For all of the beauty and abundant wildlife, Florida can be a difficult, and at times dangerous, place to be a photographer. There are certainly many places where you never have to leave a boardwalk or the comfort of your car to take a picture. However, for those willing to venture into the real Florida, there are some precautions that should be taken. The climate and critters of the "Sunshine State" can imperil both the photographer and his or her equipment if they are not properly prepared.
Part 1 of this article discusses the climate and conditions of Florida and how to handle them; Part 2 discusses hazardous flora and fauna that you may encounter. While these articles are written from a Floridian perspective, the conditions and creatures are not necessarily unique to just this state, and the recommendations can be applied anywhere these conditions occur.
Sun and Heat
They don't call it the "Sunshine State" for nothing. Florida sun produces some of the most beautiful golden light, and some of the harshest blazing sunlight. Beyond the difficulty in exposing your images properly in those conditions, is the very real physical harm the sun can do to you if you do not take the proper precautions.
There are some very serious short and long term effects from sun exposure. The first area of concern is from UV exposure. Excessive sun exposure can result in the common "sun burn" which at its worst can include pain and blistering. Further, long term excessive exposure is linked to skin cancer, which affects nearly 600,000 Americans each year. Personally, I use a SPF 48 water proof sunscreen, applied a couple of times a day when out shooting.
The second problem is heat exposure. When a person's body builds up more heat then it can handle they suffer what is known as "Heat Stress". Too much heat can tire you, make you lose concentration, and become uncoordinated. As a photographer, the impact is you cannot think clearly and react well enough to take good photos. Try mentally calculating manual exposures from the sunny 16 rule when you cannot think straight due to heat exposure. Heat stress can take many forms, from simple heat rashes to life threatening disorders such as heat stroke. If you have been exposed to heat and sun for a period of time and exhibit symptoms such as heavy sweating, weakness, dizziness, nausea/vomiting, rapid shallow breathing, headache, or fainting, you may be suffering heat stress, and require immediate attention and treatment.
To reduce your chances of heat stress, here are a few guidelines:
- Acclimatization - You only have a few days to spend in sunny Florida so you want to make the most of it, shooting every minute of the day. But, the fact is most of us just are not used to being in the sun 12-14 hours at a time. Acclimating yourself to the heat is one of the best ways to avoid heat stress. Acclimating involves exposing yourself to the heat a little bit at first and gradually more over a period of days. Don't try to shoot a full day in the sun your first day out, shoot a little, go relax, and come back tomorrow.
- Stay hydrated - DRINK WATER! Extreme heat may make you perspire as much as 4 to 8 quarts of sweat a day. To replace this you need to intake ½ to 1 cup of water every twenty minutes. Avoid ice water, cool water is best to avoid stress to your system.
- Get Physically Fit - The more physically fit you are, the better you will be able to handle the heat. If you have a primarily sedentary lifestyle, and then attempt to spend hours in the sun carrying several pounds of gear, you are setting yourself up for heat stress. Realize your personal physical limits, scale back on gear, and get in shape before your photo vacation.
- Limit your exposure time - Fortunately some of the best light is at the coolest part of the day. Shoot the morning, and take off during the hot parts of the day. I often use this time to read in the shade or scout locations from my car for an afternoon shoot.
- Take rest breaks - In Florida when you come across one of our "tame" birds, you can find yourself getting so caught up in the shooting you forget what time it is. The problem is this entire time you are exposing yourself to heat and UV. Take frequent breaks at regular intervals. If possible get into a cool environment sheltered from direct sunlight. Often the shade of a tree is sufficient, but you may want to get back to your car or hit the beach snack shop for a break with some AC. If you get caught up in a subject, as soon as the subject leaves, take a break instead of looking for something else to shoot.
- Wear the Right clothing - The best clothes for heat are ones that allow air flow, are loose fitting, and light colored. Generally, if the air temperature is greater than 95° F covering exposed skin will help reduce the risk of heat stress. Below 95°, less clothing helps. But remember, exposing your skin will increase your UV exposure, so the best bet is to find a comfortable balance between covering up with sunscreen and light, loose fitting, clothes.
- Shoot with a buddy - Make sure you and your fellow shooter know the signs to look for. Keep an eye on each other and watch for signs of heat stress such as irritability, confusion, or clumsiness. While some of us are that way all of the time, generally when you see this happening stop what you are doing, get out of the sun, and take a break to cool down.
The weather in Florida is predictably unpredictable. Through a good portion of the year we seem to have more or less the same forecast every day, high 80°s to low 90°s with a chance of isolated thunderstorms. Florida's thunderstorms are fast, violent, and dangerous. The main danger to your gear is exposure to water. Some storms can drop several inches of water, thoroughly soaking you and your gear in minutes. In addition, there is the very real risk of personal harm from storms. Ground striking lightening, tornadoes, hail, and flash floods are some of the possible risks associated with these storms.
- Check the forecasts - When heading out, always check the weather forecasts. In the afternoon especially, check the weather often for severe storm warnings or watches.
- Know where to go - Always watch the horizon for building clouds indicating the formation of thunderheads. If you are far from cover, keep an eye out for possible safe shelters from a storm. If you get caught in a lightning producing storm avoid bodies of water, metallic objects, high ground, and solitary tall trees. If no permanent structures are available seek clumps of shrubs or trees of similar height, ditches, trenches, or the low ground. Get into a low crouch with your feet together and your hands over your ears to minimize acoustic shock from thunder.
- Bring bags - I never head out during the summer without a couple of large black garbage bags in my pack. If a storm hits this gives you the ability to quickly cover your entire camera and tripod to protect them from the rain until you can get to cover.
