Behind The Shot: Hoodoos and Lightning

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah


Behind The Shot: “Hoodoos and Lightning” By Phill Monson—Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

Photo By Phill Monson

The desert Southwest, particularly the Escalante Monument, has always been a source of inspiration to me. From the incredible rock formations and color, to the various sandstone layers, it’s easy to feel like you’re on another planet. While the Southwest is spectacular and unique in each season, monsoon season in the Southwest can provide dramatic weather and light for those epic landscape shots.

My friend and I had decided to shoot the Toadstool Hoodoos, located a short hike off Highway 89 near Big Water, Utah, for sunset, and were provided with great light and the development of some storm clouds. Once the light faded, we decided to call it a night, and head back to camp for dinner and some rest before an early morning to catch the sunrise—normally I’d try and do some night photography, but with a full moon out, the stars were washed so sleep seemed like the better idea. Around 4:00 a.m., however, we were woken up by an intense lightning show and with the moon having set, we knew it was too good of an opportunity to pass up, so we made the hike back out to see if we could capture the passing storm. As luck would have it, the cell moved perfectly behind the best side of the main hoodoo allowing for some unique captures.

As it was still very dark out, there wasn’t enough ambient light to bring any detail to the foreground, so while leaving the shutter open for around 25-30 seconds at ƒ/3.2 and ISO 640 on the Canon 5D Mark III with 16-35mm lens, I used my Brinkmann Dual Xenon spotlight on the rocks behind me to provide bounce light to evenly illuminate the face of the hoodoo and provide detail to the dramatic sky. Employing this bounce, or reflection technique, provides even lighting in close quarters and can warm up the colors on the sandstone formations. As I didn’t have a lightning trigger, I had to rely on taking shot after shot in an attempt to capture each bolt, excitedly checking the LCD screen briefly to see what I got.

The storm lingered well into sunrise, and we continued to capture lightning amongst these great hoodoos. After the light became too harsh, we decided to make the drive over to Bryce Canyon for sunset where continued storms provided rainbows and Mammatus clouds for what became one of my most productive photography trips.

To see more of Phill Monson’s photography, visit and follow him on Instagram at @phillmonson.