Jorge y Jessica celebrando su boda. Dicen que la lluvia en el día de la boda es buena suerte. Si lo es les sobrará la suerte. Por dicha todo fue celebrado en un solo lugar por lo que mi reto fue tratar de crear una variedad de imágenes usando diferentes tipos de luz, desde 3 flashes simultáneos hasta ninguno.
Jorge and Jessica celebrating their wedding. They say that rain on your wedding day is good luck. If it is, they will have plenty. Fortunately the ceremony and reception were held in the same place so my challenge was to create a variety of images using different lighting, from as many as 3 simultaneous flashes to none.
This article of mine originally appeared in The Costa Rica Star, please stop by and have a look around. Thanks, Solson
Honesty: Webster’s Dictionary defi….no you know me better than that. Google it if you must. We all know the definition, but digital photography and it’s ally, digital editing really start to blur the lines of photographic honesty. Up to what point is it still a photograph…I don’t know. I would say that advertisers have probably taken it too far. If your ad for mascara requires adding digital lashes then I’d say you’re being dishonest with your photography. That being said, for the rest of us mere mortal photographers not working on multi-million dollar campaigns there is still hope for digital darkroom redemption.
Purists argue that if you got it right in the camera you shouldn’t have to fuss with your picture anyway. I defend myself with Ansel Adams, who was famous for spending endless hours in the darkroom fussing over his photographs to get them to look just how he wanted them. His son went so far as to suggest that his father would have found a way to use digital photography had it been available to him. I don’t have a darkroom, at least not a real one. Mine is well lit, stuffy and right now rather messy. I have software with 3.2 trillion sliders, bars and curves where I push, stretch, crop, saturate, de-saturate, correct distortion, add distortion, layer, filter, vignette and do anything else to get a shot to look like what it FELT like. That’s the key to my photography. Emotional honesty.
Often I just have to add a bit of contrast or fill a shadow and very frequently adjust the white balance (that’s the overall color cast of the shot). Sometimes I go big though. I push some of those bars pretty far to get the feel I want. I’ll give you an example a shot that people really like (from Lola’s Restaurant) that wasn’t very interesting until I edited it. I knew what it could look like, and more importantly I knew what the people enjoying the sunset were feeling, even if the original shot didn’t reflect that.
I’ll admit to being a bit more dishonest with my shots of people. Namely portraits (especially of the ladies). I have fancy software that can erase any semblance of wrinkles and imperfections while changing your eye and hair color. It works great when used in moderation or can be a lot of fun if you think of it as a digital Halloween costume. I try to limit myself to the using it right up to the point where a really good make-up job and better lighting might have given similar results. I actually did a completely ridiculous version of a friend of mine with the title ‘Bad Photoshop’ to support her claims that what we see in the media is not a reasonable expectation of beauty. The result: tons of “wow you look great,” and “you look like a model.” Epic fail. I told people I was being dishonest and they didn’t care, maybe it was an emotionally honest picture—people really saw her like that in their mind. I’ll go with that rather than think that all her friends on Facebook are rather dim. I won’t share her picture to protect the innocent as well as the guilty.
I have quite a lot invested in photo editing software and I’ll admit to not knowing what half of those sliders do. If you want to fuss with your shots—and I hope you do, and you are one a budget (like most of us) then just go ahead and download Picasa. by Google. It’s free, and works pretty well as long as you don’t ask too much of it—it ain’t Photoshop. If you want more power, then try Photoshop Elements which is about $100 online and very much worth it. Once you have your weapon of choice I’ll point you towards a few areas that can help you improve your shots quickly: Contrast, Saturation, Color Balance and Fill light (or shadows)
I don’t want to keep you reading forever and I want you to learn on your own as well, but take any shot you have and play with just those aspects one at a time, and you will quickly discover what a difference they can make. Contrast can give you a bit more “punch,” while you need to be careful with saturation which affects color intensity—a little goes a long way. Fill light or shadow adjustments are great to bring out detail in darkened areas, especially faces. Color balance is useful for making skin tones look healthy depending on what kind of light was available or just changing the overall look of a picture–try it with a shot of the sunset.
Whatever you final edit looks like remember the bit about the honesty. I’ll leave you with a shot that is totally emotionally honest and totally unedited…I guess it can be done.
This article of mine originally appeared in The Costa Rica Star, please stop by and have a look around. Thanks, Solson
“That’s going to end badly.” I knew it. Having grown up traipsing through the woods with friends–something just short of Lord of the Flies, I knew a group of stick-wielding children would inevitably end badly. I scanned the park for a parent. Nope. Three minutes later, tears. Now I was parenting and I don’t have kids, just a really obedient dog. Here goes nothing.
