Focus Trek 15 – The ALT Black Hills Photo Shootout Part 2

“I think, every time I’m on the mountain, I’m just so thankful to be there.” 
Chloe Kim

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If you don’t know who Chloe Kim is, you might not have watched the 2018 Winter Olympics. She’s the 17-year-old who was the youngest woman to win a gold medal in snowboarding. I thought that quote summed up my experience in the Black Hills and those that were on the mountains with me echoed that sentiment. This is a continuation of a previous article, go to Part 1 here.

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My name is Jim Burnham. I am a US photographer. Follow me on Instagram or Twitter -> @BurnhamArts 


Occasionally, I will put the camera down and just sit and absorb the scene. In that area, you are usually in hearing distance of a river. There is either a soft rumble in the distance or a loud rush nearby, especially after there has been snow in the upper elevations. You wonder how that much water can come from melting snow, but it does.

I always think back on an old obscure Looney Toons cartoon that traced the origin of the “Mighty Mississippi” back to a dripping faucet in Northern Minnesota. I can’t find a reference to it anywhere. If anyone can find it, let me know. You get the gist, though, when nature creates the noise, it’s not noise. And the silence can be deafening, as well, when you have no choice but to turn off your ears, that’s all you hear.

Day 3 – Sunday, Robert Yellowhawk and the Nelson Horse Ranch 

I didn’t have much energy to edit photos after the first day. I was way too exhausted. I did manage to upload a photo to Instagram (@burnhamarts), however. I ran across this on the way to Custer State Park.

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This was one of those “I pulled over for this” photos. I found it cute to have a pony out in the field with the cows and sheep.

My goal on day 3 was to find a waterfall. I hadn’t gone anywhere with any streams so I thought an early morning waterfall shoot would satisfy that need. I found several possible locations and picked Thunderhead Falls, about 15 miles West of Rapid City. The morning was very grey and foggy, which would have been great for long exposures. But when I got there, it was closed for the season. Oh well, the underground falls might have been interesting. I had about an hour to kill before meeting the group at Mike Wolforth’s studio for the morning session and didn’t really have time to go to any of the other falls I saw on the map, so I headed back to Rapid City.

I remembered a dirt road I passed on the way that headed down a steep slope off to the South. I put the White Whale in 4WD and headed down Falling Rock Road to see what I could find. The road was lined on both sides with evergreens as it meandered SouthWest for a couple miles. At the end was a private drive sign, so I stopped and parked up a hill in a clearing. There was a path South which led through a meadow and to the forest. On the other side of the forest was a steep, rocky ridge overlooking a river valley with some private homes. What I stumbled on was nothing short of foggy perfection. This is a place I would have spent all day at. But, I only had an hour, so…

I definitely went back there, but first…

Photos of Robert Yellowhawk at Wolforth Studios

We all met at Mike Wolforth’s studio in Rapid City to photograph Robert Yellowhawk, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. He is a full-time mentor helping youths understand traditional Native American dance, values, regalia, ceremonies and the Lokota language. He was in full ceremonial dress and gave us all an opportunity to practice portraits. Again, I’m not a portrait person, and when there are 30 other people shooting the same thing, It’s hard to get in at the right angle. But I think I did ok.

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There was a constant jockeying for position here

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So glad I brought that stool in so…um…Janet could use it… 😉


Back to Falling Rock 

By the time I and some other adventurers got back to Falling Rock Road, the fog had lifted and uncovered the entire valley floor and river running through it.


Here is what I mean about putting the camera down and absorbing the scene…

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With the additional light, I went for some more intimate forest floor portraits…

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And who can resist the “lone tree growing in rock” shot? Lone trees exist in the wild, you just have to look for them. Like unicorns or honest politicians.

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Nelson Ranch

Mark Nelson

Photo © Kevin Aker

Our last “workshop” was later in the afternoon as we caravanned down I90 toward Philip, SD to Mark Nelson’s Ranch where we were treated to an old-fashioned roundup. Mark was one of our cowboy models last year and graciously volunteered his ranch for our use this year. (Photo by Kevin Aker)

While Mark and his team were moving the herd closer, we got some shots of the horses running together before they settled near a watering trough eating feed laid out for them on the ground.


