RAINFOREST PHOTOGRAPHY GEAR GUIDE
Many photographers, beginning and advanced, ask me what gear they should bring to Costa Rica. My answer is, of course, all of it! Unfortunately the airlines won’t allow that and, for most of us, neither will our wallets nor our significant others. As a result, choosing gear for the rainforests of Costa Rica is always tough. Quite literally, in a single day you will find yourself shooting birds or monkeys or sloths with the longest lens you have, photographing tiny poison frogs and orchids with your macro gear, and then taking a landscape image with either a super wide-angle or perhaps a medium zoom such as a 70-200 mm.
I put quite a bit of effort into this guide and the blog on this site in general. So, if you have found the site helpful and/or enjoyable, please consider making your gear purchases through any of the B&H Photo Video or NatureScapes links on this page or elsewhere on the Deep Green site. You pay exactly the same, and I get a little kickback to allow me to keep feeding the kids, the dogs, the cats, and the hummingbirds while continuing to share new photo tips and gear info with you.
Want to know what Canon gear I would have in my bag if I won the lottery?
Want to know what Nikon gear I would have in my bag if I won the lottery?
But you don’t need it all to capture nice images.
Coming to the rainforest but just starting out?
Interested in multi-flash hummingbird photography in Costa Rica or in your own backyard?
Still have questions? Be sure to leave a comment below, and I will be happy to reply.
Canon has produced some great camera bodies over the past couple of years. One camera I don’t mention is the 1Ds III. With its out of sight price tag, I just don’t think it’s worth it when you can get very comparable image quality for much less with a 5D Mark II. The 7D has great features but I would rather have 12 megapixels instead of 18. Cramming more and more pixels into a smaller sensor leads to lower quality high ISO performance. I understand the marketing behind the megapixel race and realize that rainforest photography is not a big market niche, but I would prefer to have fewer higher quality pixels than more medium quality pixels.
|Canon 1D Mark IV||Canon 5D Mark II||Canon 7D|
|The Mark IV is Canon’s flagship action camera. Though it carries a hefty price tage, it delivers with great AF and very good high ISO performance.||Adding better AF, a slightly faster frame rate, and dropping the MP count for better high ISO would make this a competitor for the Nikon D3s. Still, the 5D II is a great camera!||The 7D has been wildly popular. It packs a lot of pixels and fantastic features into a nicely priced body. For a full-time pro rainforest photographer, the high ISOs don’t cut it though.|
Canon Telephoto Lenses
If you can swing it, one of the fast pro telephotos from Canon will be a great addition for wildlife photography in Costa Rica. If you are a bird photographer, I recommend the 500 mm f4L IS lens for a great combination of reach and reasonable weight. If you really are looking to photograph small birds and want more reach, I think the 800 mm f5.6 L IS lens makes more sense than the 600 mm f4L IS. If you have a choice between 800 and 600, I would go with the 800. If the choice is between the 500 and the 600, I would go with the 500 for some weight savings and greater mobility.
The 300 mm f2.8L IS lens is also a great performer and is my own workhorse lens. Since I’m not a bird photographer (I shoot everything), this lens is great for handheld wildlife, semi-closeup stuff (with extension tubes), and for birds by itself or with teleconverters. Another option that won’t break the bank is the Canon 300 mm f4L IS lens, still a great performer and at a lower price and lower weight. The Canon 100-400 mm f4-5.6 L IS lens is not one of my favorites. I don’t think it’s sharp at wide open apertures, which is critical for rainforest work, and I’ve never been a big fan of the push/pull zoom design.
