Badlands Photo Safari Report

Participants on my Badlands photo safari take in last light

I’m back from my Photo Safari to South Dakota’s Badlands National Park, and it was a fantastic trip. To start off, I have to say that the best part of these adventures is the people that I meet. Once again, I had a great group of participants, all of whom were excited to be outside photographing one of the most interesting landscape locations in the United States. Summer days in the Badlands are long. To catch sunrise, you need to be at your location well before 5am. Sunsets don’t really get going until 8:30pm, and you can keep shooting twilight for another 30 minutes or so. That means you’re going to be faced with a lot of time during the day where you’ve got mid-day (crummy) light.

Fortunately for our group, we had several activities planned to make use of the “bad light” times (including naptime). I was able to give classroom demonstrations of all the latest software tools, including HDR Efex Pro and Silver Efex Pro 2. We also looked at workflow using Photo Mechanic and Lightroom. I also had some mid-day shooting locations planned, just in case people were up for it.

As an outdoor photographer, you have to be prepared for nature. As the old saying goes, “Nature is a Mother.” Capturing those amazing moments requires being at the right place, at the right time, and getting lucky. We were out with our gear on Pinnacles Overlook at 4:40am, ready for the soft pastel colors of a South Dakota pre-dawn sky. Except we didn’t expect the fog. Thick, soupy, can’t see past your windshield, fog. We had to come up with Plan B. So we went to another spot, hoping the fog would burn off enough to let us do some shooting in reasonable morning light. Except the fog persisted. Thick, pea-soup fog as far as you could see. So we went to Plan C: drive through the rest of the park and see if it got any better at different elevations. Still, the fog persisted. It was clear that we wouldn’t be doing any serious landscape shooting in these conditions (we did make some snapshots for the fun of it), so we headed back for breakfast. By 10am, the fog was finally starting to lift, being replaced by patchy blue skies and clouds. It was time to implement Plan D. We headed over to a preserved 19th century sod house and spent a few hours photographing it, old farm equipment, and prairie dogs.

While it was nice to be out shooting, we ran into a classic problem with outdoor photography– mid-day light is notoriously harsh. Our solution was to convert our shots to black and white or try HDR techniques to deliver a more artistic end-product. Otherwise, our shots just looked like well-composed snapshots.

By the end of our trip, we accepted the reality that weather reports for South Dakota are simply random rivulets of meteorological thought, pulled out of the dark recesses of someone’s head. “Sunny” could mean cloudy, or foggy. “Cloudy” could mean amazing clear skies. So we turned to the best weather reporting system we had: looking out the window. On our final afternoon, the weather was showing thunderstorms in the area. We decided to give it a whirl anyway and hoped we’d catch some interesting light. While shooting in a thunderstorm isn’t very good, shooting distant thunderstorms can be amazing. Nothing spices up a landscape shot like serious weather. We headed back to Pinnacles Overlook, a high-elevation spot where you could survey the prairie for miles. Sure enough, the sky turned black, and it started to rain. But we decided to hang out in our vehicles for a little while to see if the storm would pass through. Sure enough, after about 15 minutes the rain started to subside and the clouds began to loosen up on the western horizon in front of the sun. And with that, we had the trifecta of landscape photography: the right place, the right time, and luck.

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