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Custer State Park, South Dakota

The Old West has a romantic lure for me. I love the vast, rolling hills covered in a carpet of grasses; the big skies stretching to reach the horizon where it's gobbled up by a bank of white puffy clouds floating beyond; and herds of buffalo so massive that the furthest members of the herd are mere dark specs on the horizon. A unique species of wolf follows the herd, quickly taking advantage of any sick or stray animals. Pronghorn dart in and out of the herd, adding tan and white waves to the sea of shaggy brown. And where the herd crosses a river bar or goes through a forested area, the grizzly is there, waiting to give them a very warm welcome. Reading such books as Edward Warren, Joe Meek, Jedediah Smith or the Journals of Lewis and Clark, my imagination has been lassoed and reeled in, looking backward at this slice of our country that has long since passed.

I've spent a lot of time during the past decade visiting and going back in time, if only for a moment, recalling our past in today's west. When I was first invited by my good friend John Herbst to come and visit him at his home in the Blackhills of South Dakota, I was excited to say the least. Many a friend who lives in Montana and Wyoming has told me of the immense beauty and abundant wildlife to be found in the Blackhills and neighboring Badlands. With very little prodding I went to see this country for myself. Within a year I'd made six trips back to this marvelous preserve of our wild heritage.

While I knew of the area for its history, I went there to discover it with my camera. I had read many an article describing the rich big game mammal shooting in the Blackhills. The majority of that shooting is done in a little slice of the Blackhills in a paradise called Custer State Park. Just a stone's throw from John's home, I've been able to come to know much of the grandeur and treasures of this Blackhills' gold with John's marvelous guidance. I want to share with you the magic I have come to know and capture while exploring this corner of South Dakota.

I prefer shooting in Custer State Park either alone or with my good friend John. We travel the roads with our eyes scanning the plains with a camera and lens out, loaded, turned on and ready to shoot. The vast majority of the time I'll travel with the D1H and either a Nikkor 80-400VR macro zoom or Nikon 300f2.8 attached and in my lap. The 80-200f2.8 AF-S is another great lens to have attached to your camera as you cruise the park and my 600f4 AFS is in the seat right behind me at all times.

The only exception to this is in May when the Sharp-tailed Grouse are out. When they are about they can be found in certain parts of the park right next to the road. So during May I travel about with the Nikon 400f2.8 attached to the D1H so I can easily photograph the grouse beside the road.

Another essential piece of equipment for Custer SP is the Polarizer! This is not for making blue skies bluer, but to remove the skies' blue reflection from the grasses and the sides of the big game. I use the Moose Filter (warm circular polarizer) for the 80-400 and a Nikon Drop-in polarizer for the 600f4.

Here's a quick review for properly applying the polarizer. With the polarizer attached, turn the polarizer until you remove the blue, which is best seen by looking at the dirt. The color of the dirt will turn from a sickly brown to a warm chocolate brown when properly removing the blue tint of the sky. You can also see this change on the sides of bison, pronghorn or bighorn sheep. The point is to remove the blue reflection of the sky so the true color of the subject pops out. With this accomplished, you're ready to shoot.

Taking the quick route into the park in the wee hours of morning dawn is just a marvelous drive. It's a given you're going to see a whole lot of White-tailed and Mule Deer. There are some big bucks amongst them but we tend not to stop and work them. We'll see an elk every so often as well, but since they are hunted in Custer State Park, they don't stick around once they see you. Venturing on down the road, you come to what I think of as the slots, more properly, a section of Highway 16A. This windy section of highway with its steep sides is home to one of the groups of Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep that inhabit the park.

These incredibly graceful and rugged creatures can be so illusive that you might never find them, yet other times you happen upon them literally standing right on the road as if thumbing a ride! The big factor in finding seems to be the season and the temperature. Late winter going into spring and late fall going into winter when the ambient daylight temperatures are cooler, no higher than sixty-five degrees, seems to be the best times for finding sheep.

