Monday, June 29, 2009

Costa Rica 2009: Breaking the Rules

We have been serious about our nature photography for nearly 20 years now. During that time we have shot with 35mm film cameras, 6x6 Hasselblad systems, 645 Pentax systems, 4x5 sheet film, and digital SLR’s. While the size and type of imager has changed, we have always tried to follow four self-imposed “rules” when taking pictures.

Rule #1:     
Always use a stable platform (read tripod). Tripods allow for long exposures, minimize vibration, and forces careful composition.

Rule #2:
Shoot at base ISO. In the past, Fuji Velvia was king. Velvia is a finge grain ISO 50 film that, when shot properly,  produced very sharp images with rich saturated reds and greens. In the world of digital photography, base ISO equates to low grain, fine detail, and smooth saturated colors. As ISO creeps up, noise increases and details decrease.

Rule #3:
Never use a 2x teleconverter. Simply put, tele-converters negatively impact final image quality. While teleconverters allow us to extend our focal length by 1.4 or 2, the addition of a 2X converter typically degrades an image beyond our useable limit.

Rule #4:
Leave the flash in the bag and rely on natural light. While many other photographers will disagree with Rule #4, it is one that I have followed throughout my photographic career. I am not fond of flash photography and the unnatural directional light that it casts on our subjects.

Rule #5
Photographic rules are guidelines, and these rules are meant to be broken. If you know why you make a rule, you should also know when it is appropriate to break the rule. 

Having traveled to Costa Rica in the past, we are familiar with the photographic potential as well as its limitations. While Costa Rica is a land of photo opportunity, it is a challenging place to shoot. Green is the theme. Broad leaves, thick canopy, and patchy light all contribute to a cyan understory. Since animals travel in the canopy, most wildlife images are shot from below. This often results in backlit subjects with deep shadowed faces and eyes. Since we can’t bring the rainforest into a studio where it can be strategically lit, we are forced to break the rules to get the shot. 

Breaking Rule #1
Fast flying birds, jumping monkeys and erratic butterflies can not be followed from a tripod.
What good is a stable support if you can’t frame your subject.

Breaking Rule #2
It’s dark in the forest! 
Solution: Bump up your ISO to 400. Sure you’ll get a bit of noise, but you will also gain two stops of light.

Breaking Rule #3
The quetzal looks like a green dot! 
Solution: Add that 2X converter and double your focal length. It’s much easier to take a 300 f2.8 lens + Converters on a hike than an 11lb 600mm lens. Use your 2X converter to get to 600mm and your viewers will not need a magnifying glass to see the birds in your pictures.

Breaking Rule #4
The eyes are dark and there’s not detail in the face!
Solution: Use the flash. Dial it down so that it adds some pop, but is not prominent source of light.

Just like when we were kids, breaking the rules can be fun and sometimes it’s the only way to get the shot.

©2000-2010 / Bruce & Tamy Leventhal. All rights reserved. No image on this site may be used without permission

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Costa Rica 2009: A Good Guide

In general, Tamy and I try to go it alone. 
During a typical nature photog shoot, we stuff our photo packs, grab the tripods, and go for a walk. It is in the walking that we do the finding. While we often set some arbitrary distance or final destination, by walking we create the time and opportunity to see. On occasion we have hauled our gear up mountains, across rivers, and through deserts without taking a single photograph. In contrast, we have been to places where we are paralyzed by the infinite potential to see something new. We will walk ten feet, shoot for an hour, and move ten feet down the trail just to shoot again. When this occurs, we’ve hit the “mother load.”

