In late November of 2022, I was headed home to visit my family for Thanksgiving. About halfway from Colorado to Wisconsin, the Badlands sit within the southwest corner of South Dakota. Having always wanted shoot the Badlands, I opted to split up the drive and spend a couple days exploring.
Within these scenarios, it's easy to talk yourself out of a trip. I mean, it certainly wasn't a great time to be there, and shooting conditions would be tough with a brown and barren November landscape. Over the years I've learned to recognize this negative voice, sometimes fearful, sometimes just plain lazy. Fact of the matter is, the only way to find good locations to shoot, is to put in the work.
Earlier in my career, I would've spent more time researching "the spot", locations that are beautiful, but so well known they've been shot millions of times. Sure, those locations can be incredible, I mean, there's a reason there are roadside-overlooks, and short trails to the most iconic spots. However, beyond that lies a greater landscape that's just as magical and waiting to be captured, new angles that must be conceived, new ridgelines that haven't been shot before.
These days I love finding "my spot", a location that speaks to me, a location I can stamp with my personal creativity. Typically any new trip will begin with a lot of research, looking at google images of the area, google maps, or even google earth. My favorite method is to buy a NatGeo Trails Illustrated map of the area if available, furthermore studying the terrain (contour lines, nearby roads and trails for access, and what appears to be the most predominant geological features).
Arriving is always a different story, and this particular trip to the Badlands was a perfect example. Arriving in the late evening at a hotel in Rapid City, I had a shorter trip-window than expected, with four days shooting shortened to two. What could I possibly accomplish...I would need most of the next day to scout, but I could plan on picking a location to shoot sunset.
The next day started off slow as the days are short, and the Badlands are a huge area, everything involves a long drive besides the locations within the National Park itself. Getting the slightest lay of the land, I found an overlook (Cedar Butte), looking south beyond the outskirts of the park, revealing a beautiful sharp ridgeline that could offer some unique compositions. When I'm scouting within these scenarios...I'm generally scanning the terrain with intense focus searching for areas of geologic variety, undulation or features that will provide a great foreground for landscape imagery.
*Note: Drag & Drop imagery to save on your desktop and create backgrounds. The non-panoramic images are best suited for desktop screen ratios.
After studying the sharp ridgeline and drainage, I noticed some locations with contrasting white sand, paired with raised grassland features. Initially I wasn't sure I could access that area, but after driving south on Hwy 27 (Big Foot Trail), I noticed a few dirt roads beyond closed gates. With a little research I quickly discovered these gates allow public access.
With disappearing daylight, I loaded up my gear and began the hike, roughly 1.5 miles to locate some of the features I spotted from the overlook (with a little additional help reviewing satellite imagery). I'm always skeptical when beginning these hikes, completely off-trail, route finding within an area I've never been. Devoid of life, I'm accompanied only by my thoughts within this barren landscape, it's intimidating. I dwell upon the possible outcomes - What could I possibly find here that's worth my time, I'm probably wandering for no reason and won't even shoot. Continuing to walk, I reminisce the lessons I've learned, suppressing any doubt.
Within the empty space lies a silent friendship however, a bond with the environment. This bond requires no words, no explanation. Although intimidating, these environments often provide peace and clarity, in a strange way I feel acceptance in a way no human could ever offer. Overwhelmed by the power of nature, one must respect it's power, accepting vulnerability. There's simply no choice but to comply, eliminating the ego and replacing it with a foundational awareness. Extreme environments only accept humility, and through submissiveness, a bond is born of mutual respect, a companionship that guides safe passage.
Pushing through this discomfort has allowed me to witness and capture many amazing moments over my career, gifting me experiences that I wouldn't trade. Arriving at my assumed destination, my efforts are reassured - a beautiful 100ft diameter area with white sand and unique rocks. Although nothing too incredible, this location provides enough foreground to capture some beautiful imagery. Shooting into the late twilight, I quickly pack up and hike back to my vehicle. Refraining from turning on my headlamp, I traverse the landscape in near darkness, allowing my eyes to naturally adjust. I actually love doing this when I'm hiking out of locations in the dark, it's an exercise of confidence and controlling fearful emotions, why do I need a light if I can already see.
Driving back to my hotel (1.5 hours), I devise a game plan for the next morning, I'll return to this location, but instead explore the eastern side of the drainage that will illuminate with dawn light. Awoken at 3:30am, I'm reminded of my exhaustion with a scratchy throat present - it's only one morning I remind myself, one last opportunity and I'm on the road headed home.
Driving in the darkness to a location you don't know is always strange. The same doubtful thoughts fill my mind - I barely enjoyed my hotel room, what if I don't find anything worth shooting on the other side? A crescent moon greets me on the eastern horizon within darkness as I begin my hike. It's a cold and peaceful morning (16 degrees), my surroundings slowly coming into focus as dawn brightens and pastel hues of orange and pink grace the rising moon soon to be washed out by the rising sun.
Rounding a corner, the towering golden spires come into view. Within near darkness these towering ridgelines absorb the slightest dawn light, a dramatic surprise that would've been easy to miss if I was shining a headlamp. I thought I was alone until I realized the demanding presence towering above me, it felt like I was being watched.
After finding a few compositions to shoot in near darkness, one black and white that I'm really stoked with, I wait for sunrise light. The goal of this morning, to shoot aerial landscapes of the dramatic ridgeline and towering spires. Getting the drone up in the air before first light strikes, I find a few compositions for single frame captures, but also incredible panoramic images. Ironically, I rarely shoot video with it, but the photographic capabilities of DJI Mavic Pro drones provide such unique angles for landscape photography.
Enjoying the coffee in my thermos, I fly around to different vantage points. It's such a crazy feeling to look at the screen which reveals a different world. The sheerness of the spires is perilous and breathtaking, it almost makes my palms sweat. Within these scenarios I often question if anyone has witnessed this beauty. These spires have existed with similar definition for hundreds if not thousands of years...and here I am enjoying a vantage point that probably hasn't been seen before. So special.
Why would I use a drone in this scenario? Due to the season and lack of interesting foreground, utilizing an aerial perspective allows me to hide certain details while showcasing the impressiveness that always exists. Shooting into the sun will sometimes cast lens flares that are favorable, within this scenario it adds a bit of warmth in the frame. Also, shooting multiple image panoramics (stitching together in photoshop) is a great way to showcase scale and perspective, many of these were created utilizing 5-10 separate images.
After a wonderful morning, it was time to hike out and hit the road. It was a short trip, but I was actually able to capture some incredible imagery, and now when I return to this area (probably in the spring when the grasslands are blooming), I'll have a great idea where to start. Enjoy the imagery, and make sure to drag and drop the images to create desktop backgrounds (non panoramic images are the best ratios). Thank you for your support!
Time to hit the road...