Colors of Costa Rica 9-day Photography Workshop - April 20th-28th, 2013 | Sojourn Series, Aperture Academy

Colors of Costa Rica 9-day Photography Workshop - April 20th-28th, 2013

Costa Rica is appropriately named, as the Spanish translation literally means "rich coast". The country is also rich in vibrant colors. These colors are found everywhere, from the beautiful and exotic flora, to the frogs, snakes, and lizards. The richness and biodiversity of Costa Rica is truly a sight to see.

Day 1

Scott Davis and I met 10 excited students from around the US, who came to participate in our 9-day Colors of Costa Rica Photography Workshop. Scott and I would be taking our students to several different, yet equally amazing locations, having fun, while learning about photography. None of the students visited Costa Rica, so we were equally excited to show off the beauty and richness to fresh eyes.

Over the course of two days the students arrived from different part of the US. On Saturday we met up with everyone, so we could all get to know one other, and also so Scott and I could learn about each individual students skill level and anticipation for the coming days. There were some familiar faces… those students who we've had on previous workshops, but also some fresh new faces. It's always nice to see folks who have been on workshops with us in the past. It's equally as nice to meet new our new students, and get to know them. The common denominators is they all love photography and are anxious to see the charming and beautiful landscape of Costa Rica. After introductions, I introduced Charlie, our guide from Costa Rica Expeditions. Charlie and his driver Marcos (or Nino, as he's called) would be with us for the remainder of the trip. Charlie is a biologist and has been leading tours for more than 25 years. He gave a brief overview of our itinerary and some information about the locations we would be visiting. Charlie is not only a nice guy and great guide; he is also an avid Birder. This means he cannot only identify all the birds, he can actually bring them closer to us, for the best photo ops. Charlie has an iPod with thousands of birdcalls, and a little, yet powerful speaker that plays the call. The birds respond quite quickly, and come into proper range, allowing us to capture some fantastic images. After Charlie was done with his informational portion, we all headed to the dinning room at our beautiful hotel, for a group dinner. Everyone got more acquainted with one another over a delicious dinner. Afterwards it was time to hit the hay, as our next day would get underway around 6:30am.

Day 2

After breakfast we all met out in the hotels garden area. The Hotel Bougainvillea has some astonishing gardens, masterfully kept and truly breathtaking. Scott and I wanted to take this opportunity to get our students warmed up. We all meandered through the acres of gardens all the while assisting with compositional basics, as well as the proper camera settings. Our guide, Charlie was there as well, looking for some birds for us to photograph. He quickly spotted a pair of owls, in some distant trees. Queue the iPod. After identifying the species with his spotting scope, Charlie played the owls call, and sure enough, that owl flew closer, and within range for some great images. The day was off to a fantastic start, and it was time to get checked out of the Hotel Bougainvillea, and head to our next destination, Bosque De Paz. Nestled between two National Parks, Paos Volcano NP and Juan Castro Blanco NP, Bosque De Paz is a privately owned biological reserve that sits on over 2,500 acres. Immediately upon arriving, one feels at peace. The sounds of flowing water and the harmony of the bird's songs seem to instantly sooth the mind. Bosque De Paz is aptly named, as the translation is Forest of Peace. Although we all felt at peace, some excitement ensues. Hummingbirds are everywhere! As they zoom past you, seemingly inches from your face, the feeling is excitement, followed by a small amount of fear….will they run into me? The students quickly got their camera gear out and the hummingbird challenge would begin. These little buggers are fast, and capturing them in flight, can be a bit of a challenge, but are students are always up for the challenge. It's what's keeps us motivated as photographers. Scott and I made sure that everyone had the proper iso and shutter speed to capture the fast action, top gun birds.

For those with bigger lenses, a tripod did the trick, to stabilize and take the weight off their shoulders. For others, hand held worked fine, and it gave them a little more mobility, allowing them to follow the action. We spent the afternoon photographing hummingbirds and a few other local critters, Agouti and White-nose Coati's. Agouti's look like a giant rodent, and the Coati's are similar to a raccoon.

Night was creeping ever closer, and the dinner bell was ringing, so it was time to make our way into the dinning area, and enjoy a delicious dinner, prepared fresh, just for us.

