Your camera -- never leave home without it. It's easier than you may think to get your stellar images of the North Dakota Badlandds

Your camera — Don’t leave home without it.

Want your own keeper photograph of the North Dakota Badlands? It’s easier than you may think to get your stellar images of the North Dakota Badlands

Want pretty pictures of the Badlands? Go buy a postcard.

Want to capture your own one-of-a-kind keepsake memory of the Badlands?  Go get it. It’s easier than you think – if you are willing to do a couple of things: Slow down. Get out of your car and look for it.

There are thousands of square miles of unsullied beauty in the Badlands of North Dakota. In those endless horizons are millions of your own scenes to capture, frame and display back home.  Here’s how in six easy tips: Timing, Temperament, Tools, Tenacity, Texture and Technique.

1. Timing – it’s all about light. 

North Dakota is blessed with clean clear air.  Smog?  Nope.  Hazy humidity? Gone.   You’ve got unfettered access to the sun, almost.  You’re still 95,000,000 miles from it, but that’s close enough to get the shots you will want to display.

Avoid mid-day when the sun is high and bright. As you know, the Badlands are endless contours of bluffs, buttes, slopes, hills, canyons, and valleys.  It takes shadows to show them and those shadows are strongest early in the morning or late in the day. In this shot below, the natural golden brown of the hillsides is emphasized by shooting them late in the day during the last hour before the sun sets, the Golden Hour.

Contrasts and contours are hidden most of the day. Once the sun begins to lower the shadows present a great view of the bluffs and buttes.

Contrasts and contours are hidden most of the day. Once the sun begins to lower the shadows present a great view of the bluffs and buttes.

Shooting at the ends of the day means you also get the advantage of the Golden Hour when the solar Rapunzel lets down her golden locks and the landscape takes on a golden or yellow cast.   Generally, that’s the first hour and the last hour of daylight. Depending on where you are in the Badlands, you could be out at sunrise which is about 5:45 a.m. in June, or out at sunset which is about 9:45 p.m.

And if you like to take sunset photos – turn around.  Put your back to the sun and shoot Venus’ Belt as it appears in the east at sunset.

Venus Belt how to photograph the beautiful badlands

Just about suppertime, from any high point, the Belt of Venus, opposite the setting sun, makes a good backdrop for your landscape photo.


Tip: Late-day landscapes are better than noon-day landscapes

2. Temperament – take it easy, but keep moving. 

If you want to jump out of your car, run to the edge of an overlook and shoot the scene, you are better off performing that activity at a gas station where you can run in and buy a postcard.    Sadly that’s what many people do, drive through one of the Theodore Roosevelt National Parks, pull over to the side of the road, snap a shot and head home.

Park your car, (you don’t want it to roll away down a bluff or butte) and walk.  If you’re stopped at a ridge or hilltop, you’ll have a relatively easy time finding a vantage point.  If you are down below, be prepared to hike. You don’t have to hike to the tallest point. The higher up you go, the more you will see.  The trails that have been cut in the parks, or the Maah Daah Hey trail make it easy to walk to the top.  You can make your own trail as long as you are on public land.  Make a zig-zag “Z” pattern of switchbacks up the hill, stopping at each point on the repeated “Z” pattern.  It’s encouraging to see how far you’ve climbed and at each point, you get a new view.

Tip: Don’t get in a hurry. 

photograph the beautiful badlands sit and feel

Don’t get in a hurry. Take time to look — and feel. You’ll feel the shot more than you see the shot.


Absorb – that’s the key activity. Absorb and feel what you see.  It takes a quiet and still temperament to absorb what you are about to see.  It’s in that moment of absorption that you can see the details, the shading, the colors the contrasts that will give you the image you want to capture.



3. Tools (No expensive camera needed)

 An expensive camera doesn’t take any better photos than an expensive computer writes a better document.  The tools we’re talking about here are 1. An accurate weather report and 2. a good map. If you have a GPS system on your phone, that can be handy, but a paper map is preferred. All of western North Dakota is covered by the US Forest Service maps.  The maps are matchless for showing you what you need to know:

  • Public groomed trails such as the Maah Daah Hey or other marked trails.
  • Gravel roads and two-track trails to show you where to get off the highways.
  • Points of Interest – historical, geographical and topographical.
  • Topography – the closer the lines, the steeper the terrain.
  • Water – most of which is not drinkable.
how to photograph the beautiful badlands

The U.S. Forest Service map costs about $13 and is the most valuable tool (other than your camera) that you can buy.

The U.S. Forest Service Maps are updated regularly. You can get the latest map from the visitor centers at the Theodore Roosevelt Parks, or at the US Forest Service Office in Bismarck, Watford City or Dickinson.  They cost about $13. They’re worth it!




A GPS on your phone will give you the precise location at any moment. With that information, you can coordinate on the Forest Service map to see not only where you are, but where you are going.

A critical element is a weather forecast.  North Dakota’s weather is notorious for frequent and sudden changes.  It lies in the middle of the continent and several different weather systems from different direction influence conditions. So, one thing you can do is monitor trends before you set out on your photo safari.  About three to five days before your photo safari, look up the weather forecast for where you expect to go.