After a quick check of the offended child my expert medical diagnosis was: no blood no harm. I herded the scattered, slightly shaken kids together and replaced their sticks with a Frisbee. This being Costa Rica, anything other than a soccer ball is a relative mystery and January winds didn’t contribute to their success. Needless to say my attempts at organizing a game of Ultimate Frisbee failed miserably. However no more sticks have been thrown and now I am the neighborhood sporting-goods-lending-center-for-bored-children, all-time quarterback, 12th string goalie, and occasional dispute resolver. The kids love me. They all know my name (I know two of theirs), they call my dog Bonita by name too.
Having made myself known and trusted in the neighborhood I started wandering the park shooting all sorts of things: Graffiti, “mejengas,” sunsets, rainbows, parents, kids, dogs, more dogs…anything. I shot film and digital and got swamped by the kids when I showed up with two cameras and telephoto lenses, they felt like sports stars…
Some people wonder why I would shoot such mundane things when I live in a country as striking as Costa Rica. I find interest and even beauty in the mundane. Those fleeting moments and interactions are more a part of our life than vacation photos, but we almost never share them. Photography doesn’t have to be grandiose to be meaningful.
I’m by no means a great street photographer but I particularly enjoy shooting people acting natural. My portrait sessions are laid back and the first fifteen minutes are usually spent just letting folks get used to the camera until they stop posing and start laughing and smiling for real. My friends and family already know to ignore me knowing I’ll wait for the moment. I make a point of telling my wedding clients not to look at the camera unless I ask them to. I look for those kinds of moments when I am shooting in my neighborhood park. Since my cameras tend to be quite obvious I like to used telephoto lenses so I can get natural interactions without having to get too close. Often I have to shoot a few “posed” shots so folks forget I’m there and relax. It’s a matter of taste, but I have been lucky with it. Try it, you’ve got nothing to lose, and you may just come back with some great shots (and probably a lot of blown shots too).
I’m a bit short on words this article so I’ll leave you with more pictures than normal. Normal pictures from normal lives, but worth sharing none the less.
This article of mine originally appeared in The Costa Rica Star, please stop by and have a look around. Thanks, Solson
I’ll admit I was a little stuck on a subject for this article. I had mapped out a few ideas, a few pithy phrases to build on but nothing much more. I opted for manual labor to clear my head. As I sat in the gutter chiseling away fresh asphalt trying to free the grate that covers the gutter, it hit me. Or more precisely I hit it. My finger. With the hammer. I managed to contain my rage to a low whisper since there were likely children somewhere in the 3km radius that my cursing would have carried if it were proportional to the pain (and yes, it does hurt to type).
The accident served to remind me that much like chiseling, photography requires paying attention. If you want to take full advantage of your trip to (or around) Costa Rica then a little bit of attention can go a long way.
I broke out my film camera a few weeks ago and found myself suddenly paying attention to a number of the “rules” of photography that are so easy to ignore (and I readily do) when you shoot digital. If you blow a shot in digital you know right away, you compensate and re-shoot. With film there is no do-over. But just because you can take it again, doesn’t mean you should have to, so I will help you a bit. More experienced photographers may want to skip the text and go straight to critiquing my shots and photoshop skills, you know you want to.
Most of you are likely working with a compact digital camera while you wander around Costa Rica taking pictures of everything and probably a ton of landscapes. Landscapes make me instantly think of the best known rule of photography: the “rule of thirds.” If you can imagine dividing what you see in the camera into three vertical and three vertical sections those are the guides for rule of thirds. It’s such a standard that most compact cameras have an option somewhere in the menu that will display the grid for you to use. Use it. Especially at sunset on the Pacific. Most of us tend to put the horizon right smack in the middle of the frame, but I’m betting you will be happier with your shots if you move that line up or down a bit and bring in a bit more sky or sand. Try both—it’s digital and doesn’t cost any more, plus you’re shots will look just a bit more pro. Also could you all do me a solid and turn off the flash at sunset, it’s not doing anything, just like it’s useless at the rock concert or the sporting event, thanks. A notable exception to the rule of thirds applies when you are shooting reflections, then you may want to center the reflection line, play with it.
