Tag Archives: Florida

Thoughts On Basic Photography

By Nic Stoltzfus

April 25th, 2014


A piece of driftwood at the Western Lake outfall.
A piece of driftwood at the Western Lake outfall.

One morning out on Western Lake (one of the coastal dune lakes in Walton County) the falling light of a sunset rippling off this piece of driftwood was too beautiful to pass up not taking a picture of it. I lined up the piece of driftwood using the Rule of Thirds and had the camera aperture set at 8.0 to allow sharpness throughout in this landscape shot.


Photography and cinematography have a lot in common. They bridge the gap between science and art. What I mean by this is that there is a lot of technical things goes into making a camera work. An eye is one of the most complex features of the human body. A camera is similar to the eye, except it is mechanical instead of being organic.

Here is the same image illustrating the Rule of Thirds. As you see the driftwood is off-center and lines up with the second vertical line from the left. It also is beneath the top horizontal third. The sky is not lined up using the Rule of Thirds, but it is okay because the visual interest is the driftwood.
Here is the same image illustrating the Rule of Thirds. As you see the driftwood is off-center and lines up with the second vertical line from the left. It also is beneath the top horizontal third. The sky is not lined up using the Rule of Thirds, but it is okay because the visual interest is the driftwood.


Photographers use math and mathematical principles to capture an image to present to the public as art. The photographer and the cinematographer bridge the gap between the art world and the mathematical/technical world. A brief example of this idea is how photographers use the Rule of Thirds. The camera screen is split into equally into three parts both horizontally and vertically, so you have a grid of nine identical rectangles. A well-framed sunset would have the foreground in the bottom three rectangles and the sky in the top six rectangles (Or vice versa depending if you want to focus on the foreground). This principle is founded on the precepts of geometry. There you have it—a mathematical formula underlying a photograph. Viewers of the photograph don’t have to understand the principle to say, “Oh wow. That is a good picture!” The above photograph utilizes this principle.

Understanding Exposure by Bryan Peterson
Understanding Exposure by Bryan Peterson


To make a good photographer it isn’t a bad idea to have basic understanding of maths. Nowadays digital cameras do a lot of the heavy lifting for you and can automatically do a lot of things that took old-timers a while to set up by hand. But, it is still good, in my opinion, to have a rudimentary understanding of how cameras work in order to gain fuller mastery over them. I have two books that I recently purchased that have really helped me a lot on my journey to taking better pictures. The first is “Understanding Exposure” by Bryan Peterson. This was the first book I purchased and really provided a good grounding as to how the camera captures light. The camera captures things that aren’t always visible to the naked eye, and it is important to know how to set up the camera to capture these details (For example, a long exposure of the night sky can allow the camera to capture light from stars that are barely visible to the naked eye). Also, you can imply movement through certain exposures. This book does a good job explaining this.


The Digital Photography Book by Scott Kelby
The Digital Photography Book by Scott Kelby

The second book I purchased, about a month later was “The Digital Photography Book” by Scott Kelby and this gets more into digital photography and also recommends equipment that can help you out down the road.


Clyde editing a black and white image using Photoshop. Image by Niki Butcher.
Clyde editing a black and white image using Photoshop. Image by Niki Butcher.

Along with these two books I also watched Clyde Butcher’s “PhotoShop Made Simple” which gives a really good grounding as to how to use Photoshop as a digital darkroom (e-mail info@liveoakproductiongroup.com for info on how to obtain a copy). There are some ridiculously simple tricks in the videos that most people don’t use because Clyde approaches PhotoShop as an analog photographer (pre-digital, using large film plates) and goes from that point and creates a bridge to the digital world. It is a different approach to using Photoshop, and I have gotten some really great ideas from there.


Along with these three tools the thing that has helped the most is just getting out there. The old saying “practice makes perfect” is absolutely true with photography. But—you must also start the journey by learning what the tools are and how they work. So, read up about your camera and also start talking to other photo-junkies. Look at professional photographer’s pictures on Facebook, Flickr, and other places. Since I am photographing Florida I am most interested in photographers here. Those who I look up and admire include: Mac Stone, David Moynahan, and Clyde Butcher.


