Greg Basco is a fine art nature photographer who had originally found his way to Latin America as a researcher for politics and the environment. Having first visited Costa Rica while in the Peace Corps, followed by work as a conservation professional, Basco is now a full time photographer and owner of Foto Verde Tours in Costa Rica.
More than just a simple documentation of nature, Basco’s style can be classified as fine art. His work has been published in a variety of publications, from National Geographic to Newsweek to The Nature Conservancy.
Read on for some crucial tips from Basco on how to capture spectacular images when placed in a tropical rainforest with limited light. (And also view some beautiful images!)
Guest article by Gregory Basco
Photography in the Rainforest
I’m fortunate to live and work in the rainforests and cloud forests (higher elevation tropical forests) of Costa Rica. This tiny country (about the size of West Virginia or Denmark) is home to an astounding number of different species. Costa Rica boasts more butterfly and bird species than in all of the US and Canada combined and there are 1,500 species of orchids and over 100 species each of bats, frogs, and reptiles. Subjects abound, and being a photographer here is akin to being a kid in a candy store.
Nonetheless, it’s a somewhat understocked, poorly lit, and messy candy store! There are a lot of species but few individuals of any one species. This means that finding subjects is the first challenge. Tropical forests also are quite dark, so even when I find a subject to photograph I’m dealing with low light. And these forests are characterized by exuberant, chaotic growth. The prolific growth is amazing and beautiful, but it makes getting a clear view of a subject or finding an orderly composition for a landscape quite difficult. With patience and some creativity, however, one can capture wonderful images!
As the picture of me above suggests, the absolute greatest challenge for the tropical landscape photographer is simply finding something to photograph! Yes, it sounds unbelievable, but one of the very things that makes tropical forests so special – their luxuriant growth – makes it hard to find a sense of visual order amidst the chaos. When focusing on landscape photography, I often spend a whole day hiking through the woods and only shoot one or two scenes. The vast majority of the tropical landscape photographer’s time is spent searching for scenes that have some semblance of visual order to them. When looking for forest interiors, I think the following tips will be of great help.
First, look for light gaps. Light gaps are where large trees have fallen, creating an area where Heliconias and other large-leaved plants look to colonize. These open spaces often offer a break from the tangled undergrowth.
For this photo of a large but hidden waterfall, I shot from a light gap and used the broad leaves of Heliconias and other plants to add foreground interest. A graduated neutral density filter held back the sky.
Second, try to do your landscape photography in primary rather than secondary forests. Secondary forests, where large trees have been logged out in the past or where forest is regrowing after more widespread deforestation, are characterized by very tangled growth on the forest floor. Primary forests, on the other hand, have large trees and less understory growth. This gives you a better chance to find visual anchors in your scene.
Third, look for strong foreground elements, preferably with color. A colorful flowering plant will provide an immediate contrast to the monolithic green palette of the forest, adding a ton of impact to your image.
Fourth, look for water. Whether it’s a rushing highland stream or a stagnant lowland backwater, water can provide obvious visual cues and/or help to separate elements that can be arranged visually to form a coherent composition.
Early morning sunlight lit up this gorge in a rainforest near where I live. A polarizing filter helped to cut glare and saturate colors. My position out in the middle of the river brought the foreground up close, and the lines of the flowing water added visual interest.
Fifth, the sky usually does not contribute anything of value to tropical forest landscape images. In fact, it’s often a featureless white, which draws the viewer’s eye from the important parts of your scene. For the vast majority of my compositions inside the forest, I look for vantage points that allow me to eliminate the sky. On higher mountains and at the coast, however, I look for dramatic skies and use graduated neutral density filters whenever possible to balance my sky and foreground exposures.
Sixth, when I come upon a potential scene, I never just plant my tripod and start shooting. I always walk around with my camera handheld in order to examine the scene through the viewfinder. I might even shoot some handheld test shots just to see how things look on the LCD screen. Only when I am satisfied that I’ve found a workable composition do I proceed to set up my tripod.
