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BEHIND THE LINES – Fer-De-Lance, Making Your Own Light

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!-

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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!

01_GB_terciopelo-bad-light

 

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!

Continue reading…


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Greg BascoLike 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.

Posted in: General, Nature Photography

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BEHIND THE LENS – Art of Desertification

Aerial photography allows us to present a totally different perspective of nature to the viewer. Complicated habitats and ecosystems are simplified into patterns, and the world looks to be a series of graphic designs. Some are well-done, and some are not, and finding scenes that combine light and composition is the challenge of the aerial photographer.

I’ve had the chance to photograph from a helicopter, from an ultralight, and from a gyro plane. Each has its pros and cons, but all will get you up above your scene and offer the chance to capture stunning images. For the image featured here, I was shooting from a Gyro. The freedom of shooting is great since there are no struts, and it’s easy to shoot out either side. But, these things bounce around like a rubber ducky in a bathtub! I shot the whole first session while fighting back nausea. Of course, the motion sickness is made even worse when one is looking through the camera viewfinder than fixing on the horizon. The second day I took a dramamine, and that was much better!

GB858_Snapseed

During these sessions, I was photographing the tropical dry forests of Costa Rica’s Guanacaste province. In addition to some wider scenics, I wanted to produce an image or two that had really strong light and would make the viewer think twice about whether they were actually looking at a picture from Costa Rica. If the image could also tell a story, that would be the icing on the cake. The image below, which depicts a scrubby patch of ground at last light, looks like it might be from another planet or maybe another continent to me. But desertification is exactly what happens over time when tropical dry forests are cut down for cattle and then overgrazed, an all too common story in northwest Costa Rica.

 

 

TECH NOTES: Canon 5DII, Canon 70-300 mm f/4-5.6 L IS zoom lens, polarizer, f/5.6, 1/640, ISO 1000, handheld (duh!)

PROCESSING NOTES: Full-frame/no cropping, standard tweaks and a bit of vignette in Lightroom, cloned out one small bush at the top right of the frame. I couldn’t avoid this bush in-camera so, unfortunately, this makes this image a no-go for contests but I think it’s still a success for my coffee table book.

GEAR & SETTINGS

For aerial shooting, it’s good to have two camera bodies with different lenses. Generally, you’ll want to have coverage from about 30 mm to 300 mm (in full-frame sensor terms) in my experience. Going much wider than 30 mm often means including aircraft parts in the frame, and going longer than 300 mm just has never seemed necessary. For this reason, I chose to pair my Canon 70-300 mm f/4-5.6 L IS zoom lens with my full-frame Canon 5DII body. I then used my 17-40 mm L wide angle zoom with either my Canon 1D Mark IV or my son Chris’ Canon 60D, giving me the equivalent of 22 to 52 mm and 27 to 64 mm coverage, respectively.

GB859_Snapseed

Image stabilization (or VR or OS, depending on your lens brand) is helpful, particularly at longer focal lengths. At wider focal lengths (where subject magnification is less), I don’t think it’s as important. I’ve found that keeping my shutter speed above 1/500 or so was fine for most situations. If zooming in tight, however, I tried to keep the speed a little faster because any shake/vibration would be more visible at higher magnifications, though I still was taking advantage of the very good IS on my 70-300 mm zoom.

A controversial issue surrounds the use of polarizing filters for aerial photography. Some argue that the loss of light (2 stops with most polarizers) and/or the potentially uneven polarization effects across wide areas of skies makes use of polarizers problematic. Nonetheless, I’ve found that the benefits in removing reflections, cutting atmospheric haze, and saturating colors outweigh the aforementioned drawbacks.

I choose to shoot in manual mode when doing aerial photography for two reasons. First, it’s what I shoot most of the time, so it’s the most automatic for me in terms of manipulating the dials and buttons. Second, though aperture priority or shutter priority could have merit in maintaining basic parameters even while light changes, I liked the consistency of manual mode. In most cases the light falling on my scenes was constant. Once I had set my exposure via partial metering (partial seemed best to me to meter off larger tonal areas than spot would allow) off of some reference point (forest, ocean, etc.) I would not have to change my settings except in a gradual fashion as the sun rose in the sky (for morning shoots) or began to set (for the afternoon shoots). The exposure situation did change radically, however, depending on whether I was shooting into the sun or with the sun behind me. To deal with this issue, I simply knew that I could dial in a set number of clicks on shutter speed when shooting into the light. Once I resumed shooting on the other side of the craft, I would dial the shutter speed back down. Of course, in some instances I would work ISO or aperture as needed for different framing situation (e.g., due to changing magnification when zooming in or out) but in general, I was pretty well set with my configuration for the two basic scenarios of sun in my face or sun at my back.

