Photography in the Southern Everglades

by Paul Marcellini

The Everglades is a special place to me. I grew up just 25 miles from the main park entrance. I remember as a child seeing how many alligators we could count at Anhinga Trail; and I love returning to Anhinga Trail to find that children are doing the same now. But there is so much more to discover once you get past the “tourist stops”.

A landscape photographer may initially be frustrated with the lack of icons in the Everglades, but I have learned to appreciate that. It means you have a greater chance of coming away with an original image, and it forces you to look harder.

After moving back from college a year and a half ago, I have focused on capturing and sharing the beauty and the different ecosystems the Everglades has to offer. Despite being called the “River of Grass”, there are many other beautiful and diverse habitats to explore.

Since the Everglades is lacking in mountains or other strong backgrounds, I try to make the scenes intimate. I want the viewer to feel as if they were right there. I love wide-angles and am a big fan of up-close foregrounds. Although I have found lots of wonderful spots to shoot, many times I go out with a blank slate for what I may photograph and simply follow the clouds. Summer storms in the Everglades produce wonderful and dramatic sunsets, my favorite subject by far.  I like bold colors to accentuate the many textures and forms in the scenes that I encounter. Here are some of the habitats I like to tromp around in.

Pinelands

The pine rocklands are a special ecosystem in the Everglades. They used to cover over 180,000 acres in Miami-Dade County. Now only about 12% remains and most are protected within Everglades National Park. Like all forests, the pinelands can pose a compositional challenge for photographers. Fortunately, bands of marl prairie, dominated by lower growing grasses, run intermixed through the pinelands. This allows for “edge shots” that contain the full height of the pines. This way, the tall trunks do not lead the eye out of the photo. Saw palmetto also make wonderful foregrounds, and their bold green palmate leaves contrast well with the surrounding grasses and undergrowth. As always, consider the best light to complement your scene. Keep in mind that pine bark is quite reflective, so use it to your advantage; be it the nice warm light at the ends of the day, or the blue sky in the middle.

A summer storm in the pine rocklands.

I also like what I call pine islands. On the main park road, around the Mahogany Hammock turn-off, the pines grow in clumps, just a few inches higher than the surrounding sawgrass. This leads to easier compositions, as there is already some natural order to the scene.

Sunset over the Pine Rocklands near Mahogany Hammock.

Dwarf Cypress

The cypress is one of my favorite trees, both the large trees of a traditional swamp scene, and the dwarf trees growing mainly along the elevated ridge called Rock Reef.  These dwarf cypress are some of the oldest cypress in South Florida, spared because the loggers of the early 1900’s considered them worthless. This area also contains one of the few icons of the Everglades, the “z-tree” or “n-tree”.

An old dwarf Cypress struggles on.

My favorite time to photograph these dwarfs is in the winter. Once defoliated, the bright white trunks are very graphic and stand out well in the last light of the day.

Clouds for Leaves

Freshwater Mangrove Marsh

This is an area of transition. The mangroves have begun appearing but it is still freshwater marsh. The Red Mangroves are somewhat dwarfed and grow singly or in clumps, allowing for much easier maneuvering compared to a mangrove forest.  The prop roots are quite eye – catching in some specimens and add a lot of interest to a scene.

A blazing sunset over these dwarfed red mangroves.

Borrow Lakes

There are several lakes that were dug along the main park road to provide the fill to elevate the road. There is water, water everywhere in the Everglades for half the year, but there is little opportunity for reflections of the beautiful sunsets because the sawgrass is so dense. However, the borrow lakes, which are marked on the map, are perfect for reflected sunset images.  Even Galen Rowell has photos from Pine Glades Lake. I like to use the broken limestone boulders along the shore as foreground elements.

A Return

Fading Away

Muhly Grass

The Everglades does not get large masses of wildflowers, but we do have muhly grass. It blooms around October or November and in certain areas it provides large expanses of beautiful salmon plumes that blow in the wind. I got on top of my Jeep for my latest attempt to help show a vast area in bloom.

Miles of Muhly

“Miles of Muhly”

The Everglades is one of the few “dark” skies in South Florida and offers great nighttime photography. The summer storms also produce some incredible lightning. Usually they appear to get quite active just after sunset so a single trip can provide two separate light shows. Once it is dark enough, I start with a setting of iso400 f5.6-f8 and 30s or bulb mode.

I hike off-trail a lot, and if you choose to do the same, I recommend that you take along a few items.  Remember to take a bug jacket or extra bug spray. The mosquitoes may not be bad when you head out, but once the sun dips, they can get quite ferocious, even in the winter. I just wear a rain jacket so I don’t have to apply so much bug spray.  Take a flashlight – two if you have the space. Cottonmouths come out at night and you don’t want to step on one.  Don’t forget water, and a gps and cell-phone should be with you also.  A taller tripod can be very handy; the sawgrass grows quite high in places and a medium sized tripod may not get your camera above it all.

Even though South Florida doesn’t have the red rock of the Southwest, the fall colors of the Northeast, or the dramatic shorelines of the Pacific Northwest, we have the Everglades; unique and beautiful. So don’t forget the wide-angle on your next trip.