The wonderful thing about photography is that, like paintings, it allows each individual artist to provide a unique interpretation of the same thing. Monet, Renoir, and Cézanne may all have stared at the same French landscape but each artist interpreted it differently. Don’t be intimidated by other artists. Each of us sees the world differently and no one sees the world the same as you. So, get out there and get creative!

Earth Day 2014 – Off the Beaten Path

Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition 2012

Off the Beaten Path

By Elam Stoltzfus, Film Producer

 (In 2012, four explorers enter the Everglades and, 100 days later, reach the Okefenokee Swamp in southern Georgia. The Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition showed that the heart of Florida is still wild–and can still be saved.)

Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition 2012 map
Elam with the Kayak getting ready to launch on the St. Johns River.
Elam with the kayak getting ready to launch on the St. Johns River.


For me, a filmmaker, the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition was a once in a-life-time opportunity to showcase the landscapes, wildlife habitats, winding waterways and conservation legacies of Florida.  “The Wilds of Florida” was like an epic dream come true.  I guess it is as Dr. E.O. Wilson says, “[our] love for nature [is an] innate and genetically determined affinity of human beings with the natural world”, that piques my continual interest in exploring and experiencing an in-depth connection with nature.

Media introduced me to fascinating stories and characters across Florida.   What I found in my journeys was a collection of true life stories, a trove of tall tales, dreamers for a better tomorrow, an active sportsman’s paradise and a diverse interaction with the natural world.

Some of my favorite moments during the expedition were early in the morning, especially on waterways with the morning fog rolling in.  One particular moment I recall was when we were on a tree island in the Everglades, and misty shower greeted the morning, followed by the sun breaking through the rainy clouds with a rainbow appearing over the sawgrass horizon.  In a moment’s notice, I quickly set up the camera. The composition was right there, five feet from the tent. Those were great moments of being immersed in a developing scene around you.

Elam on kayak filming the morning sunrise on the St. Johns River.  Image by Carlton Ward, Jr. 2012 copyright.
Elam on kayak filming the morning sunrise on the St. Johns River. Image by Carlton Ward, Jr. 2012 copyright.

Another scene I recall was a flock of roseate spoonbills along the St. John’s River.  It was shallow enough that I could move the kayak with my toes, and I moved slowly through the marsh, keeping the camera mounted on the kayak steady.  Finally I was within a few yards of them and got that really cool shot… to be able to capture those images is a gift.  And you cherish that time, that interaction between the camera and wildlife.

As a filmmaker, having the opportunity to listen to stories shared by the 90 on-camera video interviews with people, meeting with them in their area of comfort, and spending time with them was like having a front row seat in a college class. For many, this was an investment into the greater cause of the corridor concept. A number of them walked with us, some kayaked with the team, others rode horses along side with us and others supported us in their own way. With hours of interaction and recording time, these experts brought so much information to the story that was easily shared to the camera.  And if there is a richness to the whole story, it’s what people gave and shared and invested into the expedition. I’m so honored because that’s what makes the richness of the story–it’s those people and their stories.

During a visit at the Adams Ranch with Rancher Bud Adams
Carlton Ward, Elam Stoltzfus, Alto “Bud” Adams, Mallory Lykes Dimmitt and Joe Guthrie.

As our team finished the odyssey that was the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition, a journalist asked me the question: “Can you give a sentence of your overview of the journey?”.  My immediate reply was “into the wind, against the current, and off the beaten trail”.  Certainly, our journey was an arduous one, with long days and grueling terrain. We followed spring weather from the southern tip of Florida in the Everglades all the way north to the Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia. Over 100 days we traversed 1,000 miles of some of the most beautiful locales of Florida’s heartland. But this journey couldn’t have happened with just us. All throughout our journey, from the moment is was merely an idea, there have been people pushing it to reality. From trail angels to pastors, from professors to teachers, from commanders to generals, from bear biologists to park rangers, from corporations to small businesses, from kids to parents, from people of every walk of life, you have supported our journey. 