An exciting and beautiful day two was official in the books.

Day 3

The previous night initially started a bit overcast but later cleared to reveal a star filled night. Without the light pollution of big cities nearby, the stars shone with a brilliant intensity until the first hint of morning sunrise. Morning birds began their chorus around 4:30 in the morning. This was so much nicer than the standard alarm clock tone. Clear skies and soft morning light greeted day 3 of shooting. A small armada of incredibly beautiful hummingbirds of all types and colors were already wide awake and buzzing around the grounds of our cloud forest lodge. Energetic clients began pulling out the telephoto lenses well before breakfast and targeting both hummingbirds in flight and lovely portraits of birds on branches with the lush green forest as a striking backdrop. Simply stunning images were captured.

Following our hearty home cooked mountain breakfast, we loaded up in our van and headed to another beautiful area not too far down the mountain valley. Catarata Del Toro is a stunning waterfall that plunges over a vertical cliff for over 200 feet. Mountain fog was moving in fast so a group of shooters headed down the path to grab some images before the fog completely obscured the falls. They managed to grab some hauntingly beautiful images while another group walked the grounds targeting delicate macro images of colorful jungle flowers and more hummingbirds. A few parrots were also seen flying through the canopy.

Clouds rolled in and brought with them a curtain of drizzly rain. A good time to head back to the lodge for a hot lunch. The afternoon drizzle eventually came to an end revealing an uber lush jungle landscape of saturated greens of every hue and color. Our afternoon shoot session had us exploring the jungle trails and rivers for scenic waterscapes and abstract flora macros. We continued shooting until the last rays of sunlight began to disappear into the evening sky and thoughts of a tasty dinner roused our appetites.

Following another delicious homemade dinner, we gathered together to edit the past days images and go over Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop post processing techniques. Another fantastic day coming to an end. Tomorrow off to see the volcanoes of Arenal.

Day 4

We awoke to the bright morning sun and a symphony of birds. There was plenty of time for more fast action hummingbird photography, before breakfast. The lighting was excellent and the hummers were plentiful. Watching the birds behavior for a little while and putting yourself in a good vantage point accordingly, is a good strategy to capture stunning images. Also a nice bit of patience and a sprinkle of luck help as well. The hour of shooting before breakfast flew by. We all enjoyed our last meal at Bosque De Paz, and everyone thoroughly enjoyed our hosts, Federico and Vanessa. They have a lovely place and they made us feel like welcome guests in their own home. After breakfast I set up a quick group shot, so we would all have a lovely memento of our stay at Bosque De Paz.

It was time to load up in the van and head to our next destination, the Volcano of Arenal.

Located in the Northern zone, Arenal is one of the ten most active volcanos in the world. Its major eruption happened in 1968, and the town of Tabacon was destroyed, killing approximately 80 people. Since then the volcano has been active, spewing small amounts of red hot lava and stones, although the last display was 3 years ago. As we drove in to Arenal, there were only a few big white puffy clouds that dotted the blue sky; therefore the volcano was totally visible. According to our guide, Charlie, it is usually hidden behind the clouds, and this was indeed a special treat, setting eyes the entire volcano. We stopped for a quick picture, at a nice little spot next to a river. The river worked as a fantastic leading line, right up to the majestic beauty of Arenal. A graduated neutral density filter worked wonders to balance out the darker foreground, with the white clouds around the volcano. Shortly there after, we arrived at our hotel. We had lunch, while admiring the truly breathtaking view of the Arenal Volcano. After lunch we got settled in to our rooms, and pretty much right away, went out with our guides, Charlie and Nino, we were on the hunt for interesting birds to photograph. Our afternoon birding mission did not disappoint. Right away Charlie spotted a Laughing Falcon, an absolutely beautiful and majestic looking bird. We photographed several different species of birds and more then few different types of hummingbirds. We were lucky enough to see what Charlie called a "trophy bird", the Black Crested Coquette. This stunning hummingbird has a plumage of feathers on top of his head, and some very vibrant colors. After our productive afternoon, we made our way to the large deck that surrounds the dining area of the lodge. This is the perfect spot for us to view and photograph a picturesque sunset. Mother Nature did not disappoint, and we had a special treat in the form of some beautiful sunset light. Everyone got some lovely images, and it was now time to enjoy a delicious dinner, and catalog another successful Costa Rican day in the books.

