Marie Selby Botanical Gardens – Sarasota, Florida

Sometimes when you are in a car full of excited photographers heading down the highway at a high rate of speed, it’s best to get off at the next exit. Lemme explain a little further. As I write this, it’s summer here in Florida and that means that most folks have headed to their summer homes in the northern territories until it gets a bit too brisk. That means that I get a built in vacation, as most of the venues are closed for the summer in this part of Florida. Having time off is a blessing and a curse at the same time. While I had some extra time, I try and get out and shoot for myself as much as possible before “season” hits. The summers here are hot and wet; we try to stay inside most of the time or at least where there is air conditioning.

I received a few emails from a couple of friends that wanted to go shooting. I’m always up for a good time and I know with this crowd if we manage to get through the day without any major incident, it’s going to be a good day. The plan was to head to the South Florida Museum in Bradenton, Florida. One of the photographers that was with us had been before and the other person never been. The night before, I packed my Nikon 50mm f/1.4 lens as well as my Nikon 18mm-200mm lens. I had been here before as well and last time I used a mix of fast glass (50mm) with my Nikon SB800 for some extra light. It’s a museum, so it’s dark. One of the perks of this place is that they allow cameras and flash, which is refreshing for a change. Everything is ready to go for the next day.

I meet them at the designated rendezvous point and we piled into a brand new Toyota RAV4. I had the day off driving for a change so I was able to sit back and relax. The driver plugged the address into their Garmin and then the co-pilot programmed the address into Google Maps on their new iPhone. At least we weren’t in danger getting lost! This was just to see if they would agree. We start heading north on I-75 and it wasn’t long and the usual rubbing started about this and that. At least we were all Nikon people so we didn’t have to the camera war discussion. As we were coming into Sarasota, Florida we came upon a big sign that said “Marie Selby Botanical Gardens – Next Exit”. This brought up the discussion about the gardens and how they had never been there before either. All I can remember hearing before my face was slammed into the door window from the centrifugal force of turning at 90 m.p.h. was, “I like flowers.” After I regained consciousness I checked to see if we flipped the car, but we were moving so that was good. At this point I think it was clear that we had breached “Plan A” and we were off to “Plan B”. At this point the Garmin and the iPhone were really pissed off, between the “recalculating” and “Please make a U-Turn as soon as possible” they had to go. Thank goodness that electronics have an OFF BUTTON! I was now the navigator and got us to the gardens.

We parked and I was going over my gear, and I realized that I was going to have a new problem. I would have really wanted my Nikon macro lens here as I could get some great detail shots. Faced with the facts that all I had with me was my trusty 50mm and 18mm-200mm, I snapped the 50mm on the camera. This is one of my favorite lenses as it’s unbelievably sharp and I can go down to f/1.4. This is a good thing as the tripod police do live here. The counter folks will tell you, “No tripods in the greenhouse.” But the administration policy is no tripods anywhere on the grounds; don’t ask how I know this. I also grabbed my card wallet, 12” diffuser and 12” reflector. Traveling pretty light freed me up to move around, as the 50mm is a prime lens and no zoom. We couldn’t make it out of the parking lot without shooting a few frames. The flowers are colorful but that’s not what grabbed my attention, there was a loud buzzing sound a few feet away.

 Spencer Pullen photographed this bumble bee getting nectar at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota, Florida.Bumble Bee Feeding His Face – Spencer Pullen © 2013 All Rights Reserved

This is what I generally look like at a donut convention. I decided that I was going to shoot at f/2.8 most of the day. This would give me the right amount of depth of field that I wanted. As always, I had the camera set for RAW and in manual mode. I choose and ISO of 100 at f/2.8. My shutter speed was all over the place but most of the time I was 1/500 or faster. This helped when I was twisted on the ground like a pretzel to ensure that I would get a sharp shot to counter the camera shake.

 Spencer Pullen photographed this Gulf Fritillary butterfly at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota, Florida.Gulf Fritillary Butterfly– Spencer Pullen © 2013 All Rights Reserved

A few feet over I saw this guy checking out some flowers. He was pretty patient with me as I got down on my knees to get to his eye level. I also use the spot focus mode on my camera all the time. I have been burned too many times from that “matrix” or “evaluative” focus mode. This way, wherever I put that square (some of you out there have dots) I KNOW IT”S GOING TO FOCUS ON THAT SPOT, no questions asked. In this case I put the focus point on his head area. We’re dealing with nature here so you have to do the best you can, I was bobbing around and he was flitting around so between the two of us I was amazed even to get this shot. After we harassed the flowers and bugs in the parking lot it was time to pay the piper and get inside.