As we traversed Florida’s landscape we collected a lot of pictures, video, and interviews. We discovered what brings us together, what we have in common. We all want to preserve the environment for current and future generations. We want to continue to see habitat restoration, endangered species protection, and cross-agency cooperation become a part of Florida’s landscape. During our expedition we experienced the real Florida. And this is what we have learned: Our journey is really just beginning. With your continued support we have the opportunity to bring this idea of the Florida Wildlife Corridor into reality. May our decibels increase as we express our concerns in a unified message. Like many journeys this will be one that is into the wind, against the current, and off the beaten trail.

As you celebrate Earth Day 2014, take time to reflect on some the greatest gifts we have been given, our wilds of Florida.  Engage in the great outdoors, observe wildlife and most of all, renew your spirit with warmth of the sun, feel the wind in your hair and feel the soil in our toes.   

“We live, in fact, in a world starved for solitude, silence, and private: and therefore starved for meditation and true friendship.” 
― C.S. LewisThe Weight of Glory




Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park

By Elam Stoltzfus




Link to a 90 second interstitial sponsored by WUSF

Travel north from Okeechobee for about 30 miles and you will reach the Kissimmee Praire Preserve State Park. It is a large tract, 54,000 acres, that protects one of the largest remaining stretches of Florida dry prairie and is home to an array of endangered plants and animals. From the entrance it’s a long drive into the park headquarters and the campground, at least 5 or 6 miles.  We usually don’t compare Florida’s landscape to the great plains of the Midwest, but Kissimmee prairie is grassland as far as the eye can see.

During the production of the documentary Kissimmee Basin: The Northern Everglades this area became one of my go-to places to film wildlife. The preserve offers excellent seasonal birding opportunities and is home to the endangered Florida Grasshopper Sparrow, as well as the Crested Caracara and Burrowing Owl.

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Early one morning, just at sunrise, I was traveling the main road in dense fog; I spotted a group of white-tailed deer foraging in the grass.  In the herd was about 5 bucks with several sporting large antlers. This was a documentary filmmaker’s dream with the glow of morning light, soft fog, and tranquil deer.

Later that morning I filmed a short segment on the endangered Florida Grasshopper Sparrow.  This was a rare occasion to have the opportunity to document one of Florida’s most endangered birds.

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One of the best ways to get out on the preserve is take the swamp buggy tour with one of the park rangers.  The ranger provides an is an excellent commentary on the landscape of the Kissimmee river basin, the vast trail system, and first-hand accounts on how the preserve is being managed.

Another great thing to do at the preserve is stargazing. The Kissimmee Prairie’s remoteness makes it one of Florida’s premier locations for stargazing.  This is on my bucket list to capture a series of time-lapse images of the stars across the prairies.

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During the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition in 2012 the team trekked and camped at the preserve.  After a grueling day, four grubby explorers were grateful for a camping facility with hot showers, electricity and running water.

With lots of things to see and do, the Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park is definitely one of my top ten places to film and photograph in Florida. I hope you take time to explore and experience this unique landscape of Florida.

Flowers in South Florida


By Elam Stoltzfus



Flowers are pixie dust spread by the hand of God covering the world in beauty.


Springtime on my granddad’s farm was spectacular – apple trees, dogwoods, and hedges all bloomed as winter’s frost receded. By the house, my grandma and mother planted bunches of violets at the windowsills. In the garden, there were lilies in late spring. My grandparents’ homestead was inspiration for me; I recall sketching images of flowers with pencils during my early childhood.

As I delve into filmmaking, I continue my fascination with flowers. It’s always a challenge to capture a close-up, catching the best light to highlight the intricate features of a flower.

I have traveled all over the state of Florida and my favorite place to film images of flowers are in the Big Cypress National Preserve and the Fakahatchee Strand Presreve State Park. Flowers across the landscape of South Florida are like twinkles on the icing of your favorite cake – a vast array of colors, shapes, and sizes from the swamp lilies to the bromeliads and to the elusive ghost orchid.