Once you’ve got your rough framing in place, check your edges. I like to think of it like checking your blind-spot when you merge—or if you live in Costa Rica–swerve to avoid a pothole. You just never know when something is going to be out of place and ruin your shot (or your taillight). Check the edges and the corners of your image for things that don’t belong. I admit that I am terrible at this and have had to toss or crop any number of images because of it. This dovetails into the rule about checking your background for weirdness. There are a bunch of technical reasons that I can’t explain well that cause your compact digital to have most of the image in focus. It’s nearly impossible to get a blurry background in a portrait shot. I use background blur a lot to isolate my subjects in portrait shoots, but you can’t so you will have to be extra vigilant about what’s behind your boyfriend when he is posing. Think telephone poles, trashcans, tree limbs and UFOs. Actually if you happen have a UFO in frame (perhaps while visiting the Arenal Volcano) then tell your boyfriend to move out of the way and upload that shot ASAP. I have an example of not checking my corners or my background here:
The last thing that you really really really need to pay attention to is blur. Not the good background blur that you can’t get, but the bad motion blur that you get all the time. This is where digital is your friend. If you are shooting in low light, digital cameras tend to warn you when the shutter speed drops to point where you are likely to get camera shake (the icon usually looks something like a camera between two parentheses). Listen to your camera. It was made by smart people who know stuff about cameras. Your camera won’t warn you when your subject is moving too fast, and so you need to look at your monitor and immediately delete those shots.
Do not under any circumstances upload blurry pictures to Facebook. These blurry streaks of color are my pet-peeve update pictures. “Look, I’m at the Raging Death Kittens concert, I am so coool.–Sent from my fancy phone.” Those usually look more like their kitten chewed on the phone and uploaded by accident. Please be better photographers than that. I’m giving you the knowledge, use it.
That last bit actually brings me to my last observation about paying attention, it’s about editing and sharing. If you want people to think you are a good photo maker (vs a photo taker), then only share your best pictures. Edit carefully, only a small percentage of shots are really great, most are average or bad. That’s ok, I won’t tell on you.
Well after all those rules I’m feeling a little rebellious so I will leave you with a rule-breaker that folks seem to like:
I still get excited when I can see the top of the Irazú Volcano from the Central Valley. You get used to looking east and seeing a wall of mountain with clouds on top, but then every so often in the dry season it clears up and you get to see the top–view killing antennae and all. When I see it like that I want to head that way, just not all the way up, I have a more interesting trip in mind. Yep, I have a new favorite part of Irazú: Prusia.
The first time a friend suggested we go to Prusia, I had an immediate flashback to high school history and visions of pointy-helmeted mustachioed generals. After my confused silence, I was informed that the Irazú park has a second entrance, with woods and trails and no crater.
I often tell people that the best part of taking a day trip to Irazú isn’t the crater, it’s the drive and the views.
The crater is nice the first time. You putz around for a few minutes, wait for the clouds to clear, ooh-and-ah and the colors in the lagoon (if it’s not dry), shiver, marvel at how out of shape you feel and head home. Forty-five minutes, tops. If you have never been, it’s probably worth it once here’s a preview:
I’ve done it enough times, so now I day trip to Prusia, and stop at the creepy Sanatorio Durán for pictures. Both areas share the same, not too well marked access in Tierra Blanca. The best way to spot it is by keeping an eye out for the the Sanatorio which is pretty obvious (it’ll be on the left as you head up).
Prusia is a reforested section of the volcano that was damaged during its eruption in the 1960’s. It’s full of little creeks, tall mist-shrouded trees and giant sand-paper like plants (botanists help me out here). It features four trails and one even leads to the source of the Reventado river–cool.
You may want to pack lunch and definitely bring sturdy shoes (preferable water-proof) and rain gear for you and your camera. There isn’t much infrastructure near Prusia but check out Mirador Paso del Quetzal for some simple home-made food and baked goods. It’s not fancy but it’s run by honest folks and you may even spot a quetzal at the right time of year.
Taking pictures of the landscape within Prusia is tricky since the forest is quite dense and can yield some not-quite-right results. It can be pretty misty lessening your contrast and light, or if the sun is out you could have too much contrast. Try reducing your scope and shooting flowers and plants instead. If you are going to shoot the landscape try placing someone in the shot to give a sense of scale to the trees or the leaves.
