Revisited: Myakka River State Park – Sarasota, Florida

This past week I took a few of my photography students to Myakka River State Park in Sarasota, Florida. I have been to many different parks around the Southwest Florida area and I have to say that Myakka River State Park is one of the nicest parks that I have been to. State parks offer really affordable venues to visit and have limitless subjects to photograph. Myakka River State Park is about 45 minutes away from where I live, thus why I like to recommend this wonderful place. The admission is $6 per carload up to eight people. Recently, Myakka River State Park just revamped their concession area. They have a great place to eat lunch where it’s air conditioned! When teaching classes in the middle of the summer, this is a must. All of the different sandwiches and salads that I have tried over the years have been great. Not to mention that they also have an ice cream area. In the same area you can also take an airboat ride or land cruse where they take you out in the wilderness and educate you on the different aspects of the park. This is worth doing; however take the longest lens that you can get your hand on.

The reason why I like taking my students to this park to photograph is that it’s huge so if anyone wants to split off and do their own thing, there are plenty of opportunities to come home with a quality photograph. As with all of my classes, everyone has their own favorite subject matter whether it’s birds, landscapes or wildlife to name a few. Also, the main road of the park is paved. This allows easy riding with a bike or even walking. If you’re into camping, they do have sites available no matter if you have a tent or a million dollar plus motor home. Want to rough it? They have cabins that are air conditioned as well that you can rent. As you can see this park has everything.

Something that I’m going to try and provide is what I used for the shoot. I have been getting questions asking how some of the photos were photographed and what was used. To please as many folks as possible, here we go…


• Nikon D300

• Nikon 18-200 Lens

• Nikon 80-400 Lens

• Nikon 50mm f/1.4 Lens

• Mac System



• Photoshop CS5 (Adobe Camera RAW)

• Nik Complete Suite

We all started out at the visitors center were they have stuffed wildlife to see and educate folks on what they may see in the park. After we filled our heads with info, we stopped at the bridge. This is a popular spot for photographing birds and landscapes. However on this day, we were there around 10:00 a.m. so the harsh light was already out. Also, recently, Florida has lost its motto of the “Sunshine State” to the “Dark And Raining State”. The water was up quite a bit and there wasn’t much shore for even the alligators to sun themselves. We decided to try the canopy walk. We trekked back in a ways. It was muddy and wet. I thought we were going to make it to the tower but just as we turned the corner to approach where the tower was going to be, we were facing a lake. Since, I can’t walk on water, this was out. At this point there were places where the water was up to the paved road. I was starting to think this was a bad idea. We made our way up to the concession area and looked around. It was still early so lunch wasn’t a priority with my stomach yet. Once again, we piled into the cars and headed north up the paved road in the park. We were rolling along at about 20 mph and there was a stopped car in front of us in the middle of the road. Since I was with some students we kept rolling, until I was face to face with a white tail deer. I hit the brakes and pulled over. We grabbed our gear and jumped out of the car. Meanwhile the deer was moving back into the bushes. I decided what to see what all of the fuss was about with the stopped car in the middle of the road. I quietly walked up and there were two young fauns on the edge of the road. They still had the spots. Not being really prepared for this, I had my 18-200 on my camera. I fired off a couple of shots. I was using a parked truck as a tripod as well as a blind. I heard some wrestling in the bushes behind me. Being in the sticks I’m never sure what I’m going to be faced with. I was in luck, this time it was Mom. Apparently as we were driving along, we separated the mother from the kids and she wanted them back. Since I was only about 20 feet away, my 18-200mm lens was more than adequate. Click on the photos to see the full size version.

 myakka river state park sarasota florida white tail deerMom Looking On – Spencer Pullen © 2012

I was shooting in manual mode at this point. I figured that I would switch to aperture priority and let the camera do the figuring so I could focus on what I was trying to photograph. I took a couple of shots and it wasn’t even close. I checked my exposure comp to see if I had left it on a setting, nope it was zeroed out. It was then what I was reminded why I like shooting in manual mode. I readjusted my setting for a higher shutter speed since I was dealing with a quick subject. I fired off a few just in time to get the reunion.

 myakka river state park sarasota florida doe fauns white tail deerMom and Kids Back Together Again – Spencer Pullen © 2012

To process this photo, I opened it up in Adobe Camera RAW and made a slight exposure adjustment and used fill light to help open the shadows a bit. I always do my polishing with Nik’s Complete Collection. This handles all of my contrast adjustments and if I need to “paint with light” and lastly, sharpen for output.