Costa Rica is the “mother load” for photographic opportunities. Short walks offer an endless potential to see, find, and create. While visiting the Savegre Mountain Hotelin the Talamanca Range we were able to immerse ourselves in this rich ecosystem. The Savegre River and Mountain Hotel are at an elevation of 2200 meters (7200 feet) and reside in a valley below the stunted forests of Cerro de la Muerte. The elevation and persistent precipitation result in a cool climate that allows the humid atmosphere to condense and enshroud the forest in fog. Known as a cloudforest, this type of rainforest is rare and results in many unique species. Costa Rica’s cloud forest is rich with endemic species of hummingbirds, warblers, trogans, and tanangers. One spectacular bird species found in the cloudforest is the Resplendent Quetzal. With iridescent green and red feathers, this bird is among the most beautiful I have had the opportunity to see and photograph.

So, how does the walking photographer who is immersed in all things find a hidden jewel? 
Answer: Hire a wildlife guide. 
Marino Chacón, wildlife guide and co-owner of the Savegre Mountain Hotel, pulled up a chair during lunch and asked, “what do you want to see.” From that moment and until the day we left, Marino was our man. He guided us through a virgin oak forest, down the Savegre River, and to the resplendent quetzal. As a photographer and traveler, your time is limited; a quality guide is worth the fee and should tipped handsomely. Great guides live where they work, have studied your subject’s behavior, and can predict where and when the opportunities exist. Furthermore, great guides know and understand light. They will know when the light is good and when it is time to move on. Without Marino’s assistance, we would been paralyzed by the infinite possibilities. While we might have produced other striking images, we would have missed the unknown potential that lied just a few feet ahead.
Thank you Marino!

©2000-2010 / Bruce & Tamy Leventhal. All rights reserved. No image on this site may be used without permission

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Costa Rica 2009: The Vision Thing

Many nature photographers are specialists. The macro shooter invests in multiple macro lenses, remote flash triggers, and all sorts of reflectors and diffusers. The bird shooters look like they should be taking pictures in a football stadium, while others dress in camouflage and look like they are going on a hunting expedition. These bird specialists carry 500mm, 600mm, or even 800mm lenses. Some shooters are so into birds that they carry multiple super-telephotos into the field just to capture that elusive warbler, vireo, or tananger. In contrast to the bird photographer, the landscape wonk has a bag full of tilt-shift (TS) lenses and a 20+ megapixel camera, yet others are shooting large format film bodies. The best landscape photographers are the most devoted and patient people I have ever met. The landscaper will scout an area the evening before a shoot, get up at 4:00 a.m., and set up the shot for only a few exposures. They’ll get the one moment they wanted and be done for the day.

That’s a snapshot of the specialist, and none of them are me. 
I’m a nature generalist. I’m a biologist. I’m an ecologist. I’m into patterns, shifting light, animal behavior, and nearly any landscape. I don’t want to be tied to a schedule or specific location. I want to walk. I want to shoot a fern one minute and a monkey the next. I’m pensive with my composition, patient with my subject, but I’m always looking for the next picture. As a result, I’m not a great photographer, shit, I’m not even sure that I’m a good photographer. However, I do have a vision, and I do have a plan. I want people to see the things they don’t see. I want to freeze time while offering insight into the future. I want to hold my subjects so that my audience will pause. I don’t just want the shot, I want the shot that makes you stop and think.

©2000-2010 / Bruce & Tamy Leventhal. All rights reserved. No image on this site may be used without permission

Costa Rica 2009: Ascent to the Cloudforest

After spending six days in the humid Pacific lowlands, we packed up the Suzuki Jimneyand, with much regret, said adiós to our new friends at Hacienda Baru. Leaving Baru, we drove south towards Dominical and veered east onto the Interamerican Hwy. Surprisingly, the road up the mountains and towards San Isidro was a refreshing departure from the potholes and oncoming truck traffic we endured during the first leg of our journey. 

