Wildlife & Landscapes
A 2003 Workshop Portfolio
3 Locations in 10 Days
In early February, 2003, I lead a 10 day wildlife workshop in Costa Rica. Renown naturalist, wildlife artist and author Fiona Reid acted as our guide. Our group of nine visited three major locations; the northeastern Caribbean cost at Tortuguero, the western Golfo de Nicoya area on the Pacific, and the Monteverde cloud forest region of the north central interior.
So much has been written about the natural splendor of Costa Rica that there is little benefit in my repeating it here. Enough to say that for someone from northern climes seeking an active winter holiday there are few better places, especially if wildlife viewing and photography are on the agenda. The country is politically stable, sanitation standards are high, the people are generally friendly, and they welcome tourists. Over 20% of the country is set aside as National Parks and Nature Reserves.
Canon EOS 1Ds with 100-400mm f/5.6L IS lens @ 350mm.
Projection fill-flash with -1 2/3rd exposure compensation
A very early morning boat trip on a secluded canal near Tortuguero brought us close to a pair of Tiger Heron standing on a fallen tree in the river. The male, seen here, was courting the female and both were completely oblivious to us. We were able to get within about 15 feet of the pair and shot dozens of frames as the male postured and preened and the female remain aloof but close by. (No, I'm not anthropomorphizing).
As the warm early morning light started to illuminate the opposite canal foliage it created a brilliant backdrop to the scene. By using projection fill-flash we were able to balance the deeply shadowed foreground with the much brighter background yet still retain a natural appearance
A word of advice though; you will miss more than you will see if you do not have a knowledgeable guide. Travel in a country like Costa Rica with its varied landscape, climates, culture, wildlife and customs is best experienced with the help of a knowledable guide.
If you are not able to have along someone of the caliber of Fiona Reid then do consider utilizing the services of one of the reputable tour companies available. Costa Rica Expeditions is one that I can recommend highly from personal experience. This is especially true if wildlife photography is planned, because the time and place of the best viewing locations will make a huge difference in what you are able to see and photograph on a brief one or two week trip. Of course a general tour group is unlikely to cater to the needs of the serious photographer, so you may want to consider joining a reputable photographic workshop.
Rather than detail our itinerary, this page will simply feature a few of the best landscape and wildlife images that I took during the workshop, along with some of the photographic and technical issues associated with producing them. Another page will feature the work of the workshop participants.
Canon EOS 1Ds with 100-400mm f/5.6L IS lens @ 190mm. ISO 400
Late one afternoon we spent a wonderful hour standing on a highway bridge near Carara National Park, overlooking a river that was simply chock full of massive crocodiles. Some were at least 20 feet in length. I was really glad that they were down there and I was up here.
I shot about 50 frames as the light changed. This one appeals because of the strong shadows on the lower croc and the almost humorous yet menacing expression of his friend in the shadows.
In The Bag
Flying with camera gear in early 2003 is quite different than it was just a year or two before. One major change is that suitcases can no longer be locked. This means that a locked Pelican case containing your photographic gear checked as luggage is no longer an option. Also, internal flights within Costa Rica on 4-5 seaters severely limits the amount and weight of luggage that can be carried.
For this reason I put all of the photographic gear that I would need in a LowePro MiniTrecker. This isn’t the largest carry-on-legal camera bag available, but it held everything I needed and wasn’t too large or cumbersome for the multi-hour hikes that I knew we’d be doing. The high temperatures and humidity found in Costa Rica, especially on the coasts, demands that you keep what you carry on a hike to a minimum. Only the lenses that you think you’ll need that morning or afternoon should go in the pack on a hike. Other lenses, your backup camera body, chargers and everything that is unlikely to be used that morning or afternoon should remain back at the lodge. A rain poncho, water bottle and some snack food are necessities that shouldn’t be left behind though.
Proper footwear is vital, and varies depending on where in the country you’ll be. I took along lightweight hiking boots, rubber Wellingtons and Teva type sandals, and all three saw extensive use.
Canon EOS 1Ds with 100-400mm f/5.6L IS lens @ 160mm. ISO 100
As a landscape photographer I found myself feeling somewhat hemmed in by the cloud forest. I like vistas and open views. I find it difficult to achieve the graphic simplicity that I seek for my images in the dense confusion of the jungle.
Late one afternoon we asked our driver to take three of us that were interested in shooting sunset (the others were chasing birds) down the mountain to where there were some lovely open valley views which we had seen on our drive on the way up to Monteverde. He was concerned though about the narrow, unpaved and twisty two lane road and our ability to find a place to pull the mini-bus over safely. He phone the owner of a horse ranch overlooking one of the valleys and within 20 minutes we were standing on a magnificent wind-swept hill, which produced the photograph seen above. A good driver / guide can be invaluable in a situation like this.
