In April 2015, I made my fourth trip to Costa Rica, attending a workshop conducted by my friend Greg Basco. With his business partner Paulo Valerio, he founded Foto Verde Tours, creating tours for photographers by photographers. He works with selected lodges to increase the likelihood of good nature photography opportunities. This year’s trip was titled The Art of Biodiversity – Pacific and the itinerary delivered on this promise. [Read more…]
Day 3 – February 2 – Orne Harbor and Cuverville Island
The day started with heavy overcast as we cruised toward Orne Harbor, where a large glacier is the main feature at the end of the harbor and a large hill of exposed rock is on the south opening to the harbor. This is the location of the Chinstrap Penguin colony we were scheduled to visit. A few chinstraps were in the water near the shelf of rock that served as a landing area, but there were thousands of penguins along the ridge. The path to the ridge was on the other side of the ridge, which we saw when the ship rounded the point on the way to the afternoon landing area. Oceanites reported 1000 chinstrap penguin chicks on the ridge. [Read more…]
Day 2 – February 1 – Paradise Bay and Neko Harbour
The day began with clear skies, flat seas, and reasonably warm weather. Our morning stop on this day was the Almirante Brown Station, a scientific research station built by the government of Argentina. The station had been mostly abandoned for a time due to fiscal problems and appeared uninhabited, although there were signs that repairs were being made to some of the buildings. Gentoo penguins were nesting in the areas around the buildings and allowed close observation of the nesting areas along the trail up the hill. I was surprised to find a Sheathbill, a.k.a Antarctic Chicken, a land based bird that is an opportunistic feeder, stealing krill and fish from penguins, eating their eggs and whatever insects they can find. Surprisingly, we were told they also eat penguin poop. [Read more…]
Day 1 – January 31 – King George Island
Our first stop, Bellingshausen Station, is a Russian Antarctic research facility at Collins Harbor on King George Island. Adjacent to this set of buildings are research stations operated by Chile and China. One of the South Shetland Islands, the summer temperatures here are relatively warm, with much of the accumulated melting away, and giving opportunity to lichens, mosses and other vegetation to grow. Unfortunately, much of the snow free areas are muddy. On land, we were allowed to wander around the area, follow one of the expedition staff on a hike along some of the roads, and visit the small Russian Orthodox Church. There were a few Chinstrap penguins along the beach and it was our first exposure to observe these medium–sized seabirds as they interacted with each other. [Read more…]
Chris and I cruised the Antarctic Peninsula with her cousin Beth Devlin and her husband David Vandyke. Beth, a veterinarian, wanted to see penguin chicks, did some research, and asked if we would like to go along. We booked the cruise with Polar Cruises, who provided excellent advice and considerable help in making our way to Argentina to board the ship. After a rough start (our first flight was cancelled causing a one day delay and a lot of rescheduling) we arrived in Ushuaia, Argentina to board our ship, the Akademic Sergey Vavilov which was designed for acoustic research by the Russian Academy of Sciences, and converted to a polar adventure ship. [Read more…]
This spring was a spectacular year for the lady slippers in my back yard. There was one cluster of 20 flowers, with smaller plants of one to three flowers nearby. The flowers are located on the edge of the forest, next to a pile of cut logs with a rack of firewood behind it. Natural lighting can be difficult to deal with as the sun is low on the horizon sending shafts of light through the foliage of the trees. Occasionally overcast skies provided flat light that reduces or eliminates harsh shadows on the flowers. It was an opportunity to try several techniques capturing these beautiful flowers, and I went out early each morning while the air was cool and still. Once the sun starts warming the ground, air currents are created and even the slightest breeze results in significant movement in these large flowers on long stems. I often used a 160 LED lamp to illuminate a single flower. Most images are captured with a Sigma 150mm lens on a Canon 5D Mark II. I used tripod or beanbag for support and a wireless remote shutter release to avoid any movement during exposure. In addition to single captures of the scene, I made many captures with focus stacking in mind as well sets of images (a series of the same image at all f-stops) for use in teaching programs. I also made a few images using a 50mm f/1.8 on the Canon 7D.
