Friday, December 21, 2012

Top 11 for Costa Rica '12

I finally got to take my camera on a grand safari, or at least a family vacation to Costa Rica. Close 'nuff. Mostly I shot with the 45-200mm lens, as family antics and wildlife are best viewed from a distance. I played with a flash some, as rainforest often is too dark for ISO 200 and max aperture of 5.6 when zoomed, but by best results where when I had more light to play with.

I've discovered that find it easier to frame things when I can really cut down on the clutter. With my other lens, the 20mm (40mm equivalent), I see such a huge field of vision that I struggle to create something interesting outdoors - there's just too much! At 90mm I can cut out things so easily, even if I'm shooting something as big a volcano.

Here are the best 11 photos I made during the trip. 11? No, I'm not feeling prime or palindromic, it's just that there were 11 that seemed worthy; the ones where I had an idea in my head when I took the shot, and that worked once I saw it on the computer at home. Sometimes I had it immediately and those were essentially snapshots, and with others I had to take 20 tries to get it. Seeing as I filled an 8-gig card and put a good dent in a second, I clearly wasn't stingy with the number of shots.

Okay here are my criteria:
--Technical quality - sharpess, focus, exposure, depth of field
--Good composition - framing, balance, etc (unless I specifically intended to break a rule)
--The technique and the subject jive with each other
--That je ne sais quoi. They are the ones that I want to look at.

FURTHERMORE, I'm making it an ascending list of quality, but counting down. In other words #11 is the one that was most flawed, #1 is where I think I kicked the most booty. 

#11 Cloud Volcano

ISO 200  45mm  F/9.0  1/500 sec
This is the famous Arenal Volcano, alas dormant for a couple years or this would be a way better subject. Taken from the porch of our cabin near Fortuna.

The good: I like how it was framed with the trees below and the roof above, and the clouds make a second frame around the caldera. It's nice and sharp, as I focused 1/3 into the scene and used a small aperture.

The bad: It's a bit drab and lifeless, and if I have to tell you something is a volcano, I've already failed.

#10 Solo Parrot

ISO 200  F./5.6  200mm  1/640 sec
Tropical forest have...parrots! This guy was aggressively defending his tree from some peahens, and he paused for me here.

The good: It's an unusual view of a parrot, giving a rather cold and brooding sense. His color provides enough contrast, despite the lack of fill light (it was too far for my flash).

The bad: Ouch - balance. I though about faking in a crescent moon on the top right. Even a mosquito. It's a notable flaw and pretty darn hard to correct when you are taking snapshots of nature. Also not great sharpness.

#9 Butterfly Money Shot

ISO 400  171mm  F/5.4  1/250 sec

Before you get carried away about the serendipitous arrival of two different mariposa species, this was a butterfly garden in Monteverde. However, it was a fabulous place and possibly the coolest thing we did on the whole trip.

The good: 2 butterflies. 2 species. 1 picture. It's technically good and about all you would want for a documentary shot. It very simply shows the context of the subject - that there is diversity and abundance.

The bad: Somehow just a bit bland. I know, live butterflies don't stand still so you can't really pose them, but if I had an hour I'd have found a more interesting background to really make them pop. The depth of field is a tad too short as the right one is out of focus.

#8 Big Wall, Small Gal

ISO 200  20mm  F/2.5  1/80 sec
 Leah hamming it up for me. As far as a family snapshot, this is one of my favorites from this trip. That kid sure can smile. This is on our balcony in Manuel Antonio. Notice that Pink Blanket is present, and by day 10+ of our trip you should be glad this image isn't scratch-n-sniff.

Good: Great color, texture and lighting. Can't beat that smile, either. I framed this to make her look small and that is exactly the impression you get.

Bad: Balance gets me again. This is shouting for something other than a bit of shade in the top-left, such as a little lamp or clock. It almost looks like an ominous cloud is coming in, which is rather incongruous.

#7 Pulped Coffee Beans

ISO 200  20mm F/1.7  1/40 sec

Grabbed the camera in pocket-sized mode (20mm only) for a tour of a coffee plantation. Wonderful time and I could go on and on, but here's one of the better shots I got. These are fresh-picked coffee fruit that went through a hand press to separate the beans from the pulp.

Good: I love the color, and you can see how sticky they are. The textures, color and shininess convey just want I wanted, especially with this close crop. Notably I pulled back the highlights as much as I could without reducing exposure, as there's a lot of shiny.

