Costa Rica 2009: Breaking the Rules

We have been serious about our nature photography for nearly 20 years now. During that time we have shot with 35mm film cameras, 6x6 Hasselblad systems, 645 Pentax systems, 4x5 sheet film, and digital SLR’s. While the size and type of imager has changed, we have always tried to follow four self-imposed “rules” when taking pictures.

Rule #1:     
Always use a stable platform (read tripod). Tripods allow for long exposures, minimize vibration, and forces careful composition.

Rule #2:
Shoot at base ISO. In the past, Fuji Velvia was king. Velvia is a finge grain ISO 50 film that, when shot properly,  produced very sharp images with rich saturated reds and greens. In the world of digital photography, base ISO equates to low grain, fine detail, and smooth saturated colors. As ISO creeps up, noise increases and details decrease.

Rule #3:
Never use a 2x teleconverter. Simply put, tele-converters negatively impact final image quality. While teleconverters allow us to extend our focal length by 1.4 or 2, the addition of a 2X converter typically degrades an image beyond our useable limit.

Rule #4:
Leave the flash in the bag and rely on natural light. While many other photographers will disagree with Rule #4, it is one that I have followed throughout my photographic career. I am not fond of flash photography and the unnatural directional light that it casts on our subjects.

Rule #5
Photographic rules are guidelines, and these rules are meant to be broken. If you know why you make a rule, you should also know when it is appropriate to break the rule. 

Having traveled to Costa Rica in the past, we are familiar with the photographic potential as well as its limitations. While Costa Rica is a land of photo opportunity, it is a challenging place to shoot. Green is the theme. Broad leaves, thick canopy, and patchy light all contribute to a cyan understory. Since animals travel in the canopy, most wildlife images are shot from below. This often results in backlit subjects with deep shadowed faces and eyes. Since we can’t bring the rainforest into a studio where it can be strategically lit, we are forced to break the rules to get the shot. 

Breaking Rule #1
Fast flying birds, jumping monkeys and erratic butterflies can not be followed from a tripod.
What good is a stable support if you can’t frame your subject.

Breaking Rule #2
It’s dark in the forest! 
Solution: Bump up your ISO to 400. Sure you’ll get a bit of noise, but you will also gain two stops of light.

Breaking Rule #3
The quetzal looks like a green dot! 
Solution: Add that 2X converter and double your focal length. It’s much easier to take a 300 f2.8 lens + Converters on a hike than an 11lb 600mm lens. Use your 2X converter to get to 600mm and your viewers will not need a magnifying glass to see the birds in your pictures.

Breaking Rule #4
The eyes are dark and there’s not detail in the face!
Solution: Use the flash. Dial it down so that it adds some pop, but is not prominent source of light.

Just like when we were kids, breaking the rules can be fun and sometimes it’s the only way to get the shot.

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