In Costa Rica, you are not allowed to use flash at night when photographing frogs (to avoid damaging their eyes and disrupting their night time routine…in fact flash is discouraged in wildlife photography of any kind in Costa Rica…where it is not actually illegal). In the past I have used a good led flashlight, most recently a Everready daylight balanced flashlight, held beside my camera, with the camera set in “Anti Motion Blur” mode. I have gotten some good shots, but in Anti-motion Blur mode it is not possible to adjust Exposure Compensation and keeping the whites on the Red-eyed Leaf Frogs in check has been difficult. At close distances I often had to turn the flashlight down or shine it slightly off to the side, which pushed my ISO’s higher than they needed to be.
On this year’s Point and Shoot Nature Photography Adventure in Costa Rica, I made two changes to my technique.
1) Inspired by ads for a similar, but much more expensive, device on Facebook, I searched Amazon and bought a little light cube, normally used for shooting video. It mounts in the flash shoe of the Rx10iv and has three levels of adjustable illumination. It was under $30 and came with the flash shoe mount and a set of color filters to change the color temperature. It is roughly daylight balanced as it is.
2) I experimented with “multi-frame-noise-reduction” instead of anti-motion-blur. It does not have the motion processing of AMB but it still takes 3-4 images at a lower ISO and stacks them. Since high ISO noise in an image is random, stacking 3 images tends to ”average out” the noise. I was concerned that if the frog moved…or, more likely, if I moved the camera, the multiple frames would not stack correctly…but in practice it worked better than I expected. MFNR allowed me to dial in the EV for best results and, if I was very careful with motion, to even use Clear Image Zoom. In fact, MFNR did a better job of stacking exposures and I did not have to use much EV compensation at all.
What I also found was that the daylight balanced light cube did not disturb the frogs at all. With flashlights, the frogs first shut their eyes and then hunker down to make themselves as small as possible. You have to be quick to get a shot before they respond. With the light cube I could work a frog for many moments and it did not even close its eyes, much less hunker down.
If you do any night photography, I highly recommend you check out a light cube. They are available from a number of vendors on Amazon, and are inexpensive. They are also way easier to work with an a separate hand held flashlight, and seem to disturb the subject less. What is not to like?
As a final note, while in Costa Rica I worked with Cope, an artist and naturalist who lives in La Union (Donde Cope). He was using an LED array…also sold for video work…with over 150 leds. It seemed to provide a very non-directional light source, much like natural daylight, and would, I think, be very useful for hummingbirds and other birds in low light. That will be my next experiment. This shot of Honduran White Tent-making Bats up under a leaf under heavy canopy was taken using his hand held Led Array, but they do mount in your flashshoe as well. Note how natural the shadows look.
In December 2018, I took 10 Point and Shoot Nature Photographers to Costa Rica for 9 days. We visited two of my favorite lodges and several excellent photo venues around those lodges. Here is a gallery of shots from the trip, and a link to a pdf e-book detailing the journey.
Note: I am returning to Costa Rica in December 2018 for another amazing photo adventure. Join me there. Info.
I have been to Honduras seven times, and to Panama twice, but until this past October, I had never been to Costa Rica. No Central American traveler or photographer can afford to miss Costa Rica. Costa Rica offers rich and diverse bird and wildlife in a country with a well developed ecotourism structure, and an eco-friendly ethic that produces some of the finest observation and photography opportunities to be found in Central America. The lodges are well established and comfortable, the roads are, for the most part, good, there is a whole industry devoted to getting tourists around, the people are friendly, and at least the ones I met, are used to dealing with people who have come to enjoy the experience of wild Costa Rica. And Costa Ricans are proud of their country. They have more land devoted to National Parks and Reserves than most “developed” countries (over 25% of their country is within the National Park System), and their wildlife protection laws, mostly enacted a generation ago already, are a model for their neighbors. They take birds and wildlife, and those who come to see and photograph it, seriously.
My trip to Costa Rica was arranged by Holbrook Travel (http://www.holbrooktravel.com/), and for most of my visit we stayed at Selva Verde, a rainforest lodge owned and operated by the Holbrook family. (http://www.selvaverde.com/ ) While the lodge itself offers great wildlife and birds, and many excellent photo opportunities, most days we went out to other well known birding and photography hot-spots in the valley of the Serapique River, and the surrounding foothills. The last three days I, and two other members of the group, went up into the mountains to the Savegre Hotel for an experience of the cloud forest and its birds (http://www.savegre.com/).