Actually, one new lens has me drooling — the 400 mm f2.8L IS lens. I never seriously considered it for my work because of the weight but since Canon has reduced that significantly I think it would be a great big gun for the type of photography I do. Indeed, you’ll see it in my ideal Canon kit.
|Canon 300 mm f2.8L IS||Canon 500 mm f4L IS||Canon 800 mm f5.6L IS|
|This is my lens of choice. Considered one of the sharpest lenses out there, I love the wide open performance. The new version has new IS and even sharper optics.||The Canon 500 mm is a fantastic lens for bird photography and lots of wildlife photography. It’s big but not so big as to be absurd. A new version is reported to be in the works.||800 mm sounds crazy but this lens is not as big as you might think. Still, you’re hardly mobile with it so it’s your lens of choice if you don’t have to do much hiking or chasing birds around.|
Canon Medium Zooms
The flagship Canon zoom is the new 70-200 f2.8 L IS II lens, a great lens for sure. But, since many photographers coming to Costa Rica will have a big, heavy telephoto lens, I think a lighter (and cheaper!) medium range zoom makes sense. You’ll mainly be using this kind of zoom for telephoto landscapes, semi-closeups of flowers, lizards, and snakes and, in my case, environmental wildlife portraits. While 2.8 would be great, I think some of the other options will work well.
|Canon 70-300 mm f4-5.6L IS||Canon 24-105 mm f4L IS||Canon 70-200 f4L IS|
|This new lens has a lot of buzz. The image quality is reported to be excellent. I’m really interested in this lens because of great range for landscapes and some kinds of wildlife photos.||While it doesn’t have much reach this lens has a nice range for general landscape work and even semi-closeups. It’s a dream for shooting from a helicopter!||Just as sharp as it’s big brother, this lightwieght lens with fixed aperture is a great option for the rainforest.|
Canon Macro Lenses
Canon has some great macro lenses, and this is something you’ll definitely want to bring to Costa Rica. These are the three top current choices by Canon that will work with any DSLR body. I find the 180 mm macro lens to put you too far away from the subject for pleasing lighting with flash, which is a key component of rainforest macro photography. But these longer macro lenses are great for closeup work in more open habitats with more light where you can work from a tripod. So, while I don’t have one because the rainforest is my full-time studio, a longer macro lens still might make sense to you.
|Canon 180 mm f3.5L||Canon 100 mm f2.8||Canon 100 mm f2.8L IS|
|The 180 is a great lens, but if you want this focal length the Sigma 150 mm macro and the Tamron 180 mm macro both offer comparable image quality and build at about half the price.||Long considered a lens that should be in the L class, this is the macro lens I use. Sharp and a good focal length for flash work.||The IS sounds like a cool feature but I’m not convinced of the utility for macro work. I decided not to pay twice as much for this lens, but it is undoubtedly a great performer.|
Canon Wide Angle Lenses
There are a number of wide angle options in the Canon lineup. I’ve highlighted three here — one great every day performer and two specialty lenses. I use the 17-40 mm f4L zoom lens for my wide angle landscape work. It doesn’t have a 2.8 aperture like the 16-35 mm f2.8L zoom, but I’m not a reporter; f2.8 isn’t really important for landscape photography. Though there is a debate over sharpness and distortion performance between these two lenses, to me it didn’t make sense to spend twice as much on the 16-35 to get f2.8 and what may or may not be marginally better performance. Plus three of the landscape photographers I most admire (Jose Benito Rodriguez, Cristobal Serrano, and Ian Plant) use the 17-40 mm f4L zoom.
|Canon 17-40 mm f4L||Canon 24 mm f1.4L||Canon 8-14 mm f4L fisheye|
|This lens is priced right and is very sharp. Though Canon has the 16-35 mm f2.8, it costs twice as much, and the fast aperture isn’t a big deal for a landscape lens.||This is one sharp lens that delivers great distortion-free performance. Plus the super fast aperture would be great for night photography. It’s expensive though.||You won’t use a fisheye every day as they get gimmicky quickly. But this new fisheye zoom, which works on full-frame and crop factor bodies, sure would be fun to have!|
You’ll want at least one flash for rainforest photography. The choice for your main flash is between the 580 and the 430. The former gives you more power and the capability to act as a master unit. The latter has less power and will act only as a slave but will still work for wildlife photography if you’re on a budget.
