Tag Archives: Central Florida Photo Locations

Monet Memories

Last week I headed over to a local outfit that rehabilitates hawks, eagles and owls (the Audubon Center for Birds of Prey in Maitland, Fl).   I spent about two hours there and came away seriously impressed with the admirable work accomplished by their volunteers (I’ll share more in a separate blog next week).

After an hour or so there, I noticed a dock at the rear of their compound that extended out into Lake Lotus.  I wandered out to the dock and happened to see a few water lilies blooming along the shoreline.  I’ve always been a sucker for lilies…maybe because I adore the series of paintings that Claude Monet created in the pond behind his home.

Monet water lily photography

The Fragrant Waterlily (Nymphaea odorata) might be common, but it has a rare, simple beauty.

So I stopped and took a moment to enjoy the lilies.  As I stood there daydreaming, I noticed how calm and clear the water was…and how perfect and pristine the lilies were and how nice the light was.  Well, that was the end of my tranquil moment…the photographer in my head kicked in and the next thing I knew I was calculating angles, f-stops and ISO settings.

Monet water lily photography

The clear water was like a sheet of black glass.

I love how photography encourages me to see beauty in the world that I would otherwise miss.


No awe-inspiring landscape vistas in this post.  Just taking a few moments to appreciate one of life’s less appreciated smaller vignettes. Monet water lily photography

Have a wonderful day,


Monet water lily photography

“Where’s Waldo?”…See if you can find the spider



Posted in Central Florida Photo Locations, Wildflowers Also tagged , , |

Brevard Zoo Photo Tips

Here in Central Florida, when photographers start planning a photo trip to a zoo, our first thoughts are often no different from any tourist:  Animal Kingdom, Sea World and Busch Gardens.  These are huge, extravagant and impressive parks that can keep a shutterbug happy for a full day.  But there are three other ‘traditional’ zoos nearby that, although smaller, offer unique photo opportunities:  The Central Florida Zoo (Sanford), Lowry Park Zoo (Tampa) and the Brevard Zoo (Melbourne).  I’ve previously posted a blog with tips about the Central Florida Zoo, and Ed Rosack covered Lowry this year (see this link) but I’ve never seen much about the Brevard Zoo so my wife and I drove over this past weekend to see if it might be of interest to photographers.

I’d never been close to a Hornbill before..Wow, what an incredible feast for the eyes!

The short version

This compact (50 acres), high quality zoo is a wonderful location for photographers!  Most of the exhibits are the modern, open-air, cage-less type that allow you to photograph the animals in a ‘natural’ setting. The zoo has the animals grouped in different exhibits based upon geography (an African area, one for Asia, Americas, etc).

Some of the exhibits, like the giraffes and rhinos are better for photographers than anything the ‘big’ attractions have.  And…if you are a birder…you will be in heaven.  I’ve never been to any zoo with as many great bird photo opportunities!

If you have kids (or grandkids) the zoo has an area (Paws on Play) designed specifically for them that they will love. If you have teenagers (or folks that act like teenagers) they have a great zip line adventure (a $20-$40 additional fee) that lets you zip right over zoo exhibits (it is a thrill to zip over the gator enclosure!)

Let’s talk some specific tips and opportunities:

First of all…be there when the zoo opens.  This is true of any zoo because the animals tend to be more active before the day warms up.  Once the sun is up, most of the critters find a shady spot and nap…which makes capturing interesting images challenging.

Second…find out when the animals are fed.  I usually phone ahead or ask the first zoo employee I see.  Some of these critters seem to sleep 23 hours a day, but they are active when the feeding bell rings!  Also, if you identify yourself as a photographer and ask employees their thoughts on how to get some good shots, I’ve found they are happy to share with you insights that can help you capture images you wouldn’t have imagined.

Third…don’t make the mistake of making only one ‘circuit’ thru the zoo.  Some of my best shots came at the end of the day when I went back to check on the animals that were sleeping or hidden deep in shadows my first time thru.  The zoo is compact enough that you can walk anywhere in less than ten minutes, so make a second effort before you head home.

Brevard Zoo Photo Tips

I stopped at Melbourne Beach on the way to the zoo and captured this paddle boarder doing his thing as the sun broke over the horizon.

Fourth…catch a sunrise at the beach.  Since the zoo opens at 9:30, you can drive to the beach, photograph a sunrise and still have time to stop for breakfast and get to the zoo at opening.  It is less than 12 miles to Satellite Beach.

Have you ever looked DOWN at a giraffe?

Brevard Zoo Photo Tips

You photograph the giraffes from this ‘eye level’ deck

Brevard Zoo Photo Tips

“How’s the weather up there buddy?”

Well the Brevard zoo’s viewing area for giraffes is built about 15 feet off the ground…so you look at them eye level.  This is pretty cool and will allow you to get some unique shots.   When you get to the zoo, check to see when they will be feeding the giraffes…they will walk right up to the viewing area and you can get shots from inches away


Brevard Zoo Photo TipsRhinos

Unlike Animal Kingdom, you don’t have to try to photograph the Rhinos from a moving vehicle.  Actually, you see them from the other side of the giraffe deck.  With a long lens, you can easily fill up your viewfinder.  One thing I didn’t have a chance to try was the “Rhino Encounter.”  Apparently this allows you to get “up close and personal”…which could make for some impressive photos!. These encounters are offered from noon to 1 p.m. at a cost of $15 per person . Each tour lasts about 20 minutes they are in an open area.


There are multiple locations spread throughout the zoo for bird photography.  My guess is that the zoo’s designer had a particular love for birds (and he/she might have been a photographer as well!) because the habitats are beautiful and photographer friendly.

Brevard Zoo Photo Tips

Is that one intense stare, or what?!

There are a couple owls set up in small ‘houses’ in the “Paws On” area as you first enter the zoo to your right.  You can photograph them from eye level and less than 10′ away.

Three Eagles were perched about 50′ from the boardwalk in the Wild Florida area. Brevard Zoo Photo Tips These raptors have been injured and can’t be returned to the wild, but they look majestic nonetheless.  You will need a long lens to get a decent shot.  If they are in the shade you might have to push your ISO to a higher range than normal to be able to keep your shutter speed over 1/60th of a second to freeze any motion.

Brevard Zoo Photo Tips

Being able to close within ten feet allowed my camera to deliver a sharp image with wonderful detail of this Spoonbill.

The zoo is circular in shape (see map)…about halfway thru you will come to a large food gazebo called the Flamingo Café.  As you stand there, you should see a large pond full of Flamingos, Scarlet Ibis and Rosette Spoonbills.  I’ve photographed Spoonbills many times in the wild, but I really enjoyed the opportunity to photography these strange looking birds up close.

Brevard Zoo Photo Tips

The Lorikeets will land on you when you feed them..my wife loved it!

There is a nice Aviary in Australasia where you can feed Lorikeets for $1.  This is also where the hornbills are located (see first photo in this article).  The hornbills are actually not in the open Aviary, but right next to it behind a kind of  ‘Chicken-wire.’  If you get close to the wire and select your smallest aperture, you should be able to throw the wire out of focus so it doesn’t show in your shot.

Other shots:

There’s quite a bit more to keep you snapping away than I will be able to cover in this article. For example, there is an exhibit with Giant Anteaters (fascinating and impressive creatures).  For the non-locals, you will also see plenty of gators.  You will also have a chance to photograph Kangaroos, Cheetahs, Jaguars, Tapirs…there is a surprisingly large number of species, here is a complete list .

Brevard Zoo Photo Tips

There is a nice Otter exhibit that has good photographic potential (if they are awake).

Brevard Zoo Photo Tips

You will need to work a bit to exclude glimpses of cages in your monkey images.


