This year was a busy year for me because I carried a full load of workshops but still was able to successfully complete my coffee table book project on the natural wonders of Costa Rica. As the culmination of years of work in the forests of Costa Rica, I find myself looking back at this project as 2015 draws to a close The book was a learning experience in terms of photography and in terms of the business of doing a major book project. In this blog post, I'm going to share with you some of the things I learned as well as a few of my favorite photos from the book, along with a photo tip specific to each image.
For those who live in Costa Rica or are visiting soon, the book will be in all of the major stores in the airport and throughout the country in about one month!
So, what did I learn in terms of photography?
First and foremost, before I even started the project a few years ago, I decided that I wasn't very good at landscape photography! I practiced and studied quite a bit, and I think I've upped my landscape game to where it's on par with my wildlife, bird, and macro abilities. I'm very happy to have grown in this area.
While attempting to improve, I learned that I very much enjoy landscape photography. It's easily as difficult and I think actually quite a bit harder than bird or wildlife photography if one wants to take landscape shots that don't look just like every other landscape shot from a given place. I also found that I enjoyed the pace and process of landscape photography. It's usually more physically demanding than wildlife or bird photography because of the hiking involved and the often odd hours, but it's also more of a contemplative and proactive, rather than reactive, process. Searching high and low for the best composition means lots of scouting and that means time out in the wilderness where you're not shooting but rather taking things in and trying to plan for that perfect shot. It's a great way to get back to the love of nature that attracted us to nature photography in the first place.
The second thing I learned in photographic terms was that one needs to have a diverse skill set and a deep bag of tricks to pull off a project like this. Of course, this was something that attracted me to the project in the first place as I knew it would force me to challenge myself in my continuing quest to become a complete nature photographer. By that I mean that I strive to be able to pull off a high-quality shot no matter what the subject or situation might be, and that means being able to photograph a great and hopefully different landscape, bird portrait, bird/wildlife action shot, camera trap shot for an elusive mammal or flying bat, or macro subjects with natural light, flash or flashlights. I felt pretty good about the diversity of my skill set going into the project (it's what led the publishers to hire me for the book in the first place) but I feel much better coming out of it. As with anything we do for our work, the more we practice, the better we get.
The third thing I learned, or more correctly, confirmed, was the importance of flash. I never went anywhere without at least two flashes with me. Flash allowed me to pull of numerous shots that would have been impossible with natural light alone. Now more than ever, I urge any photographer doing work in the tropics to study flash and not just the relatively simple technique of fill-flash but also off-camera flash for accent light and pleasing flash as main light images. If you are on the fence about flash (because you think it's bad for our subjects and/or because it looks bad), I urge you to educate yourself on both counts as flash used responsibly and done well does not harm our subjects and allows us take pleasing, natural-looking images that stand out from the crowd. My friend Glenn Bartley and I wrote an e-book a few years ago that contains a good chapter on flash as well as much more info pertinent to photographing in tropical forests. It's a great book! :-)
And what did I learn in terms of business? Well, plenty, but I'll stick to two things :-)
First, I learned that a book project of this type, when done in conjunction with a couple of major book publishers, requires the photographer to drop his or her ego a bit. What do I mean by that? Well, the publishers (Zona Tropical Press in Costa Rica and Cornell University Press in the US) chose me for the project because they liked my style of nature photography. Nonetheless, they challenged me (particularly the Costa Rican publisher) to broaden my style on certain trips in order to bring diversity to the book. So, they might say, "Well, the stuff from the last trip was pretty good but maybe shoot some the next time a little more like this photo we found online." My first inclination of course was to reply that I don't shoot that style and that I think my photos are way better than the one they mentioned, and I think that's a natural, though prideful, response. On further thought and in discussion with the publisher that including, say a bit more of a documentary approach to my normal artistic tendencies might open up new avenues for me to explore, I began to come around.
I'm a big sports fan, and I had been reading about LeBron James working a couple of summers ago to add some offensive moves from other players to his repertoire because he thought that he could be better. If LeBron could improve by looking to moves from his opponents, then I certainly was being an idiot thinking that I shouldn't open myself up to some different influences! Once I embraced this idea, I found that incorporating some other styles into my photography opened up new possibilities and improved my work.
