Florida Explored

In his home state, John Moran found his true photographic love. He never tires of the visual possibilities and the varied wildlife and landscapes

Photographer John Moran has dedicated his life to capturing the varied ecosystems of his home state of Florida. Moran’s river of dreams, the Ichetucknee, in north-central Florida. See the sidebar for more on how Moran captured this magical shot.


Escribano Point in Pensacola Bay.

When John Moran speaks about his life’s work, it’s almost impossible to separate the man from his place in the world. He has lived in Florida since age two, which is two fewer years than he’d prefer. He’s deeply rooted there, a nature photographer with zero interest in anything across the state line.

“I have no desire to see the world,” Moran says, “which is interesting. I have a daughter who lives in Holland and another who lives in Oregon, and those are lovely places to visit, but this is the place for me. I’m a deeply photo-monogamous kind of a guy. I’m all about Florida, all the time. It’s like the world is full of beautiful women for some other man to love. Florida is my first and only love, photographically.”

As a nature photographer, Moran thinks of himself as a generalist. Wildlife, flora, scenics—all of them interest him—but it’s the landscape that holds a special place in his heart.

Pitcher plants at dusk.

“Though I love shooting wildlife,” he says, “it’s such a crapshoot. I like that when I get up at 4 a.m. to go to the river for a sunrise photo shoot, I can be confident the river will be there waiting for me. I enjoy mixing it up with a blend of stumble-and-bumble and preplanned photo outings. I love to plan and create elaborate photos in my mind’s eye and then go out and make them happen. They don’t always work out, of course, but in many ways, the beauty of what we do isn’t about the picture—it’s the experience of being out there chasing the light.

“My favorite pictures tend to be the ones that involve lots of planning and lots of gear,” Moran continues. “I’m happiest when I have a camera in my hand and my feet are in the water; not hard to do if you’re a nature photographer in Florida. Water pretty much defines the Florida experience. We’ve got more freshwater springs in Florida than anyplace on the planet; we’ve got this huge long coastline on the Gulf and the Atlantic. Even the pictures that don’t have water, you can feel the water. We get 55 inches of rain a year here. Water is what shaped the land. Plus, it’s just fun. We are children of the dirt; we are born of the water. It’s inevitable in Florida that water is going to be what draws the nature photographer.

“Plus,” adds Moran, “if you want to photograph alligators, you’ve got to be around water.”

Alligators are a real issue for Floridian photographers, but Moran says the mostly docile creatures aren’t nearly the ravenous man-eaters outsiders mistake them for. Still, he keeps his eyes out for the prehistoric animals on every shoot.

A crab defends itself from Moran’s camera in St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge.

“That’s an occupational hazard, to be sure,” he says, “but I don’t worry too much about alligators. This falls in the realm of what researchers call a low-probability, high-consequence event, but the hazards here are very real. I’m reminded of the saying, popular here in the South, that you’ve got to be tough if you’re going to be stupid.”

Moran is full of wonderful quotes and sayings, many of which he picked up during his long career as a newspaper photojournalist in Gainesville. Taking pictures is the only way he has ever earned a living, holding just one job throughout his adult life.

“As an accidental consequence of showing up for work over a period of 23 years,” he says, “I was witness to more of the panorama of daily life of north-central Florida than anyone alive. It was quite extraordinary to be the visual historian for our community. Shooting nature developed early on as a sideline hobby of sorts. Though nature is part of ‘news,’ I did most of my nature photography on my own time and freely shared those photos with the paper.

Shooting west of Key West. Sublime images like these are plentiful in the Sunshine State, and so is the fauna and flora.

“In many ways,” Moran continues, “nature photography was the antidote to the stresses of being a daily news photographer. I never lost my passion for making pictures, and among the photographers whose work I most admired generally are those who aren’t waiting for an editor to hand them an assignment. I was never at a loss for ideas and pictures that I wanted to go out and make. It reminds me of that saying, that writing is easier when you have something to say. And there’s so much that I still have to say with my camera about my love affair with Florida.

“From the earliest days of my work as a nature photographer,” he says, “my style has been shaped by my background as a newspaper photographer. I learned early on to make pictures that are compositionally strong, devoid of extraneous detail and can read well even when reproduced dinky on crappy paper. I appreciate that the average newspaper reader spent about one and a half seconds looking at the average newspaper photograph, and so I welcome that challenge of hooking viewers in a hurry and giving them a reason to linger a bit longer on the page.”

One of the ways Moran engages his viewers quickly is through the industrious use of lighting via off-camera flash. He’s a true gearhead, and working for the newspaper, he learned how dynamic lighting could boost the drama of a scene more often than not. So he carries that same philosophy into his nature work to this day.

“Lighting is key for the impact,” he explains. “Great photography is largely about great subject matter, but beyond that, it’s about the intangibles of the connection that the viewer makes based on the drama of light, subject matter, composition… I’m a guy who, early in my career as a newspaper shooter, routinely set up four electronic flash units on light stands and clamps to photograph high-school basketball games. I’ve always wanted my pictures to look like they were shot by someone who took seriously the craft of photography. I work with flash and alternate light sources a lot, and doing so on film over a period of many years generated about as much anxiety as it did success. I love shooting digital. The ability to instantly review our pictures makes it so easy to experiment and be playful with light.