Location:  The zoo is located a half mile east of I-95 (exit 191) in Melbourne (8225 N. Wickham Road, Melbourne, FL 32940).  Here is a link to Google Maps that you can use to plan your trip.

Hours:  9:30am to 5 pm

Admission:  $15 for adults

More info available on their website

Last thoughts:

Two thumb up!  If you like photographing wildlife at all, then you will leave this zoo with a smile and a memory card full of great images.



Posted in Central Florida Photo Locations, Wildlife Also tagged , |

“The Flowers are Here! The Flowers are Here!”: 2013 Annual Lake Jesup Sunflower Extravaganza

Last week, my fellow Central Florida photographer Ed Rosack reminded us in his blog that: “The flowers are coming!  The flowers are coming!”  He was referring to the annual bloom of Sunflowers that cover fields as far as the eye can see on the Marl Bed Flats that border the northwestern shore of Lake Jesup.

I drove out there before dawn yesterday and was greeted with this sight:

Lake Jesup Sunflower Photo Tips and Guide

One of those sunrises a photographer dreams about…

Not only are the sunflowers in full bloom, but yesterday morning was blessed with one of those sunrises that had folks talking around the water cooler for the rest of the day.  It was still pitch black when I had arrived at the parking area and started hiking down the tunnel-like trail, so I had no idea that this incredible sunrise has developed until I cleared the treeline.  Needless to say, I practically ran to the edge of the flats to set up my tripod and capture the moment.  Time stood still for the next 20 minutes as I worked to take full advantage of this wonderful surprise.

Lake Jesup Wildflower Tips

I thought I had oversaturated the colors in photoshop…until I checked the raw file again and saw that the sunrise really was just this spectacular.

Like most sunrises, the 20-30 minutes before sunrise was better than after the sun actually peaked over the horizon.  The shot below was the last one I got before the color started to fade:

Lake Jessup Sunflower Photo Tips and Guide

I used some lighting to illuminate the Sunflowers in the foreground to help them ‘pop’ a bit.

I love taking panoramas here, so I stretched the limits a bit and got this 15 frame shot that actually covers more than 360 degrees.  See that tree at the far right and the far left in the shot below?  Same tree.  I kinda liked how including it twice added symmetry to the shot:

Lake Jesup Sunflower Photo Tips

Yes…15 frames…I must be insane.

Once my sunrise frenzy faded, I was able to take a breath and just enjoy the vista.  It is a calm a peaceful place.  For the next two hours, the only sounds were dragonflys and the cry of bald eagles.  It is hard to believe that you are only a few miles from  the 417 expressway.

Even if you don’t get there for the sunrise, the sunflowers are just magnificent.

Lake Jesup Sunflower Photo Tips and Guide

These are called Swamp Sunflowers (Helianthus angustifolius), another common name is Narrow Leaf Sunflowers

Okay…do you want to see this for yourself yet?  If so, I’ve got full directions as well as tips for you on a blog I wrote last year: Lake Jesup Wildflowers:  Photo Tips and Guide.  Click here to check it out.

You know, I’ve traveled across a good part of this planet to satisfy my passion for landscape photography.  Fifteen hour flights, 6500 mile roadtrips, 15 mile hikes thru the desert…so it still amazes me that one of the best landscape photography subjects on Earth is right here in Central Florida.  If you call yourself a serious photographer and you live anywhere near Central Florida, you owe it to yourself to make the effort to capture this spectacle yourself during the next two weeks before the blooms fade.

PS:  The mosquitos this year are truly ravenous.  Be sure to load-up on your DEET before you get out of the car!

Enjoy yourself!

Here is one last panorama I stitched together in photoshop:

Lake Jesup Sunflower Photo Tips and Guide

A World Class View…right here in Central Florida

 Lake Jesup Sunflower Photo Tips and Guide

Posted in Central Florida Photo Locations, Wildflowers Also tagged , , , , |

Central Florida Wildflower Location: The Joys of Selective Focus


Central Florida Wildflower Location

Fields of Philox and Lantana Wildflowers on Plymouth-Sorrento Road May 2013

Wow!  Does this look like a huge, expansive field of wildflowers stretching to the horizon or what?!

Well, it’s not.  In fact, this wildflower field is about the size of a convenience store parking lot and is framed by unattractive metal-walled buildings on one side and a nondescript two lane country road on the other.  And this is precisely one of the reasons that I love photography!…because it allows you to selectively focus on the beauty in our world.  If you live in Central Florida, today’s brief little blog will let you know where this spot is and how to get a similar shot but if you live anywhere else, I hope to inspire you to take advantage of a camera’s ability to block out the unimportant, unattractive and unnecessary.

Central Florida had a very wet May and it resulted in an explosion of spring wildflowers that was impressive enough to even get a notice in the local newspaper. Unfortunately, the article didn’t tell me exactly where the fields were and an Internet search came up with zip.  Luckily, I was on an errand earlier this week up in Leesburg and met a guy who told me that there were some fields on the east side of Plymouth-Sorrento Road between SR46 and Kelly Park Road  (see map).

Well, I was incredibly unimpressed when I drove by.  Yes, the flowers were gorgeous, but the fields were actually little more than a 500′ strip between the road and a couple non-descript metal buildings.  But heck, I was there, I had my camera…and the light was wonderful (it was slightly overcast, so the sunlight was uniform and the sky on the horizon was dark due to a storm had just passed thru).

Now, this blog isn’t meant to be a wildflower how-to clinic, but here are some quick pointers:

  1. Bring a tripod!  You will need long exposures to maximize your depth of field.  If you don’t have a tripod, set your lens to Vibration Reduction (VR).
  2. Set your camera on a high aperture (say f22 or so).  Most lenses loose some sharpness at their maximum apertures, so you might want to back down a stop or two from your lens’s highest aperture rating.
  3. Keep your ISO as low as you can to maximize sharpness
  4. Use your Live View to get your focus perfect.
  5. If you have a neutral density filter handy, it will help hide the horizon, which isn’t overly attractive.  You could also do this in post-production in photoshop with the graduated filter.

Other suggestions:

  • Come early in the morning or late in the day when there is likely to be little wind.
  • The fields look like they might well be on private property (they are right in front of a couple plant nursery businesses).  I wouldn’t show up during business hours out of consideration for the owners (besides, the light is better before or after work hours).
  • If you can be there right after a rain shower, it will perk up the flowers and intensify the colors.

Now, I am positive there are better locations out there than this one.  If you know of one, please let me know and I’ll share that info thru this blog with other local photo buffs.  After all, it is a long time until we will be able to photograph the Lake Jesup sunflower fields  in October!

Okay, so that’s it for this modest little blog.  FYI…I am working on a detailed how-to article on photographing hummingbirds. Hope to publish it within a couple weeks…stay tuned!


PS:  I found a couple sources on the Internet that you might find helpful.  This website details local wildflower locations and this facebook page for the Florida Wildflower Foundation has good info and input from their members as well.

Fields of Philox and Lantana Wildflowers on Plymouth-Sorrento Road May 2013

Central Florida wildflower locations


Fields of Color
Posted in Central Florida Photo Locations, Wildflowers Also tagged |

Night Shoot at Disney’s Magic Kingdom

As one of my son’s High School graduation presents, this summer we are taking a road-trip to the southwest for a father and son bonding, hiking and sightseeing blow-out.  Of course, I will be taking my camera and one of the things I’m planning is to try some night HDR (high dynamic range) photography.  I’ve done quite a bit of work with HDR, but never at night, so I thought I’d head over to Disney’s Magic Kingdom to practice.

Night Photo of the Sword in the Stone at Disney's Magic Kingdom

Disney excels with their use of detail and you can use it for some striking shots.