Driving down the slots up to Shady Rest a band of eight or more bighorn rams can easily be tucked in amongst the pines on the hill. I've found them in this area mostly in the early morning and late afternoon. This is a good and bad thing. Good because when you slowly work the herd the shooting ops are really spectacular! Bad because there's no place to park and you'll be seen by tourists - resulting in a sheep jam. But when you have full curl rams staring at you, the low light skimming across the hill, highlighting that majestic sweep of the curl, it's really hard to pass up!

These bighorn rams are friendly - but only to a really limited point. You might think that since you can walk right up to them on the side of the road that they are habituated but they truly aren't. You must work them, going very slowly, picking your path and background long before you're ready to shoot. You need to watch out for other stimulation that, in combination with your approaching, might spook them up the slope. Cars and "point & shoot" photographers can ruin a perfect stalk if you don't plan ahead of the event unfolding.

John tells his group when he takes photographers out not to make eye contact with the sheep. This is probably a good thing to keep in mind when you haven't worked with sheep a lot. I haven't found this to be a problem, but I always come up on sheep at the same height or lower relative to the terrain - allowing sheep to feel comfortable knowing they can go up to get out of danger. This has always allowed me to approach physically close to them.

Being down low, taking advantage of knowledge of their basic biology has a dual photographic reward. Not only can you get closer to the sheep, but also your point of view or angle is one in which you're shooting up. This angle makes the sheep or any big game like elk, bison, pronghorn and the rest seem more masculine. The macho stature that this angle enhances works by feeding on folks' preconceived idea of what big game should look like. Getting close also permits one to use a shorter focal length lens such as a 300f2.8 or 400f2.8 AF-S. These shorter focal lengths like the lower angle and let the muscle structure ripple across the frame of the big game, spelling out stud! (And don't forget the polarizer.)

Care must be observed when photographing sheep in the slots! Highway 16A is a major thoroughfare with a lot of traffic at certain times of the day. Sudden movement and/or harassment on your part of the sheep could send a sheep across the road and into an oncoming vehicle! Working the sheep by first just sitting and watching them, letting them get use to you has many, many benefits that you'll see for yourself when you look at your film on the light table.

It's very tempting to follow the sheep when they travel up the short walls of the canyon. There are just a couple of spots where this will pay off in photographs so I don't recommend it, nor do I follow them up the ridgeline myself. There are a number of places where the sheep can simply disappear over the ridge. The top of the ridge is unphotographable because of an old forest fire so the effort isn't worth it. But mostly, the sheep go up and over because they are simply done being sociable with humans, so let them have their peace. It's pretty much a given that they will be back down either in the afternoon (if you see them in the AM) or the next morning (if you see them in the PM). Leaving them with a positive encounter will yield better images later on.

By driving just a little past Shady Rest, you'll come to a marvelous little campground / lake area (Grace Coolidge campground I think is the name). On one side of the road is the "lake" that is very photogenic and extends a little ways up the canyon. Go really slowly in here and be sure to check along the lake because it's here or in the campground that you might find a large ewe and lamb group, numbering over forty animals! I know, most folks want those big rams, but the ewes and especially the lambs can be great subjects! Shoot them backlit, foraging, nursing, up on a slope, amongst the campers, next to a fisherman, all making for great images that you normally wouldn't find on traditional sheep range. And if you don't see the ewe group in this locale, keep your eyes open as you drive down the road towards the Game Lodge. On many occasions the group has been right in front of the Park Headquarters, which is a great stock image.

Just past the Game Lodge is a huge grassy area directly opposite the Peter Norbeck Visitor Center. Check the grassy hillsides here for the ewe group, but this is a great place to photograph the big, bad shaggy monster bison bulls.

In the evolution of a bison bull, he leaves the herd and becomes a bachelor, becoming even larger with age! You'll find some stunning examples of these big old bulls in their winter coats here in the fall. Many times you'll find them on the manicured lawns, which might not seem like the ideal photographic situation, but by working the subject, you can come away with some really sweet images.

