Tips for Landscape Photography in Coastal Texas

I've put together a few lessons-learned that I thought might be useful for folks who might pursue photographic endeavors along the Texas coast, particularly if they hail from some other clime.

So, I live southwest of Houston, and thus spend a lot of weekends wandering around coastal and inland wildlife refuges, exploring state parks (especially Brazos Bend), walking along beaches, and driving random farm-to-market roads. To be honest, I'm not in love with this place. I find most of this area boring, ugly, and uncomfortable to work in. I have, in the past, made some very unflattering comments when describing the environment, and I stand behind them to this day. It's overgrown, monotonous (in texture and color), hot, muggy, and mosquito-infested. It's not the kind of place people go for photography vacations, because there's almost nothing that makes you stop and say, "Oh wow!"

That said, it does have its moments. Carefully-picked, rare, beautiful moments. Which brings me to my first tip for getting good photos in coastal Texas:

Tip 1: Get up early

Getting the dawn and early-morning light is one of the standard pieces of advice for landscape photographers, but let's be honest: if you go to Glacier National Park at high noon, it's still going to be spectacularly pretty. It can't help it. In coastal Texas, however, the pre-dawn light is truly transformative; it can take a dull, overgrown mess of foliage and a wide spot in a bayou and turn it into something exotic.

Two of the best characteristics of dawn in this area end up hiding the "true nature" of the place:

  • The fog that often rises at dawn obscures details, giving plants and structures a soft, almost ethereal look.

  • The rising sun silhouettes the layers of trees and shrubs, giving you organic layers of varying darkness. In bright light, the layers would all merge into an indistinguishable mess of green, but in silhouette, you just see the shapes of the layers: grass, then bushes, then small trees, then tall trees.

But this part of Texas does have one other redeeming feature: the clouds at dawn are often truly spectacular. Even if you have nothing interesting in the foreground, the clouds can often make it worth going out and watching the sunrise. In this humid environment, we have clouds more often than not, and the humidity also lends itself to incredible color saturation.

So, get up early, and go exploring. Places that are ordinary and dull in broad daylight are sometimes incredibly beautiful in the pre-dawn light, and it's totally worth heading out to find them.

Smither's Lake

Tip 2: Pay attention to how you handle your lenses

Somewhere along the way, I'd developed the habit of holding my camera by the lens, instead of by the hand grip, when I was wandering around looking for the right shot. In a warm, humid environment, that has an unfortunate side effect: the heat from my hand was enough to make the lens fog up.

Here's some things to keep in mind when you're trying to keep your lenses clear in this type of warm, humid environment:

  • Warm or cold lenses can fog up. Really, any change away from the ambient temp can cause the lens to fog. I've had lenses fog because I held them too long, and I've had lenses fog because I had a bottle of cold water in the side pocket of my backpack. The closer the lenses are to the ambient temperature, the less likely they are to fog up.

  • Air movement helps clear fogged glass. I wear glasses, which is double the fun in this swamp, because when I stop walking, my glasses immediately fog up. To help reduce fogging, keep air moving over the surface. For camera lenses, you can do that by just swinging the camera gently while you're walking, and maybe a couple more times right before you make the shot. For glasses, I've found that a little battery-operated fan (like the kind they sell at theme parks) can help enormously.

  • High humidity lends itself to mold growth. Make sure you dry out the equipment thoroughly when you're finished. Air conditioning helps remove water from the air, so simply laying everything out on the kitchen table can do the job. Placing equipment in a sealed container with dessicants can work, too, if dry air isn't readily available.

Tip 3: Zoom in

There are not a lot of wide angle spaces around here, unless you find yourself right on the beach or wandering around a marsh. Most of the coastal plains are covered in trees, which give a closed-in feeling to the landscape and can look cluttered and overgrown (not my favorite look). Almost all of the roads run through private property - so, fences, power lines, street signs, and so on will have to be worked around.

One of the easiest ways to work with this type of environment is to use a longer lens than you might ordinarily choose for landscape work. My go-to lens for landscapes in this area is an 80-300mm equivalent lens. I don't see this often talked of as a landscape lens, but in these crowded environments, it makes it much easier to capture the interesting stuff while cutting out the mess around the edges.

Zooming with your feet is also an option, but only in some places, and only if you are properly protected. In many areas, you are going to face private fences (often with armed property owners), alligator-infested water covering sticky mud that will try to eat your shoes, sharp-edged grass that will leave your legs bleeding, or almost-impenetrable thorn-filled brush. Keep in mind, too, that we have both rattlesnakes and cottonmouths throughout this area, which can make off-path hiking somewhat more dangerous. Welcome to the sub-tropical zone.

40 Acre Lake at Brazos Bend State Park

Tip 4: Partly Cloudy/Chance of Storms == WIN

If this part of the state has anything at all going for it, it's the clouds. With the high humidity, we have clouds more often than not, and with the weather patterns along the coast, sometimes those clouds can be truly spectacular.

Still, the best clouds, in my opinion, come on those days when we have a forecast calling for partly cloudy or a small chance of storms (something around 20-30% is good). On those days, it's worth finding an open stretch of coastal prairie and camping out, waiting for the clouds to do something interesting.

So watch the weather forecast, and then check the satellite and radar maps. Keep in mind that blue on the radar often indicates just high humidity and/or dust, not rain. Those are promising indicators for colorful sunrises and sunsets.

Clouds over Brazoria NWR

Tip 5: Prepare for the deluge

Everyone gets rain, but a lot of folks without experience in tropical and sub-tropical zones are really shocked by the heavy downpours we sometimes get around here. In all seriousness, sometimes it's just like someone dumped a bucket of water over your head. Not only that, this kind of rain can sneak up on you with almost no warning. If you're in a vehicle, it can be like driving into a waterfall, with visibility reduced to just a few yards. If you're walking, you get slightly more warning, but the leading edge is often so sharp that you go from a few scattered drops to a deluge within a couple of breaths.

Admittedly, most rain isn't that heavy. But the fact that it can - and does - happen in pretty much every season, several times a year, makes it worth mentioning, and preparing for.

A few notes on dealing with heavy rain:

  • I'm a fan of redundancy in waterproofing. In addition to coating my bag with waterproofing (which handles most light rain easily enough), I also pack my lenses and other electronics in ziploc bags. I keep an extra gallon-size bag handy, too, one that I can shove my camera into on a moment's notice if I get caught out by the rain. I figure the worst case, then, is that my bag gains a couple of pounds in water weight if the padding gets soaked.

  • Listen for the rain. You can often hear the rain coming before it reaches you, though it can sound like wind in the trees. The heavier and more sudden the rain squall, the more likely your ears can give you advance warning.

  • In the city, expect street flooding if heavy rain lasts more than a few minutes. Your best bet is to find a parking lot or other high spot and wait for the waters to recede (this usually doesn't take more than a quarter hour after the rain slacks). Pretty much everyone in Houston understands this type of travel delay.

Further Reading

  1. Moose Peterson posted some advice about cleaning your sensor in humid conditions (add warm, dry air): Sensor Cleaning - Not Always Perfect