Where did you find your photographic gem?
After two years in South Florida, my family and I very recently moved back to the central part of the state, courtesy of a job change (not mine). While it is nice to know that we survived the Miami Madness—even up in Broward County, a good 20 minutes from North Miami—a huge part of me misses the differences found there and resents being cast back to old stomping grounds when the new ones were so promising. I have written in the past about being stuck in a rut; I believe spending my life in one area without travelling elsewhere kept me in that rut, as I was conditioned to my surroundings and my routine rather than looking into them for hidden details.
Opportunities for getting out to photograph were few and far between during those two years. The Everglades and Big Cypress were both approximately an hour away from our residence to the parks’ eastern boundary, which is a long way when you are the only one home with a toddler all day. Luckily, Broward County has a wonderful Parks department, and several lovely parks were all within a thirty minute drive (due to traffic, not distance). South Florida’s wildlife and wetlands were all available with little effort. After my son started preschool, now and then I had a chance to get to one of those parks and spend an hour or two shooting. Of course, following a school schedule meant sunrises were out, and I was at the mercy of the cloud cover (or lack of). Usually, I would have been out before sunrise and getting ready to pack everything in by then, at least until early evening. But I found that I made some of my most satisfying images during those odd photographic hours, many whose subjects cannot be found even this far north in the state.
I’m sure there were a few places I would have considered gems that I never got to, or even heard about. I found a great, well-known park for burrowing owls (hard to find 200 miles north of Broward County); another park featured road-crossing signs for giant land crabs. Though I never got pictures of the crabs, I enjoyed watching their sky blue bodies as they crossed the road or hunched outside their burrows. At other county parks, we found fiddler crabs, great horned owls, atala butterflies, bromeliads, and dozens of enormous orb weaver spiders.One park stuck out more than the rest. I would even venture to say it called to me, the way we all feel a visceral tug when we find a place that strikes us as special, even if we can’t say why. Some people are loathe to reveal their special photo locations, but as this is a public park, I certainly can’t “claim” it for myself! All I ask is that anyone who visits treats it with the care and respect it deserves. My gem is Long Key Nature Center in Davie, Florida. Long Key is a 164-acre natural area and is “one of the largest remaining stands of upland hardwood forest in Broward County,” according to county literature. It was the ancient land of the Tequestas, and more recently, the Seminoles, and has great archaeological significance. Long Key boasts an event hall and visitor center, the latter which houses an interactive exhibit hall, theater, and Discovery Room. Nature trails criss-cross the property. A giant Clyde Butcher print of the area fills an entire wall on one indoor section. It quickly became a favorite spot for both myself and my little boy. I would look for wildlife, and he would look for anything that interests a preschool boy…sticks, rocks, butterflies, puddles, dragonflies, etc. We learned right away that it was a good viewing spot for brown basilisk lizards (Basiliscus vittatus), which unfortunately are an invasive exotic species in South Florida, but nonetheless interesting to watch. More often than not, we could walk across the bridge leading to the nature trails, and a peek over the side would yield a few hatchlings resting atop the lily pads. Atala butterflies—a difficult species to find, and endemic to South Florida—reproduces on-site thanks to a garden of coontie, a species of cycad and the host plant for the atala.
It was one of my rare times alone at this gem that I noticed something that inexplicably had escaped my attention before: all over the pond were lily pads. And dotting the ellipses of green were white flowers; Florida’s native fragrant water lily (Nymphaea odorata). I watched enchanted as honey bees would alight on the blooms, gather the pollen, and land on a different lily in another part of the pond. I took some shots, uploaded them at home, and realized that something was missing: that great feeling I had while noticing the lilies and the bees was absent in my images.
A few days later, I was back. A captive of the clock (three hours passes very quickly when you don’t want it to), I had missed what I felt was the good light. The sun was high, and the clouds prevalent and active, making the light change constantly. Finally, the clouds moved away entirely, exposing a harsh reflecting glare of the sun off the water. The surface of the pond was so calm, the sun was actually a perfect white painful-to-look-anywhere-near circle. Having spent years leading kayak tours, I could actually feel the skin cells of my face splitting and welcoming in some melanoma. Searching for compositions, I tried to reduce the glare by “blocking” it with the floating lily pads. All of a sudden, there was my image! The bright circle glowed around a water lily, illuminating the translucent petals from underneath in sharp contrast to the dark water. Exposure really wasn’t that tricky; by ignoring the dark water and the way-too-bright sun reflection, and exposing for the flowers, I was able to get the detail in the petals, the illumination around them, and the black water. Moving around the boardwalk to reposition the sun’s reflection under other lilies, I was able to experiment with different compositions. I began to notice everything: the way the light would reflect tiny starbursts between each set of points; the lines of the lily pads as they were backlit by the sun, throwing shadows and highlights together to create an abstract image; the bees and other buzzing pollinators that would rest or hide in the middle of each flower, only visible when viewed at 400mm; the dragonflies, darners, and pondhawks that would skim like mini jet fighters over the top of the water, then perch atop a stem of spikerush or pickerel weed.
I shot hundreds of pictures over the next three weeks, getting to the park a couple of times each week. I lost count of the total number. It wasn’t enough. I tried to fit it all in, two years’ worth of images in three weeks. Getting my memory cards home and putting them into Lightroom and Photoshop, I happily discovered that they didn’t need much post-processing. The way they were shot was the way I wanted them, on the whole. A few got cropped. They didn’t require contrast adjustments, really. A couple of images may have had teeny tweaks of contrast. And only about two or three points of added color saturation, where I usually use anywhere from 7-15, on average (I use a Canon 40D, if that affects color saturation compared to newer models). Depending on the composition I saw, I used either my Canon 17-85mm lens or my 100-400mm. I don’t own a macro lens, and my extension tubes would have required closer range and manual focus, so I didn’t even bring them. A few occasions of morning rain showers necessitated the use of a poncho to cover my gear. Some images were made with the camera supported by a tripod, but many were made just by handholding it; I didn’t keep track, as I switched between the two so often.
I know my slogan on this blog is “Seeking the image.” That doesn’t mean that I always find it. Sometimes I search for weeks—or even months, on occasion—and don’t find something that speaks to me. That doesn’t mean I stopped seeking it; it just means I haven’t found it yet. Often it’s these little places where you find your best or favorite images will be made. I found some of mine in Davie, Florida, in a little place just off a main road, known for its clues to the past. Broward County’s parks are not the manicured, ecologically sterile places we know many city parks to be. They are full of life, color, and vitality. Next time your schedule relegates you to an area closer to home, you may want to check out your neighborhood natural areas. I know I will be expanding my circuit of photography locations, even though I’m back in the same area I spent so many years. Sometimes, the little places you pass every day wind up being the gem you were looking for.
For more information about Long Key Natural Area or any of the other parks and natural areas in Broward County, Florida, visit www.broward.org/PARKS/LONGKEYNATURALAREA.