October is, perhaps, not the ideal month to visit Costa Rica. It is the rainiest month, and we had rain at least part of pretty much every day. In the mountains we had to detour around roads that were still closed due to mudslides from the recent tropical storm (a once in a generation phenomenon) and Sevegre had only reopened the day before we got there. The road in and out was still a bit sketchy, but we made it both ways. The rain did not discourage the wildlife or the birds, and we did not let it discourage us. Overall it was one of my most enjoyable tropical experiences. Still, next year’s Point and Shoot Nature Photographer tour of Costa Rica will be scheduled in early December, after the rainy season. 🙂
One of the most attractive aspects of birding and photography in Costa Rica is the number and variety of birds that come to the feeders and frequent the grounds at the lodges and private reserves. Selva Verde had three kinds of Toucans, at least a dozen bright Tanager species, woodpeckers, Variegated Squirrels and a White-nosed Coati coming to the feeders. There were Howler Monkeys in the trees above the cabins every day, and White-faced Caputians across the street in the gardens. There were also Motmots in the Gardens.
Before we even got to Selva Verde we visited the La Paz Waterfall Gardens on the mountain rim surrounding the high central valley and San Jose, where we saw a dozen different species of hummingbirds around the feeders and our first Barbets. Dave and Dave’s Costa Rican Nature Park, quite near Selva Verde lodge, has an array of carefully managed, natural looking, feeding stations that attracts Tanagers and Toucans, as well as a variety of rainforest hummingbirds. One afternoon we visited Cope, a native artist in La Union de Guápiles about 45 minutes from Selva Verde (http://copeartecr.com/) who not only showed us a Crested Owl in the rainforest, but took us back to his home, which he has transformed to something between a wildlife sanctuary and an outdoor photo studio, where he showed us all kinds of unique and interesting creatures, including a Glass Frog and the very rare White-tipped Sicklebill (hummingbird) which happens to come to his feeders.
Some of the more “official,” publicly supported, reserves and research stations do not have bird feeders on principle…as they feel it keeps wildlife from the plants they would otherwise pollinate and may produce dependency on human resources. They rely on native plantings to bring the birds and wildlife in close. Dave and Dave’s or Cope’s are good examples, I think, of responsible feeding. At Dave and Dave’s they only put out banana slices (a low priority food for most birds) on natural vines hung around the photo patio, and backed by native flowering and fruiting plants. Their hummingbird feeders are kept to a 15 to 1 solution, with much less sugar than the natural nectars of the abundant native plants. The feeders bring the hummers in, but they spend most of their time, as I can attest, feeding on natural sources. Natural perches are provided and fresh Heliconia flowers daily where the hummers can drink. Dave and Dave are certainly very aware of their impact on the birds that they feed, and have made extraordinary efforts to restore native plants, fruits and flowers, on their property over the years they have owned it. In the process they provide some of the best photo opportunities for bird photographers to be found in the Serapique region. (http://sarapiquieco-observatory.com/welcome)
Another factor that makes Costa Rica such a great ecotourism destination is the ease of access to such a wide variety of habitats. There are lodges, hotels, and reserves in every region, from dry forest in the north west, to the rainforest of the Caribbean lowlands, to the mid-level forest on the volcanic rims in the coffee country, to cloud forest at the higher elevations…all accessible by well maintained roads. And much of it is no more than 2-3 hours from San Jose’s international airport.
And everywhere you go, the people of Costa Rica are ready to show off their country and their wildlife. Near Savegre Hotel there is a tree up on a hillside that is famous for its Resplendent Quetzals. Right tree, right place. The farmer who owns the land has built a rough trail up the all but vertical slope, complete with hand-rails, and chopped out a platform on the hillside across from the tree where birders and photographers can stand to watch and photograph the Quetzals as they come in to feed. The day we visited, he met us at the foot of the trail and accompanied us up to the platform, as delighted as we were with the birds, though he sees them every day. He collects a small fee from birders and photographers who want to see “his” Quetzals, that helps his family to survive (hopefully more than survive) and gives him incentive to keep the land as natural as possible. He could easily rip out the wild avocado trees otherwise, and plant coffee or corn.
All of the native guides and naturalists we met and worked with were well trained, knowledgeable, and delighted to be of help in our understanding of what we saw and experienced. Costa Rica does have an extensive and through guide training program that includes ornithology, biology, botany, geography, history, ecology, and first aid…and, of course, the interpreters at the official research stations are generally graduate-students or research assistants, experts in their fields. If you work with an experienced tour company like Holbrook, you can be confident that you will be in good hands while in Costa Rica.
I was impressed enough with the potential (and the reality) of Costa Rica to plan to return with another group next year. I can not imagine any birder or photographer going there and not wanting to go back. A amazing country, amazing wildlife, an amazing experience, and amazing memories. That is what Costa Rica has to offer.
All of the photographs in this article were taken with the Sony RX10iii and processed in Polarr on my iPad Pro.