The first set of images were made by selectively focusing on different parts of the flower, then merging them into one image file using Helicon Focus stacking software. Last year I had done quite a lot of image taking and analysis in an attempt to understand where focus stacking works and where it doesn’t. The extensive blog posts totaled 30 pages. Helicon Focus recently had an update and added a new stacking algorithm which I used on a trial basis. I was satisfied that it performed well on these image and purchased a one-year license ($30) for the Helicon Focus Lite. I plan to reprocess the images sets I took last year to see if the new algorithm solve some of the problems I described in my posts last year.
The reason for using a stacking program is to benefit from an extended depth of field at the subject while shooting at a large aperture to retain the soft out-of-focus (OOF) background. The images are labeled as a single exposure or number of images stacked, and the f-stop used.
To better see the effect of aperture on depth of field, images of a scene were captured at a various f-stops, and one image was constructed of several captures stacked together. The higher the f-stop (smaller aperture), the greater the definition in the background structure. As the aperture is opened, the depth of field lessens and the background becomes a pleasant, soft blur. Unfortunately, the wide aperture doesn’t capture much of the flower in sharp detail, which is where focus stacking can be of benefit. Care must be taken in capturing images for focus stacking to ensure sufficient overlap in the regions of sharpness. The technique doesn’t always work cleanly, and in some cases there are artifacts that require a lot of editing to correct, if they can be corrected at all.
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This was my second visit to the Galapagos Islands. My wife and I visited in April of 2005, and I never figured I’d return since I have a lot of other locations on my list of places to visit and photograph. This trip was one of the prizes awarded to me as grand prize winner in the 2010 Audubon Magazine photography contest. The cruise was provided by Lindblad Expeditions aboard the National Geographic Endeavor. Lindblad and Nat Geo do organize a great trip, with top notch naturalists, including a few trained by National Geographic photographers to provide advice and guidance to the less experienced photographers among the passengers.
Each day was similar in schedule, but widely different in experience. We’d awake anchored in the location for the morning excursion. Occasionally a choice of activities was offered which might include a long walk, a short walk, or just a stay on the beach but mostly one walk was offered. There was always an alternative activity, usually a zodiac ride along the coast, for those not wishing to take the offered hike. Most landings (all but two) were wet landings; the zodiac would get close to the beach, and the passengers in turn would get off into the water and wade to the beach. The water was never more than knee deep, and towels were provided on the beach to dry off feet and put on shoes for the walk. Upon embarking the ship from the morning excursion, we’d sail during lunch to a second location for the afternoon activity. Between shore excursions were afternoon lectures, occasional deep water snorkeling or kayaking opportunities.
The weather was mild and cloud covered for sunrise, with the clouds burning off as the day went on, with the afternoons mostly sunny. Seas were mostly calm even when on the edge of the archipelago north of Isabella Island. Sunrise photography was not great, and only one evening was good for sunset, with the exception of the last evening at sea, when we were circumnavigating Kicker Rock, unique rock formations which are the remnants of a volcanic cone. Just before we sailed away from this rock, the light turned golden and the rock appeared on fire. Based on the week of dull evening light, this last evening was spectacular. The ship was sailing into the sunset, I hurried to the bow of the ship, where both feet slipped out from under me, I landed flat on my face spread out on the deck, my camera skidded across the deck . . . and no one noticed. I dragged myself up and looked around; everyone was intently watching the sunset and hadn’t noticed my acrobatics at all.
23 September — 6 October, 2011
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At the end of September, my wife, Chris, and I visited Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park hoping to see and photograph the yellow and orange fall foliage, abundant wildlife preparing for winter, and perhaps a touch of winter itself. We arrived with the leaves just starting to turn, scant wildlife, and temperatures in the 80’s for the first few days. We did find a herd of 200 or so bison spread out in the Lamar Valley and on the return to Mammoth Hot Springs we found a herd of ten pronghorn does with a buck keeping order. One evening we also had a few bighorn sheep come down the cliffs to the Gardiner River. The first evening we planned on eating at the park dining room anticipating the evening show; 30-40 elk cows with two or three bulls vying to keep track of their respective harems, and try to coax a few more cows from another harem. We saw one nice bull, and four cows. Where did they all go? The introduction of wolves to the park did reduce the elk herds, but to a greater degree than initially expected. This was a result of the overwhelming success of the wolf packs, which have done better than predicted. The wolf/elk ratio has probably hit an equilibrium; if there are not enough elk for one reason, let’s say a bad winter, there will be fewer surviving wolf pups due to less food available, then the elk with have greater success, and then the wolf numbers will increase.
