More than a cool Florida lighthouse

St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge is gorgeous

I've been wanting to photograph St. Marks Lighthouse in the Florida Panhandle for a number of years, but never had the time. Well, that changed recently, and I was excited to make the drive down the dead-end road to the old 19th century lighthouse.

What I didn't expect was to be blown away by the beauty of the marshes surrounding that old tower.

I met Florida photographer Kathy Boyle at the lighthouse's parking lot the first evening with barely 30 minutes before sunset, and we got to work looking for the perfect vantage point for the evening light show.

While we walked around, we discussed the beauty of St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, which surrounds the lighthouse. Kathy said she loves to spend time there, shooting the natural beauty of Florida's Big Bend region in addition to the lighthouse,

My time there began by creating what would become the print titled "Sunset at St. Marks Lighthouse." The tide was out, so I was able to set up to include the marsh grasses and wave-rippled sand as foreground elements and leading lines that draw the eye toward the lighthouse.

The sun set to the left of the frame, casting beautiful light across the clouds, which acted as more leading lines pointing toward the lighthouse.

It was perfect!

Sunset at St. Marks Lighthouse

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Next morning I was at the refuge's gate when it opened at 6 a.m., but I actually wasn't thinking of shoot the lighthouse. Instead, I had been thinking about the palm trees that lined the road through the marshes.

The wind was absolutely howling, which did present a real challenge for low-light photography. However, I decided I would rather crank up the ISO and deal with the resulting noise on the back end.

I soon had a palm tree framed up, with the marsh stretching to the horizon behind it. My goal was to create an image with the sunrise just to the right of the tree. A marsh pond would act as a reflector to any color cast by the rising sun.

Honestly, it was a huge gamble. The wind was really blowing the fronds of the palm tree, and that meant I had to achieve a fast enough shutter speed to stop that movement - which forced me to open up my aperture more than I normally would for a sunrise, as well as crank up the ISO.

This meant a shallower depth of field, so I knew I would have to stack images to get everything in acceptable focus. 

I waiting, slapping at blood-thirsty mosquitoes and no-see-ums, full of doubts.

And then the sky exploded in colors. I started shooting, focusing on the palm tree, the marsh grasses around the pond and finally the horizon. That would ensure I had enough photos to focus stack.

I love the resulting image, which I believe encapsulates the beauty of the Florida Big Bend. 

Yes, there was a lot of noise in "Sunset at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge," but that was remedied by running it through Topaz DeNoise.

Sunset at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge

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Next, I quickly moved down the road to the junction of a bayou and the canal along the road. There was a mud flat holding puddles of water, so I composed an image that included the bayou that would lead the eye through the image as the rising sun burned through the clouds that had thickened over the marsh. That mud flat's puddles reflected the sunrise colors to create texture and interest, and vegetation framed the lower part of the image.

The result was a nice, moody print that captures the essence of the Gulf Coast marshes. I titled this piece "Florida Big Bend Sunrise."

Florida Big bend Sunrise

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Amazing post-sunrise Gift

Sunrise captured, I began packing up my gear — only to have a flash of pink across the street catch my eye. Kathy's boyfriend, Roger Cook, had promised me there was a flamingo hanging out at the refuge, but I didn't count on getting to see it.

However, there it was, feeding in the pond right across from my sunrise setup.

I couldn't get to my long lens fast enough. I spent the hour or so shooting photos of this amazing bird, which apparently blew in with a 2018 hurricane.

Read more about Pinkie and see the photos by clicking here!

More landscape photos

Low Tide at St. Marks Lighthouse

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My time with Pinkie complete, I walked to the edge of Apalachee Bay to see if there was anything that would work for another photo before I found some breakfast.

I went straight for the lighthouse, walking to the eastern side so the sun was at my back. I loved the texture of the grasses out in the mud flat, so I carefully picked my way to the outside edge of the grass flat.

The vision for the image  that became "Low Tide at St. Marks Lighthouse" was to use the outside edge of the vegetation as a leading line into the frame, with the mud flats on the left side of the image. It worked great, with the eye being drawn ro the lighthouse.

And all the texture in the vegetation was really nice.

All That Remains

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Next, I moved to the other side of the lighthouse, where the remnants of an old pier stretched toward the waters of the Bay.

My vision for this image was to use the wooden piles as to draw the eye across the photo to the waters of Apalachee Bay in the distance. The sky had some beautiful clouds, with just enough blue peaking through to create nice contrast.

And the bottoms of the piles were encrusted with oysters, added to the contrast and interest of the scene.

"All that Remains" is a simple but impactful print showing the raw beauty of  Florida's Gulf Coast at low tide.

Final two sunsets

I returned that evening for another sunset. This time, I wanted to pull together an image that encapsulated St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, combining the lighthouse, the marshes and some water.

So I set up behind the structure, right on the edge of the canal that traces the road. The goal was to have the water nice and flat, but the wind had yet to lay down. So I again had to use a fast shutter speed to stop the action.

No worries: I just planned ti shoot the image twice. The first image would be to freeze the trees and grasses, with the second shot being a nice long exposure to flatten out the wind-driven ripples on the water.

Minutes after sunset, the sky behind the lighthouse glowed with orange and yellow. To top it off, the light in the tower could be seen as it rotated.

I tripped the shutter for the action-freezing exposure, and then added a Benro Msater Glass 3-stop solid neutral density filter to dramatically increase the shutter speed.

The two images were combined in post-processing to create "Day's End at at St. Marks" (below).

Day's End at St. Marks

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My final day to work the Florida Panhandle started in about an hour southwest at Mashes Sands Beach (click here to see the images) and finished back at St. Marks.

For my final evening at the refuge, I wanted to see if I could get a different angle for the lighthouse. So I walked down the beach and crossed the dune to get a side view of the lighthouse.

I was about 45 minutes ahead of sunset, so I had plenty of time. There wasn't a cloud in the sky, so I wasn't even sure it would be worth it.

Until I looked up and saw the sun near the top of the lighthouse's light chamber. I knew if I could get far enough away I could position the sun behind that chamber.

I literally took off running, knowing I would have very little time before the sun dropped too low for the composition.

Finally, I was in the perfect spot, and composed everything quickly. I framed the sand near the lighthouse with a line of marsh grasses to create depth, and tripped the shutter.

The result was "Glow," which can be seen at the top of this blog. It's one of my favorite lighthouse photos to date!

It was just a great way to wrap up my time in Florida.