Hillsborough River State Park – Thonotosassa, Florida – Large Format Photography

Have you ever had an image of a photograph in your mind that you knew that you wanted to either take for the first time or visit again to see if the light would be better? That is what led me to this recent adventure.

Many years ago, I had found HDR or high dynamic range photography. This is were one takes a series of exposures that vary the shutter speed and then they get assembled in software to capture all of the tones in the scene. That lasted for about a year. I found that “tone mapping” gave me results that were too creative for my tastes. Then I discovered “exposure fusion”. Exposure Fusion takes the data that is already there and creates a final photo of what it looked like with your eyes. No oversaturated colors or dooming skies. Once I had a handle on this, I went up to Hillsborough River State Park in Thonotosassa, Florida. I found this a great place to photograph as there was some elevation which is challenging to find in Florida to begin with. I took a couple of photos with the exposure fusion technique and I was happy with the result.

Fast forward many years to today. The scenes of the canopy draped with massive cypress trees and water so clear, you can see the schools for fish swimming by at the bottom. The sounds of the rushing water over the “rapids” creates a calming sense with nature. When I was contemplating whether to move forward with film, this place had always been on my mind to shoot with film if it all came to pass.

Now that I had all of the equipment and film, there was no excuse to not make the trip up there. I loaded four sheets of film the night before and was ready for the adventure to begin the next day.

I loaded the car and I was off. Two hours later I arrived and found the sign that pointed out where the “rapids” were. I guess when elevation drops a foot and half, that is considered a rapid. I used the app on my phone to locate my first scene that I wanted to photograph. Since I had been to this location before, I had that on my side. As I expected, the really great photos were not on the save, smooth boardwalk. Oh no. They were located down paths that were created by others before me. These paths are a mix of roots from trees, loose sand and dead dry slippery leaves. Also, there is no gradual way down, it’s pretty much straight down.

I pondering if this is worth it. I have 40 pounds of gear strapped to my back and my not really steady on my feet at times. This was going to either turn out to be the start of some amazing photos or an epic fail that someone would surly have videoed on their phone and would go viral on YouTube. I took a few steps to get my bearings and took it inch by inch. Before I knew it, I was at the rivers edge and was ready to pinpoint my spot. Again, using the Artist’s Viewfinder app on the phone, I was able to decide exactly were I wanted the camera to go. I stated to set up the tripod and then I realized that I was going to have to work around some cypress knees that were about as tall as I was.

After a few minutes, I had everything set up ready to go. The only issue was that it was really blowing and the minute I set up the camera, the bellows acts as a sail. I was hoping to get everything all set up and wait for a break in the wind. The wind died down for a second, and I started my minute long exposure at f/64. I was hoping the wind would keep at a low pace, at least for the time remaining. After the excitement of the exposure was over, I looked up toward the boardwalk and there were folks looking down and asking, “Is that an old camera or a new one?” I told them it was a state of the art digital camera! Ahem. I packed up my gear and very carefully made my way back up the obstacle course I had come down. I made sure to grab ahold of the tree roots that were solid as I could feel the pack pulling me down towards the river. Once I made it back on to the state approved walkway, I found a bench and sat down a few minutes to take in the serenity of what nature had to offer.

There was one more photo that I wanted to get that I had taken before. When I approached that area, it looked just as it did. However, just like the last photo, it meant getting down and setting up inches where the drop off was for the river. This time I used some of the tree roots to my advantage and nestled the tripod feet in-between them to help secure the tripod. Just like the photo before, I set up, made the exposure and made my way back up the steep embankment.

After about four hours of being on location, I took two photos. Some may think this is nuts. How could one only take two photos in four hours? Well, this is the way I look at it. The two I took, I really like and will love looking at them until my time on this planet is over. When I would photograph with a digital camera, I would take everything and keep a few. That is where it ended, they are locked up on a hard drive on the computer, most likely to never be seen again. These two scenes that I captured on this trip, have tangible negatives that I can see and feel. They don’t require a computer or the latest photo editing software to be seen. My biggest honor would be that someone takes an interested in my work, that they may want to work with the original negatives, that will long out last me and will always be there no matter the technology.

Until next time…

Keep Your Glass Clean


Spencer Pullen explains how he took the rapids in Hillsborough River State Park in Thonotosassa, Florida in black in white with 8x10 film.

Rapids at Hillsborough River State Park
Spencer Pullen © 2017 All Rights Reserved

  1. GEEZ you sure did take a chance but it was worth the trip going to the Park and down the steep hill. I love blurred water. Great photo.

    • Spencer

      Thanks! We’ll have to go there one day!


  2. You were brave battling that wind! Loved your photo & the video/ audio…very nice setting. The audio was really good and you were so steady in spite of the strong wind. Glad I got to see it!

    • Spencer

      Appreciate it! It was very windy. Looking forward to going back with less wind and before the mosquitoes come back!

  3. Great adventure. Keep em coming.
    I have some glass plate negatives my mother did in 1911 when she was 12. She had to prep the plates, expose, develop and then print.

    • Spencer

      Thanks for commenting. Large format is a blast!


  4. Thanks for the video and picture…who knew Florida had rapids! Too bad the wind was acting up that day. Love your adventures!


  5. Just now had the opportunity to view your video. Now I understand the complexities of the “Rapids” photo. I appreciate your last paragraph as it reveals your true passion of what you’re doing.
    Looking forward to the next installment.
    Great shot BTW.

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