Focus Trek #9 – The Black Hills Photo Shootout

Report # Photo:

“Focus on the journey, not the destination. Joy is found not in finishing an activity but in doing it.”

-Greg Anderson


Box Elder Creek (26mm f10 1/100sec ISO100)

It’s been awhile since my last “Focus Trek”. Sometimes I take these trips to “focus” on improving the craft. Other times it’s a mixture of family vacation and photography. With the former I can focus on just photography and being where I need to be to get images. I stay as long as it takes to get what I want. With the latter you are always on the move from one thing to the next. Waiting for the right moment means losing your family around a corner. Both situations require you to compromise, but for different reasons. Although travelling with the family requires much more compromise. With compromise comes less opportunity. With less opportunity, you become more selective.


32mm f8 1/320sec

The end of this year presented me with two opportunities for very different types of photography. One was the Black Hills Photo Shootout in Spearfish, SD. This is an event in it’s 7th year. Run by Nicole and Jason Hahn, it brings professional photographers together with photographers from all levels on workshops of varying topics. I had heard about this event since it started in 2010, but this is the first time I was able to make it. It is one of the more affordable workshops that I’ve found and it resulted in a wealth of excellent images. They also have a similar event in Tampa Bay in spring. To learn more about these, go to

The other was a family trip to London and York, in England. In South Dakota I was by myself but also with a hundred other like-minded people jumping from one location to the next. Opportunities were practically served to you there. If someone came away without any good shots, they clearly were not trying. However, London was a challenge for many reasons. That story will be in #10.


62mm f8 1/80sec

Day 1: Typical Stop, U-Turn, Stop, Shoot, Stop, Shoot, Lather, Rinse, Repeat

Events like the Black Hills Photo Shootout and the Telluride Photo Festival (last year, see “Looking for a Heartbeat in Telluride“) give me the opportunity to sit and watch or to move around as I see fit. I’m not there to see everything, or even to see as much as I can within the short time I’m there. I’ve already pre-selected some locations ahead of time using Google maps, Google Earth and PhotoEphemeris and might spend several hours at each one. But I go in having little confidence in getting anything more than record shots. That’s setting the bar pretty low. But again, there is no guarantee of capturing anything unique or beautiful on the sensor. Your eye is a much more beautiful tool than the camera, capable of subtlety beyond imagination. You can only get as close as you can to what you see. The rest is only memory.

My weapon of choice is the brakes on the rental car. Like the barn and horse above, some scenes present themselves to you. You can’t pass these up and you can usually get these from the road. With the family, however, you have to pick your opportunities. Here, I can stop and take advantage of every single one.

My plan was to visit Spearfish Canyon during the day, but I decided to go out at night first to get some long exposure starscapes. This is a pitch black stretch of unfamiliar canyon road just South of the town of Spearfish. An online light pollution map showed moderate light pollution because of the city, but the sky was actually pretty clear and dark. Brights are a must on this road as it is curvy and deer tend to jump unexpectedly down from the hills to drink out of the river across the road. The hills rise sharply up from the road, so there are perfect shots of stars with some foreground trees. The clouds were a bonus.


20mm f2.8 20sec ISO2500

There is something about visiting a canyon for the first time at night. The river is very loud. If you did not know how wide or deep it was, you would think it was a raging torrent, one false step would certainly mean the end, either by drowning or against jagged rocks at the bottom.


12mm f2.8 30sec ISO2500

But the physical structure of the canyon acts like the speaker on a Gramophone, echoed and amplified by the walls on either side. The next day showed me that my treacherous river was actually fairly benign.

At Savoy there is a lodge that lights up the hills very nicely. Instant light-painting.


Spearfish Canyon Lodge at Savoy (12mm f2.8 30sec ISO2000)

Starscapes are sometimes captured very “in your face” with hyper-accentuated, falsely colored and brightened Milkyway. I understand all the “ooohs!” and “aaaahs!” when these photos are posted online, but I prefer not to capture or display mine that way, I prefer to keep it closer to what I saw. It’s not my way or the highway, but if you want to capture a natural starscape:

  1. Find a foreground element. It will be in silhouette, so make it interesting. You can even “light-paint” it with some practice. Even a small pen-light works. In this case, there was too much of a distance difference between bottom to top. An evenly lit scene was not possible. Trust me, I tried several times.
  2. You need a tripod or some way to secure the camera
  3. A way to remotely fire the shutter, or time delay to eliminate shake
  4. As wide an angle as you can get. This reduces the star trail effect. The more you zoom in, the faster the sky moves.
  5. A combination of high ISO, wide aperture and long shutter speed. In this case, ISO2000, f2.8 at 30sec. I dropped the ISO from 2500 because of the lodge lights.
  6. Experiment with different ISO and shutter speed combos to get what you want without risking star trails or high noise. The D7100 is not full frame, so noise is a concern. However, remember that reducing noise in software will reduce the number of visible stars

