By Jerry Ginsberg
Even though we have been uncharacteristically and, in many cases, uncomfortably cloistered in our homes for several months now, there does seem to be a light at the end of the tunnel. With the optimistic expectation that we will be unleashed to once again be out in nature creating beautiful images sooner rather than later, the following is a portrait of yet another great photo destination.
There’s a very good reason that this long, narrow peninsula is called the Sunshine State. With its ubiquitous palm trees, orange groves and year round greenery, Florida is as close as we can come to a tropical climate here in mainland USA. This makes it a great place to escape from the harsh winters of many northern states. As a transplant who grew up in New Jersey, but has now called Florida home for over two decades, I fancy myself somewhat of an authority on that particular subject.
It may come as news to most Northerners, but Florida really does have seasons.
My favorites are the shoulder times of spring and fall when temperatures are moderate and traffic is not impossible. Summers can be a bit close with lots of oppressive humidity. Winters, locally called “season,” are generally very pleasant. With many beach-worthy days, both temps and humidity are relatively moderate. Hey, even serious nature photographers can enjoy a day at the beach once in a while.
Since Florida spans over five hundred miles of latitude, weather can vary widely. On one winter day, chilly Jacksonville actually experienced brief snow flurries while the toasty warm beaches of faraway Key West were filled with sun worshippers.
As a quick map check will instantly reveal, Florida contains three wonderful world class national parks:
- The world’s one and only Everglades National Park
- Close to Miami Biscayne National Park
- Remote Dry Tortugas National Park
In addition, this big state features a multitude of state parks and nature reserves where we can make original and creative images of an endless variety of beautiful and unique tropical wonders.
Some of the highlights among these are:
On the Gulf Coast
- Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, east of Naples, is a great stroll through a tropical swamp. Look for clutches of baby alligators.
- Myakka River State Park, southeast of Sarasota, is known as a rookery for several avian species. Great for parents & babies in late winter.
- Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) on Sanibel Island is a prime spot for water birds. Roseate spoonbills can often be found here early in the morning shopping for breakfast.
On the East Coast
- Merritt Island NWR, south of Titusville, contains several habitats for birds, manatees, bobcats & many others.
- Loxahatchee NWR, west of Boynton Beach has over 200 square miles of unique Everglades landscape and over 250 avian species. The possibilities are endless.
- Wakodahatchee Wetlands Park in Delray Beach is a compact park chock full of nests loaded with babies in March & April.
- Fakahatchee Strand State Park, actually between east and west, north of Everglades City is a singular, little jewel of tropical wilderness. It’s one of the few places to look for the very rare and much sought after Ghost Orchid.
- St. Augustine Alligator Farm, in Eastern St. Augustine is great for those big and often enigmatic reptiles.
- Also near St. Augustine is the annual Florida Birding & Photo Festival, usually held in April.
A wide variety of exotic and brilliantly plumed wading birds call these places home. With species like great blue, white and green herons, snowy egrets, wood storks, white ibis and roseate spoonbills, it’s a veritable feathered rainbow.
It’s fascinating to watch the groups co-exist as each species feeds at its own specialized level along the edges of a body of water.
A word on photographing alligators. Aside from the obvious fact that they are black and will require a little stopping down, be careful. Even though these very ancient reptilian creatures seem slow and lethargic, they can move very fast over short distances when they choose. The challenge is trying to figure out and anticipate when they will choose! While long experience has taught me to be pretty good with most mammals, I claim no such expertise with reptiles.
For a small area in South Florida the ranges of the American alligator and American crocodiles share a partial overlap. It’s a natural anomaly. The crocs can weigh over 1,000 lbs. and have an even less sense of humor than the gators.
The moral of the story is – Keep your distance!
In addition to the broad variety of wildlife in these protected places, you will see before you a never ending panorama of the singular Florida landscape featuring elements such as tropical foliage, water, skies, clouds and their reflections. On some days, early morning ground fog can help to create great images. Color images can be successful, but since the flora is almost universally green and there is often great contrast in the skies, Black and white conversions or even shooting in infrared may well make for some very interesting images.
If you’re ready to really plunge into the swamps (ouch!), get yourself some hip waders or, better yet, chest waders. With those, you will be able to shoot right from the water.
The Sunshine State has several major airports from which to choose. On the Atlantic coast are Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Palm Beach and Jacksonville. Gulf coast gateways include Ft. Myers (Southwest Regional), and Tampa-St. Petersburg. Smack in the middle of the state and serving the many theme parks in that area is Orlando International Airport.
Since the roads you will be driving are universally well paved, renting any standard passenger car should be quite adequate. My own preference is to use various size SUVs. Having a tailgate affords the convenience of getting camera packs and tripods in and out easily as well as juggling combinations of gear without the necessity of bending into the backseat of a sedan.
The choice of lodging can actually present too many options. Florida is a very popular tourist destination with gaggles of motel rooms at almost every well traveled spot. Rates often vary more by time of year than brand or level of ambiance, with their peaks in and near “season.”
Jerry Ginsberg is an award-winning and widely-published photographer whose landscape and travel images have graced the pages and covers of hundreds of books, magazines and travel catalogs. He is the only person to have photographed each and every one of America’s 62 National Parks with medium format cameras and has appeared on ABC TV discussing our national parks.
His works have been exhibited from coast to coast and have received numerous awards in competition. Jerry’s photographic archive spans virtually all of both North and South America.