Now that the happy family is back together again and off in the bushes, it was time to move on. We proceeded to the boardwalk. Not wanting to get caught unprepared again, I changed lenses to my 80-400mm. One of the biggest questions that I get is how to blur the background. There are a couple of ways to do this, however the best way is to use a piece of “fast glass” that goes to f/1.4 – f/2.8. This will allow the photographer to cream or create “bokah” in the background of the subject. Well, most of my students have kit lenses that came with their cameras. The 400mm lens that I had on is a variable aperture lens that goes from f/3.5 to f/5.6. Since I use this lens at the long end that means that my minimum aperture is f/5.6. In a sense, this is now a kit lens because of the variable aperture. There were some hibiscus flowers that were near the boardwalk. To mimic the look of an expensive piece of fast glass, I used the old cheat. I zoomed the lens out to 400mm and got as close to the flower as I could while I could still focus. In this case, it was eight feet. I used the in camera meter to get me a rough starting point for my exposure. I find that I need to err on the side of underexposed just a bit. In this case I didn’t want to blow out the detail in the petals of the flower. I took a shot and checked my blinkies and histogram, and all looked good. If I’m not sure in a situation like this, I’ll manually bracket a couple just to make sure I got it. Hey, pixels are free!

 myakka river state park sarasota florida pink hibiscusPink Hibiscus – Spencer Pullen © 2012

As we were shooting a Little Blue Heron showed up and sat on the edge of the railing watching us. I didn’t want to scare him off so I adjusted my focal length to make him fit in the frame. Since it was coming up on noon, the light quality was really bad. I split the difference with the exposure ensuring not to blow out the highlights and not to fill in the shadows.

 myakka river state park sarasota florida little blue heronLittle Blue Heron Watching Over Me – Spencer Pullen © 2012

This photo was going to need a little more work. As before I stared with Adobe Camera RAW and did some cropping and slight adjustments with the recovery slider and fill light. As I took it into Photoshop, I wasn’t really happy with the shadow side. Rather than make a curves adjustment and mask it in, I choose a much easier option. I turned to Nik’s Vivesa. I put a control point on the shadow side and increased the brightness and contrast just a bit. Within fifteen seconds it was fixed. As you can see, I was able to preserve all of the different color feathers that he has. I don’t have and affiliation or get any kick backs from any of these companies. I’m just telling you what I use and why. Nik products make adjustments like this fast and easy.

It was time for lunch so we made our way back to the concession area. I had a piece of fast glass with me. There are always teachable moments. Before we headed into the restaurant, I switched my lens to a 50mm f/1.4. I placed my order (no alligator bites this time, they taste like fishy chicken) and found a seat. This time I was face to face with a alligator at my table.

 myakka river state park sarasota florida seasoned gatorSeasoned Gator – Spencer Pullen © 2012

This was a simple shoot. I opened up the lens to f/1.4 and put the focus spot on the gator’s eye and took one. As you can see, by shooting wide open, this created shallow depth of field. Even his feet are out of focus. I love this lens, It’s one of the sharpest that I have in the bag and is great in low light.

So there you have it, another successful photo trip. No one got ate by a gator and the mosquitoes were actually pretty decent considering all of the standing water. Check and see where your nearest state park is and go check it out. Take your camera, EMPTY camera cards and charged battery. You just never know what you are going to find, or what is going to find you.

Until next time…

Keep Your Glass Clean


  1. A great field trip. And, a great class. Thanks, Spencer!!

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