The Poas Volcano is one of the largest active volcanoes in the world. A graduated neutral density filter gave me detail in the sky while some off-camera fill flash opened up shadows in the poor man’s umbrella leaves in the foreground.
The second thing that makes tropical forests so amazing is their abundant species diversity. This wealth of different species, however, also poses a special challenge – simply finding a subject to photograph! Even seasoned nature photographers will be surprised at the relatively low number of individual subjects in the tropics compared to temperate zones. Because of this, when it comes to tropical nature photography, arming yourself with as much knowledge as possible is a tremendous asset and ultimately will lead to more opportunities to create exceptional images.
The difficulty of tropical photography can be attributed in large part to the fact that tropical ecosystems are very diverse and complex places. It is important for photographers to realize that in such diverse communities, the way that species behave, interact, and live their lives is often very different than in more temperate regions. In tropical realms fruiting trees become a gold mine for images, and it is extremely useful to know what types of fruit various birds and mammals like to eat.
Some bird species will follow army ants through the forest with the hopes of getting an easy meal. This too can yield fantastic photo opportunities. Many frog species are most active at the beginning of the rainy season, when they come to either stagnant pools or rushing streams to breed. Finally, feeders, particularly for bird photography, are a godsend as they can bring subjects out into more open areas with better light.
Toucans in certain areas and at certain times of year will actually come in to feeding stations to eat bananas and papayas. I’ve been working with a lodge for years to set up this kind of photo opportunity. Shooting early in the morning gave me nice soft light.
Knowing your target subjects, studying up on them, and using a knowledgeable local guide all can help you to make the most of your time photographing in the tropics. Another option is to join a photographic workshop. In Costa Rica, I recommend Foto Verde Tours, the company I co-founded and still run today. 🙂
Fasciated Tiger Heron are intensely concentrated when fishing. Realizing this, when I encountered this bird in a fast-flowing rainforest river, I immediately opted to grab my tripod and work with a slow shutter speed (2 seconds) to juxtapose the tack sharp bird with the flowing river for one of my very favorite bird images I have taken in Costa Rica.
Get Used to High ISO Values
Because the best light in tropical forest environments is overcast, you will have to deal with low light levels. Modern DSLR cameras vary in their performance, but all models can now handle high ISO values that were unthinkable just a few years ago. Nonetheless, I have spoken with many photographers who say that they don’t like to shoot higher than ISO 400. Well, good luck with that in the tropics!
I shot this different but interesting portrait of two active black guan (a large turkey-like bird) in a cloud forest at the very end of a drizzly day. Even shooting wide open at f/2.8 I had to use ISO 10,000 (not a typo) to get a decent shutter speed (1/200). Noise reduction with Topaz DeNoise worked wonders on this shot.
I would much rather have a somewhat noisy but sharp picture rather than a cleaner file that is not sharp. When you visit the tropics for photography, be prepared to push your camera two to three stops more in ISO than what you are likely used to. With a properly exposed file and good processing in the computer (I apply noise reduction selectively with Topaz DeNoise and/or Adobe Lightroom), noise can be dealt with quite easily.
Use a Shallow Depth of Field
Again, low light, even coupled with high ISO values often will necessitate the use of wide apertures. Don’t count on shooting f/11 or f/8 all of the time, particularly for birds and wildlife but even for macro subjects as well. You’ll need to open up in order to capture sharp images. As long as the important part of your subject is sharp, your images will be effective.
And don’t think of shallow depth of field as a hindrance. On the contrary, embracing wide apertures can help you to deal with disturbing foregrounds and backgrounds and open up new avenues for creativity.
I see a lot of people either embracing flash but in the wrong way or shying away from flash for the wrong reason. In the first case, many people simply underexpose the ambient light and crank up the flash when faced with a low light situation. This is a recipe for a horribly flashed-looking picture. Other people have an aversion to flash precisely because they’ve seen these types of pictures and don’t like the way flash looks.
The slightest touch of fill flash opened up shadows in this portrait of a howler monkey. The key was setting my exposure for the highlights on the monkey’s fur, which were caused by beautiful late afternoon sunlight streaming through the rainforest canopy.