The drive to Los Quetzales National Park and the Savegre Mountain Hotel was a dramatic ascent that took us through sleepy little villages and indigenous territories. With the exception of the occasional farm, the landscape was rugged and wild. The drive meandered through thick unspoiled forests that teamed with wildlife. The stretch of highway we drove is called Cerro de la Muerte or “Mountain of Death.” The unprotected shoulders that dip hundreds of feet into rainforest valleys and narrow bridges might lead you to believe that the road was named for the car accidents that frequently occur, however, Cerro de la Muerte describes the challenges indigenous peoples and early settlers faced as they attempted to traverse these mountains between the central valley and Pacific coast.

The forests along the Interamerican Hwy. undergo dramatic changes as the peak of the mountains approach. With increasing elevation the vegetation decreases in its girth and height. The peak is home to a stunted cloudforest with ancient trees that reach the diminutive height of two meters. High elevation and strong winds influence the growth of these ancients, the result is a surreal bonsai forest.

The rain pounded our vehicle as we began our descent into the valley. I had to make an abrupt left across the highway onto a single lane road that curved into the fog. The road to the Savegre River was the steepest I have ever experienced. Uphill traffic has the right of way, but I have no idea where I might have pulled over... mountain to the right and air to the left. Fortunately we didn’t encounter another vehicle during our 40 minute drop into the valley floor.

The Savegre Mountain Hotel and surrounding Quetzal National Park lies within this mountain range that creates a unique microclimate known as a cloudforest... more on that soon...

©2000-2010 / Bruce & Tamy Leventhal. All rights reserved. No image on this site may be used without permission

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Costa Rica 2009: Doesn't this Forest have any Sloths?

Sloths are a medium sized mammal that inhabit the rainforests of Central and South America. These famously slow animals are members of the Order Pilosa, a group that also includes the anteaters and the armadillos. Like most other members of the Order, sloths possess a fused spine, small brains, and small peg-like teeth. The characteristically slow movement and prolonged sleep patterns is an adaptation to the sloth’s uniquely low metabolic rate. Canopy leaves are the primary food that sloths consume. While sloths are technically omnivores due to the occasional consumption of insects and lizards, the mostly leafy diet takes time to digest and is generally nutrient poor. To compensate for the low energy diet, sloths expend little energy throughout the day and are thus a model for energy conservation. 

There are six extant (living) species of sloths that can be divided into two families according to the number of digits on their forelimbs. Commonly known as two-toed and three-toed sloths, these families apparently diverged from each other 35-40 million years ago. DNA and anatomical evidence now suggests that the two-toed sloth is more closely related to a now extinct ground sloth than to its contemporary three-toed arboreal “cousins.”  

Two species of sloths can be found throughout the rainforests of Costa Rica. The Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth (see above) and Hoffman’s Two-toed Sloth (see below) often overlap in their habitat and can be found surprisingly close to each other. The sloths at Hacienda Baru have been found in at least 40 different tree species and are likely to be consumers of the leaves in each of the host tree. The sloths in this region have been observed sleeping (or not moving) for 10 to 17 hours each day. However when they do move, the sloths have been observed moving vertically through the canopy as a way to regulate their body temperature. As a result, the sloths are often found in the mid-canopy at noon to avoid the heat of the midday sun or nestled towards the top of the canopy at night. 

I like to think of myself as a fairly competent naturalist who is capable of finding my own wildlife subjects to photograph. Relying on my prior Costa Rican experiences and finely tuned wildlife-seeking skills, we set out each morning and afternoon in search of a sloth. We knew the sloths were near, but they are crafty little creatures. Sloths have keen skills that include inactivity, sleep and camouflage. Fortunately for us, Jack Ewing, the manager and owner at Hacienda Baru recognized our dilemma and found a guide who would be able to find the elusive sloth. It took Carlos, less than ten minutes to find the first sloth, a sleepy two-toed ball of moss crammed into the fork of a tree. By the end of our sixty minute hike through a transitional forest we were able to observe four different individuals. 

The images pictured below are examples of a two-toed and three-toed sloth. To capture these images we had to shoot at a steep angle into the forest canopy. This type of photography is particularly challenging because it is difficult to expose for details in the animal while preventing a over exposed (white) sky.