Forecasts are updated several times a day, so check twice a day, such as 7 a.m. and 9 p.m. every day.  Notice the changes or trends in the anticipated temperatures, rain chances or cloud cover.  That practice will give you more of a motion picture sense of what to expect.  Checking just once as you head out the door will give you only a snapshot of what to expect.  It’s better to see the weather pattern than the weather snapshot.

Beyond those specific tools: 1. Good shoes and 2. proper clothing will allow you to not only get to the place where you can get a good shot but will also provide you the comfort you need to be patient.   Warm enough clothing is key when temps are cool. When it warms up, you can wrap that warm jacket or sweatshirt around your waist.  When it’s hot, you’ll want protective clothing when mosquitoes are out.  Discomfort will prompt you to hurry your exploration for a shot, so get comfortable.

Tip: Woodticks are in the grass and brush.  If you want to see them easily, wear light blue jeans and light colored shirt.  The dark tick will show up on the light colored clothing.

4. Tenacity – don’t stop, don’t give up. 

The shot you’re looking for is over the next hill. Drive, walk or ride over the next hill and you’ll see something new.  If it’s not as spectacular as that scene two hills back, turn around and go back.  Or shoot as you go, it keeps getting better and when you get home you can decide which one is the best shot – but keep moving.

From time to time,  turn around.  It’s easy to get so focused on what is in front of you, that you may miss the beauty behind you. So, turn around to see the scene you just came through.

Remember that point about absorbing the scene, the moment?  One of the greatest mindsets you can embrace to get the stellar shot you seek is to keep yourself prodded with this question: “What if?”  “What if I climbed that hill, what would I see?”  “What if I followed this deer trail, where would it lead?”

how to photograph the beautiful badlands Bennett Creek Trail marker

The markers make it easy to go out and back where you will discover what is just over that next hill.

Parallel to that question is this postulate: “I wonder where that goes.” As you see a road heading over the hill don’t be afraid to check it out—with caution.

Take a short hike, or if you’re still driving and haven’t got out of your vehicle yet, take that two-track trail, but remember: it’s good to be in a reliable vehicle. There are no corner service stations out here.  You need something to get over ruts and ridges and up and down the hills.

The point is this.  Just because where you are standing at the moment doesn’t yield the shot you are looking for, don’t give up.  Investigate the next curve, the next hill, the next trail.  Be tenacious in your search for the shot you want.

Tip: Be curious. Great discoveries begin with the wonder, “I wonder where this goes.”

5. Texture

We know what attracts us to see the Badlands of North Dakota. It’s the vista, the color and the texture.  That’s right, the texture.  When you are looking for that shot to keep, zoom in. Get close.  Look for the texture of the rock, the grassland, the face of the hill.  It’s easy to get distracted with wide open shots that capture the whole panorama.  Look for something close that will make you say, “Oh yeah, I remember that,” when you look at it years later.

how to photograph the beautiful badlands

Zoom in on that hillside to get texture.

6. Technique – see what caught your eye. 


how to photograph the beautiful badlands

Not all the intriguing shots are found on the trail. The next farm, the next small town may have a great shot. Zero in on what catches your eye, remove the background distractions.


What is it in the scene that you want to shoot?  Is it the buffalo on the trail, the Little Missouri River down below, the abandoned jalopy?  Decide what is it in the scene that caught your eye, and crop out anything else that is distracting. Avoid visual distractions, zoom in on the subject.


It shouldn’t take a viewer of your photo more than an instant to determine what the photo is about.

On the vertical line of a tic-tac-toe board, the prairie dog! Not in the center of the photo, but facing in to the frame of the image.

Once you know what your photo is about, and are cropping out the distractions by zooming in on the subject, align the photo but don’t put it smack dab in the center of the photo. If you are shooting a landscape photo, don’t put the horizon right across the middle of the image.  In fact, sometime when you are out and about anywhere outside, notice how much of your view is sky.  It’s often the majority if your view, it’s one way you can capture what you see — include the sky.

Whether it’s landscape you’re shooting or anything else that catches your eye in the Badlands, remember the rule of thirds, and place your subject at or near one of the crosshairs of a tic-tac-toe board.  Even if it’s a close-up of an image like the face of a horse, put the eyes on the third.

Tip: Don’t abandoned basic photo techniques

Like we said at the start of this article, the best times of the day to shoot the Badlands of Western North Dakota do not include mid-day.  At all times, when shooting outside, adjust the sun in relation to your subject. The sun should be at your shoulder.  Don’t shoot in to the sun unless you want a silhouette, nor have it directly behind you.  If you put it at your shoulder, you’ll get the contrast you need to show texture and variety in your subject.

Longhorn how to shoot the badlandds

Sun on left shoulder provides a bit of contrast and texture to the longhorns at the North Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park

In all cases, the best advice is to borrow from Nike’s saying, “just do it, just shoot it.”

Tip: Just shoot it.

There’s more to capturing the image than merely taking the photo. The bragging rights come from the adventure you took to get that shot.  It bears repeating to your friends and family repeating the details of the work it took to get you to where you found that stellar shot. There are millions of vantage points in the North Dakota Badlands, got get on one and get your shot.

Where to go to get the photos? Here are some FREE ideas.

McKenzie County has plenty of free things you can easily access to photography

That’s it. Now, let’s see your shots!  Go over to our Facebook Page, and in the comments, leave your image there.  We might be able to feature it!

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