The lesson -- stay humble and be open to new ideas. That doesn't mean simply copying other photographers (it can be a fun technical exercise but should be no more than that for a photographer looking to forge a personal style) but rather trying to take some traits from other photographers and incorporate those into our own photographs in order to maintain our personal vision.
Second, I learned that a book project like this is not all about the photographer. Does it make me arrogant that I thought it was all about me? I don't think so, and this is because most photographers, when publishing a coffee table book, would probably presume that the book is their great artistic statement or that the book revolves around showcasing their best photos. The reality is that a successful photographic coffee table book (especially one that is place-based) needs to sell, and this means having a central organizing theme and making it accessible to as broad an audience as possible. For the book in question, this meant that we needed photos of certain places or things that didn't necessarily make for the best possible photographs and that some photographs simply didn't fit because they didn't go with the mood of the book. So, some of my very favorite/best photos are not included in the book either because they didn't fit thematically or because they were a little too dark or abstract in terms of the mood. And there are a number of photos that I consider to be just barely OK in straight photographic terms that perhaps added more value to this particular book than a great image with more mystery.
To get myself through this (believe me, coming to accept that the book would not be a showcase of my best images was difficult!) I used the analogy of a band recording an album. Unless the band is willing/able to pay for studio time and cover the costs of advertising and distribution, the album is going to be under the influence of the record label so that it is as consistent and broadly accessible as possible. Had I wanted to cover the costs of printing and had I been willing to take a year off to figure out how to sell and distribute and keep inventory in every store in Costa Rica, I could have the book be a showcase of what I considered my strongest images. But perhaps the book I made wouldn't be a coherent product, and I'd probably lose a lot of money because that book wouldn't sell as well!
In the end, then, the advantages of working with major publishers (layout, production, and publishing expertise, distribution channels, assumption of financial risk) and the cache one gains as a photographer over self-publishing (which anyone with enough money and time can do) far outweigh the loss of artistic freedom that the photographer might otherwise enjoy.
Learning that what I thought was a great photo might not be appear to be a great photo to a non-photographer was educational. And by the same token, I learned that photos that I considered to be so-so were engaging to viewers coming from a non-photographic point of view.
Though things ended up differently than how I envisioned, I wouldn't change much about the process in terms of my own photographic participation in this particular book project. I emerged as a better photographer, and the book is great, full of good photos and fantastic natural history and conservation information that adds immensely to the value of the finished product. I'm already working with the publishers to start taking photos for the second edition to come out in a few years!
OK, thanks for indulging my random musings, and now, on to my 6 favorite photos that are included in my new coffee table book, National Parks of Costa Rica!
Before traveling to Costa Rica's extreme southeast corner near the border with Panama to photograph the wild and isolated Gandoca/Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge, I looked up lots of pics on Google to see what beaches might have the ingredients for a great coastal scenic. Mid-day snapshots of this beach, with the large exposed coral reef shelf (about the size of a large conference room table) and the scraggly tree-studded island off the coast, caught my eye. Now it was time for a little research.
I assumed I wanted to shoot at sunrise since I was on the Caribbean (Eastern/Atlantic) coast. Checking a great digital app called the Photographer's Ephemeris (I love PhotoPills but it's not out for Android yet) hit me with some knowledge. Because of the way Costa Rica is positioned geographically and the way this particular spot juts out from the mainland, I could actually shoot this beach with the sun in the frame at both sunrise and sunset. Amazing! But, sunset would cause a shadow on the tidal outcrop that I knew I wanted as my main foreground subject. Sunrise it was.
