Learning Nature

Across the great state of Florida, many organizations offer educational courses to learn about Florida’s ecosystems. Some organizations even offer free webinar presentations, and for the past year, I have been very passionate about learning. And you ask what does this have to do with photography? Opportunities to give you different photographic views, inspiration, and a purpose to understand what you are photographing. 

While enrolled in different courses and even volunteered with conservation projects, these all have increased my inspiration of nature photography and the desire to expand my knowledge.

I believe we all have a ‘photo wishlist.’ We all want to get that amazing photograph, and some will go to great lengths to accomplish that. However, maybe it’s time to stop and take a step back by changing that photo checklist and putting a purpose/reason behind it—Knowledge is Inspirational.

You can begin by learning about Florida’s ecosystems. Taking the time to learn may help you decide what type of habitat you gain the most inspiration.

For instance, I love open upland pine habitats. Longleaf pines, sandy soils, open canopies, and the ground level scattered with saw palmetto, bracken ferns, and seasonal blooms. It’s just an awe-inspiring photographic landscape. That visual interpretation encourages me to know what species thrive within this habitat. I can learn what species of wildflowers bloom in upland pinelands during different seasons and further that knowledge by exploring other wildlife species that thrive in this community. 

It’s a lot to learn, but there is a simple breakdown without getting too overwhelmed. 

While there are many attributes, characteristics, and environmental factors that break down all of Florida’s ecosystems into different habitats, learning the basics is an excellent kickstart for your photographic inspiration. 

Florida Ecosystems | Alice Mary Herden

Florida Ecosystems | Alice Mary Herden

Florida’s Ecosystems

There are several habitats within these environments, but I would like to keep it simple. The focus here is to find which habitat inspires you. 



  • Open landscape
  • Sandy Soils

You can think of uplands as longleaf pine landscape with saw palmettos and bracken fern


  • Dense vegetation
  • Partial sun and shade

Think waist-high thick scrub oaks, sandy soils, Sable palms, and a few pines, dry climate. 


  • Dense hardwoods, like oak trees
  • Shade

Think of thick vines, condense oaks, moist/wet soils. Not a lot of sunlight penetrates hammock habitats. 



  • Swamps
  • Rivers
  • Lakes

Wetlands are embedded throughout Florida’s landscape. If you think about wetlands, you’re thinking more of wading birds and alligators.


  • Marshes
  • Sand Dunes/Beaches
  • Oceans

Coastal 100% in the sun! Coastal supports a variety of wildlife that depends on water, mostly brackish freshwater and saltwater. 

I did stumble upon a great illustration here: 

Ecosystem Illustration

Further reading: https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/topic_florida_ecosystems

Once you have narrowed it down, now it’s time to dig into learning about the different types of habitats. 

Selecting one or two habitats will encourage you to view nature differently and the way you photograph.

There are a couple of books I do recommend: 

-Ecosystems of Florida

-Florida’s Waters

-Florida’s Wetlands

-Florida’s Uplands

Check out your local used bookstores or online. 

I often purchase books on Abebooks.com.

So after defining the habitats, now it’s time to get to the good stuff; flora and fauna. Not all places have the same plant and animal species. And I feel it’s important for any nature photographer to spend a reasonable amount of time photographing what species and in what habitat they enjoy photographing. 

The keyword here is Enjoy.

Nature photography is not only learning about what and where you are photographing but the enjoyment of being there. Love where you photograph.

Let’s say you enjoy photographing beetles. Of course, there are hundreds of species of beetles that live in different habitats. Beetles can thrive in the upland pines or swim on the water’s surface. Some are over 5 inches long as others may be just millimeters in length, and some seem like they come straight out of a science fiction/ horror movie. But once you start learning about these beetles, you can put that information into your photography.

Carolina Burying Beetle or Margined Burying Beetle | Alice Mary Herden | Oct 2019

Carolina Burying Beetle or Margined Burying Beetle | Alice Mary Herden | Oct 2019

Let’s take the Burying Beetle.

I stumbled upon one of these in our front yard and was fascinated by it. It was crawling over a deceased leopard frog. I had no idea what this beetle was or what it was doing. I snapped some photos, got a valid identification, and did my research… Carolina Burying Beetle or Margined Burying Beetle, a type of Sexton beetle. 

While researching, I also learned that another burying beetle, the American Burying Beetle, is federally listed as an endangered species. Who would have thought a beetle would be an endangered species? The USFWS had constructed a recovery plan in 1991 in the New England area and again in 2008. 

The time researching gave me not only an educational snapshot but inspiration. It also gave me a visual insight into how I could photograph this beetle differently. It opens a whole new way of seeing what I see through the lens. And what is really neat is now put a story behind the photo. I can add and share more information about my photos than just saying, ‘this is a beetle.’ I can say, this is a Carolina Burying Beetle or Margined Burying Beetle. It feeds on the carcasses of dead animals. The coolest part of this beetle is its antennae. Those simple black antennas with large orange spheres at the tip are sensitive to the smell of carrion, leading the beetle to deceased animals. And get this, it buries carcasses underground. How crazy is that!

The other essential part of learning is the unique characteristics of the subject(s) you’re photographing. The colors, whether they are muted or vibrant, do females have different coloration or patterns, and more questions will follow. 

Granted, this is probably not what you expected as an example for this article, but I hope it can inspire you to see ALL of nature. 

Nature photography isn’t always about cute animals and pretty flowers; it’s also about exploring what makes the wild wild.

I think many nature photographers are visual learners, as well. As you learn about Florida habitats, species, and so forth, you can become visually knowledgeable and change how you photograph.

If you like, create a photographic-nature journal or a photographic-nature observation notebook. It’s a way that you can go back to a location to see if there are any changes, different photographic views, and putting what you learned into action.

 Your photographic journey is in full swing, you have a new direction and new purpose of exploring what makes Florida uniquely awesome. 

Remember always to be aware and be safe when learning on your own and out photographing nature. Even the smallest of creatures can have a poisonous and painful bite.

Volunteering is another way to learn. You can volunteer with FWC, Florida Audubon, Florida Native Plant Society, or other conservation organizations. They have many projects you can help with, and you will also contribute towards conservation. 

2 replies

  1. I really enjoyed this excellent article! You have laid out a very cohesive basic approach for photographers (or anyone interested in natural history) to learn about their subjects.

    As you point out, once one takes a photograph of a beetle, it then becomes imperative (for me, anyhow) to discover more about that beetle. The photo was just the beginning. And so it goes for each photo adventure.

    Thank you for your efforts!


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