While filming The Big Cypress Swamp: The Western Everglades, Fakahatchee Preserve biologist Mike Owen showed me a piece of Florida that I will never forget. Mike Owen is the ghost orchid expert and has made several discoveries of rare orchids in the swamp. Mike’s never ending knowledge of orchids and his thrill of being in the swamp is catching.  If you get separated from Mike, his famous call is, “Hootie Hoooo!”


On multiple occasions, I schlepped through the muckiness of the Fakahatchee with Mike. My goal was to film the ghost orchid as the flower unfurls into full bloom. The smell of the ghost orchid is like a lady’s perfume, fresh and intoxicating.


One of my favorite treks was a night trek into the swamp. I was hoping to capture on video the sole pollinator of the ghost orchid—the rarely seen sphinx moth. On this occasion, I went with Mike, my son, Nic, photographer Rick Cruz, and park director Renee Rau. We donned mosquito nets, carried the video gear into the swamp, set up lighting, and waited.  And waited.


After hours of patiently waiting–no sphinx moth. But we did capture some great video of the orchid at night and it was an adventure to remember. Last year, I revisited the area with the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition team. You can read more about our experience from fellow expeditioner Joe Guthrie’s blog post: http://www.floridawildlifecorridor.org/29-january-2012-fakahatchee-day-2/

If you have a garden, like I do, and want to learn more about how to plant Florida natives, I recommend checking out plantrealflorida.org. I have gotten several great ideas from their site.

Also, if you want to support saving Florida’s wildflowers, consider getting a Florida Wildflower license plate. You can find more info here: http://flawildflowers.org/buy_it_here.php.

Cowhands in Florida?

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by Elam Stoltzfus

October 21, 2013


This 90-second interstitial is a segment from the 13 part series I produced for WUSF and funded by the Mosaic Company.  Creating this series was an opportunity to dig into the archives of previous footage and tell new stories about a collection of great natural environments in Florida.

In 2009 several ranches in central Florida were featured for the Kissimmee Basin: the Northern Everglades documentary and later in 2012 for the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition: Everglades to Okefenokee documentary.  Ranches and cowhands (cowgirls and cowboys) in Florida maintain large tracts of land that are an essential piece for healthy wildlife habitat.

When I interviewed Florida rancher Cary Lightsey, he said, “Florida’s had cattle for five hundred years, …and they had buffalo before that.  To me, [it] is a stationary part of Florida ranchland…  And it’s just a great cow state, and a lot of people don’t realize how great of a state that Florida is for cattle”.


Florida Wildlife Corridor expeditioner, Carlton Ward, Jr., commented, “I want the people of Florida and our country to know that there is this amazing culture of people in the Florida ranching community, who have been on that landscape sometimes for nearly two centuries; and it’s because of these ranches that we still have the opportunity to protect the corridor for water and for wildlife”.


Interviewing Carlton and Cary Lightsey reminded me of my time growing up on a dairy farm. Like the ranching communities in Florida, my forefathers, Amish immigrants from Germany, have been working the land in Pennsylvania for centuries. Growing up on a dairy farm taught me how to work hard and forged in me a respect for the land.

As a young boy, free time was spent exploring the woods, observing wildlife, and fishing in a nearby creek. I first went fishing when I was five, and I used one of my mother’s safety pins as the hook. I guess none of the fish were looking to get pinned, so I came back home empty-handed.  Later, I got myself a real fishing hook and snagged reams of bass and brim (“sunnies” in Lancaster, PA, slang) from the local farm ponds.

Working on a farm takes commitment and hard work, dawn ‘til dusk. Come to think of it, I always had a few chores in the barn in the morning before breakfast and before going to elementary school. Wonder what I smelled like? Hmmm…

Growing up with dirt in my fingernails makes me appreciate and respect the ranchers and cowhands here in Florida.  It was an honor for me to work alongside these decent country folk, listen to their stories, and learn about how they truly are “keepers of the land.”

When you travel across Highway 60 from the coasts, or go from Yeehaw Junction to St. Cloud or south through the counties of Glades and Highlands, take time to slow down and drive back the gravel roads, off the beaten path.  You may see a glimpse of cowhands riding horses and rounding up cattle in the pastures of Florida.  Cowboys in Florida are one of our great state’s “signature images” that represent our past, present, and future.

