago, buying enough flash units to adequately light a portrait subject or a product shoot would have cost hundreds of dollars. Managing all those flashes with some kind of trigger system would have added hundreds more to that fee. These days, you can buy a 2-unit setup with a wireless trigger for less than $200. If you want a shortcut to a simple but powerful lighting setup, all you need is the following:

  • Godox Xpro Wireless Flash Trigger ($69)
  • 2 Godox TT600 Flash Speedlites ($65)
  • Cable/shutter release (more later)

Also, you may want to diffuse/bounce/otherwise modify the light coming from your flash units. Here’s a handy primer on selecting the right modifier for your needs. I’m a fan of Rogue Lighting, but you should shop around and find something that will meet your needs.

Lighting equipment for phones

Even if you don’t have a camera, you can still replicate many of the features that were once dedicated to them. Ironically, it’s all thanks to Instagram and Snapchat! Selfie culture has exploded, and with it comes the tools you need for great product photography with your phone. There are a number of options, from LED light banks to selfie ring lights to very elaborate systems that let you do lots of different stuff. Those ring lights are likely the best option — they provide smooth, even lighting.

Other equipment

Get yourself some kind of tripod! I’m a fan of MeFoto, and they offer a number of different options from super-lightweight (good for phones/tablets or small cameras) to really sturdy (like the one I use). They also make a great smartphone adapter which lets you easily swap between camera/smartphone in your shooting setup. That said, if all you need is a versatile phone tripod, I like Joby’s GorillaPod, which can be used in so many different ways/situations. You can even find inexpensive options that have built-in remote shooting capabilities!

Speaking of remote triggers, for phones you need a blu-tooth enabled option. This one is less than $10. For cameras, that will depend on your manufacturer and budget. Something simple like a cable release will set you back about $10-15. Wireless options will be double that. Shop around!

Studio setup

Many of you are likely familiar with tabletop lightboxes. If you’re into the DIY movement, here’s a quick tutorial on making your own for less than $10 in materials. I’ll add that the principle should work regardless of the size of the box — so, if you have larger items, get a bigger box! You might need additional/brighter light sources on the outside, but that’s what makes this approach so versatile.


If you want an all-in-one option for shooting smaller products, this is an inexpensive option that should take care of all your needs. I can’t speak to it’s quality or durability, but for the price you should get an idea of how it works and whether it’s a route you want to invest in.

For those of you who are investing in a more traditional studio set up, my No. 1 recommendation is to experiment and see what works. My No. 2 recommendation is that you’ll find a huge wealth of information online, but from an unlikely source: search for information on portrait lighting. Many of the concepts are interchangeable, but for some reason there’s just more written about portrait photography.


Once you’re finished taking the photo, you’re not done! Alas, you still have work to do. Unless you’ve completely nailed your lighting setup, you likely need to so some tweaking after the fact. Regardless of whether you’re working on a computer, tablet or phone there’s options for you.

Computer options

I use Photoshop/Lightroom for my photo editing needs, supplemented by the NIK collection (for some color depth and black-and-white boosts). Lightroom does a good job of keeping my photo collection organized and categorized, and most of my editing takes place within Lightroom. Photoshop is there for any hardcore photo editing I need.

However, Lightroom is a deep plunge: it’s $10 a month, and has a steep learning curve. There are other options available to you. Google Photos, for example, is a pretty full-fledged service that works on both computers and phones/tablets. It has editing capabilities, and you can create albums and even photo books from within the program. It’s also basically free.

Skylum Lunminar is a standalone program that has a one-time $70 pricetag. It can also be used in tandem with Lightroom, which is nice if you want to go that route. It’s pretty powerful in its own right.

Mobile Options

If you do select Lightroom, know that it will sync between your computer and your mobile device. That’s pretty awesome, and one reason why I like the program.

However, there’s a bunch of different options out there for editing photos. My favorite for iOS is Enlight. There’s a lot of good presets included, you can adjust everything you need (exposure, white balance, etc) within the app, and best of all you cna create your own presets.

VSCO is another popular option. Again, lots and lots of presets, though it does have a paid option that contains most of the presets.


Something to consider if you’re getting serious about a studio system is trying before you buy. This might not always be possible, but you’d be surprised at what you can check out before purchasing. I like and for renting lenses and cameras. It might be worth it to try something for a week to see if it meets your needs.

And here’s a few links I think you’ll find useful:

Of course, please let me know if you have any questions!