|Canon 580 EXII||Canon 430 EXII||Canon MT-24 EX twin flash|
|Expensive and heavy but a great flash unit with both master and slave capability.||Smaller and cheaper than it’s big brother, the 430 is still a very capable flash. I use a number of these for hummingbird photography.||The MT-24 is a great addition for the macro shooter. I like the ability to move the flash heads off axis, which gives many more creative lighting possibilities than the Canon ring flash.|
We all like to accessorize, right? Here are a few photo gadgets that I think are very helpful for rainforest photography.
|Cable Release||Flash Transmitter||Extension Tubes|
|You definitely want a cable release for landscape shooting and especially if you will be photographing an active volcano at night. The item above is a good basic unit that works great.||Though the 580 EX and the built-in flash on the 7D can act as master, if you do a lot of multi-flash work, the ST-E2 is by far the most reliable way to trigger off-camera flashes.||These hollow tubes allow your lens to focus more closely than normal. I use them all the time for small creatures and flower. The Kenko set above is a great buy for Canon.|
I think Nikon currently has the best camera bodies out there for rainforest photography. Since high ISO performance is such a crucial issue for the rainforest photographer I like Nikon’s decision to keep their bodies around 12 megapixels rather than trying to cram more and more pixels into the sensor at the cost of high ISO noise as Canon has done. I would love Canon’s 7D if they would drop the megapixel count back to 12 and thereby increase the high ISO performance by lowering the noise. You can agree with me or not, but the upshot is that Nikon shooters have some great DSLRs for the rainforest!
|Nikon D3s||Nikon D700||Nikon D300s|
|I’m amazed at the high ISO performance of this camera. ISO 6400 is actually of publishable quality. Frame rate, build, and great AF are all there too. You’ll pay for it though!||The Nikon D700 is a great camera body akin to the Canon 5DII. With only 12 MP, the D700 wins for high ISOs. However, the 21 MP 5DII is great for big landscape prints.||Great feel to this body, and 12 MP means pretty good high ISO performance for a crop factor (1.5x) body. A nice addition for birds or monkeys at a distance.|
Nikon Telephoto Lenses
Like Canon, the Nikon telephoto lineup has some great offerings. If I shot Nikon, I would be very intrigued by the 200-400 f4 zoom lens. This lens has proven to be a very popular and very good performer. I’m surprised Canon hasn’t come out with an answer to this lens. Lucky you for now, Nikonians!
|Nikon 300 mm f2.8 VRII||Nikon 500 mm f4 VRII||Nikon 200-400 mm f4 VRII|
|Sharp wide open and handholdable, this is a great lens for wildlife photography in the rainforest — especially if you like to include a bit of habitat in the image.||Big and heavy but razor sharp, this is a great lens for rainforest birds. The 600 mm will get you even longer reach, but I find the size and weight to make it impractical in the rainforest.||This is such a cool lens! Even though it’s not as sharp as a prime, it’s still good, and the zoom range is fantastic for rainforest wildlife.|
Nikon Wide to Medium Zooms
Nikon’s medium zooms offer some nice choices. These are the three I would be looking at.
|Nikon 70-200 f2.8 VR||Nikon 24-120 mm f4 VR||Nikon 24-70 mm f2.8|
|Bulky but very sharp. Unlike Canon, Nikon doesn’t offer an f4 alternative in this lens class so if you need a 70-200, this is your choice.||I like this focal length quite a bit for shooting landscapes and even semi-closeups. Like the Canon 24-105 mm f4L IS, this would be great for shooting from a helicopter.||Super sharp and a great range for landscape photography with a full-frame body like the D3s or the D700. But the 24-120 is an interesting, smaller and cheaper, alternative.|
Nikon Macro Lenses
Nikon has some great macro lenses, and this is something you’ll definitely want to bring to Costa Rica. These are the three top current choices by Nikon that will work with any DSLR body. I find the 200 mm macro lens to put you too far away from the subject for pleasing lighting with flash, which is a key component of rainforest macro photography. But these longer macro lenses are great for closeup work in more open habitats with more light where you can work from a tripod. So, while I don’t have one because the rainforest is my full-time studio, a longer macro lens still might make sense to you.
