The Ultimate New Mexico Photography Guide
New Mexico Photography 101
New Mexico Photography!? I was thinking the same thing before I entered this gem of a state. Because it’s tucked away in the SouthWest and not glorified like other locations, people don’t often associate New Mexico with all the beauty and splendor it possesses.
Imagine a place where you can photograph the night skies, amazing sunsets and a balloon fiesta all in a weekend. Now open your eyes and picture in big shiny letters NEW MEXICO – haha ok ok a little dramatic there but you get the point.
There were four locations that simply took my breath away when I visited: The NRAO satellite installation, The Trinity Atomic Site, White Sands National Monument and The Balloon Fiesta. In my opinion these are the natural and cultural beauties that define New Mexico. There is a lot of rich history in this state so make sure you take it all in during your visit.
My New Mexico Photographic Journey: NRAO Very Large Array
If you’ve ever seen the movie Contact you’ll recognize the satellite array nestled in the middle of New Mexico – where the skies are darker than you’ve likely ever seen.
It’s operated by NRAO and tracks everything from radio transmission from other galaxies to the birth of stars. It’s the largest array of it’s kind and is simply breathtaking to look at. The sattelites move across miles of land on rail tracks.
At any given time the Satellites move across the tracks as the dishes rotate looking at the night sky.
Preparing to photograph the NRAO
When preparing for your trip there are some basic things you need to know. The Park closes after sunset so make sure you get your foreground shots during blue hour – the rangers will kick you out once it’s dark!
Also, make sure you respect all the rules and regulations surrounding the area, such as:
- Keeping cell phone use to a minimum
- Staying on designated roads and trails
- Minding the wildlife and their habitat
Here are some essentials you’ll need for photographing the NRAO. These are similar to the tips you’ll find on my astrophotography guide, so feel free to reference that:
Things you’ll need to photograph Dark Skies:
- A Sturdy Tripod – having the right tripod that holds steady can be the difference between a tack sharp image or a blurry mess
- A DSLR that can capture perfect low light images: I used my Canon 5dmk4 and the results were amazing
- A Headlmap: Never venture out into the night without the proper lighting.
- Water and Food: While it’s not completely in insolation the NRAO is miles away from a gas station or store. So bring plenty of water and food if you’re planning to stay late into the night
Due to the restrictions on access after hours I had to really plan my shots out during blue hour. This required a bit of work but it was well worth it!
I took my blue hour foreground shots after the sun set so I could capture a well lit but dark enough shot that mimicked and replicated evening conditions. As you can see below the Satellites are visible and the clarity is good. I shot the foreground at ISO 100 at f2.8 for 15 seconds.
To get shots of the milky way I had to leave the park and shoot the sky from the road. This procedure was pretty straight forward. I then composited the night sky onto my foreground – You can check out my process in the video below. It’s too long to type OUT haha!
New Mexico Photography Essentials: Trinity Atomic Site
There is a lot of controversy surrounding the Trinity Atomic Site – I was very reluctant to visit prior to going because of the deep history of destruction surrounding the creation of The Bomb.
However, as a student of history I thought it was important to visit the spot where the atomic age started. For all of it’s negative consequences the atomic age also ushered in the space age, modern computing and many other scientific feats.
Preparation & Timing Your Visit:
Here is the most important thing to know before visiting the Trinity Site: IT’S ONLY OPEN TWO DAYS A YEAR: THE FIRST SATURDAY OF OCTOBER AND APRIL.
Due to the site being on an active missile base and the logistics behind having civilians visit a moderately radioactive area the government only keeps the site open two times a year.
The gates open at 8AM but it’s advised people get there 2 hours prior to that time. The line stretches for 2 miles but once you get past the security checkpoint it’s a cinch getting there.
There are food vendors and restrooms near the site so you don’t have to prepare THAT much for your trip.
Things to Photograph:
I honestly didn’t take too much time photographing the Trinity Site. As it’s only open in the middle of the day it’s very hard to get moody sunrise or sunset shots of the location.
However, that doesn’t take away from all the beauty of the site. I had a handheld camera and snapped shots that I found interesting.