A few moments later we were inside and we made our way into the greenhouse. You can’t take a bad photo in this space as there was full sun outside, but the roof of the greenhouse acted like a big diffuser. This took the harsh sunlight and covered it into beautiful soft light, perfect for these specimens. Since I had been here a few times before, I’m always on the look out for something different to add to my photo collection. Before I knew it, I was on the ground again.

 This leaf curl with a rain drop was photographed by Spencer Pullen at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota, Florida.All Curled Up – Spencer Pullen © 2013 All Rights Reserved

The vibrant green caught my eye at first, however when I got on my hands and knees it was then I noticed that there was a drop of water in the center of this leaf. It wasn’t long and I started to hear more voice behind me (more that usual!) and I looked over my shoulder and there were a few people looking on. Finally, someone asked, “ What’s down there?” My monotone reply, “Just a rain drop.” This was code for my friends to get their butts over there and get a photo before someone knocked into the plant. Luckily, the “non-photographer” people thought that it was placebo pill day for me and moved on. The folks that I was with were able to get into position and get this shot. The placement couldn’t have been better for this. The leaf was out in full diffused light, but the background was a waterfall that was in deep shade. This gave me a black background as part of the package, no Photoshop, no black cloth, easy pizy. Again, my focus point was on the drop of water to ensure that part of the photo was going to be razor sharp.

 At Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota, Florida they have Paradise flowers. Photo by Spencer Pullen.I Found Paradise – Spencer Pullen © 2013 All Rights Reserved

As we moved through the gardens we ran across these in the butterfly garden section. I was taken up with its color and shape, as I had never seen one of these before. I was hopping up and down like a two year old in the cereal isle to get my friends attention and when the one person came over they looked at me and said, “Oh I have these in my back yard.” I was puzzled and asked where they got this from and they informed me from the nursery. Well, I guess it’s not as exciting as finding gold, what can I tell you. However, I didn’t see the bug butt until I got home and saw this on a big monitor. Do you see the bug butt?

 Spencer Pullen photographs this Zebra Longwing butterfly at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota, Florida.Zebra Longwing Butterfly – Spencer Pullen © 2013 All Rights Reserved

After all we were in the butterfly garden, we should be on the lookout for butterflies. It wasn’t long and a Zebra Longwing came and landed in my area. He was busy getting some nectar and I was busy getting his portrait. This group of photos was all shot in the shade so my exposure didn’t change. I checked my focus point and shot as many frames as I could while he was sitting there.

 This is a Bird of Paradise at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota, Florida. Photo by Spencer Pullen.Bird Of Paradise – Spencer Pullen © 2013 All Rights Reserved

There were clusters of flowers called Bird of Paradise. These have some amazing colors and shape, however it’s tough to find one that is in prime condition when you are out. It seems as if one of the orange petals are wilted and that ruins the photo. I couldn’t believe it; right in front of me there were five flowers that were perfect. All was great until I held the camera up and realized that this was backlit. No worries, I pulled out my reflector and had one of my friends hold it just outside of the frame to throw light back on the front of it. This gave me a much more natural result than trying to use fill flash from my pop up.

 Spencer Pullen photographed this silky waterfall at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota, Florida.Waterfall – Spencer Pullen © 2013 All Rights Reserved

I admit this was the most technical challenge of the day. I wanted that silky waterfall look that you see in magazines. I have a few hundred of those already, so what’s one more? I don’t have a tripod and it’s the middle of the afternoon, the worst light you can find. I needed to slow the light down as much as possible. I was already at the floor of my ISO at 100. This lens allows me to go to f/16, I would have preferred another stop or two, but what are going to do? I did have a ND filter in the car, but I wasn’t going to go all the way back just for that. I wanted a shutter speed of 1/4, but I have a couple of issues. First, I don’t have a tripod, how am I going to get a sharp shot? I looked and there was a frame that was holding a bell up. I worked the camera so the bottom of the camera was sitting vertically on the wood. I took the shot and it was close, but it was a little over exposed. I really needed one more stop on the shutter speed, but two would have been great. I’m standing there and thinking how can I slow the light down even further? The answer was on my head, polarized sunglasses. I don’t really recommend this unless you are really in a jam like this, but it kind of works. I look at my $14.95 sunglasses from Wally World and I’m thinking, well I have to shoot through these so the better be clean. I spent summers growing up on my family’s dairy farm so I have seen and done it all. Some of you may know what’s coming. The glasses were really dirty from the day; I tried cleaning them off with the shirt first. That helped but I needed some liquid to really get them clean. Hey, do what you have to do….spit on them. Yup, worked like a charm. I placed the glasses in front of the lens and that gave me another stop of light loss, just what I wanted. Is this perfect? Not by a long shot, but better than not trying at all.