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For more information visit:





Introduction to the Big Cypress National Preserve

Written by Elam Stoltzfus

October 7th, 2013


This 90-second interstitial is a segment from the 13 part series I produced for WUSF and funded by the Mosaic Company.  Creating this series was an opportunity to dig into the archives of previous footage and tell new stories about a collection of great natural environments in Florida.

In 1989 I made my first trip into the Big Cypress National Preserve. Bev and Mike Lewis of Silk Purse Productions in Tallahassee were producing a special PBS production about Clyde Butcher.  This introduction was filmed with Clyde, a fine-art landscape photographer, and his wife, Niki. They were a gracious host and hostess.


What I found upon entering was amazing; the vast prairie landscape was dotted with miniature bald cypress trees. There was beauty of big open sky space. I remember walking through the swamp grass and feeling the sponginess of the soil.  It was during the drier season of the year. We filmed in the Big Cypress area for several days. I recall climbing up a 12-foot ladder to film Clyde with his old pre-civil war view camera out in the middle of the prairie.  There was sense of smallness in the middle of this huge landscape, yet an intimate moment of interacting with this ancient land.


Fast forward to the year 2008 and 2009: I was spending weeks in the Big Cypress National Preserve putting together an hour-long documentary, The Big Cypress Swamp: the Western Everglades.  By this time Clyde Butcher had established the Big Cypress Gallery right in the middle of the Preserve along Highway 41.  With the use of their cottage, this was home base for almost two years of documenting the swamp.  The Preserve was a great partner providing logistics and giving me access to remote areas of the 700,000-acre region.


During my few years of documenting the Big Cypress region, I began to understand that this a hotbed of biological diversity. It contains a mixture of tropical and temperate plant communities that are home to a diversity of wildlife, including the elusive Florida panther.

I have several great memories from my time filming the documentary. One was being with two landowners, Steve DeLine and “Hoss” Cartwright, during a trip to their hunting camp about halfway between Monroe Station and I-75 within the preserve.  The trip took five hours by swamp buggies.  The location was remote and very wild; located among a series of cypress domes.

Another moment was coming back from Bear Island Camp area and seeing a young panther crossing the road.  Sammy Tedder was traveling with me; he was able to get a quick image on his still camera.


One evening I had set up the camera and ladder, just north of Wagon Wheel Road to capture a time-lapse sunset.  As I was standing on the ladder (this takes about 45 minutes) waiting for the camera to capture the sequence, I heard some sloshing in the distance. The sound became more prominent and closer.  As I continue to scan the horizon for what was making this sound, I finally spotted a Florida Black Bear meandering around the cypress strand and slowing moving around to the right of my location.  I never moved and observed his movement until the bear disappeared in the distance.


Big Cypress Swamp provided me with an interaction with nature, up close and personal.  After spending so much of my time on location to document the “Eden swamp”, I took a bit of the swamp that now is part of my soul, but I also left a bit of my soul in the deep swamp of the Western Everglades.


Now, fast forward again to 2012, the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition traveled through the Big Cypress National Preserve as we transversed from the Everglades to Okefenokee.  Its here we met up with Bob DeGross, Big Cypress Preserve Chief Park Interpreter, and Franklin Adams, Florida Wildlife Federation Board member. They both talked about the importance to have large-scale wilderness areas for wildlife and for people. These places of quiet, remote wilderness are for the healing of the soul and renewal of the spirit.  The Expedition team camped out in the primitive camp ground before hiking through the addition lands on our way to the Big Cypress Seminole Reservation.


For more information about the Big Cypress Swamp: Western Everglades go to: http://www.bigcypressswamp.org/home.html or http://www.nationalparks.org/explore-parks/big-cypress-national-preserve. The National Preserve has a Visitor’s welcome center with a theatre and an educational display to learn more about the Big Cypress Swamp.

For more information about landscape photographer Clyde Butcher visit www.ClydeButcher.com.  A must see place is the Clyde Butcher Gallery along Highway 41, halfway between Naples and Miami.