Tippy the herding dog plays with Mark’s horse

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Fotobug Jim Caldwell was well equipped that day with his drone. Wielding his Phantom like a kid with a new Christmas toy, he really got a unique perspective of the afternoon. You can see the results on the Fotobug Podcast
To jump to specific parts of the Photo Shootout captured by Jim and his wife Carolyn, use this timeline:
16:19 – Otho Miner
19:40 – Robert Yellowhawk
25:25 – Mark Nelson Ranch

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Many thanks to Mark Nelson, his wife Karen and daughter Kathleen for their hospitality. Bonnie (above and below) and Wacey Kirkpatrick (in the collage) served as extra herding help on horseback.

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Day 4 – The Badlands

“When I’m good, I’m very good, but when I’m bad, I’m better. ” – Mae West

Having said goodbye to everyone the night before, I was now on my own on Monday to head to the Badlands, an area encompassing 244,000 acres of Southern South Dakota. According to the Badlands website, the name comes from Native American and French influences: 

  • The Lakota people were the first to call this place “mako sica” or “land bad.” Extreme temperatures, lack of water, and the exposed rugged terrain led to this name. In the early 1900’s, French-Canadian fur trappers called it “les mauvais terres pour traverse,” or “bad lands to travel through.” 

BadlandsMapI got up extra early for my 55 mile drive down through Wall, SD (Yes, more on Wall Drug later) to Badlands National Park. I wanted to be on a Northern rim to catch the sunlight across the valley floor and on the Western walls. I wasn’t interested in getting the sun in the shot, just the light. Having the sun rising in the shot is great if the subject is the sun, but the subject here was the valley and the hills and nothing highlights that better than warm, horizontal light from either side. Otherwise, you have lots of shadows that you need to brighten up to show detail. But the morning was turning out more like the morning at Sylvan Lake on Day 2 with heavy fog and clouds.20181001 071242

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I camped out on Sagecreek Rim Rd on the Northern Edge of the valley looking South. As the sun rose, I braced against a fierce wind chill as I waited for the clouds over the Eastern rim to clear out. Once the sun rose above those, I found what I was looking for.

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Continuing on Hwy 240 to the East, I was looking to keep the sun behind me as I shot toward the West.

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Further down the road was a pull off where I found some cactus…

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And almost stepped on a yoga-ball-sized ant hill that was made of dry grass.

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While I was at an overlook painstakingly setting up my tripod on a small path, I got a text message from a co-worker (it was Monday after all) asking where I put a file on the network. I responded with this photo with “Look where I am right now”. And nothing else.

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The fact that I got a text at all was miraculous, but I attribute it to being so close to the entrance to the park. On the way out of the park, I saw a sign for the Prairie Homestead Historic Site and their “White Prairie Dogs” so, of course, I had to stop in.

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Last, but definitely least, is the end all and be all of cheesy tourist destinations. It’s legend etched into the annals of history most likely by its own genius marketing efforts, made famous because it claimed to be famous for simply being famous. I did not get any ice water. But, I might have gotten something else…or did I?

The cold, determined cowboy stare…nailed it?

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So glad Jim Caldwell could join me. Good company, but not much of a conversationalist.

I can definitely say after the third time visiting the Black Hills it felt like three completely different places. It satisfied my need for new places without leaving the SW corner of South Dakota. With such a varied landscape, it’s not hard to find something, somewhere at all times of day, especially when you have no particular place to go, which is the best kind of photo tour, IMHO.

Thanks again to Jim Caldwell, Fred Rogers, Steve Thompson and Mike Wolforth for shouldering most of the effort to give all of us something to focus on with short notice. Thanks to Chad Coppess, Jason Hahn and Nicole Kulver Hahn for organizing these events over the years. And Hertz, the Yukon was OK, but if you trade me up again, give me a Jeep as Alamo did in Telluride. It was hard to find a marina for this in SD. 😉

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What did I learn?

  • I did not use the Yukon enough. I returned it without going to a car wash first.
  • The best rides are the ones you share with friends. The best friends? The ones that help pay for gas. 😉
  • When bringing your camera on a plane, make sure you also leave the plane with it.

Thanks for reading. If you made it this far, congratulations! Please like and share or comment and share or pass it on and share using the social links below. If you would like an email when new posts are added, add your email below. Follow me on Instagram or Twitter: @BurnhamArts

4 thoughts on “Focus Trek 15 – The ALT Black Hills Photo Shootout Part 2

  1. David Shane Battle

    You captured the essence of the trip in both the outstanding individual shots and the full story telling collection. Your accompanying blog well explained the whole story and thought process in planning the day’s activities. I find myself in the same situation sometimes, with just looking to make something out of a poor weather day or the pressure to get something with a short window of available time. Enjoy your blogs!


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