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…]
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.
GRAND PRIZE WINNER
My image of a Green-breasted Mango was selected as Grand Prize Winner of the Audubon Magazine Birds In Focus photography contest. It was selected from the 8,000 entries in this year’s competition. The image is one of the thousands of images I captured during my trip to Costa Rica in March 2010. You can find the announcement of the winners at Audubon Magazine.
Another of my entries was selected as one of the Top 100 images of the contest and can be seen here. Rather than tell you which one is mine, I’ll leave it to you to explore all of these wonderful images. After you see these images, you’ll understand how honored I am that my image was selected from among those images.
Click on the thumbnail to view a larger image.
After my trip to Costa Rica I planned to again try my hand at hummingbird photography in my yard. In past years, many hummingbirds, all Rubythroated, would visit my feeders. Usually one would arrive even before the feeder was up, hovering in front of the window location where it is usually mounted. Clearly that bird had been here before. This year was different. This year, we only had one male most of the time, with a second one showing up occasionally, and we had only three females. The male dominated the feeder until I set up a second one out of sight of the other. Now the male guards one feeder, and the three females seem to spend more time chasing each other around the other feeder than eating.
After several weeks of photographing, I haven’t been able to catch the male’s gorget fully lit up. Most captures that are a side view of the male results in dark, almost black gorget feathers. There always seems to be a dark patch of red gorget that never lights up. It’s very difficult to catch the throat lit up, and only seems to happen if the bird is facing the camera, but even then, there’s a patch in the center that doesn’t fully light up. I’ll have to experiment more with light placement to see if I can get better results. Up to now the two front lights have been to either side of the flower. Perhaps I need to place one below and directly in front of the bird. In the past, I’ve used a camera mounted flash with a BetterBeamer to trigger the other flashes. That may provide enough direct light, if lack of direct front light is the cause of the dark feathers.
I’ve been using the Canon 7D with the 500mm f4 Is lens since the birds were very wary of me being nearby. Now they are more comfortable with me there and I’ve been using the 100-400 zoom lens. . I can’t rotate my camera for vertical compositions because the built in flash controller of the 7D will not see all the remote flashes if I do so. So I’ve been taking images with less zoom with the intent of cropping for vertical presentation. The portrait images were taken this way.
There are not many more days to photograph hummingbirds; the males will leave soon and the females a couple of weeks later.
One of the challenges I set myself was to capture hummingbirds landing. It’s not a matter of just setting the camera to the highest frame rate and hope for the best, but an anticipation that the landing was going to occur. With the lens focused on the flower, and framed wide enough to capture the bird as it came in, I’d take my eye away from the viewfinder and look at the larger scene to spot a hummer coming in for a landing.
Since the birds are attracted to the photographic setup using a feeder, the images are predominantly side views of the hummingbird coming in to the feeding tube. I tried to be aware of the flight of the hummer and attempt to get some images with the birds in different attitudes.
Another technique that Greg Basco suggested is to use a longer flash duration to get a little blur in the fastest moving parts of the hummingbird, the tips of the wings. In one setup we set the flashes to 1/8 power which froze the image of most of the bird. These two images were taken at f25 and using multiple flashes as the main light. In another setup where full sunlight was lighting the bird and background, the camera was set for a longer exposure to let the moving parts blur quite a bit, and the light from the flashes freezing a portion of the bird that did not move much. This had a lower success rate. The last three images were take at 1/25 second and f8. You can see the amount of wing motion in that short amount of time.
One of the main purposes of the trip was to photograph hummingbirds using high speed flash set ups. Joe McDonald has made his photographic career as a specialist in high speed flash photography. In addition to the two stations that Joe and MaryAnn set up, the local tour provider, photographer Greg Basco, set up another station. Greg has a very thoughtful approach to photography and is willing to try creative lighting effects in his photography and was willing to share his thoughts, and set ups. I’ll have more on this topic in a later post.
The hummingbirds shown here are: Green-breasted Mango (male), Long-tailed Hermit, Green-crowned Brilliant (male), White-necked Jacobin, Red-footed Plumeleteer, Crowned Woodnymph, Green-breasted Mango (females). I’m not certain which species is in the last image; it was interesting that the bees were forcing the hummingbirds back on occasion.