Posted by: kerryl29 | May 2, 2017

The Florida Landscape Experience: Big Cypress National Preserve

While my time photographing landscapes in the Everglades was (mostly) marked by the challenges endemic to composing in flat, open places the time in Big Cypress National Preserve was the reverse.  Well, the flat part was unchanged, but the vast majority the time was spent poking into the tightly restricted spaces of the cypress swamp that covers a large swath of the preserve.

Cypress Swamp, Big Cypress National Preserve, Florida

Big Cypress is located immediately west of the Shark Valley section of Everglades National Park.  Take the Tamiami Trail (a.k.a. U.S. 41) west from the Shark Valley entrance and in a few miles you’ll find yourself within the boundaries of the preserve.  Primary access to the swamp is afforded by what is known as the Loop Road, a 27-mile paved/dirt track that both starts and ends at US-41.  While the road runs through a series of different ecosystems, about half of it passes through the cypress forest that is the swamp.  While the forest is quite dense, there are periodic open spots that allow a peak inside this fascinating landscape on one side of the road or the other (or both, in some instances).  These are invariably spots of meandering water, where a drainage installation runs below the roadbed.  After traveling along the road where dense vegetation lines both sides, coming upon one of these open areas produces the effect of someone having pulled the curtains aside on a large plate glass window.

Sweetwater Strand, Big Cypress National Preserve, Florida

If you’ve seen any of the installments I’ve written on bird photography in South Florida you’ve seen at least a few images of these spots, but those entries were concentrating on the area’s many avian inhabitants (and, in a few instances, alligators).  I was quite taken by the cypress landscape itself and spent a fair amount of time capturing it.

Cypress Swamp Black & White, Big Cypress National Preserve, Florida

Cypress Domes

I’ve referred several times to the cypress domes that are present in a number of areas in the Everglades.  What is a cypress dome?  It’s a thick concentration of bald cypress trees spread out over a relatively small space in an area otherwise dominated by the “river of grass” that is emblematic of so much of the Everglades.  The objects you see that look like little hills or bumps on the horizon in the pictures below represent a series of cypress domes.  (Remember:  there are no hills in South Florida.)

Pa-hay-okee Morning, Everglades National Park, Florida

Prairie Black & White, Big Cypress National Preserve, Florida

The domes are almost always marked by standing water, the depth of which varies by season.

The forest within Big Cypress National Preserve is like one giant cypress dome.  I found it to be hauntingly beautiful.  The trees, with their characteristic “knees” near the base with a tapered trunk rising above, often immersed in water and surrounded by lush growth naturally dominate the setting.  Wading birds of one variety or another are often found picking through the water in search of food or perched in the trees.  If you wait quietly by one of the swamp “windows” you’ll invariably see a wide variety of birds and you’re likely to see your share of alligators as well.

Cypress Swamp, Big Cypress National Preserve, Florida

Photographic Considerations

Because of the forest setting, with its dense canopy, the swamp is best photographed in overcast conditions (which can be a real challenge in Florida in the winter, where sunshine predominates) or at the very edges of the day.  I did both.  On my first day (of two) spent at the preserve, it was unceasingly sunny, so I spent the day exploring and taking note of the specific openings that I found most enchanting.  I marked these spots on my GPS with the intention of returning in better light.  As the sun sank low on this particular afternoon I returned to as many of these spots as possible before I lost the light completely.

Cypress Swamp at Sunset, Big Cypress National Preserve, Florida

The next day–my second in the preserve–was forecast as cloudy, but partly cloudy would have been more accurate.  On this day, I went from spot to spot and simply waited for a cloud to block the sun for a minute or two.

Cypress Swamp, Big Cypress National Preserve, Florida

Most of the landscape images I made in Big Cypress were with standard wide angle or normal focal lengths.  My attention was focused on a variety of things, including reflections in the water, the repeating patterns of the cypress trunks, the occasional outlying tree species with their own patterns, epic fern specimens and the general Dr. Seuss-like character of the entire place.  I half expected to see the Lorax pop up on more than one instance.