Day 5

We began day 5 with a pre-breakfast walk around the gardens, looking for more fascinating birds to photograph. We stumbled upon some lovely large birds, called a Curacao. There was a make and female, both unique, but both really beautiful birds to photograph. While on the hunt for birds, there were always great macro opportunities. The gardens at the Arenal Observatory are just spectacular. Not only are there a ton of different flower varieties, but plants like ferns, work wonderfully well for macro as well. Our hour walk flew by and it was time for some coffee and breakfast, to fuel up for our day. Shortly after breakfast we embarked on a 2-mile hike, to a magnificent waterfall. The waterfall is located on the grounds of our hotel, and the hike is simply beautiful. Once arriving at the falls, you not only hears the rushing and plummeting water, you also feel the mist on your face. The mist can cause a little annoyance for image capture, oftentimes a shower cap placed over the lens, does just the trick, to keep the mist off, while composing your shot. I took a small trail, down to river level. The vantage point was really nice, and the big bonus was, no mist. After photographing from the upper level vantage point, the students made there down to photograph from the river level spot. I helped with composition and shutter speed. We raised the iso, so the shutter speed would not be too terribly slow. For that lovely soft looking water, you need a shutter speed that is slow, but not so slow that you lose all detail in the water. With no detail, it looks more like milk than water.

Once everyone had some images they were happy with, we made our way back up the trail, and walked back to our rooms at the Observatory, to take a short siesta before lunch. That afternoon, we were headed just down the road to the Arenal Hanging Bridges. The afternoon trip offered some beautiful hiking on a 2-mile loop trail. Along the trail there are a plethora of plants and animals, but the main attraction here are the suspension bridges. There are 6 large suspension bridges to cross, along your journey through the rainforest. The Bridges have an elegant and safe design, and are constructed of galvanized steel. As you walk across the hanging bridge you feel that you're one with the rainforest. The placement and level of the bridges, places you at a unique treetop level. Birds fly at eye level and spider monkeys leap through the canopy below you. As we started out journey and traversed across the first large suspension bridge, we had a fun and pleasant surprise, a howler monkey was propped up on the railing. It made for some really fun photo ops, as he stuck his tongue out at anyone who was taking is picture. Turns out he was the resident monkey named Angel.

During our hike Charlie found several interesting species of birds for us to photograph, including one of my favorites, the Mot-Mot. Just after half way into our hike there was a nice little waterfall to photograph. Again we worked on shutter speeds and composition as well. After the waterfall, we continued around the loop, pausing occasionally to photograph some birds and take some fun shots on the bridges. At the end of the trail, we felt a little tired, but the experience was totally worth it. Also, they had been feeding us so well… it was nice to get some exercise and burn off a few calories. That evening we enjoyed some nice conversation over another good meal, at the Observatory Lodge dinning room. A few gathered in the sitting area, to check in with family and friends on the lodge's Wi-Fi, before calling it a night and heading off to bed.

Day 6

Today we leave the picaresque Arenal Observatory Lodge, which as expected, provided us with some fantastic new hummingbird species not to mention some pretty stunning views of the Arenal Volcano. As Charlie confirmed, we were exceptionally lucky to have crystal clear views of the volcano for both days. We'll definitely look forward to returning next year to this super special place.

After our morning breakfast, we headed off to the small town of Fortuna to catch our private flights to Tortuguero National Park. No roads to Tortuguero exist. It's only accessible by boat or small airplane which definitely gives this place an aire of being off the beaten path. When I think of comparisons to locations back in the States, I often relate the lush waterways and jungle canopy of Tortuguero to the areas around the Florida everglades. Like the Everglades, Tortuguero National Park is home to a bounty of animal and plant species.

