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Trip Report – Costa Rica Photography Workshop 2018 – April

In Trip Report by Matt Shetzer

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Matt, Ed, Dave, Shirley and Dan exploring Costa Rica

Day 1 (Saturday)
The start of another Costa Rica Photo Workshop and I am really excited for this one! I met the group as they gathered at the hotel. From California, we have Dave and Ed. Flying in from Tennessee, we have Dan and Shirley. I can sense the group’s excitement and enthusiasm about the adventure we have embarked on.
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Ed up close and personal with a sloth at an animal rescue we visited

From the airport, we are transported to the hotel where we will be staying. This place is wonderful! Not only is there a restaurant with a vast menu of traditional dishes and fresh seafood, but there is a garden here that has been called the “best in Costa Rica” by the National Gardening Association.

There are over 51 types of orchids and 22 species of bromeliads to walk amongst. In total, over 600 species of flora and fauna have been identified there. This family garden has been cultivated for nearly 3 decades, and gets a great diversity of bird life including hummingbirds. So, needless to say, everyone explored the beautiful gardens of the hotel.

After everyone settled in, we all met for dinner to discuss the upcoming days and some specific techniques for tomorrow’s shoot. We head off to bed for tomorrow we visit our first wildlife photography location!

Day 2 (Sunday)
Bellies full from a big Costa Rican breakfast, we head out to our first wildlife location. A fantastic rescue ranch with lots of Sloths, Toucans, Owls, Monkeys, Oncilla (small cat like Ocelot), Greater Potoo, Macaws, Porcupine and many other animals that call this location home.

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Everyone taking photos or pixel peeping at an animal rescue. So nice to see the beautiful animals up close

We are going to get in some great shots for our Costa Rica Photo Workshop at this ranch. Beginning as a bird-focused rescue facility, the founders soon expanded to other wildlife. What did it was the arrival of a baby sloth. We would all soon see how powerful a baby sloth is!

The conservation efforts here are impressive, and the ranch is dedicated to rescuing Costa Rican wildlife. From sloths and spider monkeys, to toucans and owls, this wildlife rehabilitation center offers up some incredible nature photography scenes!

A local guide, Jose, gave us a private tour and we were able to view all the animals up close. That is when the group quickly learned there is nothing cuter than a baby sloth. Goldie, a 3-month-old two toed sloth, was feeding and she captured the hearts of everyone as she made eye contact with us. She flashed us a small smile as she filled her belly.

We learned the stories of all the animals that call the rescue home and photographed many of them. The three toed and two toed sloths put on quite a show as they climbed around an almond tree. Here these animals find a caring sanctuary where they can recover and perhaps return the wild forests of Costa Rica.

The pictures of these happy and gentle creatures are sure to soothe the soul. We all felt the warm heartedness of the folks running this rescue, and the peacefulness of the wildlife living here.

So we could maximize our wildlife photography time, we had lunch delivered to the rescue. Those baby sloths are something else.

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As we enter the Costa Rican mountains, we setup our high-speed flash system for the hummingbirds

Later in the afternoon we headed out to our first birding lodge high up in the Costa Rican mountains. Once we arrive, we got settled in our rooms, and had a nice relaxing dinner. After dinner, we talked about how the multi-flash system works for hummingbirds. I also reviewed camera settings and discussed histograms and exposure in detail. For this Costa Rica Photo Workshop, hummingbirds are featured so I wanted to share some best practices and methods for working the gear we brought and the tropical setting.

After this full day, it was time to get some much-needed sleep.

Day 3 – Day 4 (Monday/Tuesday)
The next two days of our Costa Rica Photo Workshop are going to be packed with hummingbird photography! We wake up in our new venue. Set on a 1,000 acre private reserve in the Central Volcanic Mountain Range of Costa Rica, we are ready to go for this one.

This family run, ecolodge is nestled in the lush jungles with over 331 bird species seen over the past 2 decades. The family has dreamt of creating a biological corridor for many generation to enjoy and preserve the rich biodiversity of this land. Staying here near the cloud and rain forests supports local conservation efforts to keep the landscape protected from environmental damage.

