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.
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.
I used to hear photographers say they didn’t like the look of HDR (high dynamic range) photos. Software progressed and it got to where an HDR photo was perfectly natural. We got a photo that looked like what we saw with our eyes versus a cartoonish image.
Things continue to progress in the photo processing world. Today, the Shadow and Highlight sliders in Adobe Camera Raw and Lightroom are doing what HDR used to do.
Below you see two images taken in the historic district of Sibiu, Romania. One is HDR — a blend of seven images using Nik by DxO. The other is straight out of the camera with the highlights properly exposed. Can you see any difference?
Sibiu, Romania, historic center.
Sibiu, Romania, historic center.
HDR made from seven images processing as above
HDR made from seven exposures
Straight processing as above
HDR made from seven images processing as above
Give this concept a try next time you find yourself photographing a contrasty scene. Get the highlights perfectly exposed. Then bring out the shadows later with the Shadow slider in Adobe Camera Raw or Lightroom.
A little bit of explanation before you read this story by my husband Gary Clark. Gary’s a well-respected writer and he sometimes sends stories to me while I’m traveling. He wrote this story earlier this month while I was in Romania leading a photo tour. Gary refers to “the woman-who-makes-the-coffee” in the story. That’s Gary’s pet name for me when I travel. He frequently complains that “the woman-who-makes-the-coffee failed to do her job so I had to make my own coffee.”
Encounter in Romania with Dr. Vladislav by Gary Clark
The woman-who-makes-the-coffee watched a crimson sunset over the Carpathian Mountains as an old building creaked in the distance and wolves howled from a darkening forest. Suddenly a bat flying on fast-flapping wings swept past her, and she, being a renowned nature photographer, berated herself for not having her camera ready to take its picture. For how many bats of the Arizona desert had she photographed sucking nectar out of fruiting plants to now miss shooting a picture of a Transylvanian bat sucking nourishment from fruits or eating insects….she knew not what it ate. For Romania had more species of bats than any other.
Nectar-feeding bat in Arizona photographed by the woman-who-makes-the-coffee
Vampire bat photographed by the woman-who-makes-the-coffee
Not being deterred, the woman-who-makes-the-coffee dashed into the hostel where she was staying. She grabbed her camera and rigged her flash equipment to photograph nighttime bats. What if she photographed a rare or endangered Transylvanian bat like the elusive Horseshoe Bat? Ah, she would then cement her place in the annals of legendary photographers.
As she started out of the door, a female cook in the hostelry said, “Woe to one in these parts who dares to snap a picture of a bat.”
The woman-who-makes-the-coffee chuckled to herself and thought, “Well, I guess the old timers still hold onto folk tales.”
Out in the dank night she waited. A cold breeze cut through her jacket like icicles. She shivered when a feeling like a cool breath wafted against her neck, but forgot about it when a bat suddenly appeared zigzagging in flight only a few yards away. She lifted the camera and took aim, making sure her settings were correct and that the shutter would trigger her flash.
Snap! Snap! And snap scores of times as the bat flew back and forth in front of her.
“I got it!” she cried, “I got it!”
Back in her room, the woman-who-makes-the-coffee was wholly bewildered. “What did I do wrong?” she said to herself.
No image had appeared in her camera. She downloaded the card onto her laptop. Still no image. She could not explain the anomaly, but rather than staying up all night to try again for a photograph, she went to bed. She snuggled under the warm blankets of her bed and wished her husband were with her.
Tapping noises on the window sounded like pellets of ice. “Must be snowing,” she thought.
But she could have sworn a shadow of that flying bat was silhouetted against the window.
Next evening she sat at dinner with the group she was leading on a photo tour. The dining room was large with a high ceiling and, despite the lights, the room was gloomy. Sitting at a nearby table was a tall man in a smart black suit, a starched white shirt, and a red cravat around his neck. His jet black hair set off a pearly white face, uncommon for a man, and his eyes though sunken glistened like obsidian.
He walked over the photography group’s table and addressed the woman-who-makes-the-coffee.
“Excuse me, dear madam, but are you per chance the famous woman-who-makes-the-coffee? I have so admired your photographs. They bring life to me like rays of sunshine, a beauty that in my line of work I don’t get to see.”
Whereupon the woman-who-makes-the-coffee said, “Won’t you join us? I’ll take a group picture with you in it.”
“No, but thank you for the offer. By the way, I thought I saw you trying to photograph a bat last evening. Any luck?”
“No, darn it!” said the woman-who-makes-the-coffee. “Something went wrong with my camera.”
“Perhaps I may be of assistance,” said the black-suited man in a mellifluous voice. “You see, I’m an expert on European bats, especially those of Transylvania.”
