Great Costa Rican Adventure

My husband and I have been taking birding/photography groups to Costa Rica since 2004. We’ve used Strabo Tours for each of these as well as a local Costa Rican tour company and our local guide, Willy Alfaro. The same operators and guides for every trip. We change the locations and time of year, and that changes the birds. Each trip is the same but each is different.

Our March 2020 trip was to the northern reaches of Costa Rica. We began in Liberia in the state of Guanacaste and ended in San Jose in the center of the country.

Our first lodge was in the hills of the Rincón de la Vieja volcano. The habitat was officially dry forest but the grounds were lush and filled with birds. Temps were in the 80s but we were plagued by misty rain. This gave us amazing rainbows but made photography a challenge.

Birds on the grounds included crested guan, white-throated magpie-jay, black-headed trogon, Garter trogon, keel-billed toucan, and turquoise-browed motmot. Those were the big, colorful birds. We didn’t overlook social flycatcher, summer tanager, western tanager, and other small but important birds.

We spent two nights at this location, then packed and drove past the Miravalles Volcano to the Rio Celeste. A stop along the way at Celeste Mountain Lodge gave us a chance to eat lunch and photograph birds at the feeders. Yellow-throated euphonia, scarlet-rumped tanagers, palm tanagers, and others gave the group new birds.

Our lodging in this area put the group in an unexpectedly luxurious eco-lodge. My room had a private outdoor terrace, a private outdoor shower on the other end, an indoor shower big enough for a football team, luxurious bathroom, and amazingly comfortable beds.

Bird feeders on the grounds attracted buff-throated saltator, Montezuma oropendola, and others. Overhead, we photographed swallow-tailed kites during a morning walk. After a nice mid-morning hike, we got to photograph the turquoise-colored Rio Celeste.

After two night, we packed-up and drove to the Arenal volcano area. Along the way we stopped at Danaus Nature Center to photograph two-toed sloth, white-nosed coati, boat-billed heron, and other things. The group was not ready to leave but our hotel for the night held lots of photo opportunities.

Arenal Volcano in the La Fortuna region of Costa Rica.

We maximized our time in the Arenal area but packed again to drive to Maquenque Eco-lodge near the Nicaraguan border.

Maquenque is a destination that nearly overwhelmed the group. Feeders near the dining room attracted many birds we’d already photographed but then there were new birds. Brown-headed parrot was the star and a lifer for me. All three honeycreepers — red-legged, green, and sparkling — came into the feeders frequently. Amazon kingfisher, great egret, purple gallinule and northern jacana frequented the property’s marshy pond.

After two nights, the tour headed a bit south to the Sarapiqui area. This is a favorite location for bird photography and our main stop was Dave & Dave’s Nature Park. Dave and Dave (father and son) have built a location where birds land on natural perches to feed on native fruits. The photo opportunities are amazing.

Two visits to Dave & Dave’s gave us a chance to photograph different perching birds plus several hummingbirds. The group was exhausted but still managed to eat amazing TexMex food before heading across the mountains to San Jose.

We gave the group one last stop while driving through the mountains. A small roadside coffee shop has a balcony overlooking a lush tropical valley. Feeders attracted mountain birds including Emerald toucanet, black guan, and a little Tennessee warbler. Hummingbirds feeders let us photograph green hermit, coppery-headed emerald, and violet saberwing.

As we cruised into San Jose for our last night in Costa Rica, the group was happy but a bit anxious. Corona Virus was in the news back in the United States. We’d experienced great bird and wonderful lodges. Our memories will always be enhanced thanks to the 500 or so pictures we took each day.

We’ll do this route again in March 2021. Details are on the Strabo Photo Tour website.

AstroPanel 4.1.0

I got an advertisement the other day for AstroPanel 4. The software was intriguing and the price was right so I clicked the button. The software is a plug-in that works in your Photoshop.

Star Trail with my usual processing.
Star trail with AstroPanel processing. This has a feature called “Comet Star Effect” turned on. There appears to be an emphasis on the first star trail in each series.
Star Trail with my usual processing.
Star trail same photos as above with AstroPanel processing. No “Comet Star Effect” turned on.