Care should always be observed when photographing these giants, so using a 600mm lens makes a lot of sense to me. With a big beautiful bull on the lawn, I like to work him by making the best use of the light. For example, if it's fall and the sun is just rising on the lawn, I go for the backlit shot because the bull typically is steaming as the night dew burns off. By placing the bull against a dark background, the backlight illuminates the steam and the image of the "smoking bull" is just knock-you-down cool! Shooting with the D1H and 600f4, exposure is a cakewalk, so knock yourself out!

Now on the other hand, if there is no steam but you still have that gorgeous light, work the bison so it is frontlit. With the 600mm lens again, get in a little closer so you just see that big, old shaggy head and shoot away. There are typically a number of lone bulls in this area, so if the one on the lawn doesn't wag your tail find one of the individuals on the grassy knolls and work him the same way. You can only shoot them in this killer light for a short time so now's the time to find a restroom and head out on the Wildlife Loop.

The Wildlife Loop Road is just a short distance from the Game Lodge. Be sure to get your day pass (hopefully you're staying in the area longer than that) and then head on down the road. Go slowly because there is tons of wildlife to be found here as long as you're looking for it. You're sure to find at least two or three large herds of bison along this route. These herds will have lots of cute bison calves in the spring, which no photographer can pass up. Parking along the side of the road with the long lens (polarizer dropped in) and letting the herd do its thing is the best way of working these herds. They are constantly on the move, which means subjects and opportunities are constantly changing so keep your eyes open for every possibility.

You can have cows nursing calves right in front of you, bulls pushing each other, calves running about with youthful glee, animals rubbing themselves on every manmade thing in sight; the opportunities are endless. Keeping your eyes open, and possibly having a second body handy with an 80-200f2.8 attached and lots of film ready to burn, you can come away with bison images you can't even capture in Yellowstone!

One warning though - beware bison fever. The first time photographers see bison; they go, well, a little nuts! They shoot things that no sane person would shoot. This condition lasts for about thirty-six hours at which point, they never point their lens at a bison again. I would strongly suggest you pass on photographing the bison herds unless the light is really dramatic, then you can really create some incredible images.

Heading down the Wildlife Loop, you need to keep your wildlife radar attuned for the wildlife of the season. For example in May, I'm looking for birds rather than big game. The Sharp-tailed Grouse and Upland Sandpipers are about in vast numbers. While they are difficult subjects to work, shier than a bison for sure, they are beautiful subjects in the delicious green grasses of Custer SP. Down by the Wildlife Station (only restroom on the loop) and across the road from it you'll find a small natural depression. In here is where you can watch and sometimes photograph the grouse as they display for the females. There is a dirt road that turns off the main road right here and forks east and west. These dirt roads can be great for finding more grouse in May or pronghorn or bison any time of the year. This past September, the rutting pronghorn in this locale were simply spectacular!

Pronghorn in the rut can be one of the most fascinating and rewarding subjects on the planet that you can point your camera at! The dynamics of the rut are kinda simple. A big bad buck collects as many does into his harem as he can. Yet within this simple arrangement comes a Peyton Place of struggles as outside bucks run in and attempt to chase out as many does as they can from the harem. The dominant buck tries to maintain control of the harem by chasing an intruder buck away only to find that once he turns his back from the harem, another buck from the other side of the harem tries to cut out does from the unprotected harem. So the dominant buck has to do a 180-degree turn to chase away that buck. And so goes the day, chase after chase after chase. For the savvy photographer, this is like gold in the old file drawer!

Upon finding such a situation I like to set myself up so that the subjects will be frontlit as much of the time as possible. I set up my 600f4 on the Gitzo 1548 with B2 head attached on top of a little knoll if possible. The slight height advantage permits me to watch the action as the buck chases competitors and to be ready when they come towards me. I set up possibly as far as five hundred yards away from the main harem which; typically works out perfectly. The bucks chase for long distances, and remember, we're working with the fastest land mammal in North America, so a buck can be in your lap in a matter of seconds from five hundred yards away! Once set up, I just watch, wait. The bucks will come.

