Gulf Coast

Florida Skies

Dramatic clouds after sunrise, Sanibel Island, Florida
Sunset from Turner Beach, Sanibel Island, Florida
To close out my small series of blog posts about my trip to Florida, I’ve saved what might be the best for last- those Florida skies. I don’t want to say that I took it as a given that there would be some great sunsets and sunrises during our stay but- I kinda did. We’d be staying on Sanibel Island’s Gulf side which faces west so it’s like shooting fish in a barrel, right? Err- sort of.

What I ended up learning during my week there was that sunrises and sunsets had different challenges. Sanibel Island (and Captiva Island which is connected by a small bridge) is shaped like a banana. Our lodging for the week was the Island Inn (which I cannot recommend highly enough) and it faces almost due south. This small point was driven home during our first afternoon when the setting sun went down directly over the beach on our right side. Sanibel Island is a popular tourist destination so I wanted to minimize my chances of people appearing in my compositions and this meant I would have to figure out some alternate locations for sunsets.
Sunset from Captiva Beach, Sanibel Island, Florida
Clouds, Stars, Lightning, and the Milky Way, Sanibel Island, Florida
Sunrise over San Carlos Bay from Lighthouse Beach Park, Sanibel Island, Florida
The biggest challenge with shooting sunsets from Sanibel Island is going to be that, for the majority of the beaches, the sun sets directly above the shore break. On a tourist heavy location like Sanibel, this means that you’re going to have people in your compositions. In order to have photos with the sun setting over the Gulf, you’ll need to head north to Sanibel Island where the beaches have more of a western aspect. On one particular afternoon, there weren’t any good clouds to the west but there was a huge thunderhead towards the south out over the Gulf. If you find yourself in similar conditions, consider heading to the south end of Sanibel Island to the Lighthouse Beach Park. I was able to photograph the thunderhead with side lighting from sunset and this worked out quite well. There’s potentially another option but I don’t have experience with it. I’ve seen some nice “sunset” photos taken within Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge. The problem is that the refuge closes a half hour before sunset so I don’t know feasible this is.

This is more problematic than sunsets. Unless you’re staying someplace on the bay side of the island, public access to the bay side is pretty limited. Ding Darling would be nice for sunrise but it doesn’t open until after actual sunrise. The sure shot is to photograph the western beaches and just enjoy the backlight that any offshore clouds would embrace. The previously mentioned Lighthouse Beach Park provided the best bay side waterfront access I could muster during my week there. There is some driftwood present that can provide foreground interest along with some living trees/shrubs. The view back across San Carlos Bay is pretty open with only a faint display of development (2 or 3 high rises). The biggest downside to this location were the people collecting seashells. Despite the early hour there was a steady stream of people and they didn’t really care about photographers set up & taking photographs.
Sunset from Bowman's Beach, Sanibel Island, Florida
Setting sun from Bowman's Beach, Sanibel Island, Florida
Thunderhead over the Gulf of Mexico, Bowman's Beach, Sanibel Island, Florida
All that being said, here’s my quick rundown on the various locations I utilized:

  • Lighthouse Beach Park-
  • Pros: Good for sunrise; good for certain sunsets (storm clouds over Gulf); plenty of parking; not as crowded
  • Cons: Sea shell hunters numerous and oblivious/uncaring about photographers
  • Bowman’s Beach Park-
  • Pros: Lots of Parking; 4 miles of beach so lots of opportunities; Easy to loose the majority of people with a short hike up the beach; located at start of island’s aspect change to due west
  • Cons: Still faces a little too much towards the southwest; tire tracks in beach sand (from sea turtle monitoring 4WD vehicles)
  • Turner Beach-
  • Pros: Westernmost- facing aspect for Sanibel Island proper; short hike north to lose the sunset crowds
  • Cons: Limited parking on either side of bridge; lots of people immediately on either side of Blind Pass
  • Captiva Beach (Captiva Island)
  • Pros: Westernmost facing aspect that you can get on Sanibel/Captiva Island
  • Cons: Lots of people near parking lot so short hike south needed to find a thinner spot along the beach; potential for people walking through your frame; parking limited

Sunrise over San Carlos Bay from Lighthouse Beach Park, Sanibel Island, Florida
Thunderhead over the Gulf of Mexico at sunset, Lighthouse Beach Park, Sanibel Island, Florida
Thunderhead over the Gulf of Mexico at sunset, Lighthouse Beach Park, Sanibel Island, Florida
If all of that isn’t enough to keep you busy, there is also the opportunity for some storm photography! The high humidity of Florida generates afternoon thunderstorms and something called heat lightning. Several evenings, after 10pm, I noticed regular flashes of lightning out over the Gulf. I spent about an hour each of these evenings photographing the stars, lighting, and the Gulf. I was skeptical that I would be able to see the Milky Way given all the development up and down the Gulf Coast but I was successful! Except for the bites from sand fleas, I could have sat there for hours watching the lightning and listening to the waves lapping the shore.