|Nikon 200 mm f4 macro||Nikon 105 mm f2.8 VR macro||Nikon 60 mm f2.8 macro|
|The 200 is a great lens, but if you want this focal length the Sigma 150 mm macro and the Tamron 180 mm macro both offer comparable image quality and build at less than half the price.||The VR sounds like a cool feature but I’m not convinced of the utility for macro work. Still this is a great lens, and the one I would choose for rainforest macro.||This is a nice little lens. While 60 mm would be a little short on a full-frame body, this lens on a D300s or a D90 would work very well.|
Nikon Wide Angle Lenses
Nikon has some winners in this lineup, including the legendarily sharp 14-24 mm f2.8.
|Nikon 14-24 mm f2.8||Nikon 16-35 mm f4 VR||Nikon 24 mm f1.4|
|For straight quality this is the best wide-angle zoom on the market. But it’s big, heavy, expensive and awkard and not cheap to use with filters. A polarizing filter is key in the rainforest.||This is a great alternative for rainforest landscapes. Relatively light and plenty sharp, this lens would probably be my choice for Nikon.||This is one sharp lens that delivers great distortion-free performance. Plus the super fast aperture would be great for night photography. It’s expensive though.|
Nikon’s flash system offers some great stuff. Though I think the interface is less intuitive and efficient in many ways than Canon’s, I love Nikon’s wireless macro flash (Canon’s version has cables — so last millenium!) and SU-800 flash controller (see below).
|Nikon SB-900||Nikon SB-700||Nikon R1C1 Closeup Flash|
|Expensive and heavy but a great flash unit with both master and slave capability.||Smaller and cheaper than it’s big brother, the SB-700 is still a very capable flash. This or the older SB-600s are great for hummingbird photography with multiple flashes.||Way cool, this flash system allows for ultimate freedom in macro lighting with the wireless feature. And the ability to purchase additional flash heads is a nice bonus.|
We all like to accessorize, right? Here are a few photo gadgets that I think are very helpful for rainforest photography. I have to mention the flash transmitter. I love being able to control off-camera flashes (in TTL or manual mode) right from the back LCD panel of this unit. When will Canon update the ST-E2 to give us this?!
|Cable Release||Flash Transmitter||Extension Tubes|
|You definitely want a cable release for landscape shooting and especially if you will be photographing an active volcano at night. The item above is a good basic unit that works great.||Even though the SB900 or the built-in flash on the D300s give you commander capability, the SU-800 is the way to go for multi-flash work.||These hollow tubes allow your lens to focus more closely than normal. I use them all the time for small creatures and flower. The Kenko set above is a great buy for Nikon.|
Tripods & Tripod Heads
A tripod is a necessity for the rainforest photographer, whether you’re shooting landscapes or birds. I shoot general nature so I love the flexibility of a ballhead and a Wimberley Sidekick. This combination is great for lenses up to a 300 mm f2.8 but for heavier lenses a full gimbal-type head will give you smoother and safer shooting. So, if you shoot primarily with a big lens, this combo may not work for you. I love being able to easily and quickly dismount the Sidekick and then mount my camera or lens right on the ballhead for macro or landscape shooting. There are a number of brands of tripods, legs, and heads. The brands I recommend are Really Right Stuff for ballheads, Gitzo and Manfrotto for tripods, and Wimberley for gimbal-type heads. But I’ve had the chance to see and play with tripods and heads by Induro, and I’ve been very impressed. Induro gear offers a great build at a more accessible price point.