Sometimes they will run past you and out of sight, so keep a third eye open in the back of your head because they can easily come flying past if you're not aware of your surroundings. Once you have the action coming at you, remember your framing, trying to keep an animal running right to left on the right side of the frame (and vice versa if running left to right). I like to select the dead center AF sensor that typically is focusing on the front shoulder of the pronghorn. This is the same plane as the eye, so the eye will be sharp while providing me with a big and easy target to keep the sensor locked in on the subject. Once the chase begins in the viewfinder I just watch the bucks fly by and let the film rip! And I mean rip, depressing the shutter release as long as the action is in the viewfinder, even if that means going through a roll in four seconds. That's how I've captured all the great chase scenes that I so enjoy.

It's easy in the heat of battle to keep fixate on the bucks chasing each other about the countryside. But the does are graceful subjects. Whether by themselves or in patterns on the prairie together they are marvelous subjects. There will be times when the dominant buck stops chasing other bucks to pay attention to the does. These are opportunities for the observant photographer as well. This is why you might want to keep a 1.4x in your vest pocket so you can get closer visually rather than physically.

The pronghorn in Custer State Park are some of the most photogenic you'll find in the country as far as I'm concerned. My files now have over two thousand pronghorn images from Custer and I love every one of them!

Continuing down the Wildlife Loop Road, you'll come to a dirt road on the left (half a mile past the corrals). This road leads into Wind Cave National Park. It's a spectacular drive and well worth your time. You'll find the same subjects as in Custer SP, just in a different world. John calls the valley you drive into "Little Hayden" valley and once you've been there, you'll know why.

Continuing down the Wildlife Loop, you'll wind through some gorgeous draws and canyons, which are on fire in the fall with color enough to soak up every drop of emulsion on your film. Eventually you'll come out into an open area that is truly one of my favorite places to hang in Custer. Even when there is nothing else to photograph, I can come to the PDT and get in some quality PDT time. What's PDT? Well heck, that's Prairie Dog Town, of course!

Black-tailed Prairie Dogs have a marvelous town right on the road where you can spend days photographing their antics. Now there is no reason to walk onto the town to photograph these cute little critters. Just set up your 600mm with the 1.4x real handy and go at it from the edge of the road beside your vehicle. Just be sure you have lots and lots of film because the constant activity of the PDT can eat up a ton of film!

There is a real temptation to get down low to shoot when at the PDT. Let me warn you that prairie dogs have fleas, which aren't too picky about their hosts. So unless you want to itch, don't lay down on the PDT! But watching the background is a smart thing to do. You want to make the prairie dogs look as good as you can. I have found that when shooting them in overcast light dialing in +1/3 stop works well. They have huge eyes that make great reflectors, so keep that in mind when photographing them.

From the PDT, the Wildlife Loop goes back into the highway and takes you to other sites and marvels of the Blackhills. You could head to Custer City and see where George A. Custer camped on his expedition in the Blackhills at the start of the gold rush or go to Chief's for lunch. You should also check out Needles, another beautiful place for scenic photography. You can venture to Mt Rushmore to photograph the gents or the Mountain Goats that call it home. There are as many places to wander and photograph here in the Blackhills as your imagination and gas tank can take you. Heck, I haven't even mentioned the joys of shooting in the Badlands just a short distance down the road from the Blackhills. Well, I'll just have to save that story for another time.

Or, you can venture out to the southwest corner of South Dakota yourself and find out just what treasures are awaiting you. To make your trip a little more successful and make planning less stressful you can head to my friend's website where John has a monthly update of conditions and photo opportunities at Custer State Park and the Blackhills. I'm sure you'll find the romance and legacy of the old west still quite alive and awaiting you and your camera; just waiting for you to lasso this grand drama on film!

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