I often hear photographers say that they shoot only natural light. I love photographs that have pleasing natural light, and I respect a great landscape or wildlife shot where the photographer was in the right place at the right time or persisted until getting that magical light. Indeed, great natural light makes great photos, particularly for landscapes and larger wildlife. When I see interesting natural light for any image — landscape, bird, snake, frog, monkey, or mushroom — I’m all over it. But, I don’t see how relying only on natural light (often because the photographer doesn’t know how to use flash well) is a badge of honor for the nature photographer.
The reality of nature photography, especially for the rainforest photographer, is that nature doesn’t often give us what we want, when we want it. I was confronted with this situation recently while shooting for my coffee table book in the Corcovado National Park on Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula. Days were made up of hard hiking with plenty of gear and wearing rubber boots (to cross numerous creeks and muddy spots but also for safety), looking for things to photograph in the dense forest. My task was to photograph beach scenes, forest interiors, plants, bugs, snakes/lizards, mammals, and birds. Basically, the idea was to bring back a portfolio (in one week!) that would give book readers a good sense of what this area of the country was all about. That meant taking my whole kit with me at all times out in the forest, and it made for some long hot days!
While hiking around mid-day near the Rio Claro, my local guide Jorge went looking for a fer-de-lance he had spotted the previous week. It wasn’t in the same spot but minutes later, I heard him shout “Terciopelo!” and yep, there it was right off the trail — a meter long fer-de-lance.
-As always, a little reminder that I work hard on the site. So, if the spirit moves you, consider buying your next gear through the affiliate links on this site; you pay the same, and I make a little something to keep the site going. Check out the Support the Site page for more info. Below is the gear I used for this shoot (camera was a Canon 5DII which has been discontinued). Gracias!-
Fer-de-lance, Bothrops asper, are very dangerous, but they are nocturnal. When resting during the day, as this one was, they tend to be pretty calm as long as they are not disturbed. I really wanted a shot of a fer-de-lance in real leaf litter (I have plenty from snake zoos), and this was a nice specimen in a nice position. By using a longer lens (my 70-300 mm zoom), I was able to work at a distance comfortable for me and the subject.
The big problem was the light. In rainforests at mid-day, you normally get one of two things — soft but very dim light with rainy conditions or sunny, very patchy/contrasty light when it’s clear. I actually don’t mind patchy light, particularly for a subject such as a snake on the rainforest floor as it makes for a nice cue as to the subject’s habitat. Furthermore, a rainforest image with light and shadow is usually much more interesting to me than soft overcast light, especially for a snake, where a chiaroscuro effect brings out that sinister character we associate with serpents.
When faced with patchy midday light, however, things have to be just right. The light has to hit the subject’s head and then accent only parts of the image that contribute something positive to the final product. That simply doesn’t happen very often, and it wasn’t happening with my snake this day. Below is how my shot looked with natural light — ouch!
I needed a strategy to tame or simply rid myself of the natural light. The first thing many macro/closeup photographers would have thought of was to use a diffuser. I had one in my Kiboko pack, but using it would have given me soft light, which would be great for a flower but wouldn’t make for an exciting snake picture. I really wanted that light and shadow for the emotional effect and for the texture it would bring out (the species name asper, after all, means “rough”) in the snake’s scales.
What about using the diffuser and then employing a reflector to bounce light back into the scene? That’s a great technique that many photographers use for flowers and mushrooms, and I had a reflector in my pack as well. I didn’t use it here for three reasons. First, it wouldn’t really have given me the directional effect I wanted. Second, since it was mid-day, finding an angle from which to bounce the light would have been difficult. Third, and most importantly, waving two big bright circles around at close distance to a fer-de-lance seemed like a very bad idea!
The obvious choice, then, was flash, and I needed more than one. Of course, I never head out into the forest without at least two flashes, so I was all set. Using the Phottix Odin radio transmitter system, which I am coming to absolutely love, made the job easy. Once I composed and focused (with my camera on a tripod and using Live View), I needed to decide on my exposure. Since I wanted to eliminate all natural light and let my flashes take over (just as in a studio), I knew I wanted a small aperture, a relatively fast shutter speed, and a low ISO. Settings of f/16, 1/200, and ISO 100 gave me a completely black frame when I pressed the shutter button. Perfect!
Like many nature photographers, I started my career doing something else. A political scientist by training, my research focused on the politics of the environment in Latin America. I researched environmental politics and ecotourism in Costa Rica and worked here for a number of years as a conservation professional, having first come to the country in 1992 as a Peace Corps volunteer. I now dedicate myself full-time to my own photography and my Costa Rica photo tour company. I work out of my home office in Costa Rica’s central highlands, where I live with my wife, twin boys, our dogs and cats, and various hummingbirds and songbirds that visit our backyard feeders.