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Picturing the Rainforest: Tips for Photographers

Updated: Jul 10, 2019

With literally hundreds of thousands of species, the Osa Peninsula and the surrounding waters are a paradise for photographers. We have some practical tips to help you frame up your trip.

Know before you go

Nothing replaces a bit of research and planning. You may be drawn to one environment or lifeform - marine creatures, plantlife, birds - but the basics are the same:

  • Get to know your subjects. Learn about the local species, where to find them, and when they’re most active. If you learn about their habits and movements, you’ll know where to most easily find them and what sort of camera settings to use. Know which animals travel alone and which stay in large groups - especially on the water, where tracking a single subject can be more difficult. Knowing the kinds of habitats your subject will be in, what it likes to eat, and any typical behaviors you can look for and photograph will help more than you can imagine.

  • Map out your time. Now that you know when your subjects are awake, what they eat, and during what time of the day (and year!) they’re active- you know where and when to find them. Talk to us to schedule yours, and consider a local guide, who can help you more easily locate particular species so you can focus on the picture.

  • Have multiple plans. Your time is limited - and weather, changes in migration, tide levels and other factors can affect your initial plan. Whether you find you can't access a particular area, or you learn something has caused animals to move location or abandon a site - having a backup plan that you can shift to will save you valuable time.

What to Bring

Our longer packing guide has practical tips for general packing, but there are special considerations for photographers visiting the Osa:

  • A 100% waterproof, lightly-padded backpack is highly recommended. You’ll be carrying it a lot, so you want it to fit your body well, not be too bulky, and have loops to attach things to the outside (with carabiners, so bring those too.) If you are planning to be on the water, you might like a roll-top bag to keep water out while giving easy access.

  • For peace of mind, dedicate (and label!) a waterproof bag for your SD cards or other media. Ours is bright orange, with two clearly-marked sides for empty and full cards, so we can find it easily in the moments we think we’ve lost everything.

  • Think about how to manage your other hiking items - especially liquids. You'll need to carry sun and insect protection, a water bottle, and the like. You will also likely have damp clothings or towels by the end of the day. Decide ahead of time how to carry these items without risking damage to your delicate electronics.

  • Bring the right lenses - and be sure to pack a macro lens or other lens for close-focus. While you will likely be at a distance from most subjects there is a lot going on at your feet, too. You will want to be able to get high into the canopy as well as the smaller insects, amphibians and other closer-by animals.

  • Be ready for darker environments - and be prepared to manage without your flash. The jungle is dark, but many of the animals there are easily startled by the light a flash introduces. If you must use an artificial light source, plan to manage it well - brush up on your F-stop, use off-camera extenders, inflatable light softeners and the like to lessen your impact. Here are some tips for photographing wildlife in low light.

  • A gimbal, or a flexible tripod like a Gorillapod, may be a better choice than a traditional tripod.

  • Bring plenty of SD (or other media) cards - they are hard to find outside the cities. You’ll take lots more pictures than you expect, and probably won’t want to (or be able to) empty your cards.

  • If you are bringing an action camera like a GoPro, bring both sides of attachments for helmets, surf boards, etc. (Some tour companies have the part that attaches to the body or board, but better to have your own to be sure.)

  • Double-check your underwater gear. Make sure seals are strong, and you are fluent in the use of any marine-specific add-ons you might buy before your trip. You don't want to lose an opportunity because you are not familiar with new gear.

  • Costa Rica uses the same voltage as US and Canada, so depending on where you are coming from, you may need an adapter. Please remember that Ojo del Mar can only charge your small devices - camera and medical device batteries, mobile phones, and small tablets.

  • You may want to bring a small, fully-charged battery pack. Some are charged by USB, so be sure to bring the cord and adapter you need for your unit.

During Your Visit

First things first: The first few hours after sunrise are the best to spot most animals - most day-active animals will be waking up hungry - so ones with families, pods or flocks will be up and anxious to feed themselves and their young. To get the best pictures, you will want to be in position as the sun comes up. In addition, access to some areas - like the mangrove - is tide-dependent, so be prepared to set your clocks with tides, sun and weather in mind.

