Calculating Exposure On Sand Dunes

Discussion in 'Exposure Discussion' started by mikewhi, Jun 29, 2004.

  1. mikewhi

    mikewhi Member

    May 22, 2004
    Redmond, WA
    8x10 Format
    I have visited several stretches of sand dunes over the years (southern Colorado, Death Valley, Oregon). I seem to have trouble getting good negatives when photographing them. I am careful about calculating the exposure (I use a Pentax 1 deg. spot meter) and I develop the negatives carefully and at times consisten with my Zone System testing. Still, they always seem to come out thin routinely.

    Is there something about the sand that (like snow) throws off the meter?
    Would the use of some filter help out? (I recall reading that E. Weston asked Adams about this and Ansel recommended using an orange filter....).

    Are there any experienced B&W sand dune photographers out there that can offer some advice? I will probably be going back to Death Valley after the summer.


  2. KenM

    KenM Member

    Apr 22, 2003
    Calgary, Alb
    4x5 Format
    I've never photographed dunes before, so take what I say with a grain of....sand.

    Thin negatives implies underexposure. What zone are you placing your shadows on? If you're placing them on zone III, you may be losing some local contrast, since part of what makes up the 1 degree area on your spot meter may be zone II 1/2, and part may be III 1/2 which averase out to zone III. If you place the shadows a bit higher on the scale, you'll increase the amount of local contrast in the shadows. Yes, your negatives will be a bit more dense, but that's ok since todays film can handle the extra exposure without blocking up the highlights.

    I won't recommend bracketing, since 8x10 is relatively expensive, but perhaps a test the next time you're out may be in order.

    The other thing to keep in mind is that depending on the time of day, dunes can have very little contrast, requiring (sometimes greatly) increased development to get any decent contrast. If you are doing any sort of N+ development, I would avoid decreasing exposure to compensate, since you will lose contrast in the shadows.

    Using a orange, or even an red filter will help with contrast, but I think extended development will help more.

    Good luck!
    Last edited by a moderator: Jun 29, 2004
  3. Les McLean

    Les McLean Subscriber

    Oct 18, 2002
    Northern Eng
    Multi Format
    I've photographed sand dunes many times in Death Valley, New Mexico and Namibia and produced very well exposed printable negatives. There is a lot of very bright light bouncing about in any desert widerness and my approach in dealing with it is to give one stop more exposure than the Zone that I plan to print the sand on. If I want a literal interpretation of light sand I would normally print it at Zone VII but I would expose for Zone VIII. Clearly I determine the contrast range in the whole image and develop accordingly, usually by reducing development by one stop. Alternatively, if I decide that I want to make dramatic images of sand dunes I allow the shadows to go almost pure black by exposing for the highlight and then I increase development to increase contrast.

    I have an old book about photography in Death Valley by Ansel Adams and he does talk about exposure problems and I'm sure that he recommends using an orange filter.
  4. Donald Miller

    Donald Miller Member

    Dec 21, 2002
    Large Format
    In my experience, the sand dunes at Alamosa (southern Colo) are so neutral in tonality that an orange filter would be almost meaningless. The only time that an orange filter would be of benefit in that location would be if one wanted to create a darker sky (if the sky is included). I have not photographed at the other locations you mentioned so I have no knowledge of the conditions there.

    The solution as I see it is to assure proper exposure and adequate development. I don't know that I agree with giving one more stop of exposure as proper procedure. This is especially so if one is contact printing on Azo or one of the alternative processes. The reason that I take this position is that when over exposure is utilized the film expansion capabilities are compromised when one is developing to a higher DR (contrast). For me film selection is paramount. Not all films will expand contrast adequately to convey in the print the desired result considering the low overall and local contrast that I have experienced at the Great Sand Dunes.

    I have used TriX, JandC Classic 200, and Bergger BPF 200 at The Great Sanddunes Ntl. Mon. For my next visit I will use Efke PL 100 or TMax 400. For the aforementioned expansion considerations.

    I found that of the three films TriX is the most desirable and the other two films seriously compromised in their ability to expand contrast. However since my last visit I have found the other two films (Efke and Tmax 400) that I mentioned as being more suitable.
  5. Stan. L-B

    Stan. L-B Member

    Jun 2, 2004
    London & Fri
    8x10 Format
    Hi Mike.
    You do not say what colour or tone the sand is. In parts of West Scotland our sand is bright white.
    In the past I have exposed it as for snow, zone V11, with consistantly good results. Have you tried the clip test on your large format, to enable you to adjust the development one way or the other? It's cheaper than a bracket or a bin job. Good luck.