South Dakota

Badlands Birthday Adventure by Michael Zwack

Big Badlands Overlook Self-Portrait.  1/40 sec @ f/14  ISO 400 (2 image panorama)

In this month's post I want to focus on my recent trip to Badlands National Park in South Dakota. With a growing need to refuel my spirit, and an impending birthday on the horizon, I found no better excuse to pack my gear and head into the great outdoors.  

As much as this was a trip to recharge my spiritual battery, it was also important as a photographer breaking into the professional scene to test my drive and challenge my creativity and skill.  It was time to push myself to new heights and see if I actually knew anything about this whole photography thing I've been doing.  It's interesting to think that after 12 years of shooting I still had doubts, but I imagine that's a feeling that never goes away completely...rather a constant companion keeping me in check.  

So the Badlands it is.  The way I figured, it was close enough to the Twin Cities and provided a dramatic natural environment to record. If you can't get good photos in a national park, it may be time to reconsider one's profession.  Looking to expand my online presence it was also my decision to record an in-field instructional video highlighting the landscape's natural beauty while explaining the fundamentals behind each photo.      

Badlands at Dusk.  2.5 sec @ f/22  ISO 100   

Badlands National Park is a 8-9 hour drive West from my base in Minneapolis, MN. Doing my research I knew of a campground inside the park which I could stay free of cost up to 7 days, just needed to pay the park's entrance fee of $15. Sage Creek Campground, where bison graze through the campground...sounded promising.  So with bags and gear packed I headed West in search of adventure and reaffirmation.  

Upon arrival I was happy to hear from the Park Ranger that the bison herd had been spotted near the campground.  Not entirely comprehending the gravity of his statement, I made my way to my resting place for the next 4 nights. 

Big Badlands Overlook Sunrise.  1/15 sec @ f/14  ISO 100

It's not until the drive in one begins to understand the immensity of the landscape.  With only one main road through the park, The Badlands Loop is 24 miles of craggy, eroded, mountainous rock formations, mixed grass prairies, and thriving wildlife.  The Badlands themselves are a story 80 million years in the making.  The stunning rock formations found today are the result of millions of years of volcanic ash deposits eroded and sculpted by wind and water.

The land is also rich with history; First recorded by Western new world explorers in the 1700s, it was French fur traders who labeled the area "les mauvaises terries a traverser" or bad lands to traverse. Similarly the Lakota culture of the late 1700s referred to it as "Mako Sica" bad.  It wasn't soon after that American westward expansion would cross paths with the Native cultures and sacred lands, resulting in a dark period in American history.  With far too much history to cover here, let's just say I encourage everyone to educate themselves on the tumultuous history between the Native Indians and American Expansionism. 

American Bison. 1/80 sec @ f/7ISO 400

Mountain Goat.  1/1600 sec @ f/2.8  ISO 200

Connected to the Badlands Loop is Sage Creek Rim Road, which takes me another 20 miles down a gravel road before I reach the campsite.  Clear on the other side of the park, the campground is isolated, peaceful, and occupied by bison. When the Ranger said bison had been spotted, he may have undersold his statement.  Although the bison clearly owned the campground, it became clear however that there seemed to be an unspoken bond with the campers in the vein of...if you don't mess with me, I won't mess with you. Yes bison were grazing through the campsite and in extremely close proximity to the campers, yet there was a quiet and peaceful stillness encompassing the scene.  With that said, I don't recommend trying to touch the wildlife. Give them their space and you'll be fine.   

Lone Rock Formation.  1/50 sec @ f/11  ISO 100

Badlands Loop Rock Formation. 1/60 sec @ f/13  ISO100

I digress however from the main purpose of this trip, which is my mission to prove I have what it takes to compete in a professional world where beautiful photographs are just the start.  Over the next 4 days I awoke at 4 am to get into location for sunrise and capitalize on the early morning light.  After which I continually drove up and down the main stretch of road looking for interesting compositions, breaking only for lunch.  In the evening I headed back to a previously selected spot to finish with sunset. I hiked, camped,(without electricity)and spent a lot of time chasing the light.  After composing an image I shot video explaining each shot; I was man possessed.

I would be lying if I said I didn't enjoy every minute of it, but a photographer's life is not easy.  There is a thought many photographers share regarding how people view our profession.  People see beautiful images and think what a great job, travel around the world taking photographs... must be rough.  What often isn't understood is the time researching, planning, traveling, adapting, editing, and marketing.  Much less sexy when you're living it, but I don't know any photographer that would give up the freedom that accompanies it.

In the end I'll let the images speak for themselves.  They're edited, some more than others, but this isn't a conversation regarding the ethics of post processing.  I no longer worry about whether or not I "capture" or "create" beautiful and interesting photos.  In the end it's always a combination of both.  Can I improve?  Of course, we all can; and if to stand any chance in an ever changing industry I'll need to be able to improve and adapt.  When I look back on the last 12+ years of shooting, I realize now that all those successes and failures is what has shaped me into the confident and proficient photographer I am today.  As I continue on this professional journey I will only improve and expand my online social presence by providing useful and actionable content for viewers.  I hope you continue to join me on this non-stop adventure; we will improve and grow together.  

With my birthday now over 4 days past, I tore down camp, packed the car and waved goodbye to my bison companions.  I now headed East, returning to my studio eager to face the future challenges that await.  First of to edit all these photos?  


For more information regarding directions, lodging, and fees visit