Badlands Photography

Badlands travel vanMy Badlands travel van

You're traveling to The Badlands of South Dakota and you're doing a little research on Badlands photography. It used to be difficult to thoroughly investigate photo opportunities ahead of time. Recommendations on what, when, and how to shoot photos before you traveled to those scenic locations, like the badlands, were limited.

True, until recently that is!

This post will give you some of my photos to enjoy and answer your questions about photographing this unique picturesque gem.

When I visited the Badlands back in 2004 I only had a beginners DLSR and a few hours, but I did manage to get a few good photos .  Although it's known for colorful sharply eroded buttes,  spires, and pinnacle, the 244,000 acres has the largest protected mixed grass prairie in the United States.

This post will help you find out the how, when, what and the where of photographing Badlands National Park. This artilce include my 6 advanced Tips For Beginning Badlands Photographers.

Badlands has a treasure trove of photo opportunities for travel photographers who are looking to participate in a unique type of landscape photography.

Badlands Photo OpportunitiesOne of the "Yellow Mounds" in Badlands, South Dakota.
The distant layers of erosion contrast nicely with the blue sky

When To Photograph The Badlands

If you have the flexibility of choosing when you're going to visit and take photos of the Badlands, you've got a big advantage. Not only does the time of day matter that you're clicking your shutter button, but so does the time of year you visit.

So, what's the best time of year to photograph the Badlands? Fortunately, the badlands is beautiful all year round, but every season has different conditions and varying opportunities for great photography. Let's look at the four seasons in South Dakota.

SUMMER is certainly the most visited time of year and probably the most photos are taken in the summer, but it's likely the least favorable with respect to the shooting conditions that you'll encounter. It's hot and it's crowded full of other tourists and their cars.  The skies can achieve a beautiful blue color despite the average high of 87 degrees in July.

AUTUMN is a great time of year to capture those Fall colors in your photographs. The Badlands does not have those colorful deciduous trees that the northeast (New Hampshire and Maine) is famous for, but it does offer colors and textures like no other place. The weather is perfect for photography in the Fall.

WINTER photography in the Badlands is for the brave of heart, but offers unique photography rewards for those who indulge. The average high temperature in December is only 34 degrees. There is a unique beauty to capture in the starkness of winter, and if you time it right, photographs with snow-capped buttes can be had.

Additionally, the sun is lower in the sky and can bring out the textures in the various surfaces that you photograph.

SPRING. In May and June, the prairie grass turns vibrant green, and you'll be able to include blooming wildflowers in your landscape photos of The Badlands.

Badlands GrasslandsBadlands photo taken in the early afternoon.
Shoot photos that have both the grasslands, the sky, and the erosion layers.

That leads us to the best time of day to photograph the Badlands.

Best Time of Day To Photograph The Badlands

Badlands National Park is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, so you can photograph anytime during the day or night. Although the middle of the day is usually not the best in terms of lighting, you can still take interesting photos like the one above when the sun was overhead.

Alternatively, shooting late in the day or early in the day can make your Badlands photos more dramatic , as shown in the example below.

Photograph Badlands at sunrise/sunsetPhotograph Badlands at sunrise/sunset
Image by Michael Gault from Pixabay

Early in the morning and late in the day are the best times of day to shoot photographs in the Badlands. You'll get the best color tones and landscape textures to show brilliantly before, during, and after sunrise and sunset.

The image below is another example of a photo taken at midday.

Landscape Layers of Badlands National ParkLandscape Layers of Badlands National Park

I included the photo above because it reveals several of the many color palettes you can experience while visiting The Badlands. It's not one of my favorite compositions in the gallery of Badlands photos, but it does give you a solidsense of the vastness of this unique area of our country.

Where can I take pictures in Badlands

You can explore on your own or hit a couple of the recommended best locations listed below to photograph the Badlands. Check this out: Unlike the other national parks in the USA, you don't have to stay on the trails at Badlands National Park.

Badlands AbstractBadlands Abstract Landscape
Taken from Badlands Loop Road

The photograph above was taken from a convenient position on the popular Badlands Loop Road in late June during the middle of the day, but you can take any trail you want to search for the best vantage point to create your own work of art.

5 Best Locations For Photographing The Badlands

See the map of photo opportunities in the Badlands below and the list of the best photo spots I've compiled after that. Realize that there is not one perfect list of the top spot-it's subjective, but based on my own experience and research, you can't go wrong with any of these.

First of all,  driving The Badlands Loop Road  (Route 240) is the single best and easiest way to access photo opportunities. The road is over 50 miles long and is full of amazing overlooks and fantastic scenic views.  You get stunning views from many different angles, especially when you visit at different times of the day.

Map of photo opportunities in The BadlandsMap of photo opportunities in The Badlands

1. The Pinnacles

The Pinnacles is believed to be the best scenic view in the entire badlands National Park by many, particularly if you photograph it at sunset. It is the highest elevation overlook on Badlands Loop Road.

With this view, taken during regular daylight hours, your best photos can be taken when the sky looks good like the photo below. Clouds add visual interest to the badlands photos that have sky included in the composition.

Pinnacles Overlook BadlandsPinnacles Overlook Badlands

This view of the spectacular Pinnacles Overlook faces south, so the sun will set off to the left in the west during the summer months and will set somewhat more to the south in the winter months.