Being a nearly obsessive planner, the first thing I did is some research.  Luckily, Flickr has some Groups devoted to nothing but Disney, so by reviewing photos at that site I was able to identify some locations that might make solid shots.  A couple of the photographers on that site specialize in night HDR and I was particularly impressed with the work of Matthew Cooper (use  attached link to see some of his work) http://www.flickr.com/photos/thetimethespace/.

As you might know, HDR is a technique that allows your photos to capture the full range of light…from the deepest shadows to the brightest highlight.  This article won’t be able to cover the details of how you do HDR, but if you are interested, the following link will take you some tutorials you might find helpful:  http://speckyboy.com/2009/03/25/19-tutorials-for-creating-beautiful-hdr-high-dynamic-range-imagery/

Disney is a wonderful subject for night HDR…the accent lighting is magnificent and the park takes on an otherworldly character that magnifies its ‘magical’ nature.   In addition, I just frankly like Disney a LOT more at night…the crowds are (usually) smaller and the temperatures are lower,

Belle’s Castle is a new attraction in Fantasyland

One thing that I learned quickly, was that if you set up a camera tripod, tourists are going to think that you are a Disney “Photopass” employee http://www.disneyphotopass.com/   Man, if I had a dollar for everytime someone asked me to take their picture, I could have bought a new camera:)

Another thing I learned was that if you want to get images that don’t include a lot of people, you need to be there LATE.  The Magic Kingdom closes at 10 or 11pm (the attached link has park hours: https://disneyworld.disney.go.com/calendars/2013-04-26/.  My best photos were taken after 11:30.  Disney employees don’t chase you physically out of the park, they just close down the rides, turn off the music and fire-up their loud gas powered vacuum cleaners.

I also discovered was how challenging it can be to get perfect focus at night.  When I’ve shot night landscapes in the past, I basically changed focus to Manual, set the lens at infinity and I was good-to-go.  At Disney, however, there are usually items in the foreground you need to have in focus as well.  After the first hour I so I reviewed my work saw that a lot of my shots were not perfectly focused (yes I know, I should have carefully reviewed my work after each shot…but I was excited and made a rookie boo-boo).   I soon learned  not to rush and instead take my time and use my camera’s Live View feature to ensure my focus was spot-on (if you aren’t familiar how Live View works on your camera, I strongly suggest that you Google it or check your camera manual to become familiar with this critical technique).

Night photography at Disney's Magic Kingdom

Not of this Earth!

I clearly have a lot more to learn about night HDR techniques but judging my feedback some of these shots have got on Flickr and Facebook, it seems that folks appreciate the results.  I’ll be going back to Disney again over the next few months and I hope to eventually compile a detailed ‘how-to’ manual about night HDR at the Magic Kingdom.  When I do so,  I’ll post it on my blog to share my learnings with you.

Anyway, my oldest daughter is getting married next month and I’ve been tasked with scanning, retouching and processing about 500 old photos for a slide show they will use at the rehearsal dinner…which is my way of saying I need to sign off now and get back to work!



 Night photography at Disney’s Magic Kingdom


Posted in Central Florida Photo Locations Also tagged , , , |

Sun ‘n Fun Airshow Photo Tips & Guide

Okay, I know most of you read this site because of your interest in landscape and/or wildlife photography.  So, why is this blog about an airshow?  Well, I’ve had a passion about aviation since I was a kid and the Sun N Fun Airshow is a world class event that is located only about an hour from my home…so I just had to go!  And to be honest, a number of my readers are interested in ANY interesting photo location in Central Florida….and this one big Photo Op!  If this interests you, read on and I’ll share with you my Sun ‘n Fun Airshow photo tips & guide.

Sun 'n Fun Airshow Photo Vultee Vibrator

This beautifully polished and photogenic Vultee “Vibrator” was proudly displayed in the ‘Warbirds’ area.

If you have never been to an airshow, it’s kinda like Woodstock…for airplane nuts.  First of all, there is the airshow itself, in which aerobatic planes, wing-walkers and precision flying teams perform (like the Blue Angels or the Thunderbirds).  Second, there are a lot of vintage and high performance aircraft parked on the flight-line that you can walk right up to and photograph (but be careful not to touch…a careless scrape of a camera could ruin a very expensive paint job).  Finally, there are exhibits where aviation vendors try to sell their goods.   Not only that, but you will find flight simulators, video games, food stations and lots of things to keep non-photographers happy.

photo tips & guide for Sun 'n Fun Airshow

B-25 Nose Art


  1. First of all, the show runs thru this Sunday, April 14, so if you want to go this year, you have to make some quick plans!
  2. Tickets are $37 for regular 1 day admission.  There is also a preferred ticket available for an additional $20.  I bought one of these but it really wasn’t worth it (you get a plastic chair, free water and nice bathrooms located at the center of the runway).
  3. The airshow is located at the Linder Regional Airport in Lakeland.  Link with directions: http://www.sun-n-fun.org/FlyIn/GettingHere/driving/directionsDrive.aspx
  4. The gates open at 8am.  The airshow runs from 3-6pm.
  5. There are a lot of affordable food and drinks vendors.
  6. Here is a link to the Sun ‘n Fun site for additional details: http://www.sun-n-fun.org/getdoc/4d0ac40c-4330-4be2-a5e3-6266d5feb194/Admission-Rates.aspx
  7. They also have an Iphone and Android Ap you can download that provided schedules, maps and other helpful info.

Sun ‘n Fun Airshow photo tips & guide for my fellow photographers:

Self-Portrait in reflection of prop spinner on a Beechcraft Staggerwing

  1. Get there at 8am!  This will allow you to get some great low sun angle shots of the parked aircraft. Also, clouds tend to form as the day progresses, so if you want some of those beautiful deep blue skies in the background of your shots, get there early.
  2. Wear comfortable sneakers.  You will be walking much of the day.  You don’t need hiking boots.
  3. Bring a hat, refillable water bottle and sunscreen..obviously there isn’t much shade:)
  4. Check out the weather report.  If you are lucky there will be a forecast of clear skies.  Not that you can’t get good shots if it is overcast, but it isn’t ideal.
  5. Unlike a lot of airshows, Sun ‘n Fun does allow you to bring backpacks and tripods.
  6. Bring a lightweight tripod.  If you aren’t blessed with clear skies or if you want to maximize your depth of field for your shots of static aircraft, it will come in handy.  It can get crowded so yes, a tripod can be awkward, but if you going to the show, why not ensure that you don’t miss that one great shot because you didn’t bring it with you?
  7. Sun 'n Fun Airshow Photo Tips

    I had a ball photographing reflections on this Lockheed Electra!

  8. Take a wide angle lens for your upclose shots of the parked planes.  A fisheye would be fun to bring as well.
  9. You will need a fast telephoto (300mm MINIMUM) for the airshow.  Set it on Shutter Priority at 1/400 second (this will be fast enough to freeze the aircraft but slow enough to give you that nice ‘blur’ on the propeller).  If jets are performing, you might need to increase to 1/000 to account for their greater speed.
  10. If you don’t splurge for the Preferred Seating, bring a lightweight folding chair.  By the time the airshow starts at 3 your legs should be getting tired and standing for all 180 minutes of the airshow wouldn’t be a lot of fun!
  11. Bring your Polarizer!  You will use this filter all day long and it will ensure that you get those rich blue skies..it will also help you manage reflections off of polished aluminum.
  12. For the actual airshow, find a location near the Announcer’s Booth (this is the center of the action).  Nearly all the action is overhead, so it isn’t critical that you get right up front.  It wasn’t terribly crowded on Tuesday when I went, so it wasn’t necessary to find a seat well in advance of the 3pm start for the airshow.  However, the weekend will be busier.