Checking a tide chart, I found that sunrise would be about an hour after low tide. This was perfect as that meant just enough water to swirl around the large tidal reef outcrop but not so much that I wouldn't be able to wade out into the surf to shoot. I hiked into the refuge at about 3:30 in the morning by flashlight with my good friend Fab Tessaro (a great photographer from Canada), set up, and waited. The sun rose through a hazy, overcast sky and, for just a few minutes, produced these wonderful subtle tones. I got the shot, we hiked back out, and then Fab and I enjoyed a well-deserved breakfast back at our hotel. It's always a good feeling to accomplish something meaningful before breakfast :-)
Tech Specs: Canon 5DII, Canon 17-40 mm f/4 L zoom lens, Induro tripod, Induro ballhead, circular polarizer, Formatt Hitech 3 stop soft grad in Formatt Hitech filter holder, cable release, mirror lockup, manual mode, spot metering, f/16, 2 seconds, ISO 100
At the very end of a long and very rainy day doing multiple-flash hummingbird photography, the sun suddenly broke through the clouds as we looked west over the Juan Castro Blanco National Park. Focused on my hummingbird photography, I was caught unaware. Knowing the light shining through the driving rain and the parting clouds revealing the mountains would last for only a matter of seconds, I threw technique and gear out the window. There was no time to fool with a tripod so I grabbed the camera and lens that I had on hand (a 70-300 mm zoom with image stabilization) and quickly ran out to meter for the highlights (pushing my exposure to the right to capture good shadow detail meant metering the bright sky at +1) before immediately snapping off 6 images which I hoped would later work when stitched together as a panoramic photo. They did, and with a minimum of post-processing, I was rewarded with an image that to the publishers and me had a sort of an infinite, timeless, Jurassic feel to it. Viewed large, one sees the pouring rain coming down over the forest.
Tech Specs: Canon 5DII, Canon 70-300 mm f/4-5.6 L IS zoom lens, handheld, f/5.6, 1/160, ISO 500, manual mode, spot metering
OK, I'm kind of cheating here because we actually used the shot taken immediately before this for the book. The shot in the book has the cat looking at the camera, and the publishers thought the eye contact made for a better photo for the book. But, I prefer this one, and it's my blog post and my photo so my opinion is correct!
Camera trap photos rely on an infrared beam to trigger a camera when something breaks the beam. It's a great way, indeed the only way, to take pictures of wild, shy, and elusive subjects, such as the endangered and nocturnal margay. Yet many camera trap photos have a similar look with an animal looking surprised and gazing straight into the camera while walking along a path.
I wanted to try do something slightly different when I learned that an endangered margay was spotted at my favorite ecolodge in Costa Rica, Bosque de Paz. Luckily, I'm friends with the owners, and they generously allowed me to set up my camera and flashes for as long as it would take to get my photos. I spent 9 nights setting everything up and putting out a little tuna and sardines to help attract the cat to where I had my camera pointed.
Out of the nine nights, the cat came for a total of 13 minutes on night 4, and my camera took 5 photos. This one, where the beautiful little cat seems totally unaware that he's being photographed in his cloud forest habitat, was my favorite.
This is probably one of the most difficult photos I've taken because there are so many little technical and logistical issues - missing just one detail could ruin the shot. In addition, there was an artistic challenge in lighting the scene in a pleasing fashion. And finally, there was the challenge of anticipating/dictating the behavior of the cat so that it posed exactly how and when I wanted it to. Believe me, it's much easier to take a good photo if you, as the photographer, can actually be there! If you ever hear anyone say that an award-winning camera trap photo doesn't count because the photographer didn't take the photo, tell them to try it themselves and see how easy it is :-)
Tech Specs: Canon 5DII, Canon 17-40 mm f/4 L lens, Induro tripod, Induro ballhead, Range IR camera trap sensor, 5 Canon flashes, Phottix radio transmitter/receivers, f/8, 1/200, ISO 800, manual mode
Declared a national park in 1972, Manuel Antonio on the central Pacific coast is one of Costa Rica's first, and perhaps its most famous, national park. Its most striking feature is the tombolo - a land bridge created by the historical build up of sand - that connects the mainland to Cathedral Point, which used to be an island.
For my coffee table book on Costa Rica's natural wonders, I wanted an iconic image of this park that hopefully captured the essence of this protected jewel in one shot. I decided that an aerial photo was the way to go, and I envisioned a photo that would tell a little story but have an interesting graphic/geometric composition as well.
