Photographing South Padre Island - My Favorite Places

South Padre Island

South Padre Island is a special place for many Texans as well as out-of-staters. The beaches and clear waters are the best on the Texas coast, and the food is pretty darn good, as well. I’m lucky to have a few friends who grew up in this area - and who speak a little Spanish - show me around and share their favorite haunts.

I try to make it to the coast a few times a year, sometimes with my family and some specifically to focus on photography, and in either situation, I have a good time. The more I make the long drive down from the Hill Country, the more places I find to explore and photograph. That said, here are my favorites (at least until my next trip!)

Laguna Madre Nature Trail
– Located at the north end of town, this boardwalk through sea grass and marshland provides views of the bay as well as opportunities to spot many varieties of birds – some local and some migratory. Egrets, herons, ibis, mockingbirds and sandpipers are just a few that frequent this boggy area.

Great Blue Heron - South Padre Island 2

Lurking in the coastal waters around South Padre Island, a great blue heron stalks unsuspecting fish. The beautiful bird seemed undeterred by our presence.

The boardwalk traverses 1,500 feet of trail and makes for a nice area for families or photographers. When toting a camera, telephoto lenses definitely come in handy in this area. I always have a tripod, but some folks may prefer to use the stabilizers on their lenses. Either way, as in nearly every case when carrying a camera, the hours around sunrise and sunset are the most productive.

South Padre Island Sunset 1012-2

The sun sets on another beautiful day on South Padre Island in South Texas. Two birds sit on a wood pylon enjoying the last orange light of day. Not far from the mainland, this island is a mecca for tourists and for those just wanting an escape for a few hours or a few days.

Isla Blanca Beach
– This beach is found on the southern tip of the island with a long jetty marking the end point. The water here tends to be clearer from springtime sargassum (seaweed) thanks to a jetty acting as a barrier, but it can still end up dotting the beach with blobs of goo. This beach does require payment, and I usually purchase a month pass - $30 as of this writing – that allows beach-goers and fishermen to enter at 6am. One of my favorite times to visit this area, as well as any area in South Padre, is late spring when the wildflowers appear. A coastal variety of morning glories bloom in shades of pink and violet, turning the dunes and some sandy areas into colorful mounds.

Reaching for the Ocean 608-1

I arrived well before sunrise at a remote beach on South Padre Island. However, I had to wait for a while for these morning glories to bloom. Fortunately, this little vine sprang to life a bit earlier than the thicker areas, allowing me to focus my attention on these for a few minutes.

These flowers don’t bloom until first light, so be prepared to show some patience as they gradually awaken and open their petals for the day. On this beach, I use both a wide-angle lens (16-35L and 11-24L) for the wildflowers as well as a tele (70-200L or 400L) for the birds that scamper along the beach in the first hours of sunrise.

Morning Glories bloom along the South Padre Island Beach on a warm June morning.

Morning glories open up their beautiful pink petals as the sun rises over the gulf coast along South Padre Island. These colorful wildflowers wait until first light before blooming, and on calm mornings such as this, they add a splash of vibrant color to this quiet sandy beach.

Isla Blanca Jetty
– As mentioned above, this jetty marks the end of Isla Blanca Beach on the south side of the island. It is a prime spot for fishermen, and for us photographers, makes a nice place to shoot north across the beach and capture the South Padre skyline in the distance.

Before Sunrise - South Padre Island 09

The skyline from South Padre is reflected on the beach in this morning photograph. I had gulls watching me and clouds moving in as a front neared this barrier island. Within about 35 minutes, sideways rain and high winds had replaced this peaceful scene. Crazy Texas weather!

Lenses I’d use here would include both wide-angle and telephoto depending on what I wanted.

The Jetty at Sunrise- South Padre Island 608-1

The jetty near Isla Blanca reaches out into the warm gulf waters from South Padre Island. The high clouds let up in pastel pink and orange while the low clouds moved swiftly across the sky on this humid early June morning.

Queen Isabella Causeway
– Covering 2.5 miles over the bay (Laguna Madre) and connecting South Padre Island to the mainland, the Queen Isabella Memorial Bridge opened in 1974. This long bridge is nice to photograph from either end. On the South Padre side, there are walkways that extend out and make for a nice place to see the entirety of the causeway. You’ll have to jockey for spots with fishermen, as well, because this seems to be prime real estate for anglers.

Full Moon Rising over South Padre Island 1

Once a month - and once in a blue moon - the full moon rises in the east as the sun sets in the west. This after-sunset image comes from Port Isabel and looks across Laguna Madre to South Padre Island. The Queen Isabel Causeway crosses this bay, traveling for over two miles across the channel. I didn’t notice the heron sitting on the wooden pole in the bay until I was back home editing this image. The bird was a nice surprise! He must have stayed there for a because he showed up in my images from here that spanned about 20 minutes.

I’ve used both 16-35 and a 24-105 lenses here, and this is a good place to take several images and turn them into a panorama.

Port Isabel
– Across the causeway and just under three miles from South Padre sits Port Isabel. Dating back to 1519 and founded by Alonzo de Pineda, this south Texas town offers shopping, food, and enough history to make for a nice day of exploring. Arguably, its most famous site is the Lighthouse built in 1852. I’ve visited this location several times – both for sunrise and midday photography – and it never disappoints. I’ve always used a wide-angle lens here, as well.

Port Isabel Lighthouse before Sunrise 512-2

The historic Port Isabel Lighthouse stands tall in this aerial photograph taken a little before sunrise. The historic lighthouse rises 57’ into the humid, ocean air. It was completed and opened i 1852, first serving as a guide for ships coming through the Brazos Santiago Pass to Port Isabel. Today, it is part of the Texas Parks system and open to the public.

Port Isabel Lighthouse Foggy Day Sunrise 510-1

As part of the National Register of Historical Places, the Port Isabel lighthouse stands as a reminder to out Texas history. Built in 1852, the lighthouse guided ships through the Brazos Santiago Pass. On this morning, the low clouds and fog dimmed the sun, creating an orange glow across this coastal town.

Shrimp Boats
– While not a specific location, I find shrimp boats fun to photograph. Most times, you’ll need permission. This is when it is helpful to speak Spanish or have a buddy that speaks the language. If you can gain permission, these ragged and rugged boats, along with their nets and ropes, offer some interesting perspectives. Lenses? Your vision and perspective will determine this!

Shrimp Boats in Port Isabel Panorama 510-1

This panorama shows shrimp boats resting along a dock in Port Isabel, Texas. I wanted to include seagulls in this image since they seemed to be everywhere. I had to take several photos before timing everything just right. This is a spring afternoon along the Texas coast.

This panorama from Port Isabel can be printed in larger and custom sizes.

If you visit this area, I hope you have fun. There is so much to do and see – and there are a lot of people who want to take your money for various activities and entertainment. Enjoy!

~ Rob
Images from Texas

Along some of the dunes on South Padre Island just northeast from Port Isabel, this is an October sunrise as low clouds float...
South Padre Island Sunrise 5

Along some of the dunes on South Padre Island just northeast from Port Isabel, this is an October sunrise as low clouds float over the distand Gulf of Mexico. The mornings along this stretch of Texas coast always amaze me, as do the ever-changing lines in and around the dunes.