As I learned, the trick was to get into rhythm with the lightning. Once you’re in sync with the lightning’s timing, you’ll start getting a lot of photos with lighting. Once you’re set up, wait for the first lightning strike. After it flashes, wait another 2-3 seconds and then click the shutter for a long exposure. This should get you in sync with the lightning. You always won’t be so lucky, though. During my sunset shoot at Lighthouse Beach Park, the thunderhead over the Gulf also had lightning striking the water for over a half hour. Despite my best attempts, neither my SLR or my GoPro shooting a time lapse could successfully capture any of the strikes. That was very, very frustrating!
Heat lightning over the Gulf of Mexico, Sanibel Island, Florida
Heat lightning at dawn over the Gulf of Mexico, Sanibel Island, Florida
Dramatic morning clouds over the Gulf of Mexico, Sanibel Island, Florida
Heat lightning at dusk over the Gulf of Mexico, Sanibel Island, Florida
Heat lightning over the Gulf of Mexico, Sanibel Island, Florida
That pretty much wraps up my trip to Florida. I didn’t know what to expect and, although I certainly felt flustered and overwhelmed at times, the trip and opportunities far exceeded any expectations I had. Finally, I’ll leave you with this compilation of the various time lapses I shot during my various sunrise & sunset sessions. Enjoy!

Florida Gulf Coast – July 2014 from Steve Cole on Vimeo.

To the Gulf!

Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus), Everglades National Park, Florida
Florida- a place I had never been before and someplace I only knew from stereotypes and jokes- retirees, oranges, heat, humidity, big bugs, presidential election snafus. Earlier this July, I had my first opportunity to visit the Sunshine State. My girlfriend’s family was having a family reunion of sorts during the July 4th week and they picked Sanibel Island for the location. The island is located off the coast of Fort Myers on Florida’s Gulf Coast and is connected to the mainland via bridge. The island has a bit of an interesting history and is fairly progressive in terms of recognizing the value of balancing development and natural spaces. The history is nicely recapped in the guidebook Living Sanibel (Amazon link), which I would highly recommend if you’re considering a trip to the area.

As I tend to do before any trip, I spent some time before the trip researching and trying to figure out where and what to photograph. Our flight to Florida was through Fort Lauderdale on the Atlantic side so a we would be traveling through the Everglades on our way to Sanibel. Once in the Sanibel area, a trip to the Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge was a given. In addition to Ding, the Audubon Society has preserved a huge Cypress swamp called the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary which is located back on the mainland in nearby Collier County. Outside of that, sunrises and sunsets would be a given!
Juvenile Green Heron (Butorides virescens), Everglades National Park, Florida
Water reflections, Kirby Storter Roadside Park, Big Cypress National Preserve, Florida
Stiff-leaved Wild Pine (Tillandsia fasciculata), Kirby Storter Roadside Park, Big Cypress National Preserve, Florida
Obviously, wildlife photography would be a major part of my photographic journeys but that posed a bit of a gear dilemma for me since I would be flying to Florida. I would be bringing my “Bigma” lens but that is too heavy to use well with a normal tripod. I have a very sturdy Induro tripod with matching gimbal head but that would present a packing challenge for my luggage. After thinking about it, I decided to gamble on another solution- a monopod. I picked up a Manfrotto 681B with a matching Manfrotto 234RC tilting head a week before our trip. Unlike the Induro option, I didn’t have to disassemble anything to fit it into my luggage. I had never used a monopod before so I was nervous and hoped it would work out.

Fast forward a couple days and I found myself trying to get out of the general Miami-Dade area (I managed to leave my Garmin Nav at home. Doh!) Rather than take I-75 for the quick trip through Alligator Alley, we opted for the more southern and scenic US Route 41 (also known as the Tamiami Trail). That route offers a number of airboat tours and we decided to stop at one called Gator Park. The tours are about 20-30 minutes long and reservations didn’t seem needed. Our airboat operator was easy going and was knowledgeable. It was a good value and I was able to get a great, close photo of a juvenile green heron. FYI- be prepared to get a little wet (so have a water resistant cover handy for your camera) because the 360 degree spins during the “high speed” part of your tour will throw up some water!
Scene along the New River, Kirby Storter Roadside Park, Big Cypress National Preserve, Florida
Boardwalk scene at Kirby Storter Roadside Park, Big Cypress National Preserve, Florida
Strangler Fig (Ficus aurea) and Cypress, Kirby Storter Roadside Park, Big Cypress National Preserve, Florida
Continuing our push west, I had hoped to take the Loop Road located in Big Cypress National Preserve but the Loop Road is a nearly 30 mile drive on a slow speed dirt road. It would have to wait for another day. A nearby attraction that was a quick visit was the Kirby Storter Roadside Park. It’s cross between a rest stop and interpretive trail. The latter takes the form of a half mile elevated boardwalk that ends in a mature Cypress forest (This page provides a nice description of the trail). I found it to be quite nice, save for the humidity and mosquitoes. Probably owing to the fact that it does look just like a rest stop, we had the whole boardwalk all to ourselves during our visit. We didn’t see much in the way of wildlife but I realize that this may be due to the time of year of our visit (the wet season).

Afternoon showers threatened during our brief stay at Kirby Storer but stayed away. After a long travel day (including a red eye flight), we finally headed west to our eventual destination for the week: Sanibel Island. This is just the start to all the photos from my trip so look for even more in a couple future blog posts!
Boardwalk Scene at Kirby Storter Roadside Park, Big Cypress National Preserve, Florida
Boardwalk Scene at Kirby Storter Roadside Park, Big Cypress National Preserve, Florida
Open Prairie at Kirby Storter Roadside Park, Big Cypress National Preserve, Florida

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