Desert Night at Algodones Dunes

After I made my photo of the month for August at Pinyon Point in the Laguna Mountains, Tracy and I continued into the desert. It was a bit silly since we knew the moon would rise early and limit the possibility to photograph the night sky severely, but when two guys who are nuts about photography are together and share one car, there’s no stopping – and so we drove out all the way to Algodones Dunes.

This post is a bit more text-heavy – after critically evaluating my photos, and looking at Tracy’s photos, there’s really only two photos worth showing. The rest of the story is below the first image, if you’re interested.

Full moon night and thunderstorm at Algodones Dunes, near Brawley, California, August 2016.
Full moon night and thunderstorm at Algodones Dunes, near Brawley, California, August 2016.

When we arrived at the dunes, the moon was already up in the sky – interestingly though, far off to the east, probably behind the Cargo Muchacho Mountains, a thunderstorm was pretty active, with a lot of both cloud-to-cloud and cloud-to-ground lightning strikes. This is what you see in the photo above – I walked a little bit down into the dunes from Hugh Osborne overlook, because I wanted to avoid the multitude of blinking red lights on some power line towers, or whatever that was. Unfortunately, I didn’t manage to catch a single lightning strike in any of my exposures. Dang!

On the other side, facing away from the moon, I was actually able to get a photo of the Milky Way:

Algodones Dunes and the Milky Way on a full moon night, near Brawley, California, August 2016.
Algodones Dunes and the Milky Way on a full moon night, near Brawley, California, August 2016.

After we had our share of dune photos we drove a little bit further east on Highway 78, to the Chocolate Mountains. When we got out of the car we immediately noticed a new thunderhead towering up to the west – what the heck? That’s where we came from! Tracy has a pretty awesome photo of it, with a gorgeous cloud-to-cloud lightning strike, he titled it Skylight (and I’m full of envy that he managed to get that one, and I didn’t!;-).

We drove back west, towards the thunderstorm and the thunderstorms. At the dunes, the road was wet. We had missed a pretty cool downpour. We got out of the car again but the wind had picked up and it was really bad – getting sandblasted in 90F at night is no fun!

We rested a bit at the dunes but it was just too warm to sleep in the car, so we started the long way home, with a stop in El Centro to fuel up, both on gasoline and caffeine. Tracy got me one of these insanely big cups of Coke at the gas station, I asked for the small one, it seemed to be almost a quart, he said it was the smallest they had!

Up in the Mountain Empire region, it was much, much cooler and we took a 15 minute power nap at Kitchen Creek Road in the car, before the final stint home…

Tech notes. I was really struggling with the night photos, and the reason is that I wasn’t using my own gear. You need fast lenses for night photos and my wide angle lenses just don’t cut it – the fastest that I have is 24mm at f/2.8, and with the angular movement, you can’t get exposure times that are long enough to have a good exposure, but without streaking of the stars.

Now with my own lenses, I know where the infinity setting is, on the distance scale (it’s not exactly in the middle of the infinity symbol on the 16-35/4 at the 16mm setting, for example). With Tracy’s lenses I didn’t know, so I had to make a couple exposures with both his 14/2.8 and 20/1.8 to find out where the infinity setting of these lenses actually is. The lesson: be familiar with your gear, so you don’t have to figure out how it works and what it does when you’re in the desert at night when it’s hot, windy, dark, and timing really matters because you want to catch some cool lightning bolts with the camera! Tracy got his photos because he knows his gear. I didn’t. Lesson learned…

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1 thought on “Desert Night at Algodones Dunes”

  1. Great write-up my friend. For as much whining we were doing in that hot, muggy, weather, I think we came away with some interesting images. You are so correct that infinity isn’t always “infinity” on different lenses and knowing where to focus manually is pretty important. Especially because most lenses now allow you to focus past infinity.

    I really like the Full Moon image as the entire frame is very clean. Just a sublime image. Belies all the heat and wind we were enjoying!


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