Have you driven by a pond for years and never stopped to examine the waterfowl swimming around on it? Or vaguely noticed the night sky without sitting still to watch the stars? You aren’t alone. But artists like Beth Cowan Drake can tell you…the world around you is worth a slowdown. 

This awareness is a skill Beth spends much of her time helping others sharpen. Beth is a digital content creator, writer, and founder of the popular Facebook group “Alabama the Beautiful.” A professional photographer, she invites others to pause and see the world around them, capture it in images, and share it for all to enjoy. 

Beth grew up in a farming family outside of Huntsville in the Big Cove community. She has remained in Huntsville throughout her life.

“I didn’t get a nice little Brownie or anything like that,” Beth says. “I hear about a lot of the people who got a Kodak Brownie when they were younger. I had a Polaroid.”

While studying computer science in college, she took some elective photography classes, learned how to use a manual camera, and before she knew it was creating a darkroom in her house and processing some of her own film. By the early 90s she transitioned to digital photography, purchasing a Canon Rebel and packing up the darkroom and storing it in her attic. 

I love the digital world, and I love the post-processing, the editing process,” she says. “It’s similar to going into the darkroom, but so much easier.”

Though Beth spent a lot of time outdoors growing up, she, like many of us, didn’t notice the details of the environment around her. But her vision became focused through the lens.

Photography really taught me to open my eyes and see what was out there,” she says. “In the digital space, you can take so many photographs. You don’t have to send them to a lab. When I started doing digital photography, I really started in the landscape space. I love to do sunsets and sunrises, and I eventually evolved into doing astrophotography.”

A few years ago, Beth started doing wildlife photography and bird photography. “I find it so fascinating to see something like that creation that up close that you can’t see with your naked eye,” Beth says. “You can get a pair of binoculars, but you can’t stop them — they’re flying. Or even things like alligators down on the Gulf Coast. When you take a photograph of it and you bring it back into your computer, you get to see the shot up close and all that detail. You wouldn’t see that normally with your eyes.”

Beth and her camera didn’t focus specifically on Alabama until she joined a Facebook group called Forgotten Alabama, started by Glenn Wills. 

“I was one of those people that, if I didn’t know you enough to talk to you when I saw you at Walmart, I probably wasn’t going to be friends with you on Facebook,” Beth laughs. “But I had a cousin that just kept putting me in the Forgotten Alabama group, and eventually I started seeing that people were taking some really cool photographs. I got challenged by it. I took out my digital camera that I normally only took on vacations, and I started shooting around the state. I was trying to find those abandoned and forgotten things I could post on that group.”

That experience lit a fire of inspiration in Beth. “When you start posting like that in a Facebook group and you start getting a lot of attention — likes and shares and all of that — it’s a little addictive, to have that kind of positive feedback,” she says. “Then I started realizing I wanted to shoot the beautiful sunrises and sunsets and just beautiful scenery and landscapes. I reached out to Glenn and said, ‘You know, I want to start my own group. I don’t want to compete with you. I want to start to work together.’ He already had a lot of followers. He was very kind to me about that.”

Wills let Beth promote her new group, Alabama The Beautiful, on his page, as did Birmingham meteorologist James Spann. She built her page by inviting friends, along with reaching out to camera clubs and inviting them to join and post on the page. The group took off immediately. Alabama The Beautiful is a former slogan for the state, and Beth felt it fit the aesthetic of the photography she wanted to promote. The group currently has over 310,000 members and is growing every week.

“We get even more views than that,” Beth says. Membership really means you can post to the group or comment in the group. You have to be a member to do that. Because it’s public, up to 2 million people a month view the photographs in the group.” 

The bank of photographs grew, and the vastness of the state’s stunning scenes became apparent. Folks who join the group are serious about showcasing the large and small wonders of Alabama, whether they’re shooting in Bankhead National Forest or downtown Mobile. And the group is much like a family, Beth says. They’re thrilled to find folks with the same interest.

The Facebook group even spawned a digital magazine for a period of time. All 25 issues of the gorgeous publication can be found online at https://alabamathebeautifulmagazine.com/

Birds are a subject Beth has taken a particular interest in. In fact, one of her photographs of a bald eagle was the inspiration for the breathtaking eagle statue at Lake Guntersville State Park in honor of eagle awareness and the restoration of the species in Alabama. The statue has a 25-foot wingspan and is a must-see when you visit the park.

