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Stretching over 150 miles of coastline from Cat Island in Mississippi to Santa Rosa Island in Florida, Gulf Islands National Seashore spans across two island chains from the Florida Panhandle to the coast of Mississippi. In Florida, the barrier islands stretch from Navarre Beach to Pensacola Beach, and the national seashore is flanked by the Gulf of Mexico and the Santa Rosa Sound, an intercostal waterway with sparkling blue-green water and sugar-white beaches. Just past the western tip of Pensacola Beach is historic Fort Pickens. On the mainland, Naval Live Oaks Reservation is an ideal spot for coastline shots with plenty of driftwood while Fort Barrancas overlooks the entrance to Pensacola Bay from a bluff. There are beautiful coastal landscapes as well as an abundance of shorebirds to be found along the waterways. In late spring through the summer months, native and migratory birds are busy nesting among the clusters of sand dunes and sea oats. Ospreys and bald eagles soaring overhead are a common sight. Black skimmers are my favorite bird to photograph as they gracefully “skim” through the small tidal pools and lagoons looking for small fish to feed on. A rugged coastline or a mountain backdrop won’t be found here, but the islands have a subtle beauty all their own. Finding the right composition can sometimes be a challenge, but if you look around, you can always find an interesting foreground of driftwood, shells or elegant ripples of white sand to complement a beautiful sky.
Weather in “sunny” northwestern Florida is just that…plus hot and humid. Most rainfall occurs during the summer with frequent thunderstorms. Hurricane season runs from June through November. Average yearly temperatures range between lows of 37° F and highs of 90° F. October through April brings drier air and pleasant temperatures. It’s rare to see any frozen precipitation in the winter; however, it does frost, on occasion.
With a 35-pound backpack in tow, my photo excursions normally start with a hike an hour or so before sunrise, which is when I begin shooting using my Canon EOS 7D with a Tokina 11-16mm ƒ/2.8 AT-X 116 Pro DX lens for wide-angle landscapes. Long exposures during this time are excellent for smoothing the water for a calming effect or to show the motion of the waves washing up onto the shore. For this, I use the Induro Carbon 8X CT214 tripod with the Manfrotto 468MGRC4 ballhead as a sturdy platform for the camera, which is controlled by the Vello Wireless ShutterBoss remote. I always carry a Hoya 6-stop ND filter (Pro 1 Digital Neutral Density 64x Filter) for really long exposures. Once the sun rises, my attention is drawn to the many different shorebirds feeding along the shoreline. To capture these fast-moving subjects, I switch to the Canon 500mm ƒ/4L IS lens. In my backpack is a Sigma 150mm ƒ/2.8 Macro in case I come across a ghost crab, frog or insect that will make for an interesting close-up shot. You never know what Mother Nature is going to offer you, so come prepared.
Fall, winter and early spring provide spectacular sunrises and sunsets. In late spring and through the summer, various birds can be observed. In the winter off-season, you can hike for miles on the island between Navarre Beach and Pensacola Beach in complete solitude when the shorelines are at their most pristine for landscape photography. In addition to being an undiscovered playground for photographers, there’s year-round entertainment for the outdoor enthusiast, with strolls down the beach, picnicking, camping, kayaking, hiking, biking and wildlife watching.
Contact: Gulf Islands National Seashore, (850) 932-9654 (Florida), (228) 875-2358 (Mississippi), www.nps.gov/guis.