“That’d be great!” said the woman-who-makes-the-coffee. “I’ll be trying again after dinner.”
One of the male photographers in the group looked up at the black-suited man and said, “What kind of work do you do?”
“Night surgeon, of sorts, in an urgent care center. Such services in our country are offered without charge, unlike in your country,” said the black-suited man.
“Oh, so you must be a doctor,” said the male photographer. “What’s your name?”
The male photographer chuckled and said, “It’s kind of funny, but you look like Dracula. No offense. Just the movies, you know.”
“Tourists from your country always say that to any man in a dark suit,” said Dr. Vladislav. “Seems your country is obsessed with scary movies about…vampires. Even the castle built by the Russians to fool American tourists into thinking it’s the ancient home of Dracula draws thousands of American tourists. Russians are good at fooling Americans, eh?”
“Now just hold on!,” said the male photographer.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” said Dr. Vladislav. “Just kidding. We know Americans are fine people with, if I may say, fine, intelligent women like the woman-who-makes-the-coffee.”
“My husband read a book about Dracula,” said the woman-who-makes-the-coffee. “I think it was called The Historian, or something like that.”
“Ah, yes,” said Dr. Vladislav. “Written by Miss Elizabeth Kostova. We’re good friends. She now lives in Romania, you know. Runs a writing school, and like me, works at night.”
“My husband is a writer,” said the woman-who-makes-the-coffee. “He’s always wanted to see Dracula’s castle and is really aggravated about the Russian fake.”
“As am I,” said Dr. Vladislav. “I can sadly assure your husband that the once glorious castle of Dracula…he was an admired Count, you know…anyway, his castle has been obliterated from the earth. Fortunately, his memory lives.”
The group fell silent. The dining hall seemed to darken as a chilled air suffused the room.
“Shoot, I’ve got to go photograph bats,” said the woman-who-makes-the-coffee. “Since you know about the bats here,” she said to Dr. Vladislav, “would you mind helping me find one to photograph?”
“I’d be delighted,” said the doctor.
One of the female photographers in the group named Jane quickly rose from her chair and said, “Do you mind if I come along?”
“Sure, come on,” said the woman-who-makes-the-coffee. “Get your camera, and let’s go shoot bats. Put on that big coat of yours. It’s freezing out there.”
The others decided to go to their rooms.
Outside in the bleak icy night under a New Moon, Jane and the woman-who-makes-the-coffee stood staring into the dark hoping for a bat to fly within in shooting range. Suddenly, the woman-who-makes-the-coffee felt a quiver in her neck and scrunched up her shoulders as though trying to cover her throat.
“May I help you find a bat,” said Dr. Vladislav.
“That’d be wonderful,” said the woman-who-makes-the-coffee. “Thank you. But you’re not wearing a coat. Aren’t you cold?”
“My people are, so to speak, a cold blooded race,” said the doctor. “But shhhh… here come the bats!”
Then two, three, and eventually 20 bats flew within camera shot. The woman-who-makes-the-coffee fired her camera with flashes lighting up the darkness like quick bolts of lightning. Her companion Jane did likewise.
The two women were so excited that they didn’t notice the chorus of wolves howling as though in the crescendo of a requiem.
“I think I got some good shots,” said the woman-who-makes-the-coffee.
“Me, too,” said Jane. “But I’m tired. Think I’ll download my pictures when I get home. Can’t see much detail on my camera in this heavy darkness.”
“Well, I do see the bat photos on my camera,” said the woman-who-makes-the-coffee, “but you’re right, it’s too dim to see any details.”
Weeks laterone evening when the woman-who-makes-the-coffee was sitting on her living room couch and showing the bat pictures to her husband, Socks the cat, sitting in the husband’s lap, began glaring at the photographs while hairs on his back reared up and his tail flared like a bottlebrush. Socks uttered a guttural growl.
The phone rang.
It was Jane from the photography tour calling.
“You’re not going to believe this,” she said.
“What?” asked the woman-who-makes-the-coffee.
“Remember me taking a picture of you with Dr. Vladislav when we were photographing the bats? He was standing right beside you, and you were showing him the bat pictures on the back of your camera.”
“Yeah, of course, I remember,” said the woman-who-makes-the-coffee. “He was really helpful in getting us on the bats.”
“Right,” said Jane. “But just one problem that I can’t figure out.”
“Tell me,” said the woman-who-makes-the-coffee.
“I took lots of shots of the two of you standing next to each other. Ten shots in all.”
“Well, I remember taking pictures of you holding up your camera to Dr. Vladislav standing right beside you.”
