Badlands of South Dakota

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My ambitious plan to make it to Rapid City in two days’ of driving didn’t quite workout because of our late start on Friday. However, on Saturday night we made it as far as Murdo, South Dakota, just a few hours east of Rapid City. Murdo had a few hotels, but many of them were booked. After looking at a few places, we found a little independent motel that looked like it had been built in the 1960s. The hotel was clean and well cared for, so we checked in for the night, devoured sandwiches we’d bought from the local convenience store, and made coffee from the hotel room’s coffeepot.

In the morning we started our drive westward and began seeing signs for Wall Drugs. Lots of signs. We hadn’t had breakfast yet so we decided to follow the signs to the store and get something to eat. Along the Interstate we saw a dinosaur sculpture and other curious things to tempt travelers.

I hadn’t planned to visit the Badlands, but after we stopped at Wall, ate, and shopped a little bit, we decided to detour into the park and save Mount Rushmore for Monday (which would mean high-tailing it across Wyoming to our rental cabin — but more on that in another post).

The Badlands are pretty amazing geology, and the variation of colors in the rocks is often very subtle. It’s actually difficult to photograph that kind of coloring in the landscape without overexposing the sky. And by the time we got to the Badlands it was during the middle of the day, which is supposed to be the worst time for photographers.

Badlands rock formation showing mineral color bands.

The rock formations in the Badlands show a variety of colors from the different minerals found in the rock.

Since the sun was high in the sky, I worried less about trying to capture some of the faint color differences and tried instead to take pictures that would accentuate the high contrast between the brilliantly lit rock faces and shadow areas. I bracketed my exposures, which means that I took several images at different speeds to try and get the most amount of detail in the image. I also used a polarizer, but tried to avoid cranking it to its maximum darkness.

It’s really possible to take good photos at any time of day, even though most photographers try to get early morning and sunset images. However, your local environment plays a key role, because here in Maryland midday photography means a lot of humidity and the sky isn’t always very attractive. You can’t really filter it out entirely. In the Badlands, the air was dry enough that murky air wasn’t really a problem, even though distance tended to fade away colors and details. Working with a polarizing filter, or even an ultraviolet filter, can reduce the haze. If you’re serious about photography, you should consider adding these two filters to your camera bag. And experiment — if we did what people told us, we wouldn’t have taken any midday photos and would have missed out on some really nice images.

Grasshopper on flower

Despite the barren appearance of the Badlands, this grasshopper and the flowers were doing quite well in such a severe environment.

Another thing to consider when visiting places is to look for the little things. These bright yellow flowers were scattered around in bunches, so I decided to try for a close-up of one of them. When I approached it I realized there was a grasshopper on the flower. This shot was hand-held, so I felt like I was being lazy by not setting up the tripod, but I managed to get both the insect and the flower in sharp focus. Don’t rush yourself, and allow time to find the little gems like this.

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