Even if you don’t have a passion for aviation, I’d encourage you to expand your photographic horizons and attend Sun ‘n Fun.  Some of the aircraft are just absolutely beautiful…bright colors, polished metal, framed by blue skies…lots of possibilities!Sun 'n Fun Airshow photo tips & guide


Sun n fun photo


One last thought, if you’ve never photographed the iconic Airstream Ranch, it is only about 20 minutes from the airfield.  Even better, if you are planning to be at the airshow at 8, why not get a daybreak shot of the Ranch (sunrise is just a bit after 7am now).

Photo of Airstream Ranch

Daybreak at Airstream Ranch

For details about how to get to the Airstream Ranch, you should check out the great blog by my fellow Central Florida Photographer Ed Rosack .http://edrosack.com/wordpress/2013/03/08/airstream-ranch/

Have fun!

This photo is dedicated to the memory of Jane Wicker and her pilot, Charlie Schwenker (shown here performing at the Sun 'n Fun airshow in Lakeland Florida in April of 2013s year).

Jane and Charlie

PS:  This article is dedicated to the memory of Jane Wicker and her pilot, Charlie Schwenker (shown above & below performing at the 2013 Sun ‘n Fun airshow).
Jane and Charlie were killed on June 22, 2013 when their Stearman biplane crashed at the Vectren Dayton Air Show.
I met and briefly spoke with Jane and Charlie at Sun ‘n Fun…they clearly loved what they did and performed with passion and enthusiasm.
Rest in Peace.






Posted in Aerial Photography, Central Florida Photo Locations, Military, Photo Tips and Guides Also tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Photo Tips: How to get Great Photos of Manatees at Crystal River, King’s Bay and Homosassa

I’ve lived in Florida 40 years and visitors often ask me what they should do when they visit.   At the top of my list is swimming with the Manatees at Crystal River and King’s Bay.  I’ve done it a number of times and I’d like to share with you my learnings and photo tips to help you make the most of this incredible experience.

Manatee surfacing for a breath at sunrise.

Manatees are large, gentle creatures that seem to touch an emotional chord in most people that encounter them. They live in the coastal areas of the southern US and through-out the Caribbean.  Being mammals, they are sensitive to the cold.  As a result, every Florida winter they return from the ocean and head for the rivers that have underwater springs which pump out relatively warm 72 degree water.

Photo Tips: Guide of How to get Great Photos of Manatees at Crystal River

“Just Chillin’

Although there are a lot of springs that attract manatees, there two locations where you can readily swim with them:  Crystal River/King’s Bay and Homosassa Springs.  

Of the two, Crystal River usually has the highest concentration of Manatees.  As a result, it is the most popular and an entire industry has been built around this fact.  Crystal River is on the west coast of Florida about 70 miles north of Tampa (100 miles west of Orlando).  There are a bunch of small tour companies there that will take you on a pontoon boat directly to the manatees so you can snorkel with them for a couple hours.  The cost is about $75 per person and includes snorkeling gear and a wetsuit (you will need it…72 might be warm to a manatee but I guarantee you will find it chilly!)  If you haven’t done much snorkeling, don’t let that stop you… most of the places the tours hit are shallow enough that you can simply walk on the bottom rather than swim.

On the other hand, Crystal River’s very popularity has resulted in a number of rules and regulations to ensure that overly enthusiastic tourists (and photographers) don’t harass the manatees.  As a result, if your primary interest is in photographing manatees (rather than just snorkeling with them), then you might prefer Homosassa Springs.  For example, you are not allowed to use underwater flash/strobes anymore in Crystal River, but there are no such restrictions in Homosassa.  These regulations seem to change yearly as the government attempts to balance the best interests of the manatees and the public’s desire to swim with these wonderful creatures.  Please check online here and here  to ensure that you have the latest info.  If you book a tour, your boat captain will know the regulations…just ask. 

My photo tips for Manatees:


  • Obviously you will need a waterproof camera. Fortunately, this isn’t like photographing 60′ below the surface inside a wreck…you are shooting in 5 feet of water (freshwater at that)   I’ve used everything from a high-end DSLR in an expensive underwater housing to $300 waterproof point-n-shoots.
  • A DSLR can certainly provide better quality and if you are trying to produce world-class work, then it is the way to go.  However, if the shots are just for your own use and you aren’t going to try to print anything larger than 8×10,  then a high-end waterproof point-n-shoot is a lot easier to use and will give you adequate quality.
  • If you know how to use Photoshop, you will want to shoot in RAW.  This will help to avoid blown-out highlights plus you can adjust the white balance in post processing to account for the shift into the blue spectrum.
  • Whatever camera you are using, practice using it in the water until you instinctively know how to adjust the controls.  I stress this because most of us don’t use underwater cameras often and even if you are using your regular camera in a waterproof housing, you will be surprised how difficult this can be in the water.  For example, the last time I was photographing manatees I was using my Canon S 100 in an Inklite housing.  I practiced using the camera in the housing for an hour the day before the dive.  But…almost as soon as I got in the water I noticed the camera had started a video recording.  For the life of me I couldn’t figure out how to turn it off in the housing.  Sixty seconds later the memory card was full and that camera was done for that dive.  Fortunately I had taken a backup camera with me.
  • An underwater flash can dramatically enhance your photos.  The water is often murky and fill-flash is helpful. 
    • However, as noted above, using flash when photographing Manatees is no longer allowed in the Crystal River/King’s Bay area 
    • This regulation only applies to the Manatee Refuge area.  So you might want to consider a tour in the Homosassa River where flashes are still allowed.
  • Take a roomy backpack or duffel bag with you on the boat and load it with a warm change of clothes (including socks), a towel and Thermos with hot coffee or chocolate (some tours have hot beverages on board).
  • If you have your own wetsuit (full wetsuit, not a ‘shorty’) mask and snorkel, bring them as well.  Bring water shoes and wear them when you are in the water. You probably won’t need fins and many tours won’t let you use them anyway (so they won’t inadvertently bother the manatees or stir up silt)
  • The boat ride to the dive site can take up to a half hour (depending which marina you start from).  There is often a lot of wildlife on the way, so I always bring my best DSLR with a long lens (300mm or more).  Eagles, osprey, herons and other birds will keep you busy.

    You can get great photos of manatees with a few photo tips

    You can get great photos of manatees with a few photo tips

When to Go

  • Manatees can be found in Crystal River year-round and the dive companies will tell you you can see them any day of the year.  However, you really want to come during the winter and if possible during a cold snap.  You can see literally dozens of Manatees on a one hour dive during the winter while you might only see a couple during a full day in the summer.
  • Most tour companies have two or three tours a day.  The dawn tour day used to be my favorite.  However, now that flash photography is prohibited the early tour isn’t a good choice for photographers due to the lack light around sunrise.
  • The least busy and therefore the best days of the week are Tuesday thru Thursday (unless one of these days is a holiday).
  • The two weeks before Christmas are excellent since most folks are focused on the holidays and don’t plan a manatee trip.  As a result, you will have the manatees almost to yourselves.Photo Tips: Guide of How to get Great Photos of Manatees at Crystal River

What company to Use

  • I’ve used a number of different companies and they all were all adequate.  I’d suggest using Tripadvisor  to check out reviews of potential companies.  Here is a link: http://www.tripadvisor.com/Attractions-g34162-Activities-Crystal_River_Florida.html  
    • Be sure that a wetsuit rental is included in the price…otherwise you might be hit with a surprise extra charge.
    • The water is about 72 degrees Fahrenheit, so you might get chilly.  Some companies have heated boats which might be something you want to consider.
  • Personally, in Crystal River, I prefer a company by the name of Bird’s Underwater.  Their captains know their stuff and their price is very competitive (and no, they don’t compensate me for this recommendation).
  • In Homosassa, I’ve had great experiences with  Wyn Walker of Blue Heaven River Tours.  Wyn actually has an enclosed and heated boat, which is quite appreciated when climbing out of the chilly water.  His Trip Advisor rating is also excellent and he is passionate about the manatees..and his customers.  And again…no kickbacks…darn it.