For traveling, in my camera bag were 2 bodies; a Canon 1Ds as my primary camera and a Canon D60 as backup. I had 5 lenses; a Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L, 24-70mm f/2.8L, 50mm f/1.4, 100mm f/2.8 Macro and 100-400mm f/5.6L IS. I also had a Canon 1.4X extender, 550EX flash and MR-14EX Macro Ringlight flash. Naturally I carried extra batteries for both cameras, and four 1GB Microdrives.
In a small shoulder bag I also carried a subnotebook computer, the Fujitsu Lifebook P2110. The usual travel items rounded out the carryon. My lightweight Gitzo 1228 tripod with Acratech head went in my checked luggage along with all necessary battery chargers.
The most important photographic accessory was a Better Beamer. This simple product makes all the difference in the world between successful images and the disappointing shots that so many photographers bring back from wildlife outings. In fact, I consider the BB so vital that I provided one to each of the photographers on the workshop. A polarizer to fit each lens was also de rigueur.
Canon EOS 1Ds with 100-400mm f/5.6L IS lens @ 560mm with 1.4X. ISO 400
No, it's not a superimposition or digital fake. This Egret flew by the posturing Heron and I was able to capture it at the perfect moment. Luck as well as skill, I assure you. I was photographing the Heron, two of them in fact, and out of the corner of my eye saw the Egret approaching. I quickly set the Image Stabilization to Mode 2 and autofocus to AI Servo. Shutter speed was 1/500sec and aperture was set to f11.
I started panning with the Egret and fired a single frame at what I hoped would be the right moment. Even though everything worked very well I was quite far away and this crop shows only about 20% of the full frame. I would have needed to be shooting at about 1000mm for them to fill the frame. I did a bit of "processing" to get the texture and "feel" that worked best with the image, but otherwise this is a straight photograph.
As I expected it would the lens that saw the most use was the Canon 100-400mm f/5.6L IS. The wildlife opportunities included primarily birds, and a lens with this kind of reach makes reasonable sized images possible. Because of the low light levels in the rainforest Image Stabilization is almost a must. Nikon owners will find the 80-400mm VR lens to be the equivalent for their system.
All of the members of this trip were shooting digital, (Canon 1Ds and D60 bodies), and though it was by no means a requirement for the trip digital turned out to offer numerous advantages in the field. Foremost among these was the ability to change ISO instantly as the light changed, and also the ability to shoot at ISO 800 or even higher in the dim jungle light that we frequently encountered, and still produce high quality images.
Because this was a workshop it also meant that we were able to review our day’s shooting each evening, and we would occasionally bring our laptop computers to dinner and pass them around while we discussed the shots that had worked, the ones that didn’t, and why. Even experienced photographers benefit from the ability to see their results while still on location.
Canon EOS 1Ds with 100-400mm f/5.6L IS lens @ 400mm. ISO 400
We took a dusty bumpy ride to a location on the Pacific coast where we hoped to photograph shore birds on a mud flat. But when we got there the tide was out and all that was to be seen were some birds about a mile distant, and a few children playing on some discarded tires.
I was first drawn by the warm tropical light behind them, but then I saw that the forms and lines created by their arms, the palm fronds and the tires created a strong composition. In this frame the intensity of the children's gaze completes the gestalt.
Wildlife photography makes the same demands on your sleep cycle as does landscape work. With landscape you want to be on location ready for best light before dawn, and on location again when most travelers are sitting back at their hotel’s bar sipping a sunset margarita. Wildlife is typically most active in the very early morning and again late in the day. Animals don’t keep banker’s hours and neither do serious wildlife photographers.
Canon EOS 1Ds with 100-400mm f/5.6L IS lens @ 400mm. ISO 400
Vultures are very common in the tropics. They are nature's morticians. Not a very attractive bird, I nevertheless find them fascinating. This photograph has the graphic strength and simplicity that I was looking for. Shot from a slow moving boat.
On this trip we were usually up at 4 am, returning to our lodge or hotel for lunch, a siesta and a swim. We would then set out again in mid-afternoon, usually returning well after dark. Because of these early starts we were usually sound asleep by 9 pm each day. For this reason it is advisable when planning such a trip that your travel partners either also be photographers or be aware of the hours that you’re going to be keeping. You may also wish to schedule a vacation once you return from such a trip (just kidding).
Photographing the Micro World
Canon EOS 1Ds with 100mm f/2.8 Macro lens and MR-14EX Ringlight. ISO 400
One day we went on one of our numerous forest hikes and I decided that rather that pursue birds and monkeys in the canopy I would seek out the very small with my macro photography gear. My eye was caught by a very large fern above my head that was brilliantly backlight. As I looked more closely I saw the patterns created by this mould, and then as I was starting to frame the shot the transilluminated insect wings .
Photographing the micro world is a specialized pursuit, and one that I claim no great expertise at. But with a macro lens and a ring flash the world of the very small is open to pursuit. The same rules of daylight fill-flash reduction work with the MR-14EX flash as with the larger 550EX, and a ratio of about -1 2/3rds produces a very natural look in most instances.
One thing that I've found is that it's very difficult to "see" both the micro world and the larger world at the same time. I really need to be doing one or the other to "focus" my attention appropriately.
