Desert Dunes: Photography in the African Sands

Feb 8, 2016  By Albert Knapp MD

by Albert Knapp, MD & Ruth Oratz, MD

When we think of deserts we see wide open empty expanses of flat dust and sand, no break on the horizon, no sign of life. Unbearable heat. Smoldering sun.  Void. Geologically, deserts are dry land masses, where more water is lost by evapotranspiration than falls as precipitation. While sparsely populated by humans and other species, deserts are full of an endless variety of shapes, colors, forms, spaces, shadows, lines, texture, pattern and light.  Perhaps most seductive and inviting about deserts are the ubiquitous dunes.

ERG ZHAR, MOROCCO. Leica Vario-Elmar-S 30-90mm f/5.6 ASPH at 90mm, ISO 200, f/9.5 at 1/500 sec.

Desert photography presents its own particular challenges including judicious lens selection, exposure compensation and constant protec-tion from dust and sand. I brought my two Leica S (Typ 006) bodies and used the 30-90mm f/5.6 ASPH and the 120mm APO-MACRO f/2.5 almost exclusively. I never changed lenses while out in the desert as this is tanta-mount to camera suicide, given all the dust and sand. When I knew beforehand that an extreme wide angle lens would be needed, I would opt while in the protected confines of our closed tent or vehicle for my 24mm f/3.5 ASPH.  With white sand, exposure com-pensation was a must and I was governed by my histogram.  In addition, I found Storm Jackets to be an excellent first line of defense against the elements and always used B&W UV F-PRO filters for protection.

Large accumulations of windblown sand pile up vertically in mounds forming dunes, solitary or more commonly grouped together in fields. When extensive these are called sand seas or ergs. The characteristics of prevailing winds, determine the shape of dunes, creating the sexy curvy S, long straight linear ridges, sharp slopes, star formations, vertiginous parabolas, soft mounded domes.

The African continent is one fourth desert and about one fourth of the desert is dunes.  The Sahara is the largest sand desert on the planet, at over 9,400,000 km2 (3,600,000  mi2) stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea,  and covering most of North Africa.  Morocco abuts the western edge of the Sahara which is rich in variegated dunes. Sand creeps into every crack and crevice, between our toes, in the folds of our clothes, stuck to eyelashes and in the workings of the cameras. What can we make of these dunes, their immensity, the shapes, curves, sharp shadows and deep dark places, soft rolling convexities and concavities? The sigma, the S curve, the sinuous line leading to the eruption of a single cloud above the vertex. Can we keep the horizon straight or should we just lose it in the swirls of shape? Eyes fatigue, bodies tire, minds numb. It is said that entering the Sahara is a baptism of solitude.

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