Upon arrival, we hopped aboard our small boats and crossed the river en route to our riverside lodge where we were welcomed by the lodge staff with fresh squeezed local juices. Taking just enough time to check in and stow our luggage, we grabbed our photo gear to head out to the park reserve. We had chartered two boats to cruise through the various channels which allowed us to have plenty of room to spread out all our gear in comfort. Before we were even able to hop in our boats, one of the gardeners had spotted a beautiful yellow morphed eyelash viper coiled up in a low hanging tree branch. Grabbing a short step-ladder, we all assembled with cameras in hand and managed to grab some up close and personal shots (albeit very carefully) of this stunning but highly poisonous viper. Additionally, we found a drab tree frog hanging around on one of the palm leaves which we spent time with as we refined the intricacies of working in the macro world. Only an hour since arrival and we already had two new species added to the portfolio. Not a bad way to start I must say.

The afternoon was warm and muggy but we managed to find a variety of animals hiding in the shadows. We spent time photographing spider monkeys feeding and running around the tree tops, egrets and herons with their reflections in the water, iguanas on the river sides, bats in trees, and a whole host of other forest critters. As we were returning to the lodge, the ominous dark clouds that had been building up over the course of the afternoon finally decided to let loose. It started with a couple of drops and then BLAM, someone let loose the overhead hydrant and a torrent of rain came down. I must say, it was kinda fun cruising back totally drenched. Fortunately we all had rain gear to protect the cameras but it was exciting to see Mother Nature hose everything down with such strength. Nothing wrong with taking two showers in one day.

Day 7

Our second day at the Tortuga Lodge started bright and early. One doesn't need to bring an alarm clock when in Tortuguero. The Howler monkeys do a fine job of rousing everything within a mile radius from their deep slumber. In our case, their haunting whoops and bellows began at a way too early time of 4:30am. Still, it's a pretty cool way to wake up in the morning.

After a breakfast that could have fed an army, we returned to our private boats to explore new parts of the national reserve. The sections on the menu today included the more narrow channels where the forest canopy completely enshrouds the waterways. These areas are some of my favorites. It feels like you are travelling back in time or at the very least, like you are in some Indiana Jones movie as you slowly cruise through the beautiful jungle-scape. It seemed that everywhere you looked, there was some form of animal life. Many of the animals are cryptic in nature so it took considerable concentration to spot them. Fortunately our expert local guides had remarkable abilities to locate and point out each creature that came within our field of view. We encountered numerous Caymans, Iguanas, Jesus Christ lizards (named so because of their ability to run on water), posturing Geckos, Kingfishers, a brief glimpse of a river otter, herons and egrets of differing species, numerous other bird species, and a troupe of howler monkeys (most likely the group that woke us earlier that morning). For almost 4 hours we explored and photographed this serene environment and its denizens.

We returned to the lodge for another tasty lunch and then following a short siesta, we reconvened in the afternoon for a little post processing and image review and critique. I have to admit, there were some really fantastic images had by all. Some were downright winners worthy of any publication.

At night time (when most normal humans are getting ready for bed), the jungle really starts to come alive. A visit to the rainforest wouldn't be complete without at least one foray into its inner realm during the dark of night. Donning rubber boots, flash lights in hand, and plenty of mosquito repellent, we made our way into the forest with cameras in hand. We had prepared our clients with lessons on macro flash photography so what better place to practice. At we shone our flashlights into the surrounding forest, we could see little glowing eyes peering back. Andrew and Vivienne proved to be expert trackers of the tiny red dart frogs, finding at least 5 of the little creatures. We also discovered and photographed large hairy spiders (Euuwww), many other strange insects as well as listened to the night sounds. Although I certainly wouldn't want to be stranded in the jungle for a night, walking around it, photographing its night time inhabitants and exploring for a few hours definitely gives a new perspective.

Day 8

Even though I set an alarm on my iPhone, it wasn't necessary, the calls of the howler monkeys and symphony of bird songs, was enough to rouse me. Today we had to rise early, as our flight back to San Jose was set for 6:30 am. The lodge prepared an early breakfast, just for us, so we wouldn't be sent off with empty stomachs. It was quite the contrary, as we filled up on a hearty and plentiful breakfast, and of course some delicious Costa Rican coffee. Charlie loaded up all of our bags and took the one-minute boat road across the river, to the airstrip.