Cypress Swamp, Big Cypress National Preserve, Florida

I not infrequently found myself thinking in black and white terms when photographing in Big Cypress, as I thought it would better reveal some of the patterns I was seeing.  I ultimately converted a fair number of images to black and white.

Cypress Swamp Black & White, Big Cypress National Preserve, Florida

The majority of my Big Cypress images were made from the side of the road but on several occasions I donned my rubber boots and meandered into the shallow water near the shore, making certain that there were no birds present.  Or alligators.  I definitely made certain that there were no alligators in the immediate area when I descended into the swamp itself.

Submerged Alligator, Big Cypress National Preserve, Florida

(In truth, the alligators seemed much more intimidated by me than I was of them.  On one instance, I had photographed an alligator swimming slowly through the water at one of the Big Cypress windows.  I then wandered off, on foot, to another window, perhaps 200 yards down the road.  After a brief look, I returned to the first window and as I was approaching it I heard a frantic splash in the water.  The alligator had climbed out, to take a snooze on the shore, I suppose.  But he’d been startled when he heard my footsteps as I returned so quickly and scrambled back into the water in fright.  I was very careful after that not to accidentally scare any alligators.)

Cypress Swamp, Big Cypress National Preserve, Florida

The Big Cypress landscape experience presented a very different set of challenges from those of the broad “prairies” of the Everglades, but a similar reward:  the opportunity to be immersed in a beautiful, unique natural setting.

Cypress Swamp, Big Cypress National Preserve, Florida

Cypress Swamp, Big Cypress National Preserve, Florida

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Responses

  1. Great post@ Great photos!

  2. I really enjoyed this post as the Loop Road is one of my favorite spots. I’ve read about the development of the Tamiami Trail and the Loop Road was built as the road but then the decision was made to reroute it to its current position. I’m so glad that they are maintaining it because it is a way to get inside the bald cypress wilderness in a way that is easy and safe. Although a couple of years ago my friend opened the car door and was ready to step out when she noticed a very big alligator tail hiding in the grass where she was going to step. I moved forward. I didn’t see it when I pulled over.

    • Thanks, Pat.

      Great story about the alligator. You definitely have to keep your eyes open. At one point when I was wandering around in Big Cypress, I was planning on dropping down off the road, into the water, but I took a look and there was a very large alligator lying in the shallows, facing the other direction, immediately adjacent to where I was planning to step. It served as a reminder to “look before you leap.”

  3. Oh boy, cypress! No other tree quite says primeval like that one, Kerry. Sweetwater Strand is exceptional.

    • Thanks, Tom. Sweetwater Strand is really a sublime location. It’s located just at the point where the loop road takes a 90-degree turn to the east, as you head southbound. There are beautiful peaks into the swamp on both sides of the road there and at night, the area to the northeast of the bend in the road serves as a roost for scores–if not hundreds–of birds. I had three different people tell me, unsolicited, that Sweetwater Strand is their favorite spot in the entire state of Florida.

  4. Beautiful!

  5. Judging from your photo, Sweetwater Strand is definitely a sweet spot. This is one example where the blue sky is a welcome addition to the shot.

    • Thanks, Ellen. I very, very seldom photograph forested settings in the kind of light that I experienced at Sweetwater Strand (and said so to myself at the time), but something called me to do it that day.

  6. Great Picture i must say. As an photographer i can understand how much efforts are required to capture shots like this. Appreciate your work and efforts and even i love photography and i want others to get inspired & start photography. So i started providing tips to them, you can have a look on my work at http://www.nitinkhanna.net and let me know how is it. I would love to hear from photographer like you.

    • Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment.

      I checked out your site and the single most significant suggestion I think I can make would be for you to link to a portfolio or set of galleries containing some of your images. There’s an old saying that “a picture is worth a thousand words.” When you’re engaged in the visual arts, the right picture may be worth an infinite number of words.


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