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Tips for Nature Photography in the Tropics

by Glenn Bartley | October 30, 2009

© Glenn BartleyThere are few places on earth that can captivate the imagination and inspire nature photographers to “get out there” like the tropics. The biological riches of these exciting destinations are unparalleled and these regions are rife with opportunities for nature photography. Consider for example that tiny countries such as Costa Rica host more species of birds than all of North America. Or that in just one square mile of rainforest there may be as many as 50,000 species of insects. The biodiversity is truly incredible!

The reality, however, is that many of these species can be difficult to find and nature photography in the tropics often presents special challenges that residents from temperate climates may be unfamiliar with. Tropical countries tend to be hot, humid and rainy. The animals there are often not used to human presence and tend to be reclusive. Information about where or how to find certain species may be scarce. And often the areas where these treasures can be found are under towering forest canopies where slow shutter speeds are the norm. As a result, capturing pleasing images of the natural world in these places presents a challenge to even the most experienced nature photographers. I have been fortunate to spend quite a bit of time in the tropics and have learned many lessons about how to photograph wildlife in the unique situations these areas present. Here are some of my tips:

Tropical wildlife photography © Glenn Bartley

I have been fortunate to spend quite a bit of time in the tropics and have learned many lessons about how to photograph wildlife in the unique situations these areas present.

Tip #1 – Do your research

You may be going to a tropical country with the general goal of photographing any and all of the fantastic things that you happen to encounter. However, many nature photographers have a favourite subject or certain targets in mind before setting out. For example, on my recent trip to Ecuador my primary goal was to photograph as many of the 130 species of resident hummingbirds as possible. If you do indeed have a specific goal in mind it is very important to do as much research as you can before you plan your trip.

In the tropics, certain species are highly localized and furthermore may only be present for portions of the year. Learn the weather patterns of the places you plan to visit and figure out which locations are the most promising for photography. The internet is an excellent place to begin your search and there are numerous resources out there that can help you plan your trip. Bird photographers can consult trip reports from past tour groups and obtain a good idea of where certain species can be found. Browsing through your favourite search engine’s image database for a given species may reveal where other photographers have had success.

I strongly believe that preparation is the key to successful nature photography in the tropics and it all starts before you board the airplane.

Moth © Glenn Bartley

In the tropics, certain species are highly localized and furthermore may only be present for portions of the year. Learn the weather patterns of the places you plan to visit and figure out which locations are the most promising for photography.

Tip #2 – Expect the best, prepare for the worst

I have been on three major trips to the tropics. They have all been unbelievable experiences. Yet on every single trip something has gone wrong with my equipment. Before venturing off to a far away land, I strongly recommend preparing for the likelihood that something undesirable might happen to your camera gear. The first, and perhaps most important consideration, is to make sure that all of your equipment is insured against theft and damage. A second precaution is to pack your gear very carefully when traveling from place to place (in my experience this is when most problems occur). I personally cannot imagine going on a nature photography trip without taking at least two camera bodies; if you have more than one camera body, bring a backup. I would also suggest putting together a small repair kit to take with you. This should include items such as duct tape, twist ties, super glue and a lens cleaning kit.

Tip #3 – Stay dry

The greatest biological riches on earth are found in tropical rainforests – here biodiversity can be absolutely mind boggling. But these places are often very, very wet. To be successful in the tropics a nature photographer must prepare for rain and, even more importantly, humidity. When it comes to rain there are fantastic camera covers available on the market (e.g. Storm Jackets ). Zip-top bags are invaluable to keep other items in your backpack dry and a waterproof backpack cover should envelop all of your gear. These physical barriers to rain act as the first line of defense against the water that can be seen. Yet humidity, the water we can’t see, is what causes most problems for photographers shooting in the tropics. Humidity and heat can lead to undesirable fungus growing inside of expensive lenses. For dealing with humidity, zip-top bags and silica gel are essential. Packets of silica are widely available for purchase online or can be acquired by raiding a local shoe store. By placing all electronic equipment inside of a large, heavy-duty zip-top bag each night with silica packets to absorb excess moisture, I have never experienced problems with humidity.

Tropical mountain forests © Glenn Bartley

To be successful in the tropics a nature photographer must prepare for rain and, even more importantly, humidity.

Tip #4 – Bring your own light

In addition to being very rainy, many of the places that have the most potential for photography are also very dark. Shooting from a tripod is usually a necessity and learning to use fill flash will almost certainly lead to more pleasing tropical nature images. I highly recommend using a “Better-Beamer” flash extender when shooting in the tropics. The Better Beamer helps extend the range of the flash and also reduces the amount of time needed for the flash batteries to recycle and recharge, allowing you to use your flash more often. If possible, use a tripod flash mount to raise the flash up off of the camera and reduce the undesirable “steel eye” effect that often occurs otherwise.

Hummingbird in flight © Glenn Bartley

Tip #5 – Find the fruit

Bird photographers who visit the tropics are often frustrated by the fact that they simply cannot get close enough to the birds. The techniques that many photographers employ at home to attract birds, such as water drips, taped calls, or feeder stations, may or may not be effective in tropical environments. Even if these techniques have the potential to be successful, for the traveling photographer there is likely insufficient time to allow for them. I have always found however, that if you can locate a good fruiting tree in a tropical forest sooner or later the birds will come. For example, I once staked out a fruiting Cecropia tree and photographed ten species of tanagers in ten minutes when a feeding flock passed through. If you find the fruit you will often find the birds.

Tropical bird photo © Glenn Bartley

I have always found however, that if you can locate a good fruiting tree in a tropical forest sooner or later the birds will come.

Tip #6 – Back it up!

While traveling, be absolutely certain that you back up your images diligently. There is no worse nightmare than working so hard to capture irreplaceable images of a lifetime and then to have them lost. I believe that you should keep at least three copies of your images while on vacation. These might be on flash cards, a laptop, external hard drives (such as the Hyper-drive), or DVDs. Whatever storage media you choose to use, make sure you back everything up each night. You should also not keep all of the stored images in one bag (in case it is lost or stolen). Before you leave it is a good idea to burn DVDs of your RAW files and have them mailed home on the last day of your trip. This way even if the worst happens, and your luggage disappears on the trip home, you will at least still have your images.

Conclusion

For me there is nothing more exciting than nature photography in the tropics. There are so many colourful and incredible subjects in these regions just waiting to be discovered. With a little bit of preparation you can greatly increase your chances at capturing the images of your dreams. Tropical environments can be challenging and hard on camera equipment, but the rewards of photographing these special places, and the species that live in them, are well worth the frustrations.

About the Author

Glenn Bartley is a professional nature photographer from Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. He focuses almost all of his efforts on capturing intimate images of birds in their natural habitat. Glenn is especially well known for his portraits of rare and difficult to photograph birds from the Neotropical Region and his portfolio of hummingbird images. In addition to his own photographic pursuits, Glenn also leads instructional photographic workshops to exciting destinations throughout the Americas. These tours are designed to take advantage of Glenn’s experience in this region and teach participants to capture their own spectacular images of tropical birds. Glenn is the author of several books including Birds of Ecuador, Birds of British Columbia and The Guide to Tropical Nature Photography. You can find more of Glenn's work at: www.glennbartley.com.

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