  • 2015 Manatees 08 January 09922_1

    If you do have a DSLR in an underwater housing, then Over/Under shots can be a lot of fun.


  • When you first get in the water, scout around a bit to see where the manatees are.  Don’t necessarily stop at the first manatee you see one.  What you are ideally looking for is:
    • A Manatee that is in relatively shallow water (less than 5 feet)
    • A Manatee that is close to and downstream from one of springs (this will ensure that your shots won’t show much suspended silt).
    • A Manatee that isn’t surrounded by a horde of snorkelers.
  • Often the manatees are resting on the bottom.  If see this, position yourself about ten feet in front of the manatee.  Try to find a spot that has a darker background behind the manatee (ideally, you want to get the dark blue water of the spring behind it).  Now… you….wait.  Usually it will come up to breath every 3 or 4 minutes rising slowly to the surface and back to the bottom.  If so, you should be able to get a number of shots every time it does this.
  • If the manatees are moving, you just have to try to anticipate where they are going and position yourself accordingly  Keep in mind that you are not allowed to harass them…which basically means that you shouldn’t do anything that makes them change their behavior.  In other words, if a manatee swims right up to you and rolls over, you can rub her belly (this really happens..and it is just incredibly cool when it does), but you can’t swim up to a stationary manatee and try to climb on it’s back.  Please review the official  regulations on the attached link: http://myfwc.com/education/wildlife/manatee/viewing-guidelines/
  • I’ve never had a captain rush me back to the boat, even when I was the last one from our boat in the water (actually, I’m always the last one in the water).  However, be aware of the time and the fact that unless you hired the boat for the entire day, that the captain does have another boatload of folks waiting back at the dock.Photo Tips: Guide of How to get Great Photos of Manatees at Crystal River


  • Your primary task will be re-adjusting the white balance.  Manatees are grey, so you can usually just touch your Photoshop white-point stylus to their skin and get close to the right colors.
  • It can be challenging to get a shot that has the right exposure.  If you were able to shoot raw, then you should be able to recover most, if not all of the blown-out highlights that often result from the sun reflections off the surface of the water.
  • No matter how careful you set up your shot, you will probably see some suspended silt (backscatter) in your shots.  You can try using the dust filter in Photoshop but if that is a bit too severe you can just take a deep breath and take the time to use your clone tool systematically thru the frame and remove the ‘backscatter’.


  • I’ve added a number of new techniques and suggestions in a more recent blog.  Click on this link to see more!

Final thoughts

If you want to photograph more after your tour, then take the time to hit some of the numerous parks located right on the water in Crystal River (none of them are more than ten minutes away).  I’ve gotten some incredible bird shots here…two weeks ago I watched (thru my viewfinder) an osprey desperately trying to steal a fish from another osprey that had just snatched it from the river.  Just another boring day in Florida!


PS:  After completing this blog, I was referred to an excellent photo guide by John Ares.  Check out the attached link: http://www.divephotoguide.com/underwater-photography-travel/article/underwater-photographers-guide-manatees-crystal-river/

Good luck and good shooting!

Photo Tips: Guide of How to get Great Photos of Manatees at Crystal River




Posted in Central Florida Photo Locations, Manatees, Photo Tips and Guides, Underwater Photography, Wildlife Also tagged , , , , , , , |

It’s a Jungle out there! Walt Disney’s Animal Kingdom Photo Tips

Animal Kingdom is, by far, my favorite theme park in Florida.  If you are one of the thousands of folks that will visit Central Florida this year and if you are a photographer, then this is one of the places you DON”T want to miss.   The stars of this park are in a beautifully natural 500 acre preserve that make this place a joy for the photographer.  Fortunately (for me)  I’m a local, so I’ve been able to visit it a number of times.   Even better (for you) is that this article was written to share the photo tips that I’ve learned the hard way over the years.

photo tips for Disney's Animal Kingdom

Lion on the Kilimanjaro Safari. Nikon 800e 28-300zoom @300 f/11 ISO 400 1/200sec


Cost?  Well, no one ever said Disney was cheap…tickets are $89 and you will end up paying for some incidentals as well.  However, I’ve paid a lot more and gotten a lot fewer good shots in other places.  Not only that, but at the end of the day I was actually smiling…for lack of a better word, there is a unique ‘vibe’ at Animal Kingdom that I don’t get at the other area parks.

Here are my photo tips for Disney’s Animal Kingdom


  • Be at the park at opening (usually 9am), in fact be there at least 20 minutes early, they sometimes open the gates before 9am.  The animals are the most active in the morning…they have a tendency to find shady spots to relax in as the day goes on and temperatures rise.
  • The park opens at 8am one or two days a week for people that are staying at a Disney hotel.  If you are traveling to Orlando, I’d make sure that your hotel qualifies and schedule your trip to Animal Kingdom on one of the early days.
  • You will need a 300mm or longer lens for many of your shots.  A zoom is an excellent choice here because of the varying focal lengths you will need.
  • Don’t bother with a tripod.  Few of the animals stay still long enough for a tripod to be helpful.
  • Like any wildlife photography, you need a camera that can take a lot of shots quickly and has a buffer big enough to store them.  When you are on the Kilimanjaro Safari, for example, you don’t have much time to take your shots…your best bet is to focus on your subject, hold down the shutter and take as many shots as you can.
  • Unlike the other Disney parks, Animal Kingdom has a lot of trees and the canopy reduces the heat, just the same, this is Florida and you want a good hat, comfortable clothes and sunscreen.
  • You do a lot of walking…all of it on concrete, so keep that in mind when you decide what shoes and how much equipment to bring with you.  You can bring a backpack into the park (it will be searched) but don’t load it up too heavy.

Here are some hints to help you once you are in the Park:

Kilimanjaro Safari

Cheetahs on the Kilimanjaro Safari

Cheetahs on the Kilimanjaro Safari

The Safari consists of an open air vehicle which drives around a series of wildlife areas.  You sit on a bench seat as the driver provides a running monologue about the numerous animals you see (hippos, Lions, leopards, giraffes, etc).  The vehicle rarely stops and will not deviate from the “set” track, so you have to take your shots quickly and don’t expect the driver to stop so you can get the perfect shot.  Just keep shooting! I’ve never timed it, but it is about a ten minute trip.

  • Make this your first stop when you get to Animal Kingdom.  If you are there when they open the gates at 9am, you will see people actually running to get to the Safari first (I kid you not!).  Get a map ahead of time and know which direction to go when you get into the park at opening  (It is in the “Africa” section of the park).  Here is a link for a map of the park: http://www.wdwinfo.com/maps/ak.htm
  • When you get to the front of the line where you board the vehicle, try your best to get on one of the ends of the bench seat (personally, I think the LEFT side is the best for photography).  The benches hold 3-5 folks.
  • Set your camera to shutter priority and select 1/320 or faster…this will help freeze the shots even though the vehicle is bouncing around.
  • You might have to set your ISO to a higher setting than normal in order to shoot at this higher shutter speed.
  • If your lens has Vibration Reduction, use it.
  • Use a 300mm or longer lens, you will need that reach.
  • GO ON THE SAFARI MULTIPLE TIMES!!!  Although the safari is on a set track,  your photos will be different EVERY time..even if it has only been 20 minutes since your last one.
    • As soon as you finish one safari, go get a FAST PASS for your next one (you can get a FastPass at automated kiosks near the entry of the Kilmanjaro Safari…just look for the signs).
    • Your FastPass appointment will be in about an hour, so you can go hit another area in the meantime.  I’ve gone 4 times in a single day and each trip was unique (as were the photos).  For example, the shot above of the three Cheetahs was the only time I saw them awake on the day I was there…although it was my third safari of the day.