After a few hours of playing — excuse me, working — I’ve think this is a plug-in worth exploring.

  • Download was quick.
  • Install was pretty simple. There’s a YouTube video in case you get stuck.
  • The user’s manual is a PDF.
  • Instructions are clear and simple.
  • I was up-and-running in less than an hour.

My only negative is that the final photo is delivered as a flattened TIFF. I usually work on individual layers before flattening my star trails. This is my chance to remove a stray light in one frame, for example. With AstroPanel, I’ll need to do that work prior to letting the plug-in do its work.

I suspect there are a lot of other features in this plug-in. Watch this space for updates.

AstroPanel 4

Flower Photography Gadgets

Azaleas are the first major bloom of spring where I live in east Texas. Every year in mid-February the azalea bushes start setting buds and then blooming. Bare, wintery-looking yards suddenly have lovely mounds of pink, white, or red blooms. It’s a sure sign that spring is around the corner.

My neighbor’s backyard is lined with azalea bushes. I can see them from my living room window. For a week, the huge pink flowers have been calling me.

“Come photograph me” they seem to say. “Get out here and photograph us!” they started shouting as the blooms became more profuse. My brain responded with the usual “it’s to cold” and “it’s too windy today.” But those amazing flowers kept calling to me to get out there and photograph them.

Yesterday I grabbed the camera and tripod to head outside. It was breezy so I grabbed some handy gadgets from my friends at Wimberley.

Below are all my gadgets.

F-2 Macro Flash Bracket on camera.

The Macro Flash Bracket is attached to the base plate on the camera. Both are then hooked to the MeFoto Globetrotter tripod.

Wimberley’s P-5 Universal Camera Base Plate is on the camera.

F-2 Macro Flash Bracket

Installed next to the camera. Three adjustable sections allow me to position the flash in almost an position.

Reflector to the rescue

I needed a reflector to get some light under the bloom. PP-200 The Plamp II clamps to my tripod leg and Plamp Clip grips the edge of the reflector.

PP-400 The Ground Plamp (right) and PP-200 The Plamp II (left)

The Plamp is holding the flower in position. The Plamp II (left) is holding a background flower in position.

PP-400 The Ground Plamp stuck in the ground with the spike

PP-210 Plamp Extension Rod was needed to get the bloom into position.

Clips Don’t Squeeze Tender Vegetation

The PP-211 Plamp II Thumbscrew Clips have a groove that secures around the plant stem.

Basic set-up. Camera on tripod. Macro flash bracket (F-2) holding the flash off to the left side. Bloom held in place with The Ground Plamp (PP-400).
Same as above but The Plamp II (PP-200) holds the reflector under the bloom.
Basic set-up with camera on tripod. Macro flash bracket (F-2) holding the flash off to the left side. Bloom held in place with The Ground Plamp (PP-400). The Plamp II (PP-200) is pushing a bloom into the bottom-middle of the frame.

Could I have done the photography without the Wimberley gadgets? Maybe — if it wasn’t windy or if I had an assistant to hold things. But, it was great to be out there alone with my camera and gadgets.

Crystal Ball Photography — Quick Thoughts

Photographing through a crystal ball is a lot of fun. There are some basics that have to be mastered and then you’re free go wild and be creatives.

F/stop makes a difference in the photograph. Here’s the skyline of Houston photographed with f/5.6. Notice that the edges of the crystal ball are soft. Nice bokeh, though.
Same set-up but the f/stop has been changed to f/22. The edges of the crystal ball are sharp and defined. Notice that there’s more detail in the buildings in the background.
We get so caught-up in photographing that we don’t notice distracting lights in the background. The bright white lights in the upper left are caused by car headlights on a nearby road.
Same shot as above but I’m paying more attention to the moving traffic in the background.
The image in the ball has to be in focus. Some lenses or cameras don’t focus well in the dark. You’ll have to manually focus when this happens. Try using one focus point and put that point on something contrasty. Many cameras/lenses need this to help lock focus.