If you aren’t happy with your photography options in the park, or the the climate doesn’t cooperate, Sanatorio Durán has enough ghost-story-and-rust appeal to it to whet your photographic appetite, all for a nominal entrance fee. A history as a tuberculosis hospital and a juvenile jail, plus 50 years of disuse make for some hair raising ghost tales and good photos. I pity the care-takers who sleep there—bold souls to be sure. It’s often used for photo sessions though the goose-bump factor is usually diminished by packs of screaming tweens on weekends. Try visiting during the week (and in the wet season) for a more serene experience. Rumor among photographers has it that professional looking photo gear could get you hit with a surcharge (about $5). I haven’t been charged yet but I can’t disprove it so you are on notice.
For residents wanting a change of pace or visitors who want a little extra a day trip to Prusia and Sanatorio Durán may be just the ticket. Just please watch your step, both places.
It’s so well known that I’m almost hesitant to write about it. I’m almost tempted to tell you to skip it in favor of something more local…except that Manuel Antonio National Park is local. Like the Poás Volcano, it’s among the most visited places in Costa Rica because both locals and foreigners visit. You’re just as likely to see a over-sunned Swedish college student as you are a family of locals chasing the raccoon that has absconded with their lunch. I’ll give you a few local tips to make it a more comfortable trip as well as how to come back with better pictures than all your high-school friends on Facebook.
My first visit to Manuel Antonio was about 30 years ago—or so I’m told (seeing as I was a toddler at the time). Back then it took 8-9 hours to get there from San Jose in a Land-Rover with no a/c, and you could camp right on the beach. My parents tell me it was glorious and rugged. Today it’s still glorious but thankfully for you, not as rugged. Today you can cruise there (with a/c!) on well paved roads in about 2 and half hours from San Jose, there are trained nature guides, and tons of hotels near by, but no camping. If you are heading in your own car I’ll give you a parking tip: don’t park on the street. There will be plenty of reflective-vest-attired gentlemen urging you to clog the place up, ignore them. Head all the way in looking for real parking. The road ends in a loop and there is a parking lot there that almost always has space, if not you have at least made a comfortable u-turn to search for proper parking.
My first tip for a great Manuel Antonio experience tip is on food and beverage. Bring plenty. It’s a gentle 1km walk from the main gate to the most popular beaches. It tends to be pretty warm and muggy so you will work up a sweat quickly, so keep drinking regularly, there is fresh water (and bathrooms) available inside the but that’s it. If you split off onto any of the multiple trails you will probably want more than just a super-market water bottle. I prefer water bladders that fit in most modern backpacks since they keep you drinking regularly as well as freeing up your hands for the camera. You’ll want to pack a solid lunch and snacks because at some point you’ll get hungry and you really won’t feel like walking 1-3km (.6-2miles for the metric impaired) out and then back again just for lunch. When you do settle down for that lunch keep watch. Fixate on your food like Gollum does the One Ring. Seriously. The raccoons and the white-faced Capuchins will steal your lunch on your left while you look right. Also, please don’t feed them, it’s against the rules (and can get you tossed), plus it’s just poor form.
Once you are inside the main gate take your time, hike some of the trails and keep your camera handy. This place probably more than any other is where the a super-zoom cameras I talked about in an earlier article might come in handy. There is a ton of wildlife including aforementioned monkeys and raccoons, plus sloths, crabs, iguanas and even white-tailed deer. Spotting them can be tricky at times, especially the sloths, so you may want to spring for a certified guide ( at last check about $20 per person + admission). You will also want to wear more than just flip-flops—in fact that goes for visiting all of Costa Rica, wear real shoes people, please. If you only plan on going to the main beaches then you can make it in flip-flops, if you want (and you should) to see Cathedral Point, the waterfall the over-look and some of the other beaches you will need better shoes.
Because I just can’t help myself I’ll give you some photo tips so your vacation photo album on Facebook will make your friends even more jealous. The significant differences between the shaded areas and the sunlight outside fool your camera, so you either get a lovely shot of your girlfriend standing in a giant white blob of light or a lovely shot of the scenery with a shadowy figure in the middle. Solution: fill flash. Your camera probably (unless it’s very smart) won’t do this automatically so you will have to tell it to use the flash via the button/icon that looks like a thunderbolt. It will make a big difference when shooting people especially on the beach or at an overlook:
Please remember to disable your flash while shooting the animals, they don’t appreciate it. Yes, you’ll miss a few shots but at they will be spared the trauma and may even avoid being eaten.