 Duck and ducklings at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota, Florida. Photo by Spencer Pullen.The Original Duck Dynasty – Spencer Pullen © 2013 All Rights Reserved

As I was finishing up with the waterfall, there was a mother duck (careful how you read that) and her ducklings. They were so small and catching up on a nap while Mom looked on. She didn’t seem threatened by out presence and allowed us to shoot. We were in deep shade and I was blowing out the background of the Koi pond. This is where I had to resort to the pop up for fill flash. I exposed for the Koi pond and now the ducks were really dark. I adjusted my flash power and mixed in the ambient light with the light coming from the flash to get a more natural look. You can see the catch light in the mother’s eye from the flash. Even with the flash she allowed us to make multiple frames before pushing them all in the water for their afternoon swimming lesson. When they were in the water, I wanted to pick them up and turn them over to see if I won a prize like at the carnival. I guess it was a placebo day!

This close up of a white orchid was photographed by Spencer Pullen at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota, Florida. White Orchid – Spencer Pullen © 2013 All Rights Reserved

On the way out of the gardens, you end up in the gift shop. No surprise there. However, they have some of the most beautiful orchids that I have ever seen. These were in an outside area that was covered by a white plastic roof. You might have guessed this was flooded with nice soft beautiful light. I have a few thousand orchid photos so I took a couple and called it a day.

Flowers, bugs and animals, what a great photo day. It started rough by having a copy of my face in the car window, but ended strong. It’s always good to put yourself in an unfamiliar situation and learn how to get yourself the photo that you want with what you have with you. This alone will make you a MacGyver in the photo world, when everyone else is sweating bullets, you can stand proud and tell them, “You don’t need one of those fancy micro fiber lens cloths. Just spit on it and rub it against your shirt!”

Until next time…

Keep Your Glass Clean (Please do use a lens cloth though!)


  1. Cute story, wonderful photos.


  2. I LOVE Selby – and you’ve really done it justice, Spencer! Just FYI – the passionflower plant that you photoed is the larval food plant for both of the butterflies that you photoed – the Fritillary prefers the plant when growing in sun and the Zebra Longwing, the Florida state butterfly, which prefers the plant in shade. And mama duck is in full brooding mode with spread tail and drooping wings. Beautiful shots which all come together to tell great stories. But my fave is ‘All Curled Up’. Exquisite. Thank you for posting these.

  3. OMG ~ Spencer, What beautiful shots! Where was I, whoops~ maybe at that u-turn on I-75. Seriously ; you are my hero. Another great job by a true professional. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Great photography, Spencer, as usual. Also nice stories to go with them. I really enjoyed reading about your trip.

  5. Some of the most beautiful shot I have ever seen. What a keen eye you have, Spencer. As always, Thank you for sharing.

  6. Spencer,
    I always enjoy reading your posts. These photos from Marie Selby Botanical Gardens are beautiful. Liked your Bumble Bee Feeding His Face. He looks like he’s really tanking up! You caught him in the act.
    Did you ever think of taking your posts and compiling a book? It would be a great read along with educational at the same time.
    Thanks for your devoted time in doing this. We all benefit from your expertise.

  7. Awesome…Your photos are perfect. LOVED reading the story.

  8. Spencer

    As always, I appreciate everyone’s kinds comments and putting up with my twisted sense of humor! It’s always great to go out shooting with friends, even if everything goes wrong, at least we can all laugh about it.

    Thanks for reading…


  9. Great Photos once again. I love your commentary and appreciate the shooting information you provide.


  1. Revisited: Marie Selby Gardens – Sarasota, Florida - […] to go to Marie Selby Gardens in Sarasota, Florida. Since I have been there before (read the post “Marie…

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