Costa Rica’s Monteverde area is world-famous. Nonetheless, it’s become overcrowded, and thus it’s not one of my favorite destinations in Costa Rica. That said, the Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve itself is beautiful and offers some very nice landscape photo opportunities. While visiting the area a few years ago, I captured this image of a double cascade along one of the cloud forest trails. The image is not going to win any prizes, but I consider it a successful image of this particular slice of cloud forest and of the Monteverde area as a whole.
Here’s the thought process I went through while lining up this photo.
First, I knew I wanted a wide angle lens. My 17-40 mm zoom lens was the perfect choice because I was shooting from a wooden lookout point structure; my position was fixed, so the zoom allowed me to frame things as I wanted.
Second, I obviously would be working from a tripod and, since I wanted to maximize sharpness, I knew I would want to use mirror lockup and a cable release.
Third, I wanted to keep things level, so I immediately mounted my bubble level in the hot shoe of my camera. (I knew I wouldn’t be using flash so this posed no problem.)
Fourth, cloud forest leaves are highly reflective so I knew I wanted a circular polarizing filter to cut glare and to saturate the greens. A polarizer cuts two stops of light, which was an advantage in this case.
Fifth, this was an advantage because I wanted a slow shutter speed to render the cascade as a silky blur. My camera at the time had a minimum ISO of 100. Even by stopping down to f22, I wouldn’t have been able to get the shutter speed I wanted without a polarizer. (Note: I’ll be adding a neutral density filter to my kit soon to address this problem. In addition, the camera bodies I have now go down to ISO 50, which is nice for these situations.)
Sixth, choosing f22 was a tough choice. On a small-sensor camera such as the 20D I was using here, diffraction kicks in pretty early, compromising sharpness even while yielding greater depth-of-field. To maximize sharpness, I would have shot at f11 or perhaps f16 but the desire for the slower shutter speed made f22 my choice. There are always tradeoffs.
Seventh, I had to think about how to frame the image. There’s not really much to this photo in terms of composition, and it was impossible to get down closer to water level. So, I didn’t really have any strong compositional elements (say a close foreground mossy rock or a nice fern) to work with as an anchor. HDR is all the rage these days but I specifically avoided HDR for this image because I knew that the right light would help as a compositional aid. The goal of HDR is to help solve the problem created by the limited dynamic range of DSLRs, meaning that you simulataneously can tame the highlights and bring out detail in the deepest shadows. I quite like shadows though as I think they add interest to cloud forest and rain forest images. By exposing to the right, I was able to get enough shadow detail while at the same time letting the sun illuminate a diagonal path through the image, which made for a much more interesting composition and allowed me to get what I wanted in a single shutter actuation.
Eighth, with a shutter speed longer than a 1/2 second or so, even the slightest breeze or the movement of the water around a cascade can cause subject movement. HDR, which combines multiple images, only exacerbates this problem. In the end, I decided that the silky water was the most important criterion for me in this shot. In addition, I thought that a touch of movement in the foliage around the pool wouldn’t be a bad thing as long as most of the image was sharp, which it is.
Successful nature photography is all about previsualizing an image (even when shooting action or capturing a fleeting moment), analyzing the tradeoffs that your previsualized image entails, and then making choices. Hopefully this little article will give you some ideas for the next time that you’re out in the field photographing.
If you have questions or comments, please leave them below, and I’ll respond as soon as I can.
The image analyzed here is available as a poster print, an affordable and classy way to jazz up any space in your home or office!