All photographs taken with a Canon 5D Mark IV, Canon 24-105mm lens.

Nature Photography Event

NANPA is the North American Nature Photography Association. It’s a leading organization for nature photographers. NANPA events should not be missed.

I’ll be leading the birds track at NANPA’s Nature Photography Celebration in Asheville, NC, April 19-21.

Join me and my colleagues in bird photography, night photography, landscapes, flowers, fine art, and conservation for an unprecedented amount of field time with other photographers as well as classroom sessions and opportunities to share images. 

My friends save $75 on registration with the FriendOfKathy promo code. More info: nanpa.org/celebration

Northern parula might be a migrant we find during the NANPA Celebration in Asheville, North Carolina.

Fixing a Crooked Horizon

I’m working through a folder of photos I took on a recent photo tour to the Lofoten Islands. We were at Haukland Beach late in the afternoon. The weather was mild, wind was calm, and the sea was spectacular.

At one point, I found a large rock out in the surf that was stable enough to stand on. I extended my tripod legs to the max, stabilized the camera, and then let the incoming waves wash around me while photographing. It was an exciting experience.

Yet, when I looked at the photos on my computer there was no escaping the fact that the horizon was crooked in each shot. I made a novice mistake of framing the photo with a slanted horizon.

The usual correction would be to use the straighten tool in Adobe Camera Raw or Lightroom. In this instance, though, that would cut-off part of the mountain at the top of the frame.

Slanting horizon in the original photo. Straight horizon with Crop and Content-Aware Fill.

Crop with Content-Aware to the rescue.

Adobe software allows us to crop with Content-Aware. Content-Aware fills in gaps created when we crop. Amazing tool! Here’s how to do it.

Open the photo in Photoshop. Click the crop tool on the left toolbar. Click the top left corner of the photo and drag to the bottom right corner. Make any adjustments by pulling the little guides on each corner.

Click the Straighten tool on the top tool bar and check the Content-Aware box.

Drag your cursor along a part of the horizon you want to straighten. Let go and your photo straightens. (The background color shows behind the photo.)

Now, click the check mark on the tool bar at top right. Wait, wait, wait for the process to finish.
Viola! Horizon is straight and the gaps caused by cropping have been filled in. Intelligent software almost always makes the right choice.
The last step is to save the file as a TIFF, JPG, or PSD.

Crop with Content-Aware. This is a handy tool!

I office Photoshop/Lightroom classes in the Houston area. Check out my schedule on my website.

Moving Toward Mirrorless — Hummingbirds

Thanks to the nice folks at Olympus and Hunt’s Photo & Video I got to test the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II and a 300mm lens with a 1.4x extender. My regular camera is a Canon 1DX with the Canon 300mm f/4 and a 1.4x extender.

So what would happen if I shot the cameras side-by-side?

I went to my friend Lee Hoy‘s house in Ft. Davis Texas. Lee had some hummingbird feeders that were pretty active thanks to fall migration. Hummingbirds were buzzing the feeders like crazy.

My test was to set both cameras on the most fancy fast focusing settings. Lee knows Olympus so he double-checked all my setting on that camera. I know Canon so had everything set on that camera.

Both cameras were set to f/7.1, aperture priority, at ISO 500, continuous auto-focus, and rapid release.

I picked-up one camera and fired. Then I put it down and picked-up the next camera. This went on for a little over an hour. Canon then Olympus then Canon then Olympus until I was exhausted.

In the end, I took 267 photos with the Olympus and 159 with the Canon. The Olympus has a higher frames-per-second rate so there will be more photos to edit. More opportunities to capture the precise moment of action, too. That’s the plan anyway.

Both cameras held and maintained focus on the hummingbirds. I was pleased to see that the Olympus kept-up with the Canon. Both cameras also failed to focus on a hummingbird about the same rate usually thanks to operator error.

Winner? Not one over the other. They Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II held in there against the Canon 1D X Mark II. That should be good news for any bird photographers looking to buy the Olympus system.