Before we boarded our boat to head over, I set everyone up for a quick group shot. The Tortuga Lodge staff waved goodbye from the dock, as we pulled away. It's such a nice lodge and location, leaving was a little sad, but the trip wasn't over yet, we still had a great day planned. After our quick and smooth plane ride to San Jose, we met up with our driver Nino, again. While we were getting our bags in order, one of the students realized that he did not have his passport. Luckily he had a copy. Charlie was really worried that it would be an issue, as we had to pass through a customs gate, on our way out. Luckily, Nino worked his charm with the guards, and the accepted the copy. Our original hotel, the Bougainvillea had found his passport in his room days earlier, so it was comforting to know it would be waiting for him, and it wasn't completely lost. After clearing the customs gate, we made our journey up to Cerro de la Muerte. Costa Rica Expeditions had chosen this location due to the almost guaranteed opportunity for spotting the Resplendent Quetzal. Serious bird-watchers don't leave Costa Rica without crossing this bird off their lists. With its brilliant iridescent greens and vibrant red chest, coupled with a two-foot long tail of feathers, the Quetzal is a truly magnificent bird. Nino had made some phone calls, and tracked down the location of a Quetzal nest. The nest was in a tree on a rancher's property. As we arrived at the ranch house, the van was filled with round of awe's… there were two small puppies running around. This was a nice treat for those of us who were missing our dogs at home. After our puppy time, we walked down the about a quarter mile to the nesting location. The tail feathers of the male Quetzal are so long that a few feather stick out of the nest, and blow in the breeze. This makes for the perfect indicator of where he will fly out, allowing everyone to get a nice vantage point for image capture. The male departs the nest approximately every twenty to forty minuets. We had only been there for about 10 minuets and he flew out, perching on a nearby tree. The angle was not ideal for photographing him, and he only remained out for a shirt time, before returning to the nest. We wanted to wait for him to fly out again, in hopes of a better vantage point, for a nice image. Twenty minuets went by, thirty, then forty… would he ever come out again? It seems as though this beautiful bird was testing our patience, then suddenly, there was movement. He indeed was going to make another appearance. This time however, he didn't perch, but flew away. Oh no, where was he off to? We would have to wait even longer now. After about 10 minuets he retuned and perched on a nearby tree. It was well worth the wait, as we had a clear shot for some great shots. We had not only seen the Quetzal, but we were able to capture some nice images as well. High fives all around, and it was time to go get some lunch. Jut a short drive up the road was a nice little lodge, that had a warm fire and a nice home cooked lunch for us.

They also had a plethora of hummingbirds. Since the elevation here is almost 9,000 feet, we got to see some different species. The hummers were so close that we actually had to get our macro lenses out, due to the shorter focal distance needs. There was also a woodpecker nest located in a tree, close to where we were photographing the hummers. The baby woodpecker would pop his head out from time to time and the parents would fly over to feed him. Shooting the vibrant birds was a nice way to end the Colors of Costa Rica Photography Workshop 2013. Nino de us back to the Hotel Bougainvillea in San Jose, and after a short siesta and a hot shower, it was time for our farewell dinner. Everyone enjoyed one last delicious Costa Rican dinner, a few drinks and great conversation. Scott and I thanked everyone for attending and one of the students (Andrew) gave a great thank you speech, summarizing the fantastic experience shared by all. The students presented Charlie and Nino with a group gathered monetary thank you, which was highly appreciated. Hugs and thanks shared all around, and we turned in for one last evening.

Day 9

This was our departure day. Some students would be departing quite early, as the standard protocol for international flights requires arrival at the airport three hours prior to departure. Scott and I got to see a few students who had not left yet, during breakfast. We enjoyed our final meal, and probably the last portion of beans and rice, for a while. Our transfer was not arriving until 11:30, so we had plenty of time to reorganize and pack our bags. I took one last stroll through the hotel gardens, to enjoy all that Costa Rica has to offer before departing. Scott and I had two other students, Astrid and Judy, on the same flight out, so it was nice to get the extra time with them. As it turns out, we got to share quite a bit more time with them. Just before our aircraft was going to push back from the gate, a ground crewman noticed a hydraulic leak. This unfortunate incident caused us to miss our connecting flights in Houston. We got to spend the night in Houston, before finally arriving home the following day. Regardless it was still an amazing adventure shared with some fantastic people.

Pura Vida from Ellie, Scott, and the entire Aperture Academy Team!

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