Getting Off the Main Road: The South Dakota Badlands

Storms move across the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands.
Storms move across the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands.

Story & photos by Tom Croce

Typically when I mention the Badlands of South Dakota, the National Park is the first place that’s comes to mind. That’s quickly followed by a comment that goes something like “I drove through there once.” But the term Badlands has a geological definition that extends far beyond the park boundaries. The Badlands National Park and surrounding Buffalo Gap National Grasslands cover approximately 925 square miles and make up the largest protected mixed grassland prairie in the United States. Although it would take a lifetime to explore all of this vast area, it if definitely worth getting off the main road to exploring some of the more remote areas of the Badlands National Parks South Unit, the surrounding Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, and some of the surrounding small towns.

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The “Old School” Graduated ND Filter

It is easy for digital photographers to get lazy out in the field — “Oh, I can fix it digitally, later. . . .”

There is nothing necessarily wrong with that approach, but I like to try to get it right in the field, preferably all in one shot. And sometimes that takes a few tricks.

Take the image below I just photographed.

A long exposure can give a nice abstract feel to an image. Using a polarizer slows down your shutter speed about 2 stops helps give you that longer exposure. Combined with a small aperture and low ISO, I had a nice long 30 second exposure to really abstract the water on the lake.

But what about the sky?  It is a lot brighter than the darker foreground here and will overexpose.  I could shoot it in two different exposures and add in the properly exposed sky later, but I’d rather get it one shot.

So I pulled my 3 stop Graduated Neutral Density filter out of my bag and held it over the lens to bring down the light in the bright sky and equalize the exposure.  Voila – you get the image all in one shot. A little more work up front, sure, but worth it to me. (And less work on the computer, later!).

Sean Fitzgerald

Dock at Sunset on Bitter Lake