The When and the Where in Photography

As someone who does a lot of outdoor/landscape photography, great locations are important to me. Being in a photogenic location is a wonderful way to experience the outdoors. However, when you photograph a location can be just as important as where you are. The “when” of photography occurs on multiple scales. Within a day, within a year, and even across years. Consider one of my favorite locations to photograph, the South Dakota Badlands.

If you visit the Badlands like most tourists, you’ll arrive at a nice time during the summer after you’ve had your morning coffee. By this time of day, the sun is nearly overhead, and you’ll get photographs like this one:

Door Trail in the Badlands, as most tourists see it, well after sunrise.
Door Trail in the Badlands, as most tourists see it… well after sunrise.

However, if you brave the pain of a 4am wake-up call, you can be treated to some wonderful pre-dawn light:

Door trail in the pre-dawn light.
Door trail in the pre-dawn light.

There’s a reason most landscape photographers prefer the light right around sunrise and sunset; it can create magical images without the flat, harsh look that you get in the middle of the day.

Time of year is important, too. My first trip to the Badlands was in 2005, and I went in October. While it was nice not to have to get up at 4am for sunrise, it was a different scene because by this time of year, all the grasses were brown:

Badlands, October 2005. In late summer, all the annual grasses have dried up, giving a monochromatic look to the landscape.
Badlands in the fall.
Badlands in the fall.


When I started leading photo safaris to the Badlands, I decided to go in the spring. The green grasses contrast with the brown and orange rocks to provide a more diverse color palette.

Badlands in the spring.
Badlands in the spring.


So while you can see the same wonderful rock formations in this amazing location, your photographs will differ depending on the season you choose to go. There’s more temporal variation, too. Even within a single visit to the Badlands, I’ve experienced everything from the most amazing clouds (great for photographs) to thick, pea-soup fog (not so great). So anytime you’re planning a trip to that amazing location, try to give yourself a couple of days to get at least one great one, and if you get more than one great day, you’ll be ecstatic!

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