For many nature photographers, there are few places on earth that can captivate the imagination and inspire us to get “out there” like the tropics. The biological riches of these exciting destinations are unparalleled and these regions are rife with opportunities for nature photography. Consider for example that tiny countries such as Costa Rica host more species of birds than all of North America, or that in just one square mile of rainforest there may be as many as 50,000 species of insects. The biodiversity of the tropics is truly incredible!
The reality however, is that many of these species can be difficult to find and nature photography in the tropics often presents special challenges. Tropical countries tend to be hot, humid and rainy. The local wildlife is often not used to human presence and are reclusive. Information may be scarce about where or how to find certain species. And, it is often the case that the areas where these treasures can be found are under towering forest canopies where slow shutter speeds are the norm. As a result, capturing pleasing images of the natural world in these places presents a challenge to even the most experienced nature photographers. The tips in this article represent a few of the lessons that I have learned during my time spent pursuing images in the tropics.
Tip #1 – Do your research: You may be going to a tropical country with the goal of photographing any and all of the fantastic things that you happen to encounter. However, many of us nature photographers have a favourite subject or certain targets in mind before we set out. For example, on my recent trip to Ecuador, my primary goal was to photograph as many of the 130 species of resident hummingbirds as possible. If you do indeed have a specific goal in mind I believe it is very important to do as much research as you can before you plan your trip. In the tropics, certain species are highly localized and may only be present for portions of the year. You should know local weather patterns and the places that are most promising for photography. Luckily, the internet has placed all of this information at our fingertips and there are numerous resources out there to help you plan your trip. Bird photographers can consult trip reports from past tour groups and obtain a good idea of where certain species can be found. Browsing through your favourite search engine’s image database for a given species may reveal where other photographers have had success. I strongly believe that preparation is the key to successful nature photography in the tropics, and it all starts before you board the airplane.
Tip #2 – Expect the best, prepare for the worst: I have been on three major trips to the tropics, and they have all been unbelievable experiences. Yet on every single trip something has gone wrong with my equipment. Before venturing off to a far away land I strongly recommend preparing for the likelihood that something undesirable might happen to your camera gear. The first, and perhaps most important consideration, is to make sure that all of your equipment is insured against theft and damage. A second precaution is to pack your gear very carefully when traveling from place to place (in my experience this is when most problems occur). Use a good travel case like the ones from Think Tank or Gura Gear, and packing protection like the covers and pouches from LensCoat. Additionally, I personally cannot imagine going on a nature photography trip without taking at least two camera bodies. And finally, I would suggest putting together a small repair kit to take with you. This might include items such as duct tape, twist ties, super glue and a lens cleaning kit.
Tip #3 – Stay dry: The greatest biological riches on earth are found in tropical rainforests, where the biodiversity can be absolutely mind-boggling. But rainforests are very, very wet. To be successful in the tropics a nature photographer must prepare for rain and humidity. When it comes to rain there are fantastic camera covers available on the market such as Storm Jacket, AquaTech and Think Tank. Zip-lock bags are invaluable to keep other items in your backpack dry, and a waterproof backpack cover should envelop all of your gear. Humidity and heat can also lead to undesirable fungus growing inside of expensive lenses. To combat this problem I once again recommend turning to zip-lock bags. For humidity though, it is absolutely essential that you are equipped with silica gel. Packets of silica are widely available to be purchased or can be acquired by asking a local shoe store. By placing all electronic equipment inside of a large, heavy-duty zip-lock bag each night I have never experienced problems with humidity.
Tip #4 – Bring your own light: In addition to being very rainy, many of the places that have the most potential for photography are also very dark. Shooting from a tripod is usually a necessity and learning to use fill flash will almost certainly lead to more pleasing tropical nature images. I highly recommend using a “Better-Beamer” flash extender in the tropics to extend your flash range and reduce the recycling time of batteries. If possible, I would also try to use a tripod flash mount to raise the flash up off of the camera and reduce the undesirable “steel eye” effect that often occurs otherwise.
Tip #5 – Find the fruit: Bird photographers who visit the tropics are often frustrated by the fact that they simply cannot get close enough to the birds. The techniques that many of us employ at home such as water drips, taped calls, or feeder stations may or may not be effective. Even if these techniques have the potential to be successful, for the traveling photographer there is likely insufficient time to allow for them. I have always found however, that if you can locate a good fruiting tree in a tropical forest – sooner or later the birds will come. For example, I once staked out a fruiting Cecropia tree and photographed ten species of tanagers in ten minutes when a feeding flock passed through. If you find the fruit you will often find the birds.
Tip #6 – Back it up! Another tip for the traveling photographer is to be absolutely certain that you back up your images diligently. There is no worse nightmare than working so hard to capture irreplaceable images of a lifetime and then to have them lost. I believe that you should keep at least three copies of your images while on vacation. These might be on flash cards, a laptop, external hard drives (such as the Hyper-drive), or DVDs. Whatever storage media you chose to use – make sure you back everything up each night. You should also not keep all of the stored images in one bag in case it is lost or stolen. A final tip is to burn DVDs of your RAW files and have them mailed home on the last day of your trip. This way even if the worst happens, and your luggage disappears on the trip home, you will at least still have your images.
Conclusion: For me there is nothing more exciting than nature photography in the tropics. There are so many colourful and incredible subjects in these regions just waiting to be discovered. With a little bit of preparation you can increase your chances at capturing the images of your dreams. Tropical environments can be challenging and hard on camera equipment – but the rewards of photographing these special places, and the species that live in them, are well worth the frustrations. I suppose a final tip is to make sure to have fun and enjoy the unique experience of visiting some of nature’s most sacred places.
Glenn Bartley is a professional nature photographer who focuses on photographing birds in their natural habitat. He resides in Victoria, British Columbia on Canada’s West Coast. Glenn leads photographic workshops to exciting destinations around the world. To find out more visit: http://www.glennbartley.com/photoworkshops/home.htm. To see more of Glenn’s images visit: www.glennbartley.com