Costa Rica trip report

My aim in Costa Rica was to capture as wide a variety of wildlife as possible and at the same time learn a bit more about the use of flash in low light environments.

The first thing I should point out is that if you don't like spiders don't go to Costa Rica! At night there were spiders everywhere. One particular species (which looked similar to our raft spider only larger) was common everywhere. Each night we went out into the forest in darkness searching for frogs and these spiders were all around us on leaves, rocks and tree trunks. To make matters worse they all had two particularly large eyes that really caught the torchlight. Wherever we shone our torches there were a myriad of eyes shining back towards us from the darkness. We could only see the spiders that were closer to the ground, but we knew there were an awful lot more in the canopy above!
  
Our trip was arranged by Greg Basco, a very talented nature photographer based in Costa Rica, through his company Foto Verde Tours. Greg and his colleague Jose were our guides during the trip. We travelled north from the capital of San Jose into the lowland rainforest. Our first base was deep in the forest and it was rather hot and humid! On the first day I was bitten by an array of tiny flies, so from that point on I was covered liberally in Smidge insect repellent, which worked just as well fending off the Costa Rican bloodsuckers as it does on the humble Scottish midge (it contains no DEET so won't melt plastics).
 
For the first few days we concentrated on bird photography. We worked close to the lodge where the birds are tempted out from the forest and down from the trees by a regular supply of bananas! A great variety of very colourful birds visited the site. They were not shy and my 600mm lens was often too long. The size of the birds varied enormously, so a telephoto zoom lens would have been a good option. We were photographing tiny shining honeycreepers one minute and then a three foot tall Great Curassow the next!

On the second day the toucans arrived, both chestnut-mandibled and the spectacular keel-billed. I could never tire of photographing these amazing birds. One evening was spent photographing bats feeding from a flower. It was a great challenge and very enjoyable, but I failed miserably to capture a good image! Cat, on the other hand, got a great shot!!

Keel-billed Toucan

We spent some time at a smaller feeding site nearby where the light levels were very low. There were many smaller birds feeding here, so we set up a perch and four flashes. The flashes were positioned to create both backlight and fill and after a lot of tweaking of settings and flash positions we eventually achieved a natural look to the lighting. After a couple of hours we had captured decent images of around eight species from this particular spot.

Our next base was at the Arenal volcano. The volcano has not been very active for the last few years and the weather was cloudy, so we never saw the top. From here we visited a reptile park to photograph a few captive species that would have been very time consuming to find in the wild. This was great location and we were able to try lots of different angles and lighting effects that would be very difficult if working in the forest. They had lots of different species and the staff were extremely helpful. I would certainly spend two days here on my next visit.

Strawberry (blue-jeans) Poison-dart Frog

A Masked Tree Frog

Our next stop was to photograph wild Scarlet and Great Green Macaws. Unfortunately it was very sunny and flight shots proved difficult as the birds, understandably, don't like to exert themselves in the heat. However, later in the day a thunderstorm passed through and we were able to get some nice portrait shots of both species amongst the bromeliads.

Scarlet Macaw (Ara macao)

We then headed to our final base. This was a huge private nature reserve in the cloud forest and, for me, the best location we visited. There were endless possibilities here and a wide range of wildlife, most of which required quite a bit of effort to find. Thankfully Jose was great as spotting stuff and found many things for us to photograph in the forest from tiny fungi to carnivorous snails!
 
One of the main subjects at our final location were the hummingbirds. This was one of the main reasons that we chose to visit Costa Rica and that we chose Greg as our guide. He has some of the very best hummingbirds images I've seen. Again we worked close to the lodge where the hummingbirds are attracted to feeders full of sugar water. There were around ten different species of hummingbirds present, all quite different. Most of the time we worked with Greg's suggested four flash set-up, which provided consistently good results. After we had secured a number of good images we then began to experiment with backlighting and silhouettes (which I really liked), all using the flash light as the only light source. We both learned a lot about flash during the last three days of the trip. I'm now keen to try some of the techniques out on UK birds when I get the chance.

One of the rainforest lodges that we stayed in

Rainforest fungi backlit using a head torch

 Green-crowned Brilliant Hummingbird feeding from a heliconia

Reticulated Glass Frog (Hyalinobatrachium Valerioi)

Violet Sabrewing Hummingbird in silhouette

A tiny Emerald Glass Frog photographed at night in the rainforest

Our final day was spent in the gardens of our hotel near San Jose. Here we were able to photograph many indigenous plants and trees, along with the rare yellow-eyed tree frog.

A tiny snail ventures out onto a large rainforest leaf

One thing that became clear as the trip went on was that Canon's new 200-400mm lens with it built in 1.4X extender would be the ideal lens for Costa Rica. In many places we were photographing at feeders and our shooting position was limited, so a zoom lens would have helped us adjust our composition according to the size of the subject. When I return I will most definitely be hiring one! I used both my 100mm macro and my 180mm macro, but next time I think I will take a 150mm with a 1.4X extender to save space and weight. A minimum of two flashes were essential, along with a Better Beamer flash extender, off-camera flash cord and small softboxes. I used my Really Right Stuff tripod and ballhead. When using my 600mm lens I attached a Wimberley Sidekick to the ballhead - a very versatile set-up that coped well with the reduced weight of the new 600mm. The one essential accessory that I had to invest in was a Really Right Stuff levelling base, which made the gimbal head much easy to use.

This was a very enjoyable and productive trip and a great introduction to Costa Rica. I will be running my first workshop to Costa Rica using much the same itinerary in November 2015 with Greg arranging the itinerary and Jose as our local guide. If you’re interested in joining the 2016 workshop please email me to register your interest.

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