©2000-2010 / Bruce & Tamy Leventhal. All rights reserved. No image on this site may be used without permission

Monday, June 15, 2009

Costa Rica 2009: Lost in Paradise

Apparently I am becoming increasingly forgetful. While this is not a news flash to anyone who knows me, I sincerely hope that this little quirk is a characteristic that endears me to my friends and family. Unfortunately, my forgetfulness is becoming a bit of a liability.

We finally arrived at the beach following a monkey encounter on a steamy rainforest trail. Invigorated by the good photographic moment, we decided to shoot a few landscapes and hike the beach to the Baru River. The hike from the trail end to the Baru River is only 2.5 km, so we figured we could get some exercise while pursuing some new images. 

The playa (beach) in this region Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast is remarkable for its lack of development. The rainforest kisses the water for miles to the north and south, and it is easy to fall in love with the loneliness of the landscape. It is a rare thing to find a tropical beach that is not packed with tourist shops, hotels, and exclusive housing developments, so the beach at Baru is as close to perfect as it gets.

It was approaching midday as we traversed the beach sand, and the driftwood on the shore looked like a great place to rest for a while. My feet were tired and  Tamy looked like she wanted to take a beach nap. It took us about an hour to get to this cozy little spot, and I could see the mouth of the Baru River in the distance. It was a moment filled with cliches. A cowboy galloped by us on his white stallion, three locals were fishing in the distance, and we were living time on a desolate beach with the pacific to the west and unspoiled forests to the right,... paradise.

An hour later we decided to forgo our walk to the Baru River, as it was past noon and we were both getting hungry. So we began the return trip to the trail that would lead us back to the Hacienda Baru. It was so hot and humid that you couldn’t help feeling the clothes on your body. There is nothing like wearing clothes and thinking, “man these clothes... I can’t stop feeling them.” So in a futile attempt to ignore the climate, our hunger, and fatigue, Tamy and I became quite intrigued by the little red crabs that would scurry along the beach. These were magic crabs. Running on eight of their ten legs, these little crabbies would run about and then dive into holes that looked to be two sizes too small for their wide bodies. Time really flies when your watching red magic crabs.

I’m not sure where we were, but I forced a stop in our momentum to shoot the sky reflecting off the wet beach sand (see opening image). It was here that Tamy found a makeshift bench of driftwood and stones in the shade of an almandros tree. She read while I worked on my composition. When I finished, I packed up so we could move on... we had to be close to the trailhead by now. I was looking for a forked stick that was shoved in the sand; this was our landmark. Tamy indicated that there was a road and a sign where she had been reading, but I hadn’t seen the forked stick, so at the time, this bit of data seemed trivial.

When we passed the beached tractor tire and approached a mountain ridge that once appeared to be in the distance, I knew that we missed the trail head. It was an hour since I shot the landscape, the sun was intense, and I could see the strain of the heat on my wife’s face. Neither of us panicked, but we knew we were lost. Dehydration and sunstroke was not a part of our plan on this day. We broke open our last water bottle and sipped it slowly and carefully and reversed trek towards the river we left over two hours ago.

On occasion a dirt road would run parallel to the beach in the forest, this made the hiking easier and shaded us from the sun. Alternating between the beach, the road, and tall grasses we made it back to point where we stopped to make the photo at the top of the page. This is where I decided to read the sign: “HACIENDA BARU”

We weren’t really lost in paradise.

©2000-2010 / Bruce & Tamy Leventhal. All rights reserved. No image on this site may be used without permission

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Costa Rica 2009: Serendipity

Ego...                 “I am one skillful photographer!”
Average Joe...    “You must have a nice camera; how many megapixels does it have?”
Ego...                 “My photography is my art.”
Average Joe...    “Man, are you lucky...!”  