Pangani Forest Trail

Gorilla on Pangani Trail at Wild Kingdom/ Nikon 800E 300mm 400 ISO 1/500sec f/5.6

Gorilla on Pangani Trail at Wild Kingdom/ Nikon 800E 300mm 400 ISO 1/500sec f/5.6

  • When the Kilimanjaro Safari is over, you exit right at the entrance of the Pangani Forest trail.  Personally, I think this is even better than the Safari.
    • The trail takes you by two separate gorilla areas.  They are most active in the morning and since you are not on a ride, you can spend as much time here as you want.
    • One gorilla enclosure is on the west side of the trail, the other is on the east…so you can photograph all day since you will always have good sun for one side or the other.
    • There is a viewing area behind a large glass wall when you first get to the gorilla area.  Lighting is a bit dim and you have to be careful of reflections, but if you are patient (or simply stop by a few different times the day you are there) you may get the chance to photo a gorilla family (including their three year old) from less than 10′!  This is the only place I’ve ever been able to get a full frame gorilla head shot…an incredible experience.
    • I have had vastly different experiences with the gorillas during the same day.  It is never the same twice.  If you just spend 20 minutes here you are cheating yourself.  I’ve photographed here a dozen times and each time I thought I’d seen and photographed it all…and every time I was wrong!
  • Again, a 300mm lens will help you get close.
  • For you birders, there is a large walk-thru aviary featuring birds from Africa including some gorgeous Taveta Golden Weavers.20130306_AK_1342
    • This area is heavily shaded but you can get good shots all day
    • The smaller birds may require 1/500 or faster shutter speed to totally avoid motion blur.
  • There is also an underwater hippo viewing area as well as monkey exhibits.
  • I usually spend longer on the Pangani Trail that the rest of the park combined.  It is a ‘target rich environment’!

Maharajah Jungle Trek

  • This should be your next stop after the Pangani Trail…it is located in ‘Asia’.
  • Similar to the Pangani Trail, the Maharajah Trek is a trail that leads you by different animal environments.
  • The main attraction are the tigers.
    photo tips Animal Kingdom Asian Tiger photo Maharajah Trek

    Tiger shaking off the cold // Nikon 800E 1/320sec f5.6 ISO560 300mm

    • The tigers sleep about 20 hours a day (seriously).  So you have to have a strategy to catch them active.
    • If you are here on one of our rare chilly days, you have an excellent chance of seeing them moving around to keep warm.
    • They are very active at feeding times.  Ask the Cast Members (Disney employees) when that is.
    • They also tend to move around first thing in the morning  and late toward the end of the day before the park closes.
  • Other exhibits include Komodo dragons and giant fruit bats.
  • The Avairy is a great location for close up shots of exotic Asian birds.20130211_WDW_0741

Discovery Island

  1. This is toward the entrance of the park…just look for the giant “Tree of Life”
  2. There are a number of short trails on Discovery island that have Galapagos tortoises, monkeys and porcupines.
  3. This area is much smaller and less productive than the ones listed above.
  4. I’d suggest hitting this area on your way OUT of the park.


  1. This is at the very entrance of the park.
  2. The exhibits here have giant anteaters, boar and other animals
  3. Like Discovery Island, this area is a series of small trails with small animal exhibits.
  4. Make this your last stop.

Rafiki’s Plant Watch & Camp Minnie-Mickey

  1. Not a lot for photographers at these locations.

Final thoughts

  1. If you need a break from the heat (or your spouse is sick of 5 straight hours of photography), go to the Finding Nemo show in DinoLand.  Honestly, it is Broadway quality and not just for kids.
  2. Plan on at least a half day for your photo shoot at Animal Kingdom and if you become fascinated by the gorillas (like I did) you can keep your camera busy until the park closes.
  3. There is also a 3 hour Wild Africa Trek available for an additional $189.  I’m thinking this might be like a private version of the Kilimanjaro Safari, I’m going to do some more research and see if it is worth the cost for a photographer.  If so, I’ll let you know how it turns out.

Hope you find these photo tips helpful, feel free to let me know your thoughts and share your learnings about this great photo location!

Take care!




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Photo Tips: EPCOT

My wonderful wife gave me a full year pass to Walt Disney World as a Christmas present…she knows that I love to find new locales to photograph and she figured that this would give me a new subject for the next 12 months!

It’s kinda funny, I live in Central Florida but haven’t been to WDW more than a couple times in the past decade (since the kids got out of grade school).  I guess when your life is focused on landscape and wildlife photography, the man-made wonders of the area don’t come first to mind:) Well, just the same, I’m not so much of a ‘nature-photography snob’ that I would refuse to use my wife’s present (I am also a happily married man…and want to stay that way), so we took a trip over to Disney and visited EPCOT.

Frankly, EPCOT didn’t really get my creative juices flowing, at least not at first.  Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty to photograph, but, well…it’s not REAL.   For example, I’m fascinated by the Terracotta Army that was unearthed in the tomb of China’s first Emperor,  Qin Shi Huang.   Looking at the photo below, you might think I’d finally been able to get to China to see them in person…

Replicas of the Terracotta Army in the Chinese Pavilion at EPCOT...you will need a tripod for this shot.

Replicas of the Terracotta Army in the Chinese Pavilion at EPCOT…you will need a tripod for this shot.

Taking a photo of a 100′ replica Eiffel Tower is just kinda embarrassing compared to the real McCoy. But, once you simply accept that it is all a man-made  fantasy…and you shoot it with that mindset, then it can actually be fun!  For example, here is a shot of the torii of Itsukaushima Shrine at the Japanese pavilion during the nightly fireworks show…no one could possibly mistake it for the real thing, but just the same, I like the image…how about you?


IllumiNations firework show in the lagoon behind the torii.

For photographers, EPCOT may be at its best after sundown.  Disney does a great job with lighting and there are a lot of photo possibilities.

The Dolphin hotel as seen from the footbridge next to the Swan Hotel.

The Dolphin hotel as seen from the footbridge next to the Swan Hotel.

Would I have rather have been at Yosemite today….heck yes!   But photography is all about trying to see what is around you with new eyes.  And as much as us locals have a tendency to knock Disney, it truly can be a ‘Magical’ place place...even for photographers.

EPCOT Photo tips for out my fellow photographers:

  1. Bring a tripod.  Not only for night shots, but many of the indoor locations are in dim light.
  2. EPCOT is at its best in late afternoon and evening…no need to be there right when it opens.
  3. Don’t miss the Chinese, Morocco & Japanese pavilions…lots of photographic ops during the day as well as after dark.
  4. Italy has a impressive recreation of the Piazza San Marco in Venice.  If you catch it with the right lighting, it makes an impressive shot.
  5. The nightly fireworks show,  ‘IllumiNations” starts at 9:00 pm.  The fireworks are shot from a small island in the middle of the lagoon, so scout out your foreground possibilities earlier in the day.
  6. “Spaceship Earth”, the iconic sphere at the entrance of the park is a good sunset shot.  It is also well lit up before and after the fireworks and is worth your time to shoot.
  7. The Dolphin and Swan hotels are great locations to photograph at night after the fireworks show.  They are  about a ten minute walk from the Great Britain exhibit.  Just walk west on the International Gateway (walkway) that  is alongside the canal.  The walkway starts at the ferry landing next to ‘England’ on the French pavilion (south) side.
  8. Here is a link to an EPCOT map:  http://www.wdwinfo.com/maps/epcot.htm

If you do put down your camera, here are some non-photography observations.

