Badlands National Park Sunrise
Landscapes,  National Parks,  Travel,  Wildlife

9 Tips for Photographing Badlands National Park

Badlands National Park is located in the southwestern part of South Dakota just south of I-90 near the town of Wall.  Badlands is known for its unique, colorful rock formations and pinnacles.  Badlands National Park is a prime location for landscape photographers, but there is plenty of wildlife in the park too.

Badlands is a terrific place to photograph that is easily accessible from I-90 and the town of Wall where I stayed.  Wall is just 7.5 miles from the Pinnacles Entrance traveling south on SD-240.

In this blog, I’ll give you my 9 Tips for Photographing Badlands National Park and getting great images.

1. Get Off the Road

The views from the overlooks are nice and you can get some good photographs there, but for really good shots stop at the smaller pullouts.  Sometimes just walking 25 feet off the road or over a hill can provide some great compositions.

There are Prairie Rattlesnakes in Badlands National Park.  The signs are everywhere.  I have not seen or heard a Rattlesnake in the Badlands, but it pays to be careful.  Here is an article on Rattlesnake safety.

Balancing Rock
Balancing Rock

Here are a couple of my favorite locations to explore for compositions:

  • Yellow Mounds Area (north of the overlook). There are several pullouts on both sides of the road here to explore for compositions.
  • Balancing Rock.  It’s not well documented, here are the GPS coordinates:  43.767114, -102.008472.  It’s on the left hand side of the road at Norbeck Pass when traveling from the Pinnacles Overlook towards the visitor center on SD-240.  Bring an Ultra Wide Angle telephoto lens.  I photographed it around 7:30am with good lighting on Balancing Rock.
  • Across from Cedar Pass Lodge. The pointed peaks look beautiful in the morning light after you’ve photographed sunrise at another location.
Sunrise across from Pinnacles Overlook
Sunrise across from Pinnacles Overlook

2. Get Out Early

I know this is good advice for just about every photo shoot.  But, it is especially important at Badlands.  On a clear day, the sun can start to fade the colors in the rock formation by @9am.  If you photograph between 5am (depending on sunrise) and 9am, you’ll have good light on the rock formations and a lot less people in the park.

After the sun starts bleaching out the colors in the rocks, I like to drive Sage Creek Road for wildlife.  The area around Roberts Prairie Dog Town has a ton of Prairie Dogs that are a lot of fun to watch and photograph.

Bighorn Sheep Ram
Bighorn Sheep Ram

3. Bring Your Wildlife / Bird Photography Lenses

There is a lot of different wildlife in Badlands National Park so make sure to bring along a long zoom lens.  A zoom works well here since some wildlife like Bison, sometimes Bighorn Sheep, and Prairie Dogs may be closer to you or your car.

I bring 2 Micro Four Thirds long telephoto lenses (Olympus 300mm f/4 (600mm full frame equivalent and an Olympus 40-150mm f/2.8 (80 – 300mm full frame equivalent), plus a 1.4x teleconverter.  I used both lenses photographing birds and wildlife at Badlands National Park

Sage Creek Road is good for a variety of wildlife: Prairie Dogs, Wild Turkey, Bison, Mule Deer, Coyote, and Pronghorn Antelope.  Visit in May to see the Prairie Dog pups.  They are a blast to watch and photograph.

There is a large population of Bighorn Sheep in the park.  A large herd of ewes hangs out around the Pinnacles Overlook.  Unfortunately, they have lost their fear of humans so you can get shots with your cell phone.

Several times, I’ve seen a group of Bighorn Sheep Rams between Fossil Trail and the White River Valley Overlook.

Cloudy, Rainy Day at the Badlands, Long Exposure
Cloudy, Rainy Day at the Yellow Mounds Area

4. Cloudy / Rainy Days are Great

Many photographers dread cloudy days, but clouds can add character to your photos.  During my trip to the Badlands, I had 1 ½ days of clouds and rain. 

Here are a few ideas for photographing during cloudy / rainy days

  • Try Black and White or Infrared converted to Black and White
  • Try a 10 Stop ND Filter to show movement in the clouds.  If it’s raining too hard, you may have to frequently wipe your lens to keep the rain drops off.
  • Rain can bring out saturation in the rock formations.  The colors in the Yellow Mounds are nicely saturated during / after a rain

5. Use I-90 to Access the Eastern Part of the Park for Sunrise / Sunset

Sunrise and the blue hour can come pretty early if you visit the park in late spring or summer.

If you are staying in Wall, take I-90 east and enter the thru the Northeast Entrance.  It’s a lot quicker going that way than going thru the park if you want to photograph Door Trail or Big Badlands Overlook for sunrise.  For comparison, from Wall, Big Badlands Overlook is 26 minutes, 24.9 miles via I-90 and  59 minutes, 39 miles going thru the park.

Badlands National Park is open 24 hours.  If the entrances aren’t manned, you can enter the park and pay on the way out.

Sunrise at Big Badlands Overlook
Sunrise at Big Badlands Overlook

6. No Clouds / No Problem

Some days are completely cloudy and others have no clouds at all.  No clouds can also be a challenge for landscape photography.  If you are into it, you can now easily replace a sky in Adobe Photoshop.  But for other landscape photographers here’s a few tips.

  • Try zooming in on the Rock Formation Details and minimize the amount of sky in the composition.  This works great in portrait orientation with a leading line to the subject.
  • You can also eliminate the sky completely and zoom in on the details and patterns of the rock formations.  Pinnacles Overlook, Conata Basin Overlook, and Burns Basin Overlook are good options for zooming in on shapes, patterns, and textures.
  • Don’t forget to bring a long zoom lens.  This can be the same zoom lens that you use for wildlife.  I used the Olympus 40-150mm f/4 (80-300mm full frame equivalent) for zooming in on landscape details.

7. Plan your Trip with the Photographers Emeritus or Photo Pills but…

It’s always a good idea to plan out your photography trip using these photography planning  tools.  I like to plan out each area I want to photograph and log whether it’s good for sunrise, sunset, late morning or late afternoon light, and potential for astrophotography.

But, after sunrise and before sunset, I also like to drive the length of the Badlands Loop Road looking for good light.  I have some idea from my planning which overlooks are good for what light, but you’ll be surprised what compositions you’ll find just driving the road looking for light.  Remember to stop at those small pullouts and hike back a bit from the road.

Topaz Labs

8. Bring Old Shoes

After a rain or heavy dew, the mud at the Badlands has the consistency of concrete and is really difficult to get off your shoes and tripod legs.  I bring along old hiking boots just for photographing in muddy conditions.  After the trip, I just throw out the shoes rather than put them in my luggage for the plane trip home.  It beats ruining my $100 Merrell Hiking Boots.

9. Dress in Layers

This tip can be applied to many photography outings including Badlands National Park.  In the spring and fall, the temperatures can be in the 30s in the morning and in the 60s in the afternoon.  But the big thing is the wind in the Badlands.  There always seems to be a strong wind especially at the overlooks.  On most mornings in mid to late May, I needed 3 layers of clothing for sunrise and early morning.

Badlands is an overlooked national park for both landscape and wildlife photography.  Plan a trip to the Badlands to explore and photograph this beautiful area.  I hope these tips will help you bring home some terrific images and have a great time in the Badlands.

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