Day 2: “Cowboys In Action” Workshop and Long Exposure Waterfalls

The next morning I was fortunate to ride up to the first photo location and back with Chad Coppess, the senior photographer for the South Dakota Dept of Tourism and one of the Shootout instructors. We joined workshop leader Becca Shelbourne at the Diamond 7 Bar Ranch where their trail riders rode and galloped and provided very memorable shots. In this atmosphere you make your shot. The workshop leader might set up the opportunities, but ultimately you are on your own. This is the benefit of an event like the BHPS, how often can you go out on your own and run across seven people on horseback?

(Click on a photo to expand or start a slideshow)

An afternoon portfolio review with Jim Caldwell gave me the opportunity to chat one on one and learn more about him. After that, I was fortunate enough to ride with Jim and his wife to Spearfish Canyon and Roughlock Falls (where I was the night before) to shoot long exposures of the creek that I feared so the night before. Thanks to Jim for waiting patiently while I searched in vain for my tripod foot. Yes, that’s my camera in the river on a tripod. This is a combination of confidence, naivete and stupidity. But I took the top right shot in the mosaic with that setup. That might be where my tripod foot ended up, Jim. Catch Jim Caldwell and Fred Rogers podcast “Fotobug” here:

(Click on a photo to expand or start a slideshow)

Day 3: Equine Workshop, Devil’s Tower and Advanced Landscape Techniques

The next day was back at the horse ranch, but without the riders. I had gotten some good shots the day before, so I left the shoot early to get my Close Encounters geek on at Devil’s Tower, which was 15 miles away. But I did get one shot I really liked before I left. Another photographer next to me was also shooting this and he said, “I think we can go home now.” I like to look for patterns and repeating features. I especially like it when normally random creatures align. At times like this, it helps to have a long lens handy, either on you or on another camera. If you look at the photo of the group heading towards me, Chad Coppess is in green and was ready for either wide or long range moments. I had to swap lenses, so I risk dust getting in, especially out on a dry area like this.


Looking the Same Way

And I never get any shots of myself out on a shoot, so it was nice one of the people in the workshop sent me this.


My next stop wasn’t on the workshop schedule, but I had to do it since we could see Devil’s Tower from the Ranch. I recommend it, the scenery is breathtaking and there is an easy blacktop trail that winds up and around the base. It is an easy hike and the roads gets you pretty close by car. With permission, you can free climb higher or climb straight up the side. I got to watch both while I was up there. I could have easily spent the whole day up there. I’m sure the sunset would have been a treat. But, I had another workshop to get to in the afternoon and couldn’t spend more than a couple hours at the Tower. But, on the way back, I followed a spectacular thunderhead into Spearfish.

The afternoon session was with Dick Kettlewell out at Bear Butte. The thunderhead lingered behind us while we wished it would move over the mountain. My landscape shots were marginal in my opinion. I liked the people shots much better. I was fortunate enough to shuttle him out to the location. Turns out we both owned a 77 MGB at one time.

Day 4: Going Home

On the way back to the airport I stayed in photo mode and left myself enough time to be able to stop and shoot as needed. I was not disappointed with the view along the way. What made me stop for this was not the clouds, which showed up a few minutes later, but the very central collection of aspens in the middle of the evergreens. The clouds were a bonus. It’s always nice to have balance.


Stormfront over the hills outside Deadwood, SD

If I had more time, I would have driven up to the Standing Rock Reservation oil pipeline protest. But what I got in the three days I was there exceeded my purposely lowered expectations.

Next: Focus Trek #10, Family! England! Right-hand drive! Roundabouts! Will we survive? Spoiler: We did.

Thanks for reading! If you liked this post, please share, like, comment, etc.  If you are interested in a print of any of these photos, please comment or use the contact page on the Leland Report. Other photos by Jim can be found and purchased at

-Jim Burnham

4 thoughts on “Focus Trek #9 – The Black Hills Photo Shootout

    1. Jim Burnham Post author

      I really want to do Tampa, but might end up in South Dakota again. I blew all my vacation time on the England trip. I have to build it up again. What you really have to do is meet me up in the Leelanau peninsula in Michigan in the Summer (or Fall). 🙂


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