Florida native and National Geographic Explorer Carlton Ward traveled to Florida on assignment for Nat Geo Travel to photograph Florida’s pristine public lands—from national parks to state park gems. Find out how Ward photographed in and out of the water at the same time.
Having grown up fishing the shallow bays of Florida’s Gulf Coast, I was excited to see Biscayne National Park on my assignment list. As a boy, I remember watching an episode of Walker’s Cay Chronicles on Saturday morning TV in which fabled fisherman Flip Pallot stalked elusive bonefish in Biscayne with his fly rod. The water was so clear and wild, just like the Bahamas, but the skyline of downtown Miami was right in the background.
That image has stayed fresh in my mind for 25 years, so when given the chance to go to Biscayne Bay for the first time and create a photograph to share with the world, I knew exactly what I wanted to show—blue skies, clear water, vibrant grass flats, shimmering gamefish, a sleek skiff, and the excitement of the catch. The challenge would be how to capture these elements in one frame.
A split-level photograph would be my approach. And legendary Biscayne fishing guide Bob Branham would be the perfect host.
In most circumstances, I prefer photographing within an hour of sunrise or sunset. Sight-casting to fish, however, requires the light to be more overhead so the angler and guide can see down through the water. Overhead light means strong shadows, which often causes problems for photos. Even so, I chose not to use an attached flash to maximize maneuverability of the camera, hoping that the shallow, sandy bottom would reflect enough light to fill shadows.
There were big bonefish lurking at the first place we stopped to pole the flats, but lingering cloud cover caused enough glare on the water that we couldn’t spot them until they were too close to the boat and spooked.
We tried a few more spots, moving farther south along Elliott Key. But with neither the weather nor the fish cooperating, I began to wonder whether I would even get a chance to get in the water.
We were headed back to Miami when the sun came out, allowing us to try one last spot. Bonefish, tarpon, and permit are the big three of flats fishing—and Captain Branham’s specialty. Sight-casting on these flats is the pinnacle of the sport. A few permit spooked. Twice they turned with big splashes, only to spit the hook moments later. One finally bit and held on.
This would be the only fish of the day and my one chance to capture a version of the photo I had envisioned. I knelt in the water, contorting to keep my shadow out of the frame but minimizing movement so as not to disturb the sediment and cloud the water. I clicked about a dozen frames as the anglers revived and released the fish. This one is my favorite for its balance of what’s seen above and below: the position of the fish and the body language of the fishermen. They had their catch, and I had mine.
I am thankful to have experienced another piece of wild Florida hiding right in plain sight of millions of urban residents and tourists, just waiting to be discovered.
Photo Tip: For split-level photography, use a super-wide-angle lens to maximize the field of view and improve the capability of capturing content from above and below the surface. Use a large-diameter dome port to keep the water as far as possible from the front element of the lens. Use a large f-stop number (f/11 or f/16) to maximize depth of focus. If using automated aperture priority mode, underexpose to prevent subjects above the water from blowing out.
Photographed with a Nikon D810, a 14-28mm, f/2.8 lens at 14mm, and an Aquatech Elite 800 underwater housing with an eight-inch diameter dome port.