A second quick tip is on framing. Manuel Antonio is beautiful, but there always seems to be some a whole bunch of people trying to enjoy that beauty and messing up your landscape picture. Try turning your camera into a vertical orientation. You’ll be able to include more sky and because it’s not as wide you may be able to wait for that Swedish college student to step out of frame—tadah!– a desolate beach shot that will get your album 862 “likes.” This isn’t Manuel Antonio it’s Jacó but you get the idea…
If it’s nature itself that’s messing with your nature shot, try using the foliage to create a natural frame or and interesting element in the shot:
So there you have it, go to Manuel Antonio, wear comfortable shoes, guard your lunch, bring back great pictures, get more “likes.” You’re welcome.
I always carry a compact camera. If you live in or have visited Costa Rica you know why. Funny, beautiful and shocking things may be just around the corner. My little camera spends time waiting for sunsets and rainbows (and the frequent misspelled or poorly translated sign, internet gold!). It lives in a messenger bag that I take everywhere. It only leaves that bag when I use it to carry my bigger camera via a very cool and very cheap removable padded insert (check it out you’ll thank me). I never miss an opportunity to take a picture. My cell phone has a camera but is not a camera; I refuse to acknowledge it as such.
Recently my girlfriend and I decided to take a drive up the mountain north of Heredia where we live. We had no plan, just a setting sun and a gorgeous February afternoon. As I downshifted to try to get up a hill a sudden squeal made me pull over. At first I thought something else had failed on my car (when you own a 1990 BMW 325i this happens occasionally). Thankfully not. It was my girlfriend rendered speechless by a tremendous rainbow formed by the setting sun and the mountain mist, mixed with a rustic farmhouse in the foreground it was the stuff of postcards. I thought of my compact camera, safely in its messenger bag, which was safely tucked away in my closet back home. Cursing ensued—in two languages.
I tried to take a picture with her phone. More cursing. I wished for my trusty compact, for my film camera (more on that in a future article), for my DSLR with its super-wide lens. Anything but a phone. I gave up.
We drove uphill a bit more, chasing the end of the rainbow until the dodgy fuel pump got a bit too warm and starting misbehaving. I took one more shot with the phone. Reasonable success.
As we coasted down the mountain the setting sun taunted me, more squeals from the passenger seat reinforced my oversight, and the guy with a Nikon on a tripod and a huge orange-ball-sun setting over the hills nearly made me cry. If it is possible to sulk while driving, I did.
Though I managed to forget my camera I did discover (remember?) that the mountains of Heredia have tons of great places to slip away for an afternoon, a weekend or to fill in a blank spot in a travel itinerary. It takes less than an hour (in non rush-hour time) to get there from the Central Valley, and it can be a refreshing change. There are lots of lodging options that are great for cozying up for a night or two. And you’ll want to cozy up since it’s colder than you think up there, especially if you are a weather-sissified ex-pat coddled by the the perfect temperatures in the valley.
There are several routes up the mountain but the preferred ones will take you through San José de la Montaña or through San Rafael de Heredia. The San Rafael side sends you up toward the famed Monte de la Cruz (a wooded municipal park with a giant cross) and the nearly as famous and rather ritzy La Condesa hotel, as well as Hotel Chalet El Tirol. The drive up is in good shape (up to about the park anyway) and dotted with local restaurants of varying price points as well as fancy estates. Tops for uppity eats on this side of the hill is Baalbek (great view too).
The San José de la Montaña route is well, different. Once you get above said town, things get interesting. The road quickly dwindles to about 1 ½ lanes wide which makes for hair-raising encounters with on-coming traffic where uphill traffic has unofficial right of way because of the steepness of the hills. This side of the mountain features more farms and frankly more photo opportunities. This area also has a bit more for the folks on a budget or for the adventurous.
The Barva Volcano doesn’t get nearly the number of visitors than does it’s steamy neighbor Poás, but it’s no reason to overlook it if you are equipped with a 4×4 vehicle and a strong set of legs. It’s rugged in there and always damp, but it’s more natural feeling than Poás, plus you might have it all to yourself on a weekday. This is one of my all time favorite shots, taken during the week in the Barva Volcano:
If you are sans the vehicle or the fitness, check out Canopy Adventure for some killer zip-lining and a bit of knowledge. Once you’re all adventured out it’ll be time to eat and sleep. There are lots of hotels to choose from, but I hear good things about El Pórtico (and it was packed for Valentine’s Day so there’s a clue). You’ll have your pick of restaurants, mostly local tourist places that’ll be good for local fare and a brew. Most weekends you will be able to find lodging without a reservation, but if you have a specific place in mind call ahead.
The hills are calling valley-dwellers, answer the call, but please please don’t forget your camera.