For us, the lodge offered orchid gardens, and kilometers of nature hiking even to a waterfall. Plus, a restaurant with homemade gourmet-style dishes, fresh Costa Rican coffee, vegan and vegetarian options, all while overlooking an expansive forest. The wildlife and nature of this magical place is inspiring!

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Our home for the next couple of days

Off to photograph some hummingbirds and we use the multi-flash system and natural light. With the multi-flash system, we are generating an effective 1/5,000 second exposure freezing the wings of the birds. This allows us to capture the intricacies of their movement in richer detail.

When not in the setups, we are photographing the hummingbirds with slower shutter speeds creating different images with blurred wings. All in all, we get a good variety of shots in from various perspectives. Mixing up the techniques here on the Costa Rica Photo Workshop to show how to get a diverse range of pictures with similar subjects and scenery.

One of the local guides took us to a Violet sabrewing hummingbird nest with two babies in it that were just getting ready to fledge. Baby hummingbirds! They were adorable. To see this was an honor and to photograph it, a privilege.

Also running around were two mammals, a White-nosed Coati and a Central American Agouti. These are tropical raccoons and rodents, respectively, and both are great subjects to photograph.

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Dan adding some scale to the enormous trees in the forest

Some of the subjects we photographed and viewed while at our first lodge on the Costa Rica Photo Workshop:

  • Violet sabrewing hummingbird
  • Green hermit hummingbird
  • Green-crowned brilliant hummingbird
  • Magnificent Hummingbird
  • Stripe-tailed Hummingbird
  • Black-bellied Hummingbird
  • Purple-throated Mountain-gem hummingbird
  • Magenta-throated Woodstar hummingbird
  • Scintillant Hummingbird
  • Central American Agouti
  • White-nosed Coati, or coatimundi, a tropical raccoon

The personal attention and hospitality from our hosts has been amazing. They have really created an ecological lodge adorned with Costa Rican handicrafts that flows with the land. And the meals have been outstanding!

With the nature around here just opening up to us, it has been hard to keep up with all the images taken!

Day 5 (Wednesday)
We enjoyed a nice morning breakfast and continued our journey to the North to spend the day in the Sarapiqui River area. This region is formed from crystal clear mountain streams converging and creating class 3-4 rapids that draw in whitewater rafters from all over the globe.

We are drawn to this lush landscape by the highly fertile biome formed from ancient volcanic activity. We started the day off photographing a beautiful waterfall that drops into a caldera, or volcanic crater. Dave and Dan felt the call of adventure and opted to make the whole climb down to the waterfall for some more views and photos.

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Dan and Dave took the hike down to the waterfall. Way to go !!!

We continued on to a small family farm that has converted clear cut farming land and given it back to the native trees that birds favor. We spent the rest of the day photographing the birds that visit their rescued park. We photographed the following species.:

Shirley and Dan photographing the colorful frogs of Costa Rica

  • Scaly-breasted hummingbird
  • White-necked Jacobin hummingbird
  • Rufous-tailed hummingbird
  • Blue-gray Tanager
  • Passerini’s Tanager
  • Clay-colored thrush
  • Green honeycreeper
  • Black-cowled Oriole
  • Baltimore Oriole
  • Golden-hooded Tanager
  • Grey-headed Chachalaca
  • Melodious Blackbird

After the full day of shooting, we headed to the hotel. Still excited from the magic of the land, many in the group visited the lodge’s butterfly garden and enjoyed a relaxing swim in the pool. Nothing quite like a dip in clear waters while immersed in the heart of the Costa Rican jungle.

Later, we all met for dinner and shared another delicious meal. The tasty traditional Costa Rican dishes, prepared on location, and made from fresh ingredients are worth it alone! But, we know this scrumptious food is a bonus that fuels are wildlife photo adventure here in Costa Rica!