Another consideration with aerial photography surrounds focus. I actually like the old AI focus mode for aerial shooting as it’s somewhere in between servo and static shot modes. But, many camera bodies these days don’t have this choice. As a result, I tend to use servo focus mode, particularly when zooming in for tighter shots as movement is magnified. I used expanded points around the center point, and this has always worked out fine. I shoot in continuous low burst mode and fire off a controlled burst with each shot I’ve lined up as I’ve found that at least one out of three is likely to be tack sharp.

When shooting from the air, your space is often limited. In addition, anything that is not strapped down can fly out of the craft, meaning you will lose it but more importantly, creating a possible safety issue. Take only what you need (no lens hoods!) and make sure everything is easily accessible but secure. Here’s me below looking like a dork but actually quite well-prepared for my aerial photography session over the tropical dry forest. In my little hip pack I also had rain covers for my cameras and a rain jacket for me.

Greg-Blue-Steel

COMPOSITION

When doing aerial photography, you’ll have a nice headset communication with the pilot. The pilots with whom I’ve had the pleasure to work have all been great at getting me into the position I want and super patient when I’ve asked them to go around and around again when I see something I really like. For the image featured here, I wanted be absolutely straight above my scene to avoid depth of field issues (light was fading fast as you can see from the long shadows) but also to keep a flat perspective for this graphic shot. Great positioning and a quick tilt by my pilot allowed me to get the shot.

GB865_Snapseed

With my exposure dialed in and with the Gyro positioned to taste, it was now time to think about composition. I knew I wanted a pleasing arrangement of scrubby bushes and shadows and after a bit of zooming in and out, I was able to find a patch of ground where these elements conformed loosely to an S-curve. I think this really helps the viewer’s eye to move through the frame from bottom right to left middle and then up again to the top right.

s-curve

I hope you’ve enjoyed this post and the thought process behind the image. Successful nature photography is all about previsualizing an image (even when shooting action or capturing a fleeting moment), analyzing the technical 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 (or up in the air!).

RESOURCES

EJ Peiker wrote a great article a few years ago on photographing from a helicopter. The suggestions are great for any type of aerial photography. I suggest youcheck it out at NatureScapes.

Vincent Laforet’s awesome aerial work is always an inspiration. I just love his eye for design from the air. For some examples, check out this gallery.

You can see more of my own aerial work here on this website.

 

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 MEET THE AUTHOR

Greg Basco

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.  

Posted in: General, Photography Techniques

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TECHNIQUE – 15 TIPS FOR RAINFOREST MACRO

Macro photography, defined loosely, is the photography of small things. In temperate zones, where habitats tend to be more open and blessed with nice morning and afternoon light, macro photographers often use tripods, small apertures, and natural light. This approach can produce wonderful images.

In tropical rainforests and cloud forests, however, light is at a premium, particularly in the deep forest where the interesting plants and creatures live. Costa Rica, where I live and work, originally was 99.5% forest. That number is a lot smaller these days but the areas outside of forest are cities, towns, agricultural fields, and cow pastures. To photograph the abundant macro subjects here, you have to get into the forest!

The lack of light means that the traditional temperate zone approach, even with the improved high ISO performance of modern DSLR camera bodies, can be applied only sparingly in the rainforest. The rainforest macro photographer needs to experiment with other techniques. The advantage is that this experimentation can open the door to creatively fresh images.

Any photographic portfolio is made more interesting by showcasing a diversity of image styles. In this little article, I offer fifteen ideas to help you deal with the challenges of rainforest macro photography while at the same time producing original, artistic images of the stunning biodiversity found in tropical rain forests.


1. Use diffused flash

The low light levels mean that flash can be your best friend in the rainforest, as it allows you to obtain good depth of field with reasonable shutter speeds. This also gives you great flexibility as you can work handheld rather than trying to thread tripod legs through the tangled underbrush while your subject just hopped away to the next leaf. Rainforest creatures and flowers are wet and shiny though, so you’ll want to make sure to diffuse your flash. This suggestion stands whether you’re using a built-in flash, a dedicated macro flash, or a larger hotshoe flash. Work carefully, and you can achieve full-flash images that look like they were taken in daylight.

beetle

 

I took this photo of a small beetle in a lowland rainforest with one diffused flash. Flash was the only light source; no ambient light influenced the exposure. A natural light shot would have been impossible due to a slight breeze and the fact that the subject was moving around. Flash allowed me to work handheld.