So what is it, luck or skill? 
Is it a vision thing or is it technology at its best?
I’m not sure that I can answer these questions today, but I will offer a bit of insight about how I perceive the photographic process and product. I have found that our best photographs are the product of careful planning, preparation for the field, and serendipity. Look, we can all get lucky once in a while... right subject, right light, and right “auto-setting;” but good photographers plan ahead. When a photographer knows the gear, understands exposure theory, and can previsualize a composition, good things happen when opportunity knocks (apologies for the cliche).

Nature and wildlife photography can be unusually challenging. We do not rely on models who work predictable hours, and we rarely have the opportunity to control the light around us. As a result, nature photographers must be generalists who are prepared for serendipitous moments. 

On this day Tamy and I were hiking a 1.5 km rainforest trail within the Hacienda Baru National Wildlife Refuge. There was not a lot of animal activity, so I decided to photograph a flowering bromeliad. Tamy wasn’t very interested in this flower, so she meandered down the trail. By the time I caught up with Tamy, I could hear flailing branches and falling fruit. Tamy was surrounded by a troop of capuchins and now I was too. Serendipity happened, and we were prepared.

©2000-2010 / Bruce & Tamy Leventhal. All rights reserved. No image on this site may be used without permission

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Costa Rica 2009: Lookout Trail

The Hacienda Baru is located on Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast between the towns of Quepos and Dominical. The owner of this ecolodge and wildlife refuge is Jack Ewing. Jack made his initial purchase of Baru in 1973 in order to establish a cattle ranch. In his now infamous story about a capuchin walking between forests and the unfortunate dog who made the wrong decision to attack, Jack realized the need to construct a corridor between fragmented forest patches. In 1973, this region of Costa Rica was fragmented and heavily cultivated. Forests were cut and turned to pasture. Jack’s encounter with the grounded monkey opened the door to a new beginning. Since that time, Jack purchased and reforested land along the pacific coast. This reforested tract that includes both primary and secondary forest is now referred to as the Hacienda Baru Wildlife Refuge. 

The Baru refuge extends from primary highland forest, through lowland secondary forest, and terminates at a pristine volcanic sand beach lined by tropical almandros trees. The biodiversity at Hacienda Baru is staggering. Jack is a self-trained naturalist who created a comprehensive list of biota found in Baru. The list includes 360 species of birds, 70 species of mammals, 95 species of herps, 87 species of butterflies, 45 species of ants, and 293 species of plants. As a photographer, naturalist, and biologist, Hacienda Baru is the ultimate playground. 

Although I have traveled to Costa Rica many times, waking up to the sound of exotic bird songs never gets old. The chorus of birds begins with a few pre-dawn risers and ends with a jazz concert during improv night. It is not hard to roll out of bed when there is so much opportunity for good photography. 

Tamy was beat from the flight and ride to Baru, so I snuck out on my own to scout some prime photo locations. After walking the grounds, I decided to make a short hike to the birding tower. The tower resides in a thicket of secondary growth and is an ideal location to spot toucans, hummingbirds, tanangers and even butterflies (see images). Over an hour later, I returned to the room to get Tamy, have breakfast, and begin our hike into the primary forest.

The hike into the primary forest is called “Lookout Trail;” I’d suggest that Jack rename it as “Ass Whooping Trail.” Although the trail is only 2.5 km long, it is a fairly steep climb that begins in the lowland secondary forest and meanders into the primary upland jungle. While I am fairly slender for a 44 year old guy, I am not in very good shape. A steep climb in the humid jungle with over 40 lbs of photo gear is not the same as a nature walk in Minnesota where the topography could be compared to a warped piece of plywood. 

In the end, it took us nearly 4 hours to hike the trail; our slow pace was made slower by the occasional attempt at photography or breathing. Tough hikes are a right of passage for the accidental photographer, and this one was well worth the effort.

©2000-2010 / Bruce & Tamy Leventhal. All rights reserved. No image on this site may be used without permission