If you are planning a trip to Florida, realize that some of the best shooting times here also coincide with hurricane season. You may want to consider trip insurance, and check the tropical conditions before you come. The worst thing is to get here, and then become part of a mass evacuation attempting to get back out.
Also, consider it can get cold in Florida during the winter months. If you come during these months, bring more than just shorts, you may need heavier clothes than what you would expect. Plus, be aware that the water temperatures dip quite a bit in the winter. While it may not be cold enough to dissuade a "northerner" from wading in, prolonged exposure to cold water or wet conditions can result in hypothermia. Fishing waders, or minimizing exposure time, are good bets at this time of year. Be sure to check the weather forecasts, and pack appropriate clothes and gear.
Sand and Salt
Sand and salt are probably two of the worst substances to expose your gear to, and Florida is literally covered in both. Sand can scratch lenses, jam up tripods and focusing rings, and find its way into every nook and cranny in your gear. Saltwater can be death for electronics. Accidental immersion has cost me two cell phones and a light meter in the past year. While the extreme way to handle these is too avoid shooting in areas where they occur, doing this limits you from shooting in some of the best locations this state has to offer.
- Carry a paint brush - In sandy areas keep a 2 or 3 inch wide paint brush with you. You can quickly knock loose sand off of tripods, cameras, clothes, and hands. Of course do not use this on lens elements, as it may scratch them.
- Use a closed fist to get off the ground - If going after subjects on the ground, either by crawling or kneeling, when its time to stand up, prop yourself up with the knuckles of a your closed fist. Do not set your hand flat on the ground, as your palm will become covered in sand, which you will then have to get it off before you can take another photo.
- Keep a dry rag handy - If around water, especially salt, keep a dry rag handy to wipe off any accidental splashes or spray. Be sure you have it somewhere that will stay dry. I usually keep a small cloth inside a sealed plastic baggie in my pack. While wading I have had large fish jump directly in front of me and splash water all over my gear. A quick wipe with a rag was all I needed to keep shooting.
- Clip and Zip - If you are in salt water, minimize the chances you will drop something by clipping everything to you. Use retractable cords or lanyards if necessary. Make sure all pockets are zipped or buttoned shut, you don't want to have something fall out if you bend over (...which is how I lost my first cell phone at Ft. De Soto...).
- Keep items high and dry - A lot of times when wading after a subject I get so caught up I don't realize how deep I have gotten. I try to keep all items that are vulnerable to water damage waist high or higher. I never put items in pants pockets, preferring pouches on my belt harness or shirt pockets instead. Periodically check the bottoms of pouches on belts or vests to see if you have gotten them wet. If so, take a moment and check the contents to see if they need to be dried.
Preparation and Precautions
In addition to the precautions already discussed, such as acclimating yourself and being physically fit, there are other steps too take to make sure you are safe and having fun.
- Dress for Success - When I first started shooting I figured I could do so in shorts and a t-shirt. I quickly found out that in the places I typically shoot, it is better to wear more, not less. My standard "uniform" is a ball cap, long pants, and a long sleeved shirt. Long sleeves and pant legs offer good protection from the sun as well as mosquitoes, thorns, sand spurs, etc. I usually wear a fishing style shirt with rolled up sleeves and a mesh back. I prefer convertible style hiking pants, made of synthetic materials; they dry quickly, breathe well, and protect you from the brush. When its time to go home if I am wet from the knees down, I can just unzip them and be dry for the ride home. My trick is I always have a spare pair in the same color as what I am wearing in my truck. If needed I can then put a dry pair of legs on without having to change my pants.
On beaches and salt flats I typically wear an "amphibious" sneaker. They give full protection to your foot, a real concern when wading, as you may step on anything from oyster shells to broken glass to stingrays. They offer good traction and dry quickly too. In the uplands, I wear a pair of well broken in hiking boots, in wetlands I typically wear a pair of "Cabelas" Gore Tex snake boots. They are as waterproof as rubber knee boots, but breathe more, and offer protection from snake bites.
- Protect your Gear - Planning a photography vacation, only to have your gear fail on you during your trip can be frustrating and expensive. Take precautions to avoid damaging or exposing your gear to hazardous elements. After applying sunscreen or bug repellant make sure you wash your hands to avoid transferring either of these on to your gear. Be sure of your footing especially in sand or when wading. A fall can cost you all your gear and maybe some broken bones too.
- Get educated - One of the best things you can do is read articles like this and learn about the conditions. There is a wealth of information available online, in books, or from travel agencies such as AAA. Be sure to check local resources, such as birding or hiking clubs, local weather forecasts and tide charts for conditions and recommendations.
- Know your limitations - I often joke that I shoot past the point of fun to the point of pain. While I do shoot in some rough conditions, I also am in tune with my body and my surroundings, and know when its time to call it a day. Keep an eye on the weather, and be sensitive to your physical condition. Know when its time to take a break or pack it up and go home.
- Get a guide - One of the best tools to help have a great shoot is a "local". I get many emails and phone calls each week asking for information on Florida locations. I usually try to recommend locations not based just on likely subjects, but also on what the conditions will be and what the photographer can handle. This way they can get the best shooting experience that is fun for them. You may consider hiring a local guide (shameless plug) who knows the locations and can help you in person handle the conditions and get to the subjects. They know the dangers, how to handle the elements, where to go, and when to go there, better than anyone else. This can help guarantee you a more enjoyable, productive, and most importantly, a safe outing.
Before you plan your next photography trip to Florida, or anywhere else, a little care and precaution can help ensure that when you visit, you leave with nothing more than good memories and lots of keeper shots.