Bad: Nothing is wrong with this, but I know I could have gotten something better, especially with the big, bumpy wheel of the press on the top. I only took two shots and I wish I'd paused longer to get more chances. I would also have liked a smaller aperture, as I could easily have shot at 1/8 sec and gotten very close.

#6 Bird Butts

ISO 200  200mm  F/5.6  1/60 sec
These love birds were our breakfast companions in Arenal, and what a party they had at the local watermelon diner.

Good: There's humor - the booty line in the front. There's a subject - the one bird looking right at me, framed right in a rule-of-thirds intersection. There's action - the one bird is landing. The mood and tone are just right, and technically the image is solid. The splash of red watermelon is a nice touch.

Bad: Green on green on green. That's rainforest photography. Against some blue sky, or even eating something a bit more contrasty. With all the action there should be much more pop. When I checked this a a black-and-white image all the detail was lost, showing just how little dynamic range there is.

#5 Long Road for a Small Ant

ISO 400  200mm  F/5.6  1/500 sec
Leaf cutter ants were everywhere, and if you are curious they are part of one of the most interesting symbiotic relationships in the animal kingdom. Look it up. This is again at the butterfly garden, though they were an ad-hoc addition to the menagerie.

Good: The feeling is right - the struggle of one ant carrying something many times his mass, and how often can you get below and ant? The focus is right on him and there's no clutter, so this one is a keeper.

Bad: Not very sharp, even after a bit of improvement in Lightroom. The ant should pop more, too. The purely horizontal plane of the bamboo would have been improved if I could have it sloping to the top right, just a little, as it would give a Sisyphean sense (poor dude).

#4 Beach Monkey

ISO 200  120mm  F/5.0  1/250 sec

Two weeks of travel and the best monkey photo I took was on the day before we flew out. Here again in Manuel Antonio, right by the beach. The squirrel monkeys were zipping all over the tree, but this gal paused long enough for me to compose a shot.

The good: She's gazing off like a ship's captain, and there was enough light to see her features. There's tension in her pose, but it doesn't seem I interrupted anything despite my proximity. Pretty sharp, though I had to post process a good deal.

The bad: My kingdom for a flash. I post-processed a lot and did my best to make it look natural, but this was too back lit, and the sky is just a bit blown out. Not an ideal framing as the leaves are just a bit distracting.

#3 Post-Roast Coffee

ISO 200  20mm  F/1.7 1/10 sec
This was a fun one. Back at the coffee tour, but now taking a photo of the beans cooling after coming out of the roaster. You could take this photo in Wisconsin...whatever. I saw the action of the machine and deliberately set my shutter to 1/10 sec to get a fair amount of subject blur, but not so much that camera shake would be an issue (woot - in body image stabilization!).

Good: Really neat abstract image. I appreciate it knowing what it is, but I can take a step back and enjoy the smoke-like patterns. Just cool and there are no technical issues.

Bad: Wish I'd stood over it a bit more  so that I could crop out the edge of the tub and possibly the center. Note to self - frame more ways so that you have more options when you get home.

#2 Praying Before Lunch 

ISO 400  200mm  F/5.6 1/500 sec
Do you see the ants? Look carefully, as I didn't notice them until I was home. 3rd photo from the butterfly garden, this time an interloper that Meg spotted. This was the first shot I took, so who says snapshots are for amateurs? Plus praying mantises are banana pancakes awesome.

Good: Great subject. Great color. Good sharpness and framing. The background is sufficiently dark that the mantis stands out, even the antennae, and the yellow/orange contrasts nicely.

Bad: Oh to have a macro lens, as this guy was standing nice and still for me (you can Paypal me $800 if you are sympathetic). The plant and flowers didn't quite cooperate for my frame, and of course I didn't consider this until I got home. Wish I'd had time to wait for him to pounce, as that would have made for a much more engaging story for the image to tell.

#1 Lizard on the Steps

ISO 200  200mm  F/5.6  1/100 sec
 I waffled 10 times between this one and the mantis, but I settled with this as #1 if for no other reason as this was a photo I made more than stumbled upon. The little lizard lived under our porch in Manuel Antonio and wasn't particularly shy. I must have taken 30 shots, with and without flash, framing different ways, varying exposure.

Good: Tack sharp and very well exposed. Despite being at F/5.6 there's a shallow DOF and his face is right at the focal point. The brown, red and green make a frame within the frame, making this more interesting while not taking too much away from the subject.

Bad: A bit drab, though if it were less overcast I'd have lost texture. An open mouth or some other action would add an element of story to what is a pretty static pose.