My recent trip to Key West Florida during the first week of March was my first ever trip to this area of Florida. To be honest, I am not a big fan of Florida but the rest of my family is, and truth be told I was looking forward to some warm weather. The long slow grind that is winter in the Northeast and New England was starting to take its toll. I had had my fill photographing white, grey and brown, I am ready to photograph something green, and if summer was taking its time getting to me, then I could go to summer. Packing is easy for the sun and fun of a warmer climate, both for attire and photo gear. Since I would be traveling by airplane, I would have to pack limited gear. My standard air travel gear is two Fuji bodies ( X-T1 and X-T2) and three lenses, the 18 -135 mm, 10-24 mm wide zoom, and 23 mm f1.4 prime. I also packed my infrared converted Fujifilm X-E2 camera body which works well when paired with the 23mm f1.4 prime lens. All this equipment, along with my filters, batteries, and memory cards fits conveniently in one Peak Design Everyday Messenger 15 shoulder bag. The bag fits comfortably under the seat in front of me on most planes.
The plan was to fly to Miami then rent a car and make the 3-hour 150-mile drive down US 1 to Key West. Having never before made the journey, I did not know what to expect photographically. That was a good thing since the first 100 miles is mostly urban sprawl with fast food chains, traffic lights and an impressive collection of souvenir shops. One does never know when they will need a collective seashell or a delicious piece of Key Lime Pie. The last 50 miles of the trip was more what I imagined it would look like, mostly because this is the area used by the local tourism department to promote the Keys. Long bridges stretching over miles of beautiful blue and green tropical waters. You will cross over 47 bridges as you make your way through the entire Keys, most of them are in the last 50-mile stretch. The most famous (and photographed) is the seven-mile bridge which offers impressive scenery in all directions. While all of this was interesting, nothing made me stop the car to explore photographically. Straight on to Key West was the plan. One point of context, the Florida Keys was hit by a devastating Hurricane in September 2017. The devastation left by Hurricane Irma is still very evident especially in the mid-keys which sustained the worst damage. This effects the photographic aesthetics of the landscape.
I arrived in Key West in time to get a few sunset shots before the day came to an end. What I did not know was that sunset is a big deal in Key West. Mallory Square is where what seems like the entire island, gathers for every sunset. This shoreline park faces the setting sun and every night there is the sunset festival complete with street performers, vendors, restaurants and lots of alcohol. As the last sliver of sun drops below the horizon, the entire crowd breaks into applause and then disperses to the numerous bars and restaurants that make up Duval Street. Duval Street is to Key West what Bourbon Street is to New Orleans. The sunsets are beautiful to watch but not very eventful to photograph. It is the land of no foreground, and most days the weather is perfect with big deep blue skies and no clouds. Sunsets are a giant orange ball dropping over the horizon, it’s quick and lacks the dramatic atmosphere that makes sunset photos so interesting. You quickly learn that the photo opportunity here is photographing all the photographers. You must wade through a jungle of arms raised high with cell phone cameras held high. Sunrises have a little more to offer photographically. There are a small number of beaches on the island and most face east towards the rising sun. These long narrow stretches of sand do offer some landscape/seascape opportunities; most will include silhouetting some palm trees against the rising sun. These mornings turned out to be the best landscape opportunities, and I made sure to take advantage every morning.
While I found Key West to be a challenge for landscape photography, it is a great place for street photography. The long narrow streets are lined with tropical themed pastel-colored structures. There is a beautiful nautical design to the much of the architecture of the island, especially the churches, stately homes and even the government structures. The lifeblood of street photography is people – interesting people. The island provides plenty of characters to keep cameras busy. The street performers, local merchants, and local residents provide plenty of local flavor and are generally willing subjects. While street photography is not my “thing”, I did give it a try at times with mixed results. I find the Fujifilm XF 23mm f1.4 lens perfect for this type of photography. Some of the other interesting places to photograph are the home of American author Ernest Hemingway, the summer residence of President Harry Truman, a beautiful lighthouse, the famous tavern, Sloppy Joes. There is even a nice Butterfly Sanctuary right on Duval Street amongst all the bars and restaurants.
My departing impression is that Key West offers plenty of opportunities for street photographers and action/water sports photography. Landscape photographers will face some challenges if you wish to look past the traditional palm tree sunset and sunrise photos. Then again, you can enjoy the weather and attractions while you ‘re traversing those challenges. Things could be worse.