The most interesting thing to photograph were the trinitite rocks that formed shortly after the first atomic test. Essentially the ground was heated to such an extreme temperature that the sand turned liquid and formed into tiny green crystals.
I found the composition above and had to photograph it. It’s a juxtaposition of destruction and birth – and it captivated me. Sorry if I am being corny but I AM FOR REAL!
Precautions & Trinitite Guide
Many people are of the false belief that the site poses incredible radioactive risk to everyone who enters. To be honest, there is a nominal risk of radiation: no more than flying across the country in an airplane.
One thing to be mindful of is the trinitite. The rocks are radioactive and it’s illegal to take them off site. For more info on Trinitite and it’s formation read this guide here
New Mexico Photography: White Sands National Monument
The most recognizable of all the New Mexico photography locations are the Sand Dunes that cover White Sands National Monument.
They are unlike anything you’ll ever see due to their color and texture
They were essentially formed by the evaporation of a giant lake that was composed of gypsum.
Below I’ll highlight some of the various scenes that will result in the best lighting and compositions for your photographs.
White Sands Midday Photography:
Unlike other landscapes, the sand dunes at White Sands are stunning in midday light. The approach I took, and which provided the most stunning vistas, was to take macro foreground photos and telephoto shots at 300mm and beyond.
Shooting macro shots of the ground at the Sand Dunes allows you to capture the wind whipped sand in stunning clarity. In the shot below I basically set my tripod as low as I could and went to as wide of a focal length as I could.
Shooting telephoto was my favorite thing to do at the dunes. It allowed me to see things in the distance and create enormous scale in my shots. Below is a guy at least 2-3 miles away standing on a massive dune. I can’t tell what he is doing.
He’s either taking a selfie or praying #namaste
White Sands Sunset Photography
Shooting sunset at on the dunes at White Sands was a real treat because I got lucky.
The sky was vivid and there were strong pink hues that really added a lot of nice color to the foreground . For more info on how to shoot stunning sunset photography you can check out my sunset photography guide .
White Sands Night Photography
Shooting night photography at the dunes is a real challenge because they close the gates from within at 8PM sharp. Meaning if you are inside the gate at the time of closure you will get locked in for the night!
I was lucky enough to have an early sunset which meant early nightfall. I took made sure to photograph my foreground shots at around 730 PM . I used the same night time photography process that I outlined in the Youtube Video above so make sure you check it out if you have questions.
New Mexico Photography: Balloon Fiesta
I’ll be honest I didn’t get the best conditions or have enough time to fully enjoy this portion of the trip. However, I was able to check out the grand ascension.
The Fiesta usually happens in Late September to Early October when the weather is best and lasts for two weeks.
What I realized from my trip was that I needed to get to higher ground to capture this event in all it’s glory.
On my next trip I’ll be sure to shoot from a higher vantage point and on a telephoto lens.
Preparing for the Balloon Fiesta
- Buy your flights and hotels WAY in advance – people from all over the world visit
- Mind the Weather: The slightest disturbance in weather will ground the balloons so make sure you stay for a couple days in case inclement weather ruins a day’s worth of balloon viewing
- Get there early – Getting to the fairgrounds early is essential to get the best view
- Vantage Points: Try different vantage points. I surely will on my next visit!
New Mexico Photography Bonus: Petroglyphs National Park
If you have some time to kill like I did you NEED to check out Petroglyphs National Park.
There are tons of trails to go on but the easiest one I found was Boca Negra Trail It was a little over a mile loop and had the most stunning petroglyphs
Above is a photo of my favorite petroglyph from the trail. It was stunning and well preserved. Photographing these gems was really easy. I waited for the good light and BOOM.
The petroglyphs are stunning due to their stunning condition even after thousands of years. The native people who have lived here for millennia carved messages into the volcanic rocks to mark territory, story tell and record harvest data.
New Mexico Photography Conclusion
This trip was one of the most amazing I have ever had. New Mexico Photography truly is a stunning thing to behold.
Some destinations are great and taken in single servings. However, I feel New Mexico will be a lifelong trip for me – one where I’ll go back for years to discover all the splendor of this beautiful state.