Costa Rica Photo Tour & Photo Tips

Butterfly, La Paz, Costa Rica

The first time I visited Costa Rica, it was during an alumni bus tour where photography was not the focus.  The trip and people were nice, but the country was not high on the list of places I wished to revisit. However recently, I was fortunate to meet some friends who invited me to their home in Costa Rica this August. They took me to a number of locations within a 2 hour drive from their home that were super for photography that changed my opinion of the country’s photographic potential. By the end of my week’s stay, we were discussing the possibilities of my developing a photography workshop locally. The volcanoes and mountains were spectacular, with tall waterfalls, low hinging clouds, huge ferns, gigantic trees, and brightly colored bromeliads, orchids and other flowering plants. The trip was only a week long, so I only saw a small portion of the country but what I saw was impressive.

Coatimundi, Costa Rica,
Coatimundi, Costa Rica, Different coloration compared to those in Brazil an Argentina.

The hummingbirds were my favorite subjects to photograph, so many species and colors. I hoped I could ID them from their photographs but light effects their colors and they alter feather position and change colorization. I know now, I realize need expert help. I had hoped for photos of male quetzals an iridescent green bird with a long elegant tail.  We visited an area where they feed and saw them flying at a distance but I will have to wait until my next trip to capture an acceptable image of one. However, during my Costa Rica photo tour I photographed coati, spider and capuchin monkeys, iguanas, crocodiles, red squirrels, a raccoon, a rhinoceros beetle, red crab, parakeets, hummingbirds, tanagers, woodpeckers, and other bird species. Places visited included La Paz, Poas Volcano, Paraiso Quetzal, Hotel Savegre, & Manuel Antonio NP.

Flame-colored Tanager Costa Rica, Sevegre Lodge
Flame-colored Tanager Costa Rica, Sevegre Lodge

Most nights I spent at my friend’s house in Tabaca, overlooking San Jose and its suburbs and a mountain range. The elevation was high and to my surprise temperatures dropped quite low at night requiring a warm jacket.  My host’s home was surrounded by a wonderful garden with a small waterfalls, colorful flowers, and hummingbird feeders. The only night away from Tabaca was spent at the lovely Hotel Savegre in the heart of a jungle preserve where Quetzals are found. Outside the guest rooms were beautiful gardens and feeder stations where bananas and other fruit were placed to attract flame-colored tanagers, blue-gray tanagers, rufus-collared sparrows, acorn woodpeckers, and an assortment of hummingbirds.

The downside of the trip was the traffic. Every day there were rush hour traffic jams in the area around San Jose. Double “no passing” lines in the middle of the road seem to have no meaning to locals and motor bikes are plentiful and are constantly darting between cars.  Overall, major roads were in good shape except where mud slides required repair. The small towns we encountered were charming with churches dating back hundreds of years. However, driving through them was challenging with frequent turns and few street signs. All things considered, these inconveniences are minor when you consider all Costa Rica has to offer.  Keep your eye on my schedule. I suspect I will be adding Costa Rica to my list of photo tours in 2016.

Hummingbird, Costa Rica, Paraiso Quetzal
Hummingbird, Costa Rica, Paraiso Quetzal

Tips for shooting in Costa Rica and similar habitats:

Days with soft light were the best for shooting in the jungle.  Stronger light produces hot spots in the background and deep shadows that obscured details.

On overcast days when shooting hummingbirds, I used a high ISO, fast flash sync speed, and fill flash set on -1 or -2. The flash brought out the bird’s iridescent colors even on a rainy day.

To freeze the wings, I would like to return with several flashes set on a manual setting (1/32 sec) and 2 or 3 placed near the bird and 1 or 2 on the background.  All would need to be in the shade so no ghosting will occur. The flashes would be fired at the same time by a set of Pocket Wizards (radio trips). Ideally you would put out a feeder and train the hummers to come to it. By blocking several holes you can control the hummers approach and increase you chances of success. You can go further and replace the feeder with a flower baited with sugar water.

Flash with a “better beamer” attached to extend the flash power can be used to throw light onto subjects in the shade of the canopy.

Cameras with small built-in flashes often proved satisfactory if used in a jungle setting but close to the subject.

With flash exposure, if a subject is moving and there is enough sunlight hitting the subject to produce a daylight exposure (can happen at high ISOs or large lens openings), you may get ghosting (an overlap of a sharp flash image and blurred daylight image.) If the subject is still and you use daylight as the primary source of light and the flash as fill (-2), ghosting may not be a problem.

Spider Monkey, Manuel Antonio NP, Costa Rica
Spider Monkey

Bring a ponchos or other covering for you and your camera equipment for sudden rain showers.

80-400 best or similar best for hummers – they are not very timid if you move slowly. If you use a longer focal length, it is a bit difficult to capture the birds in flight due to the narrower angle of view. The zoom feature will make it possible to zoom out and catch interaction. Tried several techniques to capture the birds after they sip at the feeder. Pre-focus where I thought they would be when they pull back. Auto focus on very edge of feeder and they catch the bird when it backs away from the feeder.

Adding the 1.4 tele-converter was not a good idea. The hummers move rapidly and the tele-converter slows the auto focus

With birds in bushes, I found manual focusing preferable to auto. Auto resulted with the focus often being on the plant and not the subject

If you want to close focus on a small subject, you can focus closer using manual focus.

600 mm lens was good for birds near a feeder in a bush but not necessarily for hummers. The narrow angle of view made it a bit difficult to find them in the viewfinder.

Host’s Garden


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