Chasing the Light at White Pocket


Stone Plateau, White Pocket, Paria/Vermillion Cliffs, Arizona
Nikon D800, 14-24mm, 2 seconds, F16, ISO 200

Earlier this month I spent sixteen days in the desert southwest of southern Utah and northern Arizona. I led two workshops in Zion National Park (images to come), ran a private workshop, and spent some time camping deep in the heart of the Paria/Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness at White Pocket. The first time I visited White Pocket–with fellow Dreamscapes blogger George Stocking–I fell in love with the bizarre landscape. The shapes, lines, and unreal color of this city of stone are pure magic for a landscape photographer. Mix in some interesting light and weather and you have a recipe for some seriously dramatic images! By the way, a big thanks to George for taking me out to this location for the first time. We had a great time together and it fueled my desire to return each year since that first trip.

Tortured Earth #2, Paria/Vermillion Cliffs, Arizona Nikon d800, 14-24mm, 1.6 seconds, F18, ISO 100

Tortured Earth #2, Paria/Vermillion Cliffs, Arizona
Nikon D800, 14-24mm, 1.6 seconds, F18, ISO 100

The image above was made in the middle of the afternoon. The clouds were just beginning to build up after a day of completely clear skies, so I left camp to scout images. The light was too harsh for color landscape photography, but perfect for black & white work. Once I noticed the symmetry between the clouds and twisted sandstone, I knew I immediately had to pull the camera from my pack and get this shot before the clouds moved out of position.

Wonderland, Paria/Vermillion Cliffs, Arizona Nikon D800, 14-24mm, Forodiox CPL, 1 second, F16, ISO 50

Wonderland, Paria/Vermillion Cliffs, Arizona
Nikon D800, 14-24mm, Forodiox CPL, 1 second, F16, ISO 50

The amazing variety of shapes and colors at White Pocket can leave you speechless and completely overwhelmed. I always try to focus on a few basic shapes or set of lines to create a strong composition in my imagery. This location is one that I had stumbled across before, but never had the right clouds appeared to make a suitably dramatic image. That all changed this evening as a near-perfect set of puffy clouds lined up directly above. The lines in the stone and the line of the clouds came together to form a vanishing point towards the far buttes in the composition. I waited until the last rays of the sun were striking the foreground rocks before tripping the shutter.

Red Planet, Paria/Vermillion Cliffs Wilderness, Arizona Nikon D800, 14-24mm, 1 second, F14, ISO 200

Red Planet, Paria/Vermillion Cliffs Wilderness, Arizona
Nikon D800, 14-24mm, 1 second, F14, ISO 200

The following morning I awoke in the dark two hours before sunrise. I was happy to see the clouds that rolled in at sunset the day before had not disappeared overnight. After making some strong coffee, I hiked into the sandstone. I was not planning on shooting Lollipop Rock, as I have taken some great images of it before, but the clouds and light were going to go off behind this location. So I settled for a slightly different composition than I have captured in the past. The light was a brilliant pink and it lasted long enough that I was able to quickly move around to a couple other spots. The lead-in image for this post was made just a few minutes after this one.

Brain Matter, Paria/Vermillion Cliffs, Arizona Nikon D800, 16-35mm, Singh Ray LB Polarizer, 1/15, F11, ISO 200

Brain Matter, Paria/Vermilion Cliffs, Arizona
Nikon D800, 16-35mm, Singh Ray LB Polarizer, 1/15, F11, ISO 200

As the light broke over the horizon, I walked up to the top of Brain Rock Mountain, or so I like to call it. I knew the shape of the clouds would perfectly mimic the shapes in the rock. I needed to get the shot quickly as the early, low-angled light struck the rocks. A cloud bank was moving in to the east. Just a few minutes later the sun was gone, and so was the image. It pays to move quickly sometimes and have a set of images in mind. The only way this is possible is to study the location in advance and shoot there often!

My campsite under the stars. Nikon D800, 14-24mm, 230 seconds, F 6.3, ISO 400, Campfire light and lantern in the tent.