While you are out on location, you'll want to:

  • Stay Quiet. Many species are reliable: you will get pictures of Macaws without having to do much but point your cameras skyward. But, you may ruin your chance to photograph a family of monkeys with just a single shout. Keep your travel group quiet - especially during the sunrise - so you can better blend into the environment.

  • Be Patient. The Osa’s animals can hear, see, and smell you before you are even close to them. Most use a “flight or freeze” strategy - and most will try to flee, or find a place to hide. You likely expect to stay in position for a while anyway; as the animals get used to your presence, they will likely relax and return to normal behaviors. But, if you’re here for things other than photography, there’s no reason to spend all day in one spot. Wildlife is all around you - and you may have other chances further on.

  • Be Aware of the Backdrop. The jungle itself - with leaves, limbs, water and light - make for a complicated background that is not always solved by playing with focus and depth of field. Wait to see if your animal moves in front of a “cleaner” background - on its own, of course.

  • Keep yourself protected. Stay hydrated, reapply sunblock and insect repellant, and stay aware of your environment (including sunset, if you don't plan to be walking out in the dark.

Conscious Photography

Photographs give us insights into environments and cultures we may never visit. As photographers - professional or hobbyist - we all have a responsibility to uplift awareness of responsible tourism and wildlife watching practices, and to help expand conservation efforts across the world.

A Falcon in the trees at Ojo del Mar.

While there are many modes of thought about the ethics of wildlife (and cultural) photography, it's an important topic of discussion in nature photography. Here are a few ideas to enhance your sense of empathy - and your practice:

  • Land: Birds and bugs may not seem to mind having their pictures taken, but larger mammals will make in known when you’re no longer welcome. It’s hard to know when you’ve encroached too much into an individual's "personal space," so pay attention to the range of signals that come before the bigger indicator (like a growl, charge or aggressive posturing.) If you have done your research, it's not hard to spot the lead-up to an animal's more direct action. Also: Most nocturnal animals are very sensitive to light, so using a powerful light source such as a flash can temporarily blind these animals. This is also important for turtles - use a red light when observing them.

  • Sea: While humans usually find that birds, cats, reptiles and amphibians can move away or hide themselves on land, divers can often get within touching distance of the species they want to photograph. Marine animals, particularly, are in danger for injury because they either can’t or won’t swim away - they are sometimes attached, slow, or more usually, choose to camouflage or seek a shelter to hide from you. While that might give you more time to compose, it also stresses them. Resist the urge to touch, too - some marine animals have a protective film, and human touch can disturb this coating.

  • Sky: Limit the use of bird song apps recordings and other methods of attracting birds, and never use such methods in heavily birded areas, or for attracting any species that is Threatened, Endangered, or of Special Concern. (Check out one opinion in "The Ethical Flap Over Birdsong Apps.") Keep well back from nests and nesting colonies, roosts, and important feeding sites. In such sensitive areas, try to use a blind or hide, and take advantage of natural cover.

  • People and Places: The responsibility of asking for permission before you take a picture of a person - especially someone of another culture - rests solely on you. Learn some simple Spanish phrases related to photography, and respect people’s personal space and preferences - and be aware of cultural and religious norms.

Contribute to Conservation

The animals you are photographing are part of a dense, biodiverse web of life. Apart from the daily work to survive in the wild, many are subject to a range of threats that put them on the “red list” of species of conservation concern. These animals, plants and other organisms truly struggling to survive - and you can help!

  • This IUCN Red List Animals logged with 25 KM of Ojo del Mar gives a sense of the Critically Endangered, Endangered and Vulnerable organisms near us; there are another 46 Near-threatened animal species in our immediate radius. You can use it to research animals, as well as learn about conservation efforts and how your images can help.

  • iNaturalist is a citizen science project that also works as a social network - connecting people and conservationists, as well as creating a real-time "inventory" of animal and plant life. The Osa Biodiversity Survey is just one one project of many near Ojo del Mar.

  • A new inititiative lets you directly contribute to a global effort to better understand and protect Whale Sharks. Your photos help identify or track an individual shark using its unique "bodyprint" - the spot patterning that is different on each animal.


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