We spent the first three nights based in Gardiner, MT, at the north entrance to Yellowstone NP. From there it is convenient to travel to the Lamar Valley, Tower Junction and the Canyon Village section beyond, and to Norris Geyser basin. Basically, the northern half of the park. Mammoth Hot Springs is the northern headquarters of the park services with lodging, dining, and conveniences (general store, fuel, post office, etc.). The springs for which the area is named, and the travertine cliffs here have changed over the years as geologic activity redirects the hot spring water below ground though subterranean limestone, dissolving calcium carbonate and depositing it as travertine (a bone white mineral) as the water cools on the surface. But that is not what creates the rainbow of colors at this, and all other, thermal features: it’s the thermopiles (heat-loving microorganisms). The color of the thermopiles is due to the temperature of the water. Cooler waters support the growth of orange, brown and green thermopiles while clear and yellow thermopiles thrive in the hottest water.
The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone has several viewpoints to easily view and photograph both the upper and lower falls and the Yellowstone River. There are also a number of trails that lead down into the canyon for a more intimate view of the falls. We visited the canyon on different days and at different times of day to get a variety of light into the canyon. While overcast conditions greatly reduce shadows in the canyon, the light is not dramatic nor does it bring out the intense colors of the rock. The sun cast heavy shadow on half the canyon for our visit to the canyon at midday, and a return visit a few days later at 3pm with cumulous clouds in the sky provided a brightly lit inner canyon.
Our next stop was in Jackson, WY, near Jackson Hole and the Grand Tetons National Park. Since we were so late in planning this trip,we opted to stay in Jackson, even though we would have an additional 20 minute drive into the park for sunrise. Sunrise opportunities are numerous in Grand Teton; Schwabacher Landing, Oxbow Bend, Molton Barn and Mormon Row. In our exploration we found a beaver pond near the road (about a foot away from the road) where one evening we watched two adult and two young beavers feeding on the bark and leaves of small branches within fifteen feet of us. We visited the location several times during our four days in Jackson and did repeat the experience.
Again, wildlife was somewhat scarce, with the exception of the beaver. We saw several elk cows and a couple of bulls in the early evening hours, but did not see a single moose. We did see osprey on a nest but the position made photography impossible, and saw a red tail hawk flying. In any case, the landscape photography opportunities were reasonably decent, even though proscribe forest fires at the south end of the park resulted in ground smoke at the base of the mountains. This is evident in the images that show a grey pallor on the lower half of the mountains.
We then moved on to Old Faithful Snow Lodge for the last five nights of our stay. This location gave us good access to the southern half of the park, and even drives to the Canyon Village area were not that far away. A large number of visitor accessible thermal features is in this area, including Old Faithful geyser. Photographing hot pools and geysers can be challenging as they produce large amounts of steam. Your luck will depend largely on the direction and speed of the wind, and the air temperature. On my winter visit here, there were times when you could hear a hot pool bubbling, but couldn’t see it for all the steam surrounding it. The higher daytime temperatures (low 70’s) while we were there offered up some interesting views of the thermal features. I concentrated on areas of the thermal features that had striking color or interesting compositions.
The wildlife activity did eventually perk up as the nights became cooler and the daytime heat finally abated. We saw several herds of elk along the Madison River, and bison herds could be seen at many locations with about 50 animals each, except for the big herd in the Lamar Valley. By far the best experience was viewing a pack of wolves in the Lamar Valley returning to an elk they had killed the day earlier. At one of the pull-outs overlooking Hayden Valley we overheard this tidbit of information from a couple that was deciding where to go next. One at a time the wolves would come to the carcass, chase off the ravens and magpies and try to pry meat from the bone. Since the carcass was in the river, one wolf tried to pull it up onto the bank to get at the meat that was previously submerged. Another big spectacle was the number of photographers who had lined up shoulder to shoulder in two locations.
Bosque de Paz Ecolodge
This small lodge, located in a valley between the Poas Volcano and Juan Castro Blanco National Parks offers a diversity of subjects to photograph. The owners, Federico and Vanessa González-Pinto are working hard, and succeeding in, developing an ecological corridor linking the two nationally protected areas. They are amiable hosts and are truly concerned for the nature of Costa Rica. In addition to the variety of landscape opportunities of the cloud forest moss-covered trees and rushing streams, the place is teeming with hummingbirds. There is also an extensive collection of orchids located near the main building that hosts hundreds of orchids, and the owners sponsor orchid research supporting preservation efforts. On the afternoon of our arrival, I spent some time photographing in the forest, and captured a few images of hummingbirds hovering near the feeders. The first orchid in the series is a stacked focus images, made from six images that have different zones in focus. I’ll be writing a blog post on the technique soon.
