South Dakota prairie provides perfect sunset photo
I love to capture a sunset photo almost as much as I love to shoot a sunrise. So when I looked out the door of Steffen’s Outdoor Expeditions’ lodge and saw beautiful layered clouds forming above Lake Oahe as the sun raced to the western horizon, I knew I had to capture the scene.
And Paulie Steffen, one of the owners of the hunting and fishing lodge, offered to take me to the perfect location on the banks of the massive reservoir near Pierre, S.D. We loaded my gear and his son Waylon into his four-wheel-drive truck and headed out — into one of the ag fields on the family’s huge farm. We drove past corn fields that had been ravaged earlier that week by a brutal hail storm and onto a promontory of rolling prairie that overlooked an arm of Lake Oahe.
“See these stones,” Steffen said, pointing to a small circle of rocks. “Those are old fire rings from the Indian days.”
That points to the history of the area, which includes the Missouri River now covered by Lake Oahe. The Lewis and Clark expedition traversed the river on their way to the West Coast, perhaps stopping near the very spot on which we stood waiting for the sun to fall lower in the sky.
That was happening quickly, so I looked around for a good foreground element. Unfortunately, the old fire circle was nearly invisible from the camera angle. However, there were two larger boulders sticking out of the prairie. So I set up with these rocks as the foreground elements: one positioned in the bottom left and one positioned in the bottom right. Behind the rocks, the beautiful rolling hills and the waters of Lake Oahe could be seen.
And then we waited. The sun went behind a large bank of clouds, but there was an empty area between the clouds and the horizon. I knew magic would happen when the sun peaked from behind the clouds.
We were not disappointed.
As clouds of mosquitoes buzzed overhead (driving the Steffens into the truck), the sun set the bottom of the clouds on fire. There must be something about the atmospheric conditions above the prairies, because the colors of the sunrises and sunsets are crazy. On this evening, the clouds turned a brilliant reddish/purple.
I chose a 16mm Tokina lens to capture the rocks, the tableau of prairie grasslands and a bit of Lake Oahe. This lens also made the clouds look like they were reaching away from the sun.
A small aperture ensured the sun would be captured with a number of rays extending under the clouds and to the prairies below. These rays are not added in post-production: They were created completely in-camera by using a f/16 aperture.
I clicked away until the sun set, capturing a few more images of the post-sunset colors.
I shared out another version I thought was fantastic, but this photo was the clear winner of the evening.
Post-productions began in Lightroom CC by combining two images to bring out the best of the highlights and shadows. I did some basic adjustments to brighten the foreground and push back the highlights a bit. I added a light gradient to the clouds to enhance the colors, which were dulled a bit by the underexposure of the scene. I then sent the image to Skylum Luminar, where I polished it up.
The resulting image is stunning and represents what the Steffens and I witnessed on the banks of Lake Oahe that evening.
It is simply the best sunset photo I’ve ever taken.
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