Not So Badlands


At the end of a wet summer, a swath of mid-afternoon sun highlights barren formations rising above a patchwork of greens in Badlands National Park, South Dakota, United States.


My first visit to Badlands National Park—and for that matter South Dakota—was on a dry day at the end of a wet summer. So other than the iconic badlands features themselves, the park was uncharacteristically green. My wife and I spent the afternoon driving through the park, stopping a various overlooks, etc., so that I could take some pictures. My wife usually read a book while I photographed. She encouraged me to take my time, but I never do when she is along. Outings like this are really just reconnaissance missions where I am trying to get a feel for the place and (quickly) find a few nice compositions at each stop; I am certainly not going to wait a couple hours for the light to change with my wife sitting in the truck! If I end up with a handful of nice pictures at the end of the day, I am happy.

There were a few things I did to try to keep up a decent pace through the park so that my patient wife stayed that way. First, I usually skipped the tripod, unless I broke out the tilt-shift lens. Second, I usually skipped the tilt-shift lens. Third, I would usually take a few pictures with whatever lens was on the camera, change lenses (once), and take a few more; that new lens was then the starting lens for the next stop. 

This worked pretty well through most of the afternoon because there was usually plenty of light even at ISO 64 given vibration reduction in the Z7. When there wasn’t, ISO 400 did the trick. However, I will confess that, since I usually shoot in aperture-priority mode when walking around, I did get complacent and not notice that my shutter speeds had gotten perilously slow before I broke out the tripod for sunset and beyond. A lesson learned.


The eye is drawn to the sharp peak just left of center in the frame. A variety of factors emphasize this particular landform: the broad pool of light highlights the lower portion of the frame containing the hills; the pinkish hills themselves stand out from the various greens and form a rough diagonal line; the only sharp peak contrasts with the more rounded tops of the other hills; finally, the direction of the light accentuates the pink of the sharp tip. Also, the sun is not so low that it is casting strong shadows across the scene, which would compete with the crisp shadow on the left edge of the central peak. In this case, being an hour or more before golden hour worked just fine.


This photograph is a single hand-held exposure. The raw file was exported from Lightroom to Affinity Photo for its primary processing. In addition to globally adjusting the contrast and adding some warmth, dodging and burning help accentuate the hills. Some localized cloning removed distractions.

Technical Data

Nikon Z7 with Nikon AF-S 70-200mm f/4 at 145mm, 1/125 sec, f/8, ISO 64, handheld.

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