So, I went up in an ultralight plane an hour before sunset to ensure soft light and had my pilot make a few passes over the park, tilting the plane sideways so I could shoot straight down, until I got the shot I wanted. Shooting on a Monday, the one day a week the park is closed, meant I had no people in my frame, just glorious unspoiled nature!
Tech Specs: Canon 5DII, Canon 70-300 mm f/4-5.6 L IS zoom lens, handheld from ultralight plane, polarizing filter, f/5.6, 1/640, ISO 640, manual mode, center-weighted metering
Sometimes you just get lucky. Costa Rica's Rio Celeste is an amazing place on its own -- the heavenly blue water results from a mixture of copper and sulfur and silica colloids that reflect only the blue spectrum of light. While photographing a landscapce, I suddenly saw a Baird's tapir crash through the underbrush and begin to swin downstream. I sprinted to a spot I had noticed earlier (and even considered shooting but thought it lacked an element) and hoped against hope that the tapir would cross there. I was totally ill-prepared as I had a wide angle lens with no auto-focus and had my camera in live view. I quickly flipped live view off and begin to change settings as I ran and then manually focused on the spot where I hoped the tapir would cross, spot metered quickly on the sunlit water to tweak my settings, and held my breath for a few seconds as the tapir approached through the forest on the right side of the river. When the tapir crossed exactly as I had dreamed, I had time to quickly fire off 4 shots with my manual focus lens before the animal disappeared again into the dense rainforest.
Though a very rarely seen phenomenon, some think that the tapirs bathe in the chemical-laden blue waters as a way to rid themselves of ticks, fungus, botflies, and other skin afflictions that chronically plague rainforest mammals. Though the encounter was brief, seeing this elusive animal in this amazing place and capturing a photo that tells an ecological story of an endangered animal in a magical setting was a highlight of my nature photography career!
So, was this photo just luck? Luck certainly played a part but being aware of potential photo opportunities as one is hiking and knowing how to quickly compose and meter and set one's camera to capture a surprising occurrence are just as important :-)
Tech Specs: Canon 5DIII, Rokinon 24 mm f/1.4 lens, circular polarizer, handheld, f/5.6, ISO 640, 1/320, manual mode, spot metering
And my favorite? Yep, the cover! This one involved some tricky techniques to overcome both dynamic range and depth of field challenges in order to get this in one shot. And that high degree of difficulty plus the fact that it's a totally unique shot of a charismatic species that has been photographed millions of times by a million and one photographers makes it my favorite. We've all seen shots of the famed red-eyed tree frog but I had never seen one like this. I had developed the idea of how I might do this shot going back five years or so (one of those "in the shower" moments) and finally found the opportunity to execute it just this year.
To reiterate, this is an actual photo. That is, it's not a composite done in Photoshop. It also is not an in-camera multiple exposure. These days many Nikon and Canon cameras allow one to press the shutter button multiple times (even days apart) and let the camera combine things into a single image right on your CF or SD card. The photo above is a single RAW file produced with a single click of the shutter button. In the interest of disclosure, I will tell you that I found the frog nearby and coaxed him into the position I wanted on this blooming coral bean tree.
There was some controversy surrounding the selection of this shot as the cover of the coffee table book. The folks at Cornell University Press assumed it was a composite (that assumption and the fact that it's completely understandable seems to me a sad commentary on the state of nature photography but that's a topic for another day!). Thus they disqualified it immediately from cover consideration. The people at Zona Tropical here in Costa Rica had the RAW file, however, so they sent it to the people at Cornell to assure them that it was indeed an actual photo; that was all it took to prove that it wasn't a Photoshop composite. And since I took it with the Canon 5DII, which doesn't have multiple exposure capability there was no question of it being an in-camera multiple exposure either. Problem quickly solved, and we had our cover shot!
Tech Specs: Canon 5DII, Sigma 20 mm f/1.8 lens, one flash off camera with small softbox, Phottix radio transmitter/receiver, Induro tripod, Induro ballhead, f/2.8, 20 seconds, ISO 3200
I hope that you've enjoyed this little behind the scenes look at the photographer's experience producing a book project and that you've learned a little something from the photo tips and the image descriptions.
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