“Lunar Lupine.” Moran isn’t afraid to light up a scene. He carries a Pelican case of gear with him that weighs more than 100 pounds.

“Apart from the normal lineup of cameras and lenses from 10mm to 500mm,” Moran continues, “I use several flashes and a bunch of flashlights and a lot of light-modifying gear: reflectors and diffusers and grid spots and color gels and softboxes and umbrellas and light stands and booms and radio triggers and a custom-modified 25-foot TTL flash cord. Even without the long glass, my basic Pelican case—which I pretty much roll with me every time I go out to shoot—now weighs a shade over 100 pounds. I know this is nuts, but how I love my tools.”

Moran’s love of photo gear has led him to invent. His custom “Johnnypod” is a 16-foot ladder-cum-tripod, and it’s not only a neat toy to fiddle with in the workshop and backyard, but it makes a tremendous difference in perspective when he’s working far afield.

“I just love to create homemade solutions to problems,” he says. “Basically, it’s a giant tripod with a ladder substituting for one of the legs. I can strap the thing on the front of my canoe. I’m also able to fit this up on the deck of my motorboat and it’s really quite a dramatic perspective out there on the water. I can actually set my standard photography tripod on top of this rig, or clamp the camera on a Manfrotto Super Clamp on top or just stand up there and handhold it. It just makes a world of difference. I like to get high with my camera. Get high, get low, get wet, get dirty; I’m always varying my angle. It would be impossible for me to overstate the value of the ‘Johnnypod.’”

Realm of the gator.

The challenges of augmented lighting, alligators, equipment and technique may influence Moran’s photography, but there’s one uniquely Floridian challenge that keeps him up at night: He’s photographing a state in which commercial and residential development are encroaching on the natural world at an unsustainable pace. Because of that, he struggles with showing the natural Florida that one has to work to find rather than the disappearing Florida that’s impossible to avoid.

“It’s so daunting,” he says of the problem. “It really challenges my underlying sense of optimism. I’m somewhat self-conscious for Florida about photographers coming here from elsewhere and wanting to venture out and do daytrips in search of photographs. The thing that I point out to people is that the beauty of natural Florida is site-specific and light-specific, and you have to know where and when to go looking for the good stuff. It’s not like the Oregon coast that’s just non-stop gorgeous. It’s out there, but you’ve got to go scouting and you’ve got to be persistent and selective in your vision.

“I do have a little bit of a concern that people may get the impression, looking at my work, that Florida has this endless bounty of nature and that somehow the pace of development is compatible long-term with the well-being of natural Florida,” Moran continues. “It’s such a bummer to arrive at someplace new I’ve fantasized about for years, only to realize the developers or hurricanes got there first. In many ways, my work presents a fantasy view of idealized Florida—real pictures of an extraordinary place facing extraordinary pressures and changing quickly. I think to live in Florida with a sense of the past and concern for the future is to live at the confluence of hope and pessimism.

“I have hope that we as a culture can learn to honor the sacred in nature,” he adds. “That’s a tough sell in Florida. I don’t just want people to see what I’ve seen; I want them to feel a bit of what I’ve felt out there in the wild heart of Florida and to be a bit more mindful of our collective impact on this special place we call home.”

Moran takes very seriously his obligation to show in his photographs the disappearing Florida while neither being morbid nor avoiding the reality of the situation. It’s a balancing act, for sure, but one he’s happy to engage in. He loves this place and he’s steadfastly committed.

Says Moran, “This connection with the land, it reminds me of a saying that I heard once: To be rooted is perhaps the most deeply felt and least understood need of the human soul. And in my case, at least there’s no question where I’m rooted. This is very much my home.”

River Of Dreams

Never one to miss an opportunity to “throw lots of tools at a project,” photographer John Moran was excited to photograph the Ichetucknee River one warm evening last spring. More than a simple landscape, Moran wanted to create an image that paid special homage to the disappearing river that inspired him to photograph Florida’s natural world in the first place. He wanted to make something particularly dramatic, “a visual love letter” to the river of his dreams.

“I’ve found few places in Florida that have inspired me like the Ichetucknee,” Moran writes. “But my days of bliss and beauty on the Ichetucknee have become an exercise in painful avoidance. I have adapted by composing most of my recent pictures on the river with an eye to eliminating the algae and the sludge that reminds me of the problems of the world beyond the boundary of my favorite state park.”

In an effort to create an image more akin to the river of Moran’s memory, the photographer made several trips to the Mill Pond Spring where water roils and flows into the burgeoning river. After several visits, he envisioned a particularly profound photograph—one that required a little more testing and a lot more gear.

“I had lights—strobes, plus a Q-Beam spotlight—in and on and over and under the water,” he explains, plus a remote-controlled “blinky device,” an LED-pulsing firefly attractant. “How much adding this rig actually helped lure the fireflies closer to the camera is anybody’s guess, but it sure was fun throwing a lot of tools at this project.”

The resulting image is pure John Moran—beautiful, powerful, technical—and a little bit painful in light of its uncertain future.

You can see more of John Moran’s photography at www.johnmoranphoto.com.