Canon EOS 1Ds with 100mm f/2.8 Macro lens and MR-14EX Ringlight. ISO 400
Butterflies and hummingbirds are found in profusion in the Monteverde area. Though similar in size they require vastly different skills and equipment to photograph successfully. With all of my wildlife photography I am less interested in an accurate representation of the subject than I am with showing them in the context of their environment, and thus, hopefully, producing an appealing fine art image.
The Luminous Landscape 2003 Costa Rica
Workshop and Expedition Members
Perry Smith - Michele Jones - Andy Jones - George Smiley - Fiona Reid - Charleene
Sanderson - Wendie Flaster
Michael Reichmann - Chris Sanderson
Photographs taken on this trip by workshop members can be viewed here.
A Canon 1Ds Update & A Lens Failure Report
During this shoot I passed the 5,000 frame mark with my new Canon 1Ds. This is after about 10 weeks of use. The "new" has now worn off and the camera has simply become my familiar primary tool for creating photographs. This seems like a good time to recap what I like the most and dislike the most about both the camera's design and its features and functionality.
My biggest peeve is the rear LCD. It simply isn't as good as the one on the D30 and D60. Images are less contrasty and softer. It's very hard to judge an image's sharpness on such a soft display, even when the magnification mode is engaged. Other than that dust on the sensor is a pain. I have spent the past 2 years using the Canon D30 and D60, which rarely have dust problems. The 1Ds appears to be as bad in this regard as every other DSLR on the market. It seems I'm cleaning the sensor several times a day during busy shoots.
Battery life is not as good as I would wish, though not as bad as I had feared. With heavy use of IS lenses I find that I'm getting about 200 frames on a charge. With non-IS lenses and 8 seconds of review after each frame about 300 images. Two batteries is enough for most days, but I always carry a car inverter with me and charge the down battery when I can during drives between locations.
Canon EOS 1Ds with 28-135mm f/3.5 lens at 28mm. ISO 400
I wish I could tell you that this was taken on an arduous and exotic mountain hike. It wasn't. On a drive though the mountains traffic came to a halt because a truck loaded with bricks had blocked the road ahead due to a broken drive shaft. It could have meant hours of waiting. We hiked up a hill and had lunch at a small hill-side restaurant while we waited for things to sort themselves out.
After lunch we saw this unique forest scene right across the road from the restaurant's entrance. A full belly and the time to "see" what was around us, rather than driving by at 80 km/hr, lead to this enchanting frame. I used a borrowed lens from one of the workshop members because when we abandoned the bus for our hike up to the restaurant all I had on the camera was a 100-400mm zoom. This scene demanded a moderate wide angle to encompass the depth.
The good news is that image quality with the 1Ds is as good if not better than I first reported it to be. I sometimes find myself in a situation where my reflexive first thought is, "I wish I were using medium format rather than 35mm", because the particular shot demands very high image quality. Then I remember that I'm working with the 1Ds and it simply surpasses medium format film in virtually every respect. I'm still somewhat surprised when I pull 13X19" prints done with the 1Ds that look like they were shot with my previous Pentax 67 or Rollei 6008 systems, and are often superior.
I continue to be highly impressed with camera's high ISO image quality. With film I would rarely shoot ISO 400 colour because grain would be too high. In 2002 Fuji Provia 400F changed this for medium format, but I still don't find prints larger than A4 (8X10") really acceptable from 35mm at this speed. With the 1Ds I now shoot at any speed up to and including ISO 400 without a moments hesitation. 13 X 19" prints at ISO 400 hardly show any grain at all. They look like Provia 100F 35mm film. I find myself shooting with the 1Ds at ISO 640 and 800 when doing wildlife work, and though the grain starts to show, it's tight and unobjectionable. Look at the enlarged view of the Tiger Heron above to see what I mean. It was shot at ISO 640.
Canon EOS 1Ds with 100-400mm f/5.6L IS lens @ 400mm. ISO 640
Egrets are among the most common birds seen on Costa Rica. They are difficult to photograph though for a couple of reasons. Like Herons they are very wary, and rarely allow a close approach. Secondly, their feathers are a brilliant white and if you simply use standard metering they will invariably be overexposed and blown out. The best approach to exposure is to spot meter one and then open up about 1.5 stops, or do an average metering of the scene and close down 1.5 stops. In either event the background will likely go very dark, as seen in this moody but very evocative image.
The bad news on this trip is that on the second day I went on a hike with my brand new Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L lens. It was less than a week old. After a half dozen frames I turned the zoom ring to reframe a shot, and it didn't. It was stuck at 70mm, and this is the way it remained for the remainder of the trip. This left a significant gap between the long end of my 16-35mm and the 100mm end of my 100-400mm zoom.
The lens has since been returned to my dealer and replaced, and this sort of thing does happen, but I was not amused. Moral of the story is, be careful taking new equipment on a remote shoot. Test and use a new camera, flash or lens thoroughly before a critical shoot, especially one that's thousands of miles from home.