Day 6 (Thursday)
Today is Frog Photography Day! Leaving the hotel early, we headed to a local family’s property that has converted some of their farm land into a wonderful frog habitat. We spent the day there photographing the colorful frogs of Costa Rica in different options from natural settings to creative scenes with flowers. A lot of photos were taken and we got the privilege to photograph the following species:

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Dan, Ed and Dave photographing a Red-Eyed tree frog climbing on a vine

  • Red-Eyed tree frog
  • Masked Tree frog
  • Glass frog
  • Green and Black poison-dart frog
  • Blue jean poison-dart frog (morph of Strawberry poison dart frog)
  • Brilliant Forest frog
  • Broad-headed rain frog
  • Collared Aracari
  • Green Honeycreeper
  • Black-cowled Oriole
  • Red-legged honeycreeper
  • Basilisk Lizard
  • Palm Tanager
  • Summer Tanager

The mother of the family run farm prepared for us a lovely home cooked meal. I don’t think I’ve ever had plantains that tasted that good!

After lunch we photographed the frogs a bit more, and then continued our journey to our next lodge. At our next destination, photographing more species of hummingbirds is on the itinerary.

We arrived just in time for a dinner! This lodge specializes in farm to table cuisine to serve up only fresh and delicious food. They take as much pride in their cooking as they do providing great birding opportunities for us shutterbugs.

We finished the evening chatting and enjoying each other’s company in the lounge. Going over the past few days of exciting wildlife photography, our gracious hosts of each amazing location, and just the magic we all feel as we travel the land.

Our new location offers views of the Turrialba Volcano in a private forest reserve with over 450 bird species documented. Set in the Caribbean rainforests of Costa Rica, this destination has awesome morning and afternoon birding for the avid birdwatcher. We are going to enjoy photographing here!

Day 7 and Day 8 (Friday/Saturday)

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Dave showing nature photography can be relaxing as he hangs out at the coffee bar with his camera remote

A week into the Costa Rica Photo Workshop and our new destination has some incredible settings for outstanding hummingbird photography. While at the birding lodge we set up the hummingbird multi-flash system under cover. After breakfast, we selected a few notable flowers and got shooting. Today we photographed and saw the following species:

  • Violet sabrewing hummingbird
  • Green hermit hummingbird
  • Green-crowned brilliant hummingbird
  • White-necked Jacobin hummingbird
  • Crowned Woodnymph hummingbird
  • Rufous-tailed hummingbird
  • Green-breasted Mango hummingbird
  • Snowcap hummingbird
  • Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer hummingbird
  • Green thorntail hummingbird

Off in the distance we see the Turrialba volcano, actively steaming making for nice shots when it is clear. The smoking giant in the background makes for some great landscape photography. Love those bonuses!

In the evening we discussed Lightroom and Photoshop workup techniques. Post-processing is a fundamental part of the photographer’s craft. These photo editing tools have some great applications and knowing how to work with the range of features on each, and integrating the tools together, can really bring life to an image.

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The group out photographing the Resplendent Quetzal

Day 9 (Sunday)

This morning we continued photographing the hummingbirds at the birding lodge with the multi-flash setup. We have been able to capture some fantastic moments so far with this technique.

Today, we selected some more local flowers and different positions to photograph the hummingbirds. We shot all the way until lunch time, enjoyed another great meal, said goodbye to our hosts, and then packed up our gear. We are headed to our next lodge high up in the Costa Rican mountains this afternoon.

After a drive through the verdant countryside of Costa Rica, we arrived and checked into our rooms. Tonight, we are early to bed as tomorrow we start photographing the Resplendent Quetzal, and other beautiful and colorful birds found in the high altitudes of Costa Rica! This is one of my personal favorite subjects of the entire Costa Rica Photo Workshop!

Day 10 (Monday)

On the look out for the stunning Resplendent Quetzal

Waking early, we headed out at first light for a Resplendent Quetzal photo tour with a local guide. After a little coffee, the group climbed into an antique Land Cruiser and we drove through the forest to the locations where the Quetzals have been frequenting.

We were very fortunate to see the Quetzal right away and photograph them eating from avocado trees, which supply 95% of their diet. These aptly named birds are known as one of the most beautiful in the world and we got to see why up close. The colorful feathers of these avians measure up to one meter long and were adorned by ancient Mayan and Aztec priests in ceremonies. The Maya consider this sacred bird to be a symbol of light and peace.

