Last Light on Second Wave

First and foremost, I would like to thank the staff at Outdoor Photographer for asking me to be the newest contributing photographer here at the OP blog. It is an honor and a privilege to have the chance to share my images and photography experiences alongside some of the finest photographers in the business!

This past January, I had the opportunity to explore an area of magnificent sandstone known as the Wave in the Coyote Buttes special permit area of the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument of northern Arizona. This area of spectacular geological formations is a true treasure trove for the nature and landscape photographer. I started my day at the Wire Pass trail head under clear and cold skies. The temperatures hovered in the mid twenties, but the warm sun shining down on the slick rock made it feel a good bit warmer.  The hike out the the Wave, an area of twisted rainbow sandstone, requires a rugged trail-less hike over sandstone for just under 3 miles. The journey out to the Wave is an amazing hike and paying attention to route finding is hard task under such tremendously beautiful scenery.

While most hikers and photographers choose to visit the Wave and other areas in the Coyote Buttes in spring and fall, my trip out in the dead of winter provided some of the best light I have ever experience at this location in over five separate visits before. Not to mention the solitude! I ran into only three other hikers all day.

I started out by first exploring the main Wave. Looking for reflected light to guide my eye. In the image below, I used a wide angle lens to get in close to the slick rock formations creating a sweeping image of sandstone, line and light. The area of slick rock in the background was receiving strong bounce light from an area of rock just outside of the frame. This bounce light painted a strong and warm glowing light. In my photography, I am always looking for things that fall on the edges, the edge of the light or extreme color relationships that bleed into one another such as extreme warm and cool tones working in juxtaposition with one another. With that in mind, I kept my White Balance set to daylight balance. As a film shooter for over twelve years, I knew the areas in shade (the foreground sandstone) would pick up the reflected color of the blue sky above while the background of the image receiving the strong and warm bounce light would record as a rich red. Allowing these cool and warm tones to work together would produce a rich color contrast in the final image.

Ancient Rhythms

After spending several hours photographing the main Wave, I headed a little bit deeper into the wilderness to arrive at an area of spectacular sandstone known quite simply as the "Second Wave". I had been to this spot only once before in late spring, but at that time of the year the light is not at it's best for shooting the Second Wave. In the winter, however, the sun sets in the notch between Top Rock and the Cockscomb allowing for sweet light all the way up until sunset. I set my camera up on a bench of sandstone above the formation to shoot down onto it. This allowed me to place the Wave against the dark mountainside in the background. After setting up the camera, I patiently waited for an hour watching the light slowly change and just enjoying the incredible scenery and eerie silence. As the sun dropped low in the sky, I waited till just before it was about to go behind the terrain to the southwest before taking the picture.

Sandstone Swirls

As night now drew close, I packed my gear, put on my head lamp and readied my hand held GPS for the long walk in the dark back out to the trail head.  It was  a great day at the Wave, and I am already planning another trip in 2012 in the winter of course.


    Your photo of Sandstone Swirls is so amazing. Quite a perfect contrast of shadow and light and with such rich colors, movement. Thank you for sharing this and what it took to get there.

    Enjoyed reading your article. The image of the ‘Second Wave’ is really spectacular. The definition and detail, as well as the colors of the sandstone, brought out by the setting sunlight is incredible. Nice work.

    Everyone, Thanks so much for so many positive comments!

    ymgandy, I started out as strictly a large format BW shooter working in the wet darkroom, so I understand your passion for monochrome. Thanks for your very kind comment!

    josesh, what are you doing? you are shooting same place with same composition which is already shoot to death. come up with some original idea and dont make adventure stories to sell your copied photographs.

    ping ping,

    It is certainly true that the Wave has been shot before by many other photographers, both in the past and to come in the future. That is for a reason as it is one of the most beautiful places in the west. I am sorry you feel the way you do about the images, but I stand by my shots 100% as being unique to my own personal vision.

    Hey Joe,

    Absolutely beautiful work as always. My fav is “Second Wave” because of it’s warmth and dramatic contrasts. Also congrats on the blog…a well deserved showcase for your talent and expertise.


    P.S. Ping Ping’s mother sure did a number on him. 🙂


    For those who hunger for the opportunity to “do” both WAVES, but are limited in their ability to access them by foot and back in one day…..are their guides one can hire to take you into the area by 4-wheel jeep and return, thereby allowing more time for the many side attractions?

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