I think the store at NatureScapes has the best selection of tripods and heads for the nature photographer, and they have great customer service as well.
|Induro CT414 Carbon Fiber||Induro BHD3 Ballhead||Wimberley Sidekick|
|I use a Manfrotto carbon fiber tripod because I prefer flip locks on the legs. But, I’m now taking a hard look at the Induro carbon fiber lineup.||I use a Really Right Stuff ballhead, and it’s fantastic. But it can be a bit tough ordering these, and the Induro heads I’ve seen are quite nice too.||The Wimberley Sidekick is great as is the full Wimberley head for even larger telephotos. Induro has some similar products that also are very good.|
There are tons of photo accessories out there, but I think the three below are among the most important for the rainforest photographer. When buying a Better Beamer, make sure to get the one that best fits your particular flash.
|Better Beamer||Filters||Rain Covers|
|The Better Beamer flash extender is almost a necessity for rainforest photography. It concentrates the spread of your flash to be more in line with telephoto lenses.||Digital filters are all the rage but the one filter you can’t duplicate in the computer is the polarizer. It’s great for helping to saturate rainforest colors by cutting glare on wet leaves.||There are plenty of options out there but I’ve found that simpler is better. The Vortex camo raincover above works well and looks cool too.|
Camera Bags & Backpacks
A camera bag for rainforest shooting is a tough call. I love the Gura Gear Kiboko Bag for use in the field but it’s not as nice as the ThinkTank Airport Security rolling carry-on backpack for international travel. Whichever main bag you choose, a modular belt like the ThinkTank Skin Set is a cool option to have lots of gear right at hand while in the forest.
I think the store at NatureScapes has the best selection of cases, bags, and backpacks for the nature photographer, and they have great customer service as well.
|Gura Gear Kiboko Bag||ThinkTank Airport Intl.||ThinkTank Modular Set|
|The Kiboko pack has become my favorite photo backpack for the field. It’s very light, has great accessibility, and holds a ton of stuff. No laptop case though.||Another great travel backpack is the ThinkTank airport international. It rolls so it’s nice for the airport and also has a handy laptop area. Meets all carry-on max sizes.||I’ve never used this item but I have seen it, and it looks cool. The modular belt system allows you to keep lenses, flashes, and gadgets handy for shooting in the forest.|
Camera Maintenence & Cleaning
Even with the automatic sensor cleaning function on most new DSLR cameras, manual sensor cleaning is still a necessity. I find it handy to have on hand a couple of small cleaning devices. And I always carry some basic tools such as small screwdrivers and allen wrenches for emergency adjustments.
|Rocket Blower||LensPen SensorKlear||Screwdrivers|
|The Giottos rocket blower is a great little gadget. I use it as the first step in cleaning, first blowing out the camera body chamber and then blowing off the sensor.||This lightweight accessory is a great second step to clean off your sensor. No liquids involved so it’s great for travel.||I have one of these screwdriver sets — cheap and small and they do the job. Allen wrenches and a pocket knife/Leatherman type tool also are great to have along.|
Image Storage & Management
Backup while in the field is a pain but a total necessity. What could be worse than returning from your trip to find corrupted or lost image files? There are a number of backup strategies but the point is that redundancy rules.
I always take a my 13″ laptop with me along with two Western Digital external hard drives. I don’t keep all three in the same place just in case. I actually like to do image backup and initial editing in one process. When I’m ready to download, I plug my USB card reader into my laptop and use the automatic download utility in Adobe Lightroom. That way I’m copying files to the laptop hard drive and my Lightroom mobile catalog at the same time. I then run through the images quickly in Lightroom, deleting the obvious failures and rating the remaining images so that I have a head start on organizing things on my desktop PC when I return home. Since I use Lightroom for the vast majority of my image editing, I might go ahead and optimize a few favorites then and there if I get excited. Once I’ve done these steps, I make backups of the image folder and the Lightroom catalog on my external drives, and I’m done.
|External Hard Drives||Adobe Lightroom||Hyperdrives – Epson P-6000|
|I know a laptop can be a travel hassle but having one along on a trip is great for initial image editing and storage. I use Western Digital passport drives for additional backup in the field.||I love Lightroom. In fact, even at home I use it for about 95% of my workflow. In the field, I have Lightroom on my laptop and use it for downloading and some initial selection and editing.||If you don’t want to take a laptop, hyperdrives that combine card readers with a nice screen for viewing are a great option. The Epson above has an amazingly good screen.|
Have questions or comments on the gear guide? Please leave a reply below. I’ll be happy to respond.