We photographed male and female quetzals in two different locations which provided many shots of different backgrounds, including some mossy perches. The males displayed their beautifully long tail feathers (or covert feathers, which are used to smooth airflow). Once the light got harsh, we ducked back in to the lodge for a good breakfast and to relax for a bit. We used this time to recap the morning’s shoot. Those Quetzal’s are gorgeous!

We then headed back out to photograph the hummingbirds in the natural light at the beautiful and colorful gardens of the lodge. We were able to photograph many birds and hummingbirds in flight while they were dining on the flowers.

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As the Resplendent Quetzals take turns on the nest, we photograph them as they perch in the area.

Today the species we photographed while at this lodge were:

  • Resplendent Quetzal hummingbird
  • Green-crowned Brilliant hummingbird
  • Magnificent Hummingbird
  • Green Violetear hummingbird
  • White-throated Mountain-gem hummingbird
  • Volcano Hummingbird

Two species of the many species of birds that put on a good show for us were the:

  • Flame-colored Tanager
  • Acorn Woodpecker

After a late lunch, we continued up to the higher mountains of Costa Rica (8,100 feet) and to our next lodge. This ecological marvel rests on nearly 200 acres of pristine landscape and tropical vegetation. With local guides who have intimate knowledge of the land, this lodge offers some great birdwatching and nature photography and a restaurant featuring a firewood stove turning out gourmet meals

We took the afternoon to photograph the beautiful birds that visit their feeders on nice mossy perches, and flowers in the natural light all the way up until the sun set. What a sight!

After a wonderful dinner, it was time to download all the images we took for the day. Now, off to bed because tomorrow is another morning of Resplendent Quetzal shooting!

Day 11 (Tuesday)

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Dan and Dave ready for the shot !

Nearing the end of our Costa Rica Photo Workshop, we met at 5:30 AM this morning and had pastries and coffee before hiking down a trail to a Resplendent Quetzal nest. Here, they were incubating the eggs. The female and the male would take turns going into the nest providing us with opportunities to photograph them as they entered and excited the nest. Once we had a ton of images, it was time for breakfast.

After our meal and coffee, we set up the multi-flash and photographed the hummingbirds in natural light. Today was one of our most successful days as hummingbirds were in fantastic numbers and activity! We took a break from setup to go to lunch. Just in time for another delicious meal prepared by the lodge’s chef and then spend the rest of the day photographing the hummingbirds.

We photographed the following hummingbirds while at the high-altitude lodge:

  • Magnificent Hummingbird
  • Green Violetear hummingbird
  • White-throated Mountain-gem hummingbird
  • Volcano Hummingbird
  • Lesser Violetear hummingbird
  • Fiery-throated hummingbird

After dinner, it was off to bed, as we are up early to photograph the Resplendent Quetzal again.

Day 12 (Wednesday)

The final day of our Costa Rica Photo Workshop and we woke up early to leave the lodge before first light again in hopes of more image of the Resplendent Quetzal. Fortunately, we were able to get some more shots of these amazing birds! Both the male and female put on a show for us. Photographing these remarkable birds in this exotic landscape is a true joy!

We then headed back to the lodge for our final breakfast on this Costa Rican Photo Workshop, another exquisitely fresh and delicious meal. Heading back to photograph the hummingbirds off their deck in natural light with full bellies and eager eyes, the Fiery-throated hummingbird really put on a show flashing its beautiful colors as we captured image after image of it.

After lunch, the guests brought their favorite images of the trip to share. We all got a treat to see how each other views the world, so to speak. It’s great to see the fantastic images from everyone!

Our bus arrived and we headed back to San Jose. From there, we said our goodbyes. Filled with memories of the jungle to last us lifetimes, and the plethora of pictures to show for it, we set off for home.

What an incredible and memorable Costa Rica Photo Workshop! It was a pleasure to experience the breathtaking landscape and tropical nature of this country with you all. Thanks for making this wonderful trip!

Trip Report – Costa Rica Photography Workshop 2018 – April was last modified: April 30th, 2018 by Matt Shetzer