Badlands in Black and White

Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Badlands National Park detail showing patterns on park trails
A morning capture in the Badlands. I was attracted in the way the foreground mud patterns directed the view towards pinnacles in the distance.

Travel To Wall

So, I packed up my gear and headed out in mid-October to Wall, South Dakota, which would be my base for exploring the Badlands National Park in black and white. Already, traveling north the temperature was dropping and rain had begun at times turning to a winter mix, which continued until I reached Wall, South Dakota some 11 hours later. For about 250 miles before reaching Wall I kept seeing signs for Wall Drug Store. Dang! What’s so special about a drug store, I wondered. It turns out the Wall Drug Store is one of the most popular attractions in the state, with over 2 million visitors a year. And the population of Wall is only a little over 700 people. The drug store is like an indoor mini mall. It has everything from a traveler’s chapel to restaurant, doughnut shop, gift and clothing, guns, and more. Certainly, something to check out if you are ever there. Anyway, after checking in to my hotel in the late afternoon, I planned for my first morning in the Badlands to explore a study of black and white textures, tones, and contrast of the Badlands, only about a 20 min or less drive from Wall.

First Morning

The first morning, about 45 min before sunrise, I headed out. Taking the exit for Badlands Loop Road, which takes you through the park, you soon can see the pinnacles of the badlands from about a mile away. What a wonderful sight. As I entered the park boundaries the pre-dawn light was beginning to light up the landscape. I had to pull over and at least take a warmup shot. It was cold and with a slight breeze it quickly reminded me of how harsh this area could be in the dead of winter. After a couple of not-so-quick exposures with my Chamonix 4×5 camera, I packed up to head into the park interior.

Typical Photography of Badlands

Badlands National Park overlook

The Badlands are known for the beautiful sunrise and sunsets and images taken during the golden and blue hour. Even night sky photography can be quite spectacular. And if you are into wildlife photography, there is many opportunities to photograph longhorn sheep, bison, antelope, and other species. But I shoot black and white, so the colors of sunrise and sunset are not important. I’m looking for contrast in tones. It’s luminance values, not color that are important when pursuing black and white. Moreover, you can often make successful images anytime during the day with black and white, depending on how the light strikes your subject.

Hat Rock, Badlands National Park
Hat Rock, Badlands National Park

Regardless of whether you are shooting black and white or color, I would certainly encourage you expand out from the usual overlooks. Get down into some of the trail areas. Although be mindful of where you are. Although the trails are well marked, if you venture off trail too far it could be easy to get lost. That would not be a good thing in the heat of summer months, where dehydration could quickly set in. That said, there are several trails marked trails that offer both great hiking and photography opportunities.

The image above I call Hat Rock. It was not really on a trail but was visible from the Loop Road. It was one of my final images on my trip to Badlands National Park. And I had to do a little scrambling to find a way to get into position, but finally was able to gain a perspective I liked. Turns out to be one of my favorite images of the trip.

Advantages of Wide-Angle Views

Features around the trailhead of Saddle Pass Trail. Badlands National Park, South Dakota
Saddle Pass Trail is a short but steep hide. It connects the middle of the Castle Trail and the Medicine Root Trail. Although the hike distance to the Castle Rock connection was not that far, I was not prepared for a steep hike with my camera gear. There were nonetheless several compositional opportunities near and around the trailhead. Chamonix 45F2, Nikkor 90mm, f22, 1/15 sec, Yellow filter

Some find it difficult to use wide angle lenses in landscape photography. However, the advantages can often provide a perspective that helps create depth to an image. I find this particularly useful in vertical compositions, as shown in the feature image of this post. However, even with horizontal compositions such as the one to the right at the head of Saddle Pass Trail, the advantage of a wide angle is demonstrated. Search for a good foreground element to help take the viewer through the foreground-midground-background exploration of your image.

Textures, Contrast and Tones

Patterns and hills of the Yellow Mounds area of Badlands National Park, South Dakota
Yellow Mounds area of Badlands National Park

What do we look for in black and white photography? Well, in considering a black and white image you typically look for tonal contrast, patterns, textures, lines and shapes. You don’t have color as an element, just grey scale.

Look for objects that might provide depth and dimension and use burning and dodging techniques to increase the impact and drama. By making good use of contrast, you can help lead the viewer through your image.

In the image “Yellow Mounds area of Badlands” I used alternating dark and light to help provide depth. The sloping foreground areas are triangular in shape and lead you to the lower center valley area. Then the light textures of the midground mounds, combined with the diagonal patterns, take to another darker area of the mounds and then to the lighter distant formations.

Consider trying a black and white adventure yourself, without getting seduced by color. If you are shooting digital, turn you camera setting to monochrome/black and white (but continue to shoot RAW). Doing this will help you begin to see in black and white. You might also take a look at my previous post, “Approach to Black and White Compositions”.

Let me know what you think about black and white in the comments below. Would love to hear your thoughts.

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