In mid-February I spent about a week photographing in South Florida. It was an interesting experience, for a number of reasons, which I’ll outline below. Unlike most of the photography trips I’ve taken over the past few years, however, I’m not going to produce a daily chronology on this blog, for two principal reasons. The first is that I think the format has become a bit stale and I’m hoping a different approach will liven things up. The second reason? There are some broader points that I want to make about the photographic experience and I don’t want the themes to be lost in the wash.
Why was this particular trip so interesting? Because it deviated in so many ways from just about every other photo trip I’ve ever taken. Specifically…
Planning (or Lack Thereof)
Almost without exception–perhaps entirely without exception–every other photographic trip I’ve made over the years has involved lengthy, copious planning. This one? Not so much. I was not anticipating making a trip in February…or this winter more broadly (more on this specific point below). The idea wasn’t even broached until some time in mid-December; my wife (bless her) suggested I go and, when I more or less brushed the notion off, strongly encouraged me until I caved some time in the first half of January and started taking the idea seriously. It wasn’t until about six weeks in advance of when I would actually leave that I began to approach this trip as something that was actually going to happen. (By comparison, with other trips, I usually have all of my plans set in stone long in advance of six weeks prior to departure.)
This all required a bit of scrambling, as I attempted to put a travel itinerary together and decide exactly where I wanted to photograph…and then try to find some resources to help me make the trip not just a reality but a successful endeavor. I decided relatively early on in the process that I wanted to focus primarily on the Everglades. It’s a place that has always intrigued me, though I’d never visited. In fact, prior to this trip, I hadn’t been down to South Florida in roughly 20 years and I’d only been to the region once since I was a little kid in the early 1970s. I had been a regular participant in annual baseball tournaments in Florida for nearly 15 years, but those had all been held in Sarasota or Bradenton, on Florida’s central Gulf Coast–a long way from southeast Florida.
So I was almost completely in the dark about photographing in the Everglades–or anywhere else in the area. My wife found several used books on Florida natural areas, which were helpful, and I found an ebook guide to photographing in Everglades National Park, which was a huge asset. In fact, it was the discovery of the ebook that really made me start taking the notion of the trip as a realistic option because I finally felt as though I had some direction.
In addition to the Everglades, where I expected to spend the majority of my time, I also decided I wanted to do some ocean/beach photography and that’s what led me to spend most of a day in the Florida Keys and the last couple of days near Jupiter Island, about 90 minutes north of Miami.
While I won’t be producing a chronology of entries, here is how I ultimately allocated my time (which was eight full days plus one morning):
Day 1: Everglades, south section (heavily weighted towards exploration)
Day 2: Everglades, south section
Day 3: sunrise, Everglades south section; rest of the day spent in the Keys
Day 4: Everglades, Shark Valley section and Big Cypress National Preserve
Day 5: sunrise, Everglades south section; late morning/early afternoon at Big Cypress National Preserve; sunset, Everglades south section
Day 6: Everglades, south section
Day 7: sunrise, Everglades south section; relocation to Jupiter, Florida; exploring Blowing Rocks Preserve and Coral Cove Park
Day 8: sunrise, Coral Cove Park; mid-day, Riverbend Park; sunset, Coral Cove Park
Day 9: early morning, Coral Cove Park; travel to Miami International Airport for flight home
As you can see, the largest segment of time was spent in the southern section of the Everglades, by far the largest area of the park open to exploration.
As everyone who’s been reading this blog for any period of time knows, I’m a landscape photographer. Full stop. I don’t photograph much of anything else and on the rare occasions when I do it’s essentially unorchestrated. I don’t plan trips centered around photographing anything but the landscape. That’s mostly true with regard to this trip as well, but not entirely. I expected to have the opportunity to do a fair amount of bird photography (based on conversations with people I know who have spent time photographing in South Florida, and based on the aforementioned ebook). And this turned out to be the case. I spent a lot of time photographing birds. In fact, on several occasions during the trip, I went to specific locations with the express intent of doing just that. I spent more time photographing wildlife (mostly birds, but alligators as well) on this trip than I have on all of the other trips I’ve ever taken combined. What’s more, I spent a surprising amount of time doing something I’ve never, ever tried to do before: photographing birds in flight.
It all made for an interesting change of pace and while I’m still no wildlife photographer (not by a long shot) I learned a lot and have some things to say on the subject.
The Landscape that is the Everglades
I’d never been to the Everglades prior to this trip but I’d seen photos of the place over the years and have spoken to others who have been there. Based on this “indirect” experience, I was expecting landscape photography to be a particular challenge and to a greater or lesser extent, it was. There’s really no place on earth quite like the Everglades and I’ve certainly never photographed anywhere remotely like it. Large portions of the park are probably most similar, in broad appearance, to the open prairie of the Great Plains…only flatter.
I live in what is widely regarded as the flat lands–northern Illinois, central Indiana–but Florida is another kind of flat. How flat? There are two spots along the park road that runs from the entrance to the southern section of the Everglades, just west of the town of Florida City, for more than 50 miles to the visitors center at Flamingo, on the Bay of Florida, that display the elevation (i.e. above sea level). One sign reads “4 feet.” The other reads “3 feet.” It’s a kind of inside joke, but it’s entirely apropos; there’s simply no elevation change to speak of, anywhere.
So, yes, this makes for challenging photography. But I knew (more or less) what I was getting into and was anxious to take it on. And I can say that the beauty of the place–a kind of haunting beauty–became more and more apparent with each passing day. I always try to let a place reveal how it wants to be photographed rather than impose myself on the landscape, and I think I had at least some success in so doing. I’ll discuss this in more detail in a future post.
Time of Year
Prior to this experience, I had never taken a photo trip during wintertime. Not once. And, admittedly, South Florida isn’t exactly what typically comes to mind when one mentions winter photography (think: snow and ice). But it still provided certain inherent challenges, involving potential travel issues for instance (which I was lucky enough to avoid) and clothing. It’s not a point worthy of a blog entry, but it’s part of what made this trip different.
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Some of the above topics will serve as focal points for individual entries detailing the trip; I’ll also use the Florida experience as the locus for posts covering subjects I’ve previously stated an intention to cover, such as the importance of scouting.
Regardless, I hope you find the descriptions of the experience remotely as interesting I found the experience itself.