In addition to the local photographic opportunities, two setups for high speed flash photography were made available on the second day of our stay here and a schedule for use by the participants was established. Initially we set up hummingbird feeders to attract the hummers to the sets, but switched to flowers after the first round. While high speed flash set ups make photographing crisp images of hummingbirds possible, it’s difficult to predict exactly what the image will look like until you view the image. It’s a simple matter to take a photo of the hummingbird with its beak in the flower since it stays there for a few seconds, although you never know what the position of the wings will be. It’s much more challenging to catch the hummingbird approaching or departing from the flower, or if there is an altercation with another hummingbird. On several occassions the birds were landing on flower pants and breaking them off, making for a not-so-attractive flower. I walked over to coax a Green-crowned Brilliant off a flower and it stepped onto my finger where it stayed for a full minute. Luckily, I still held on to the wireless remote control and was able to capture some images.
On the third day of our stay at Bosque de Paz, we made a day trip to a nearby restaurant that has access to the 110 meter Bajos de Toros waterfall. There are trails through the forest and a set of stairs that descend to the base of the falls. Two hummingbird high speed flash setups were placed in the open air restaurant to take advantage of some species which were not found at Bosque to Paz. This was the first time I had seen a black-bellied hummingbird, a very small bird that fluffs the feathers on its head in a curious way when it is perched. When it is flying, the feathers are flattened aerodynamically.
After dinner at Bosque de Paz, a few of us ventured out around the lodge and down a path to find insects and frogs for some nighttime macro photography. We did find a small tree frog which was about ¾ of an inch in length, and we had great opportunities with a cicada which had just climbed out of its shell and was still damp and unable to fly. We all had our turn photographing this amazing insect by flashlight.
Arenal Observatory Lodge
Arenal is the country’s most active volcano, with continuous emissions of lava and incandescent pyroclastic flows since the beginning of the present active cycle in 1968. In 2010 when I visited this location, the eruptions could be heard day and night roaring, coughing and spitting, but due to the low cloud cover, not seen. I did get a view of the pyroclastic flows through a break in the clouds for about 30 seconds one evening. The weather did cooperate this year with clear skies one evening and clear skies one morning during sunrise. Unfortunately, the volcano stopped erupting to a great extent three months prior to our visit. It was quiet. You could still see steam coming from several vents in two locations near the summit, but no fireworks. The lodge grounds offer many gardens, and there was an extensive garden right outside our room where we could observe hummingbirds feeding at the flowers.
We spent one day at a nearby facility that houses a wonderful collection of frogs, toads, snakes, and lizards. The staff set up several stages with natural vegetation, moss covered rocks and stumps; the vegetation on the nearby hills provided out of focus backgrounds, and we could photograph with natural light or with fill flash as we chose. It was a great opportunity to photograph species which would be difficult, if not dangerous, to photograph in the wild. The facility also had a butterfly enclosure which I visited while waiting for the set ups to be ready. Once the stages were completed, several species were brought out and placed in the setup. An experienced caretaker stayed with the animal at each set up, repositioning the subject when it moved into a position that was not photographic. The caretaker would replace the animal when it appeared to be too active, or when photographic interest in that subject diminished. At the end of the day, one caretaker asked my wife Chris if she wanted to hold the Rainbow Python, which she did. She was surprised that it was very soft to the touch.
We also spent a morning at the Danaus Ecocenter. There was a limited number of birds in the area due to the time of year, but quality is often better than quantity. We had quite a long time with several Collared Aracaris feeding on fruit very close to the path. And one of the guides showed us the location of a baby three-toed sloth since it was not on one of the main paths, but on a service road.
All in all, Arenal Observatory Lodge is one of those locations in Costa Rica which could easily support a week’s worth of photographic subjects, if you know where to look. There are trails up through the forest to the lava fields and a large lake that we didn’t explore on this trip. However, unless you were on a Foto Verde guided trip, you wouldn’t have the opportunity to photograph the variety of reptiles that I did on this trip.