  • The films shown in the Chinese and French exhibits are excellent and inspiring.  The films in the Canadian and Norwegian areas are also worth your time.
  • Don’t bother with the Mexican pavilion (very trite and dated).   The Michael Jackson ‘Captain EO” 3d film is pretty laughable (not in a good way).  Journey into the Imagination with Figment is painful for anyone over the age (or IQ) of 13.

With my pass, I’ll be going back to EPCOT a number of times this year, so as I learn more about its photographic potential, I’ll certainly let you know.




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Where Eagles Dare: Eagles, Sunrises and Wildflowers at Lake Jesup 2012

I am a planner.  I won’t deny it.  Always been that way, always will.  Even so, it’s funny to me when a perfectly planned photo trip gets high-jacked by something I never anticipated.  It happened to me again this week.

I was out at Lake Jessup to see if the sunflowers were still peaking.  Although some areas were a bit past their best I was able to find whole fields that still look as good as ever. The fields were serene and peaceful…didn’t see another person the whole day.

What I did see though, were eagles.

Eagle at Lake Jesup Marl Burl Flats sunflower fields

“Silly photographer…why are you standing in the middle of that swamp with wet feet?”

I saw at least two pair of eagles and they visited me a number of times throughout the morning. This was be best frame of the morning and  I’m tickled-pink with it!  It’s not perfect, but it is as nice a shot of an eagle that I’ve ever gotten in Florida (Alaska is another story…eagles there were as common as pigeons).   I was working with my new D800E (more about my baby on a later post).  I had it set on the DX mode, which effectively made my 300mm lens a 450mm, which was more ‘reach’ than I’ve ever had before and it really made a difference.

What really makes me happy is though the wildflowers will be gone soon, I’m betting the eagles will be around awhile.  So I can go back again and again and practice improving my technique (and hopefully getting even better eagle portraits)!

lake jessup marl burl flats sunflowers

“Heh, heh….they won’t see me now!”

I know that eagles have incredible eyesight, so I thought I should try some camouflage. What do you think?






 Oh, yeah..almost forgot about the reason I drove out there in the first place…the wildflowers!  I’ll be making some big panoramas by stitching shots together (see my last post about Jessup) but the last image I’d like to share with you was the sunrise.  It was one of those mornings that make you appreciate the beauty of this rock we call earth.

Central Florida's best landscape photo location

Dawn breaks over the endless fields of wild sunflowers at Lake Jesup’s Marl Burl Flats

I’ve also published a how-to guide of everything you need to know about photographing this location, just click on the following link http://www.firefallphotography.com/sunflower-island-lake-jessup-wildflowers/

Good Luck and Good Shooting!

Posted in Central Florida Photo Locations, Landscape Photography, Wildflowers, Wildlife Also tagged , , , |

Sunflower Island (Lake Jesup Wildflowers at the Marl Bed Flats): Photo Tips & Guide

Oct 11, 2019 UPDATE:  For the first time in a couple years, the fields didn’t flood and we have a Sunflower Bloom!   I was out there today and the flowers are at peak bloom.  It might not be the most profuse bloom we have ever had, but it is still impressive.  My guess is that the flowers will start to fade from here on out so if you have time in your schedule, this weekend would be your best bet!


For years I had been envious of the wildflower fields out west.  Ponce de Leon may have named my state “Florida” after being inspired by our wildflowers, but I had seen precious few of them in my three decades here.  That is, until the day I stood behind my camera and saw this scene in my viewfinder:

Tips for the Lake Jesup Marl Bed Flats Sunflower Bloom

“Sunflower Island”  The oak and palm hammock in the background looks almost like an island floating in a sea of sunflowers in this six frame panorama.

I was simply amazed.  It was absolutely incredible…beautiful yellow wildflowers as far as I could see.  What really rocked my world is that I had lived less than 15 miles away from this vista for nearly thirty years and had no idea it existed!  I probably still wouldn’t if not for Ed Rosack.  Ed is al local photographer who has a great blog called Central Florida Photo Ops http://edrosack.com/wordpress .  Ed, if I ever meet you, I owe you a beer!

Although photos are great, sometimes a video tells the story even better. Take a look at this 90 second ‘film’ that might give you a greater appreciation of the Sunflower fields:

I’ve been back to this place every year since.  Rarely do I see another soul.  Usually a bald eagle or two will circle me probably wondering what the heck I am doing in the middle of nowhere.  It is blissfully quiet, which is amazing considering how frantic and busy Central Florida can be.  I think I would have a great time here even if I didn’t have my camera.

Okay, so are you interested in getting in on the fun here?

Tips for the Lake Jesup Marl Bed Flats Sunflower Bloom

Spider’s web reflecting in dawn light at Lake Jesup

First of all, this incredible display only lasts for a couple of weeks from late September into early October.  As a general rule, the flowers peak around Oct. 1st but obviously every year is a bit different.

Second, keep in mind that this isn’t Disney.  You can’t just pull up, jump out of your car and snap some shots.  You will need to hike for about 20 minutes out to the fields, it will likely be hot, the fields are muddy and you will help feed the local mosquito population.  Also keep in mind that is is a wild area on the shores of the lake reputed to have the most dense alligator population in Florida (421 gators per mile of shoreline is the eye-opening stat I’ve read).  If that doesn’t scare you, then read on….Wildflowers at Lake Jesup Marl Bed Flats

How do you find the spot?

  1.  First of all, once you are in the Orlando area, you want to get on SR 417 (AKA: The Greeneway Tollway/Expressway).  The flats are on the shore of Lake Jesup, which you can see from the 417.  Some folks actually take photos from the shoulder of the road…but that looks dangerous to me and  State Troopers take a dim view of parking on the side of an expressway.  Besides,  you can take MUCH better photographs from the location I reveal below
  2. Here is a link to a Google Map that you can print that will help you find the place.
  3. If you don’t like maps, here is a description:  Drive north on the 417 and exit (east) on E Lake Mary Blvd (the first exit north of Lake Jesup) and head east.  Then take a right (south) on South Sanford Ave.  Take a left (east) on Pine Way (this will be just before you drive under the 417 again). Take a right (south) on S.Mellonville Ave. This will dead-end into Oakway…turn left (east). Oakway is a narrow two lane road with no shoulders so you may have to (carefully) pull off to the side if a vehicle is coming the other way

    Parking Lot

  4. Oakway Lane dead-ends at a small parking area that is open during daylight hours (see photo to the right).  If the gate is closed, there is room for a couple of cars to park outside the gate on the shoulder of the road.
  5.  The trail starts at the gate (see below) located in the back south-eastern corner of the lot located next to the parking area. As you walk to the gate, you will likely see your first sunflowers in the fenced field to your right.

    Gate at the trailhead.

  6. Follow the trail on the other side of the gate (actually an old overgrown dirt road).
  7.  You will see trail markers with both red and yellow diamonds. red yellow diamond
  8. In less than five minutes, the trail will split.  Either trail will get you to the fields (see map below).Lake Jesup Marl Bed Flats Sunflower Wildflower Trail Map
    1. Red Trail.   This is the shortest route to the fields. It is less than a half mile walk and should take you about 20 minutes
      • At the first split in the trail, continue straight (don’t turn right).  The trail markers will now have both red and yellow diamonds.

        The hike thru the hammock is short but impressive.

      • After another five minutes the trail will split again…take the left trail.  The trail markers will now be marked with red diamonds and the path will lead thru a nice old oak hammock with wonderful spanish moss.
      • In another ten minues or so the trail will end as you emerge from the trees with the open flats directly ahead (you can’t miss it).
      • The best sunflower fields are usually to the right (southwest) as you exit the oak hammock.
      • You will be tempted to walk straight out into the flowers.  Don’t…unless it has been a really dry fall you will get bogged down in the marshy fields.
        • nstead stay on the drier ground near the  the oak trees and keep walking to the right (west) on the edge of the field until you find a good view.  Then walk straight out into the field, get your shot, then walk back to the oaks and continue your hike to the right.
           A shot of my son, Ryan...who is 6'1".   I told you these sunflowers are TALL!