My campsite under the stars.
Nikon D800, 14-24mm, 230 seconds, F 6.3, ISO 400, Campfire light and lantern in the tent.

My camp below the stars, only minutes away from White Pocket. It was an amazing three days in the back-country and I can’t wait to get back soon!!

Come explore Zion and the Desert Southwest with me next November. I have a workshop scheduled for three days in Zion and three days in Page where we will hike the Virgin River Narrows, view secret slots with waterfalls, explore the slot canyons of Page, and chase the desert light in some truly awe-inspiring locations. Space is limited to 8–and we are already down to just a few spots. Click here for more information and to register.

About Joseph Rossbach (13 Posts)

Joseph Rossbach has been photographing the landscape for over twenty years. Joe is a frequent contributor and blogger for Outdoor Photographer Magazine, and travels extensively each year creating new images and teaching others of the art and technique of nature photography.


  • Great shots. I just got done trying to get out there but a snow storm moved in (followed by zero degree night temps) and I had to cancel. I have only a 2wd and was planning to just hike in from Houserock or as close as I could get. I got a good taste of it hiking around Coyote North (Wave isn’t the only thing there!) and really want to explore more. Now I’m disappointed and might go up to similar areas to the north (Red Breaks, etc.) that are slightly more accessible. That is until I come back another time w/4wd.

    Anyway, looking forward to your Zion shots. Keep up the good work.

    • Thanks Michael!

      Man that would be one hell of a long walk from Houserock! You’ll get there, but I would definitely recommend a 4×4


      • Yeah, Pawhole would be. I was going to try using my bike too, though sand might quash that idea. There’s a road to the south where you can get in w/high clearance 2wd, in the right conditions pretty far if you deflate tires. But the snow put an end to all those ideas. Really like that brainrock image.

        • Dude that would be one hell of a bike ride, especially through the sand! Winter travel, as long as the snow is not too deep, can be a bit easier due to the sand not being as loose as it is in the warmer months. And yes, the long route in is not nearly as much of challenge as coming from Poverty Flats.

  • Hi Joe. Wonderland is just beautiful.

    This is probably a good time to ask you some technical questions since all of your exposures were taken with an aperture between F14 and F18 and since you are using a Nikon D800. There is a lot of talk on the internet about the D800 being diffraction limited, even more than most Fx cameras. Are you experiencing this purported diffraction anathema? If so, are you doing anything to compensate for this such as using focus stacking techniques? Hyper-focal distance focusing yields acceptable sharpness when making small to medium size prints, but doesn’t really cut the mustard for me when printing big. What say you, Joe Rossbach? 30 seconds. Go!

    • Hey man,

      I have honestly not experienced any major diffraction issues between f11 and 16, that being said once I go to F18 or smaller, I do see a falloff in sharpness especially on the top left corner. It is usually fixable though using the lens corrections tab in Lightroom. I have had the pleasure of printing several D800 files above 60 inches and the prints look amazing! In fact, I just printed Tortured Earth #2 at 30×40 and it looked great, no issue with fall off in the corners after using the correction in LR.

      I hope this answers the question!

      And thanks for the kind words about Wonderland.


  • Joe,
    fantastic images! Sounds like you had the “dream” site visit where Mother Nature blessed you with divine sky and light. I had intended to do White Pockets this summer for the first time, but then the excursion fell through and we moved on to Page. Can I ask, where did you camp, and did you need a permit to do it? This place is on my bucket list for my next trip out west.


    • Hey John,

      Thanks man! We camped right in the large dirt parking area, not in the designated wilderness. As far as I know, you do need a permit for overnight camping in the parking lot area. In fact, there were about four other folks set up when we arrived the first afternoon.


  • I really like Brain Matter. It looks a bit like an optical illusion of a giant peak photographed from the air.

    Tortured Earth is a beautiful B&W!

  • Great photos Joe. I think the cloud formations really give the landscape added punch. i live in Southern Utah and am always looking up in the sky at cloud formations. They change quickly too.