From Alabama’s coastal areas to the forests, the diversity of birds is remarkable. The bird photography community is really growing around the state,” Beth says. “And I’ve been honored to teach bird photography classes at the state parks for the last couple of years. I think people realize that it’s really hard to capture a bird with a cell phone. Don’t get me wrong, lots of people use cell phones and post pictures from them, and we love that. But if you want to get up close and personal with hummingbirds or bald eagles, you’ve got to have pretty good camera equipment with long lenses.

“We have a growing community of people around the state of Alabama that are really loving bird photography or just getting into it or improving it,” she adds.

So, if you want to get up close and personal to capture images of birds, how do you go about it? Beth teaches students about the resources available around the state, such as the Alabama Birding Trails (alabamabirdingtrails.com), other websites, and apps such as Merlin that help you identify species around you by sound, but also apps that tell you where the birds are currently being spotted. 

I think it’s just something that we don’t necessarily think about because we’re around them every day,” says Beth. “But I think that as we get older, we start to appreciate creation and life more than we did when we were younger.”

Astrophotography is a term many of us haven’t heard before, but it’s another of Beth’s passions. 

I grew up in the Huntsville area. So, when you grow up around NASA, and I worked at NASA for a little while, I think you start to appreciate what’s in the night sky and what’s above you,” she says. “It seems as if the stars and the Milky Way are moving above you, and to be able to capture that with a proper lens and a good camera, just like birds, to be able to see the detail on the moon, for instance, is just incredible.

“You can’t necessarily see the Milky Way very distinctly here in the State of Alabama, because the eastern part of the United States is so bright,” Beth continues. “But if you have a really good camera for it, you can go in dark areas like around Little River Canyon and up on some of the mountains that we have here, like Cheaha, where I’ve shot the Milky Way, or even out on the beach. I’ve been out at Fort Morgan and out on the beach where it’s really dark. If you’re aimed up in the sky, you can see the Milky Way out on Fort Morgan. There are some fantastic events in the night sky that you can take your camera out and really experience.”

Speaking of the skies, Beth decided to experiment with drone photography about three years ago, first recreationally with a mid-size drone, and fairly soon afterward with a bigger, better one. Licensed through the FAA to pilot a drone, she has since taught drone photography. But her flights haven’t always gone perfectly. 

“I’ve had four drones, and one of them, Thanksgiving before last, I crashed into Asheville City Hall. So that wasn’t good,” he recalls. “Also, I drowned one of my drones. I was trying to shoot a waterfall, trying to get out over the water to get a great shot. It just decided to land. Well, it landed in the water and wound up on the bottom. That wasn’t fun. I would say my advice is to always get the insurance.” 

But she has shot some amazing sights with a drone, both in the United States and abroad.

No matter what your equipment or environment, Beth says the technical aspects of photography are very teachable versus the intangible skills of how to see a subject.

“I have an engineering background and I have a master’s degree in software engineering, so I’m a technical person in that way,” Beth says. ‘The technical piece, I think, is very teachable. The hard piece is to teach what to see and what to look for — proper lighting, proper composition, interesting composition — just the ability to see as you’re editing, because the shot that you got with your camera, you can improve upon that quite a bit. And I don’t mean over-editing or over-processing, but to properly crop it so that you have interesting leading lines coming into the photograph or interesting light sources in the photograph that make it a little bit more unique.” 

Patience and openness to a change of plans also make for better photography.

I write a lot with my photographs, because I post them online and I try to write about the experience of having captured that photograph,” Beth says. “So many times, it seems I go somewhere and I am looking to take one thing and I come home with something different because it grabbed me. You can’t predict how the light is going to be in the sky or how the clouds are going to form.

Beth offers a dramatic example. “I was out trying to shoot a sunrise, and I literally was not even thinking about the alligators in the pond,” she says. “I was trying to get the right light with the sun coming up over that bridge. And suddenly there was an alligator. I was able to get that shot. I’ve shot a lot of alligators since then with my camera but never like that. I think the surprise of it … he was looking at me. I’ll never get it like that again.”

As a classic song says, every picture tells a story. And that story, in Beth’s view, should be authentic. With all her knowledge of photo processing and editing, Beth feels that what she captures with her camera should be reality, not a scene concocted by editing software. 

I don’t care about putting two things together that didn’t really happen. I want to capture that moment because it’s fleeting, and we’ll never see it again,” she says. “So you may go out every morning and try to capture a sunrise, but it’s never going to be the same. It’s always going to be special. And something that you did, that you were standing in that spot that only you could see from that point, from that perspective. To me, that’s what makes photography an incredible thing to do.”

Alabama the Beautiful is the Facebook page for photographers, and Beth’s personal page Beth Cowan Drake, along with her website BethCowanDrake.com, are places to see her photography, read about her experiences and find out where to sign up for one of her workshops.