Positioning yourself and setting your exposure such that the ambient light can do most of the work is the key to successful fill-flash. Adding in just the amount of flash you need will help to maintain a natural look while allowing the flash to still help you solve shadow and low light issues.
Flash also can be used as the only light source for nocturnal subjects or during the day. Using more than one flash, getting your flash off-camera, and diffusing your flash are all important. Doing one or all of these things can add accent, drama, and detail to a shot balanced with natural light or where flash is the only light source. And flash can be used with birds, frogs, plants, and landscapes. The idea is to study the way ambient light produces shadows in order to yield a natural look with your flash work.
Glass frogs are nocturnal so I had no options other than to use flash as main light. I used two flash units for this image. Holding the flashes off-axis (with the help of a friend) and diffusing them gave this image a pleasing backlit feel; it doesn’t look “flashed.”
Gear and Keeping Things Dry
Given the wealth of different subjects in the rainforest, you’ll need a full kit. It is not at all uncommon for me to shoot toucans, tiny poison frogs, a monkey, and a waterfall all in the same day! I shoot Canon and use a fast prime telephoto lens, a 70-300 mm zoom, a wide angle zoom, a macro lens, a fisheye lens, and a fast prime wide angle lens for creative closeups and nocturnal landscapes. I use a full filter kit from Formatt Hitech and flashes and flash transmitters by Phottix, and I carry it all in a Gura Gear Kiboko backpack. My tripods and heads are by Induro. You can see more about the gear I use on the gear page at my website (www.deepgreenphotography.com/the-gear).
The lush cloud forests and rain forests are perpetually green because there is a lot of rain; your camera gear will be exposed to high humidity. Nonetheless, I’ve never had problems with my gear here in Costa Rica, so humidity, while a valid concern, is nothing to be obsessed about. And it certainly is not a deterrent to visiting and photographing the rainforest. Nonetheless, a three-pronged strategy will help you to avoid damage to your gear and allow you to concentrate on your photography.
This is what I carried every day for a recent week-long project in one of Costa Rica’s wildest and wettest national parks. Rubber boots, everything from telephoto to macro to wide angle gear, plus flash equipment made for a hefty load. I had plenty of raincovers and garbage bags in my pack to pull out on a moment’s notice. This, by the way, is a phone pic processed quickly with Topaz Adjust and Topaz BW – not bad!
First, pack your gear well in water repellant camera bags and backpacks and sprinkle these liberally with silica gel packages. There are a number of companies easily found online that sell silica gel packets.
Second, try to avoid actually getting your gear wet. Although my cameras and lenses are pretty tolerant, when it really starts to pour, I cover up. A good rain cover for your camera and/or a small umbrella that clips onto your tripod can be very useful when shooting in drizzle or light rain. Yet heavier rain can come down suddenly when you are out with your camera. That same small umbrella is an easy way to cover up as are garbage bags or disposable ponchos stored in handy places in your camera bag. Camera bags with built-in rain covers are particularly useful.
Third, at night you may want to dry your equipment with a compact hair dryer that you bring along for this purpose (most lodges away from the city do not have hair dryers in the bathroom). If you don’t have a hair dryer, storing your gear in your camera bag with silica gel packets overnight when in the rainforest is a good strategy.
Though challenging, nature photography in the tropics is very rewarding. Photographing exotic creatures and places is always a thrill, and because of the conditions, you’ll stretch your wings a bit and learn new photographic skills. I hope that this article has offered some ideas that you can put into practice when you visit the tropics or wherever your camera takes you!
To see more of Greg’s photography and to learn about his Costa Rica workshop tours, visit Deep Green Photography – www.deepgreenphotography.com.
To learn more about tropical photography, check out Greg’s popular e-book, The Guide to Tropical Nature Photography – www.theguidetotropicalnaturephotography.com.
To keep up with photo tips and photo news from the rainforest, subscribe to Greg’s newsletter here – http://eepurl.com/YkULv.