One of the intriguing aspects to photograph with the badlands is the multitude of different layers that form the landscape. It reminds me of the layers in the photos I've taken of both the Grand Canyon and Zion.

2. Medicine Root/Casper Trail

This is included in my top photo opportunities list because of this unique, iconic rock formation that towers over this easy 4 mile loop hike.  I like the combination of the grass in the foreground, the sky as the background, and the castle-like rock formation that rises so high from the base.

Medicine Root BadlandsMedicine Root Badlands

The Medicine/Castle trail leads to a several buttes and pinnacles that are shaped like medicine roots,  sacred symbols for Native Americans. It's a great place to photograph the Badlands because of the unique geology.

3. Yellow Mounds Overlook

Imagine this. It was tens of millions of years ago, when water levels receded, and the sea became dry  land, that the  shale rock crumbled into soil and transformed and became the Yellow Mounds Formation.

Yellow Mounds BadlandsI was fascinated by the yellow mounds

It's one of the most popular photo spots because of the colors you can view and shoot. You can choose from several different perspectives to get interesting photo compositions  that include one or more of the Yellow Mounds. Feel free to share it!

I liked this view of one of the yellow mounds at Badlands so much that I included it twice in this post. The photo above is slightly cropped at the bottom compared to the one at the beginning of this article.

4. Panorama Point

Panorama PointPanorama Point gives you a wide view of the park towards the White River Valley

Panorama Point is about the halfway point if you're driving the Badlands Loop Road. You'll want to use panorama mode on your cell phone camera or use a super wide angle setting on your travel camera in order to include the entire width of this inspiring view of the Badlands area.

5. Burns Basin Overlook

You can shoot in several different directions at Burns Basin Overlook in the Badlands and still get a great photo. This view is facing to the west and the subtle colored layers in the rock are simply gorgeous.

Burns Basin OverlookBurns Basin Overlook

As you face the basin, the prairie extends behind you for mile and miles on the other side of the Badlands Loop Road, Rt. 240. Bring your super-telephoto lens and you might get lucky to see and photograph pronghorn antelope and prairie dogs. More elusive, you may spot other wildlife such as coyotes, roadrunners, and jackrabbits if you venture beyond the main trails into the basin.

See the landscape photo below.   I loved the colors in this scene, so when I framed it in I included both the yellow mounds in the foreground, the subdued earth colors in the background, and contrasted it against a beautiful blue sky with a few white clouds included.

Pastel Colors in The Badlands"Pastels in The Badlands"

Advanced Tips for photographing the badlands

Even though you might consider yourself to be a beginner with your camera, I encourage you to be aware of, and use some, advanced techniques for photographing The Badlands National Park. Here are a few higher-level tips for ending up with great landscape photos.

VARY YOUR PERSPECTIVE. Use a variety of focal lengths (zoom settings) including wide-angle lens to capture the vastness of the landscape and telephoto lengths for narrower views. Memory cards are big and cheap to store hundreds, even thousands of photos.  Experiment with different compositions to find the perfect shot.   Be persistent to take some time and get the perfect shot. Shoot a lot and discard the rejects later.

TAKE DETAIL PHOTOS. Look for interesting patterns and textures to photograph. Some of the most visually interesting photographs of the Badlands aren't the wide angle scenic views, but rather the close-up detail photos. See the "Badlands Rock Erosion Details" example below.

EXPLORE. You don't have to follow the same exact trail that every other typical tourist takes. Badlands National Park has an Open Hike Policy. You can find your own perfect vantage points to get the ultimate compositions with your Badlands photography.

SHOOT WITH DIFFERENT LIGHT. Take advantage of the fact that the changing light will give your subject a completely different look, depending on the angle of the sun and the conditions of the sky.

SHOOT IN RAW MODE. You can set your camera to record your photos in both the standard jpg format and the RAW format. This way you have your camera's automatic processing parameters recorded as well as the unprocessed RAW files. Shooting RAW allows you to make any possible type of  image adjustment to the extreme and maintain the ultimate image quality.

IMPROVE WITH EDITING. You can dramatically improve your Badlands photos by spending a little time retouching your photos with software on your computer. Use the software  that came with your camera, use online free editing software, or splurge and invest in software like Photoshop Elements. the following short list gives you very powerful tools you can use to make your average photo into a dramatic photo

  1. Consider completely changing your composition by cropping. You don't have to keep the same restricting width-by-height dimensions that your camera gives you.
  2. Adjust the overall exposure, brightness, or contrast of the entire photo or adjust just one specific area of your photo to change the emphasis.
  3. Increase the saturation. The badlands is chock full of subtle color variations due to the different elements in the rocks. Increasing the saturation increases the intensity of your colors and makes a more impactful image.

Badlands detail landscape"Badlands Rock Erosion Details"
A Geologist's Playground

I hope you enjoyed this "How To Photograph" The Badlands article as much as I did revisiting these photos and editing for inclusion in this post. You can get more when, where, what, and how to tips and visit other travel destinations by exploring one of the links below my signature.

Bruce Lovelace portrait

Bruce Lovelace is the publisher of Bruce shot portraits full time for over 35 years. Now he shoots more travel photography.  Read more about him on the About Page. He also publishes how to articles and camera gear reviews at the  Photography Tips and Canon Geek websites.

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