          I told you these sunflowers are TALL!

          My best compositions are usually found when I walk well out into the fields, then turn around and shoot back toward the trees.  If you are there in the morning or early afternoon, this also puts the sun at your back or to the side. 

          • There are some areas in the flats that are a bit more elevated than others.  If you see a palm tree out there, you know it is on higher ground (although it still might be under water).  There aren’t real trails thru the actual sunflower fields but usually you can find some paths that horses, cattle and other photographers have made. Be aware that the sunflowers can be over 6′ tall.
          • If it has been a rainy Fall, the fields might be under a lot more than an inch or two of water.  If so, you won’t be able to see much at this location and you should try the Yellow Trail instead.
            Tips for the Lake Jesup Marl Bed Flats Sunflower Bloom

            Your choice of photo options is nearly as endless as the sunflowers.

    2. Yellow Trail.  This area is at a slightly higher elevation and it has a wonderfully photogenic line of palm trees that run in a straight line to the Southeast once you emerge from the oak hammock.  If the fields are wet, walking along this line of palms could be your best/only option to actually get out into the sunflower fields.
      1. This hike is a bit longer, but still shouldn’t take more than 30 minutes to reach it from the parking area.
      2. At the first split in the trail described above, take the trail to the right (it will be marked with yellow diamonds). Yellow Diamond This trail will take you thru an oak hammock and will soon curve to the left (south).  Continue straight down on the trail (actually an old dirt road). As you reach the end of the tree canopy, you will notice that the trail/road is actually elevated and there is a narrow, nearly filled/overgrown canal to your right.   
      3. At the edge of the flats, the trail/road will take a sharp right.  As you stand here looking out to the flats you will see a long, perfectly straight row of palm trees leading off south-east into the flats.  Walk along that line of trees (no need to follow it to the end).  As you do so, you should see a nice field of sunflowers to your left (south-east).  This area is particularly nice in the afternoon with the sun to your back
Photo tips and guide. Central Florida's best landscape op location Lake Jessup Wildflowers

One of approximately 34 billion wild sunflowers at the peak of the bloom. Most folks around here call them Swamp Sunflowers (Helianthus angustifolius) but another common name is Narrow Leaf Sunflowers

What should you bring with you?

  1. These fields are marshy…bring waterproof boots and a spare pair of dry socks (just in case)  
    1. If it has been a rainy Fall, it will be more than ‘marshy’, the fields will be underwater (it was so wet in 2014, 2017 & 2018 that the fields flooded and killed the blooms.) 
    2. Also keep in mind that although I’ve only rarely seen snakes here, you’d probably rather be wearing boots than flip-flops if you were to surprise a moccasin.  
    3. Cattle often wander through this area and folks ride horses here as well.  The cows and horses do leave their ‘calling cards’, so step carefully.
  2. Some years the mosquitos can be intense, bring your industrial strength bug spray.  
  3. Temperatures in September/October can often hit 90º and there isn’t much shade in the flats, so bring a hat, lots of water and use your sunscreen.
  4. Wear long pants, a long sleeved shirt and quick drying fabric (not cotton).  Many of the plants in the field are as tall as you are and they will scratch up any unprotected skin.  Plus, the plants are often covered in dew in the morning…and you will get wet.

Tips for my fellow Photographers:

  1. Bring a tall tripod.  Many of these flowers are over 6′ in height so it helps to elevate your camera over them.  Use a cable release/remote shutter.
  2. A typical shot here often features a wide depth of field when capturing a field of flowers that stretches from the horizon to a few feet in front of you.  In that case, use a small aperture (f/16 or higher) to get the maximum depth of field.   A tripod will be critical since the exposure time might be long. Mornings are great since there is little wind.
  3. Bring a selection of lenses.
    • Obviously you want your wide-angle lens…the landscape begs for them.  The wider the better.
    • If you have a macro lens you can stay busy here all day.  In addition to the flowers there are insects of every kind and first thing in the morning, sometimes you will find dew covered spider webs that make wonderful compositions.
    • There are often eagles circling in the sky over you…a long zoom can help you come home with some nice portraits.  In addition to eagles, I’ve seen hawks, wood storks, and  a plethora of other species…if you happen to be a birder, you will be photographing a lot more than sunflowers.
  4. Sunrises and  sunsets can be magical.
    Tips for the Lake Jesup Marl Bed Flats Sunflower Bloom

    Who says that there aren’t any landscape photography locations in Florida?

  5. Try a Panorama.  The fields can appear endless and this impression can be dramatically captured in a pano. 
    Tips for the Lake Jesup Marl Bed Flats Sunflower Bloom

    Endless Beauty

  6. Don’t forget your polarizer….it will make the blue skies absolutely breathtaking.  The exception to this rule would be if you are making a pano..a polarizer will often result in ‘blotchy’ skies if you are stiching together multiple shots.
  7. The flowers look great in direct sunlight.  Fortunately, in Central Florida we don’t have many overcast days.  Ideally, visit on a day with partially cloudy skies:  Nice big white clouds in a deep blue sky hanging over yellow field of flowers makes for wonderful images.
  8. If it is windy, you will need a quick shutter speed (1/250 or so) to ‘freeze’ the flowers in your image.

Other sunflower locations :

Lake Jesup Area:

Although I consider the Marl Bed Flats to be the primo location, there are 3 other flats with sunflowers surrounding Lake Jesup that you can explore.

    1. Caldwell Fields is very close to the Marl Bed Flats (basically just on the other side of the 417).  You can get there from a trailhead located in Lake Jesup Park (see map below).  This can be a wonderful spot since part of the trail is atop a berm…which allows you expansive views because of the height.  Unfortunately, the trail you take to the berm is at a very low elevation and I’ve rarely seen it dry enough to hike during the sunflower bloom.Lake Jesup Park Calwell's Field full res
    2. The North Cameron Tract is often dryer than the Marl Bed Flats but the flowers are not usually as profuse.  Check out this link to see a map.
    3. The East Lake Jesup Tract (also on this link) is on the southern side of the Lake and I’ve never had much luck there…but I honestly haven’t spent much time exploring it either.

Cocoa (Tosohatchee):

Another location in Central Florida that usually has sunflower displays is the Tosohatchee Wildlife Management Area which is about a hour southwest of Lake Jessup (about 30 minutes west of Cocoa.)  Although not as photogenic (in my opinion) as the Lake Jessup fields, it might be worth checking out if you live nearby.  The best spots are in the flats near the St. John’s River on Powerline Road.  This link will take you to a helpful map.

Ft. Myers/Naples (Pepper Ranch):

For those of you in west and south Florida, I’ve seen photographs of fields of sunflowers at Pepper Ranch in the Ft. Myers/Naples area.  I haven’t visited myself, but if you live in that area you should check it out.  Here is a link with directions and details.

I personally consider the sunflowers at Lake Jesup to be one of the best landscape photography locations in the state.  If you happen to be within driving distance during early October, you really should see this extravaganza yourself!




PS:  I usually post updates with details about the bloom every year.  Check my blogs during late September and October to see what is happening this year. 

I’ve also published a couple other articles about the fields you might find interesting,  check here and here.

Tips for the Lake Jesup Marl Bed Flats Sunflower Bloom


Central Florida's best landscape op location Lake Jessup Wildflowers

Sunflowers aren’t the only thing that might catch your eye at Lake Jesup’s Marl Bed Flats!






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