“Yes, I remember,” said the woman-who-makes-the-coffee. “So how did your shots turn out?”
Silence on the other end of the line.
“Jane, are you still there?”
“Yes,” said Jane. “But my shots of you and Dr. Vladislav together….I mean, you look great standing there with a big smile.”
“And….”, said the woman-who-makes-the-coffee.
“In all those photos,” Jane whispered, “Vladislav IS NOT THERE!
I was in Ireland recently leading a photo tour. A favorite location of mine for light painting at night is Burrishoole Abbey in County Mayo.
We set our cameras on tripods, composed the shot, focused, and then set our exposures for 30 seconds. Then I “Painted” the outside of the building with an amber flashlight. In one 30-second exposure I might cover half the building. We reminded the group that they would use layers in Photoshop to get a photo of the entire building illuminated in amber light.
Toward the end of our shoot at Burrishoole, I decided to make a change. I told the group to leave their f/stops at 22, change the ISO to 800, and take a 4-minute exposure using Bulb. We took one photo to check exposure. Personally, I needed to change my f/stop to f/9.
Then we clicked the shutters and left them open for 4-minutes. During that time, I painted the building one more time with the amber flashlight. Notice I had enough time to go inside and paint the window openings.
Each photo is a bit different but the last was much easier to make. Many photographers don’t like Photoshop layers or don’t want to learn layers. Personally, I think layers is a super powerful tool but do understand the learning curve can be steep.
Next time you do light painting, consider using a very long exposure as an alternative to layers.
I got this promo from Pinterest today. Photos like these are ruining travel photography and Pinterest is to blame — or maybe the readers of Pinterest are to blame.
Notice the young lady mugging for the camera in the promo for Barcelona? She is sitting on a bench in Park Güell in Barcelona. I suspect there are fifty other tourists around her trying to get the exact same shot with their cell phones.
I suspect there is a tourist on her right that is trying desperately to get the same photo. Some tourists bring shopping bags or small suitcase so they can change clothes in each photo. Selfie sticks cross and get in the way as people jostle for the same spot.
Ten years ago, photographers would have been lined up at this same location in Park Güell. They wanted a photo of the undulating benches made by Gaudi with the park below and Barcelona on the distance. The photographers would have stood at a distance so all the elements were in the frame. Traveling companions would have wandered around the huge square looking at the scene and exploring.
Today, everyone is a photographer and everyone has a camera. Today, everyone with a cell phone has to sit or stand in “the spot” to get a selfie. Then they get up, let their friend sit down and take a selfie, then both pose for a selfie, then they change clothes, sit down again to pose, then change pose . . . you get the picture.
In October I led a photo tour to Spain. We visited Seville, Cordoba, Granada, and Barcelona. The photo opportunities were amazing and we had so much fun.
I never got a photo of the lovely undulating benches at Park Güell because the benches were lined with tourists taking selfies. People were not photographing the benches made by Gaudi in the 1900s. People were photographing themselves sitting on the benches made by Gaudi.
Scroll up and look at the Pinterest photo of the lady standing on the Parasol in Seville. Such an amazing public art installation in the heart of Seville. Thanks to photos like the one you see above, the place where that lady stands is now “the spot.” Tourists will line-up to stand in that exact location, mug for the camera, smile, duck-lips, peace signs with the hands, change clothes, stand with their friends, etc.
I’ve seen these same thing happen all over the world. At Machu Picchu it is nearly impossible to get the iconic photo of the ruins because people are lined up taking selfies with the ruins in the background. A group of 10-15 friends arrive and then stand in the same location for a half hour while each is photographed individually, then in small groups, then in larger groups, then with another camera.
Tourists perched on a wall taking selfies at Angkor Watt in Cambodia
Two ladies taking selfies in a courtyard at Angkor Watt in Cambodia
At Angkor Watt in Cambodia people stand around the lovely courtyards to take selfies. Then they change clothes, rearrange the group, change cameras, etc. The more people move into the courtyards and repeat the process for the next 15 or 20 minutes. They are not viewing the magnificent ancient architecture — they are photographing themselves in the ancient structure.
The views of lovely blue domed churches in Santorini have been blocked by the hordes of tourists. People perch on white walls and angle to get their selfie with the blue domes in the background. Then they hand their camera to their friend and the friend tries to get “the shot.” Twenty minutes later that group moves and another gets into position.
Photography changes and it has changed now that everyone has a camera. I do miss the days, though, when people were more interested in the location than themselves in the location.
Two ladies mug for the camera in front of La Segrada Familia in Barcelona.
Several young ladies take selfies on the streets of Burano, Italy