2. Combine flash and natural light

You don’t always have to ditch your tripod. I still use mine when I can. Even when working from a tripod and using natural light, however, a bit of fill-flash can really help to make your subject pop and to add extra sharpness at marginal shutter speeds.

cloud forest orchids

 

I used a touch of fill-flash (flash exposure compensation was -2) for this image of tiny Epidendrum orchid flowers shot at 1/15 of a second.


3. Get your flash off-camera

Though at first glance, rainforests are just a bunch of smooth shiny leaves, there’s actually a lot of texture out there. Using flash on-camera, that is directly from the front of the subject, tends to wipe out texture. In addition, frontal flash is rarely very interesting. Getting your flash off-camera, either with a TTL cord or a wireless flash trigger, is a great way to add interest to rainforest macro photos by bringing out the texture in your subject and also adding micro-contrast, which makes photos appear even sharper.

rainforest textures

 

One flash held off-camera above and behind the subject allowed me to highlight the texture on both the Heliconia inflorescence and the moth caterpillar for this image. I liked this image because the lighting looks very much like what one would get on a sunny day in the rainforest – directional lighting and deep shaded backgrounds.


4. Use shadows for a mysterious look

Rainforests rarely have even, open light. Shafts of light piercing the canopy and the resulting mix of light and shadow is more typical. Sometimes the natural light works in our favor and can give really dramatic images. Other times we can achieve a similar effect with our flash. Remember, in these cases and in the case of nocturnal creatures, black backgrounds can be completely appropriate and can add a dramatic though natural-looking element to rainforest macro images.

rain forest

Please click this link to continue reading Greg’s post.

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 MEET THE AUTHOR

Greg Basco

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.  

 

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Behind the Lens – Howler Monkey

It’s not often that we get to combine dramatic light and an eye level view of a monkey in the rainforest. But that’s exactly what my workshop participants and I were treated to on my latest photo workshop tour here in Costa Rica! I actually don’t shoot much at all when I’m out leading a trip but since everyone was set up and working well, I decided to sneak in a few shots of my own and came away with the image below. I love mysterious light so I think this is already becoming a favorite of mine.

This late afternoon encounter with strong light streaming through the forest canopy was a great lesson in the importance of spot metering. This is something we had been talking about during the workshop, so this was a perfect opportunity to put the technique into practice. Precise metering, along with a tiny bit of fill-flash and attention to composition, is what made the image a success for me.    

Howler Behind the Lens

 

Click here to go to Greg’s website and continue reading.

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 MEET THE AUTHOR

Greg Basco

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.  

 

 

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How to save enough money to buy a Canon 5D Mark III (or a Nikon D800)

Canon 5D Mark IIIThe Canon 5D Mark III and the Nikon D800 are two of the hottest cameras of 2012 for professional and serious amateur nature photographers; many serious amateurs and pros in other fields of photography would love to have one too. While not outrageously expensive in terms of camera bodies, they’re not cheap — the $3000 you’ll spend for the Nikon D800 and the $3500 you’ll spend for the Canon 5D Mark III is hardly chump change. If you’re a budget-minded hobbyist or aspiring pro or if you are simply a budget-savvy full-time pro, there are some easy ways to save money on key gear and software choices.

Please note that I’m well-aware that trying to buy cheap can sometimes end up costing more money in the long-run. Believe me, I’ve been down that road many times when I was starting out in photography. I’ve learned, however, that there are times when buying the most expensive option may not be necessary.

Here’s why I don’t always buy the latest and greatest and most expensive gadget or service. As a full-time working pro photographer, I look at new gear and software as a business expense. That means three questions for me. Does this new gadget/product allow me to do things I couldn’t do without it? Are those things I could now do going to make a difference in the quality of my work and thus my income? And is there a cheaper but equally or sufficiently good alternative to the new gadget/product that would still allow me to do what I want now and in the future?

In this little article, I offer a few digital photography-related purchase choices that could add up to enough savings for one of these beautiful new camera bodies from Canon or Nikon and perhaps even leave you with enough cash left over for dinner.

 Read the full article here

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 MEET THE AUTHOR

Greg Basco

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 photographyand 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.  

 

 

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