More Reflections from a NANPA Regional Event

Black and white landscape phot of the layers and strata of the Badlands.
Badlands © Henry Heerschap

By Frank Gallagher, NANPA Blog Coordinator

Back in June Sandy Zelasko led a NANPA Regional Event in and around South Dakota’s Badlands National Park. Badlands is one of the less crowded parks, with a little under a million people visit each year. By comparison, Yellowstone National Park recorded about the same number of visitors that month alone.

It’s an area of fascinating landforms, wildlife, and unique photo opportunities. For Zelasko, a NANPA Regional Event is a great way to experience all the region has to offer . Each Regional Event is a three- or four-day field workshop led by an experienced NANPA pro who is deeply knowledgeable about the area. As Zelasko says, they are “an excellent value and the camaraderie is hard to beat.” As the event leader and guide, her goal was for people to have fun, but also “further their photography skills, gain access to new locations, and share the experiences with like-minded photographers.”

Collage of images promoting regional events to Yellowstone, Southern California, Tucson, and the Outer Banks

Want to learn more about NANPA Regional Events? In an earlier article, participants and leaders of the Grand Teton Regional Event described eight reasons to go on one. Here are the thoughts of some of the photographers who took part in the Badlands event.

NANPA Regional Event Group standing in front of an old, weathered western saloon building  at Badlands National Park, SD. © Sandy Zelasko
NANPA Regional Event Group at Badlands National Park, SD. © Sandy Zelasko

Location, location, location

Participant David Strevel had wanted to visit the area. “It was quite a big trip for me, as I live in North Carolina. So I planned about nine days in the area, since there are four other national parks within 100 miles.” He was most interested in the wildlife photo opportunities in the Badlands and was relying on Zelasko to know where to go and when.

For Henry and Lauren Heerschap, the location was also a draw, as well as the time of year. For Henry, “It promised both scenery and wildlife, especially young wildlife.” Mike Stearns signed up for both the Grand Teton and Badlands events because he was interested in wildlife as subjects, both trips were wildlife-centered and both were in locations he hadn’t visited before. “Getting to know an area with someone experienced in the area” was an important factor for him. Badlands National Park covers 379 square miles, so “being at the right places to see wildlife requires experience,” Strevel said, “and Sandy scheduled us and led us to the right areas at the right times.”

Having a NANPA pro leading the group helped them meet their goals. “Sandy was great!” said Henry. “The location was great and she got us to great spots to photograph from. I was especially impressed with the areas with bighorn sheep and prairie dogs. I would seriously consider signing up for another event if she were leading it, regardless of where the location was.” David agreed. “Thanks to Sandy’s experience, we got better bighorn sheep, prairie dog, bison, and bird photos than I expected.”

Two black-tailed prairie dogs standing with their hands and noses touching. © Sandy Zelasko
Black-tailed prairie dogs © Sandy Zelasko

Photographing prairie dogs seems to have been a real hit. For Stearns, the most surprising and fun thing during the event was “getting up close with young prairie dogs.” Zelasko recalls suggesting “going to photograph prairie dog families (the young just emerging from their burrows) when one attendee seemed discontented with the idea but came along willing to try. By the time we finished she was in love with the challenge and returned the day after to do it all over again! Open minds and positive attitudes are always welcome!”

Photo of a bighorn sheep ewe laying down and her lamb standing nearby. © Mike Stearns
Bighorn sheep ewe and lamb © Mike Stearns

Pay attention to pre-trip information

After you sign up for a Regional Event, the event leader contacts you and provides information about what to expect. Henry Heerschap said “The info given was very helpful in determining what gear to bring. I would tell any participant to pay attention to what is recommended and to ask questions before you get there. You don’t want to show up at something like this expecting only to shoot wide-angle landscapes and find you are missing all the animal close-ups.” Good advice. As Strevel put it, “To get wildlife views that come close to filling the frame, you are going to need very long lenses while for the landscape shots, you will need the widest-angle lenses you can get.  In full-frame terms, I had four lenses that covered 16mm to 800mm and needed them all.  Using Micro four-thirds lenses with both body and lens stabilization, these were all hand-holdable which at times was important to getting the shot, though I did use a tripod at times.”

A rainbow in the sky over the distant peaks of the Badlands. © Mike Stearns
Badlands Rainbow © Mike Stearns

Come rested

Make sure you’re well rested before you arrive. The days are long and start early. Lauren Heerschap came home with some great photos of bighorn sheep lambs and sunrise over the Badlands but was a little surprised at just how early you have to leave to get those shots. “Be prepared to get up early and not be able to do everything,” she said, because “there were so many options.” Strevel agreed. “Sandy has us up before 4 a.m. with only about three hours back at the motel in early afternoon, then back out to the Badlands ‘till maybe 9 p.m.” But the long hours were worth it. Strevel continued, “I’m enthusiastic, and have already signed up for the fall Regional Event in the Smokey Mountains.”

Bighorn sheep family of a ewe and two lambs laying down on rocks. © Henry Heerschap
Bighorn sheep family © Henry Heerschap

Suitable for couples

Lauren and Henry Heerschap went as a couple. That’s not unusual at a NANPA Regional Event. Lauren says “We have been married for 40 years, and for at least 10 years both doing photography. I’d say that we have worked out the difficulties.” Henry says “It was all positive. We’ve done a number of workshops and tours together and have frequently been the only couple present. We each have our own ideas about what we want out of events like this and I’d say we both had a great experience.”

Lauren continues, “We often go different directions when getting out of the car; but sometimes we can take photos next to each other and they are STILL different.  Henry is 10 inches taller than me, so he gets a different angle to start with.”

There are more benefits to traveling with a partner. Lauren appreciates the extra safety of having your spouse always around while traveling. Henry notes that “in these COVID days it’s an added benefit to be able to drive together without concern.”

Details and patterns in the earth formations at Badlands National Park © Sandy Zelasko
Details and patterns at Badlands National Park © Sandy Zelasko

Advice for potential attendees

Stearns says that, if you’re thinking about an event, “both that I have been to have been fun, with good people.  It is a great way to visit a new area and learn what is where, and the best places to visit for photo ops. People are very willing to share experience, and tips, to loaning equipment.”

Or, as Lauren Heerschap put it, “Go for it!”

Sandy Zelasko
Website  investinnature.org
Instagram @slzphoto
Facebook @crazy4wildlife

Henry Heerschap
Website henryheerschap.com
Instagram @henry.heerschap

Curious about the Badlands?

Check out these other NANPA blog articles on Badlands. First, regular contributor Jerry Ginsberg wrote about his experience as artist-in-residence in the park. Then Tom Haxby (NANPA president 2019-2020)  described a quick trip to the area. Finally, Tom Croce described visiting nearby Buffalo Gap National Grasslands.