Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Photography in the Tropics

Having returned from my recent trip to Costa Rica and Panama as guest photography host with UnCruise Adventures, I reflected upon the challenges we faced from a photography perspective and wanted to share some tips and advice.

If you are planning a visit to the tropics, here are some key things to keep in mind.

1. The heat and humidity will cause your lenses to "immediately" fog up if you are bringing your gear from air conditioned environments outside. Your best bet is to store your gear in an area where it is not being moved from one extreme to the other. Otherwise you need to allow time to acclimate to the temperature changes. Missing a great shot because your lens is drenched is not fun. Moisture can wreak havoc on your gear and you don't want this to accumulate inside your camera body, so make sure you bring silicon packets as an absorbent and keep them in your camera bag.

2.  Birds and wildlife are difficult to spot particularly under the rainforest canopy. There are so many branches and leaves, so unless your subject is clearly visible and out in the open, the challenge is to find openings in order to acquire focus and get a half decent shot.

A telephoto or zoom with a focal length of at least 300mm is needed in order to get close enough to your subject. I had both a 300mm prime and a 200-500mm zoom lens which I would switch depending on just how much I wanted to carry around in the heat. I also had an external flash with a better beamer, which helps under the canopy, but you need to know how to adjust your flash output to avoid "over flashed" images. A natural look with just enough light to illuminate your subject is all you need.

3. Carrying a lot of gear while traipsing through the rainforest is tough and at times, I just wanted to ditch it all and go with one camera/lens combo. I used a BlackRapid Double Breathe harness, which I use all all my travels. It allows me to balance one camera/lens on either side, is very secure and the most comfortable I have found to date.

Depending the gear you bring and your expectations as far as the kind of images you wish to acquire, it might be better to bring one camera and one lens with a wide focal range, such as an 18-300mm. However, low light is not your friend and higher quality lenses with the ability to use wide apertures such as f/2.8 will allow you to use higher shutter speeds at lower ISO's. Unless your subject is stationary, much of the wildlife under the canopy will be moving, such as monkeys and birds, so at times compromises have to be made in order to just get the shot and in many cases, it is higher ISOs.

4. Light in the tropics can be harsh as the sun rises and sets quickly with direct overhead light predominant throughout the day. If under the canopy, beams of light filtering through the leaves and branches can be used creatively, or not. The key is to avoid pointing your camera up at a dark subject against a bright background and to look for alternatives. Otherwise, a flash is going to be your best bet. By exposing the image so the background is not blown out, then filling in with a flash, you will get the best results. Or, you purposely blow out your background in order to get your subject exposed correctly.

Preferably you want to capture your subject in natural light with no excessive bright or dark areas and at times you might be lucky, so always be aware of where you are in relation to your subject. Sometimes just moving to an alternate spot will give you the best vantage point and lighting situation.

5. Focus on the small stuff as there are so many incredible insects and amphibians. Colorful flowers are abundant and make beautiful subject matter as an alternative to wildlife. If you like to photograph the small stuff, a macro lens is worth the investment, even if you rent one instead of making a full blown purchase.

Out of the canopy and on tropical beaches, you may encounter various species of crab. They key here is to get down low in order to capture an intimate portrait of your subject. Lying on a beautiful white sand beach is not such a bad thing, so give it a go!

A word of warning...make sure you wear a wide brimmed hat and use plenty of sunscreen, otherwise you will end up with a nasty, burnt red neck, just like I did!

6. Tripod or not? In my case, since our trip was quite mobile, a tripod was of not much benefit. A monopod was easier to carry and position on narrow or uneven trails. However, if you are staying in a lodge or visiting areas where you will have time to spend watching and waiting for birds and wildlife, then yes, a tripod will allow you to set up your gear, particularly those long lenses and shoot at the ideal lower ISO's when working in difficult light.

7. Finally the weather. Depending on the time of year, you will need something to cover your gear should it rain. I visited at the end of the rainy season, so rain was minimal. During the couple of times it did rain, I brought Optech plastic rain sleeves and also a waterproof fabric cover I got off eBay, which I prefer since the plastic covers are a temporary solution and I don't like the idea of buying items that are disposable and bad for the environment. I also have a built in rain cover for my backpack, but you can also buy these separately.

The good thing about this time of year is the potential for some interesting skies, leading to beautiful, dramatic sunsets!

If you have any questions or need additional advice, please feel free to contact me!

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