Seriously though, head out in any direction from Great Falls, and you’re going to find photographic opportunities, but my favorite is to tie two things together. I enjoy great landscapes along with fun opportunities to include a friend or family member in the photo. I get the landscape photograph I want, and something a little more intimate – a photo with a friend – to help me remember the experience.
There are two such places within driving distance of Great Falls.
1. Lost Lake, aka, The Shonkin Sag
About an hour’s drive from Great Falls, and on the north end of the Highwood’s (the narrow range of mountains visible on the eastern horizon from Great Falls). It’s realistically a half-day total trip, but you could make it longer if you’re an adventurist. Lost Lake is a nature photographer oasis and a hiker’s fantasy land! This is one of Montana’s most amazing geologic features, and it’s seldom seen in photographs. Few people visit the location, but it is worth the effort, especially if you’re not a regular prairie person.
Hikers approach the hoodoos before looking down into the canyon and dry falls of Lost Lake. © Tony Bynum
Looking southwest through the rocks a small part of Lost Lake is visible. In the background are the Highwood Mountains. © Tony Bynum
Looking west across Lost Lake as the sun goes down. This image was taken with a 14-24mm f2.8 lens shot at f5.6. © Tony Bynum
The small figure standing atop the cliff is a person looking out over Lost Lake.
This image is a good reference for scale. The dry falls of Lost Lake are huge. © Tony Bynum
The cracks in the rocks can make for some interesting framing. © Tony Bynum
Tony’s Tips and Tricks for Lost Lake
I think a 24-70 or 24-120 mm lens will suit this location well. You’ll be able to get some nice wide shots but also some fantastic short telephoto rock structures, flowers (spring), and if you’re on the more creative side, some cool abstracts or impressionistic photos. Bring the macro or microlens whichever you own.
Location – 60 miles east of Great Falls, past the old town of Shonkin. From the Highwood Road head east on the Shonkin Road until you get to the Lost Lake road. Turn left – east – go for about two and a half miles, park on the right near the signs. It’s private property, so walk-in only and access is at your own risk! Be careful, watch for snakes.
Season – Spring through Fall
Purpose/Scene – Great geologic wonders, huge cliffs, and beautiful spring flowers
Time of day – it’s best captured in the morning as the sun rises, but you can make great images here all day! Bring a polarizer! If you’re photographing people on the land, try shooting “wide-open” or with a wide aperture f4 to f1.4 to make your human subject really pop! For landscapes, try f8 or f11 for great depth of field.
Basic Camera Settings – As with any location, you will have to choose the “right” camera settings. Today’s cameras often have an activity or subject dial to help choose the correct exposure. They are meant for you to select the corresponding activity. These, of course, are auto settings, but don’t be ashamed or afraid to use the auto settings, they’re put there for a reason. The runner symbol for action and sports, and the mountains symbol for landscape, the flower symbol is for macro aka close-up photography! Use them if you want, they do a pretty good job.
2. Ulm Piskun – First Peoples Buffalo Jump
The First People’s Buffalo Jump is a cliffy area in an otherwise flat landscape. The drive is about 15 miles west of the city. I like the area for its wide, almost “top of the world” views. It’s the first place on my list when the sky goes “Montana,” you know the kind, big pillowy clouds, or those long wispy horsetail kind – you’ll get a real taste for “big skies” from the top of the buffalo jump!
I prefer to access the hike along the rim of the jump. Driving to the top and walking the well-marked trail south toward the edge of the jump. Once to the edge, you’ll see the interpretive center and the trail below. You can hike from the bottom, but I like the big grand vistas from the top, and there are many more photographic opportunities from there.
After a hard rain, a large puddle provides a beautiful oasis in an otherwise largely dry environment.© Tony Bynum
Two children look down the face of the buffalo jump and Square Butte is in the distance. © Tony Bynum
Three children enjoying the landscape and Big Sky. © Tony Bynum
Tony’s Tips and Tricks for First Peoples Buffalo Jumop
Walk along the rim west, and you’ll discover countless photo opportunities. Bring your wide-angle lens, something wider than 35mm. You’ll be looking for big sky shots and wide shots of cool features on the foreground with the sky in the top of the frame. I’ve even found some cool creatures out there. Be careful if you’re hiking off the trail when it’s warm, there are rattlesnakes in the area!
Location – Just west about 25 miles from Great Falls. Head south on Highway 15 like you’re going to the airport or to Helena. Take the Ulm Exit. Turn right at the stop sign and follow the Ulm Vaughn Road about three miles and turn left onto Goetz Road follow that about a mile and turn left onto the Ulm Pishkun Road. Follow that road to the parking lot, or if the gate is closed, park there and walk in, it’s not far, and you’ll see lots of prairie dogs, birds, and possibly some snakes and jackrabbits.
Season – year-round, spring and fall are my favorite times – it’s also pet-friendly, so leash up the pooch.
Purpose/Scene – big wide landscapes, cool and interesting geology, horned lizards, snakes, porcupines, raptures, deer, flowers.
Time of day – I like this location in the morning as well, especially in the late spring to summer months. I think this spot is best for huge views of the buttes and surrounding mountains, and the big Montana sky! Again, bring the polarizer to help create those big, beautiful blue contrasty sky.
Two Great Places in a sea of prairie and wheat
Lost Lake, and the Buffalo Jump both offer a lot of opportunities for photography. Both are great locations to create wall art in the form of big landscapes or small artful expressions. Putting a person like a friend or your family member in a landscape photo can add some drama and help you to never forget your Great Falls area photography experience. And don’t forget an extra battery and flashcard, you’re going to need them!
Tony travels the world as a photographer and today makes his home in Great Falls, Montana. His images are influenced by his relationship with his family, and his diverse background: ranching and agriculture, a strong passion for fishing, hunting and conservation, and his love of wild, remote places. He has a Masters of Science degree in Natural Resource Management and is the president of the Professional Outdoor Media Association. He has worked on TV and movie sets, been a photographer for a winning US Senate Campaign, and was the location manager in Glacier National Park for the Imax film, “National Parks Adventure.”
Tony is often hired for editorial assignments, to photograph commercial outdoor products, and to photograph adventures all over the world. His images are regularly published by Outdoor Life, Field and Stream, Sports Afield, National Geographic Travel, Montana Quarterly, Big Sky Journal, Montana Outdoors, High Country News, countless websites, blogs, corporate publications, and book covers. Tony sells prints of his work and is also the photo editor and writes a regular photography column for Western Hunter Magazine. You can find him Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.