Tropical Photography… aka Hell

*Pour lire cet article en français

I’ve already uploaded a fair number of pictures on this blog. You might have found some pretty good. I am indeed proud of a few shots, including some of those that appear in my vertebrate list, such as the photo of two Chestnut-Mandibled Toucans. These are the rare few good ones. Most of my vertebrate list is composed of good to average pictures. Some are actually terrible like the one American Crocodile picture I have. If you want to have an idea of how many shots it takes to get one decent image, visit my flickr site. All pictures follow each other numerically. You will notice that some pictures are separated by ten, fifteen or even thirty missing numbers. Those missing picture were all terrible shots that were swiftly sent to the garbage. If I only kept pictures I’m actually proud of, they would be 200 or 300 pictures apart. Many issues face tropical photographers, some of which I find particularly troublesome. This blog post is a little introduction to my daily hell, or what can go wrong with a camera in the tropics.

Ramphastos swainsoniiSome scenes thankfully yield one good picture like with these two Chestnut-Mandibled Toucans photographed in Gamboa. Note that, at the exception of cropping, I never modify my pictures with any software (Photo: Nicolas Chatel-Launay).

Crocodylus acutusOther scenes are practically impossible to get right. I tried to photograph this American Crocodile, at night, on Barro Colorado Island, as it was swimming in the Panama Canal more than 20 meters away (Photo: Nicolas Chatel-Launay).

The first major issue is light. After all, photography is all about registering photons on a chemically treated film, or on a digital sensor. To do that, you need to get some photons (duh!). For those of you who come down to warmer countries for vacations on a beach during the dry season, it might seem like a non-issue. Actually, you might get too much light for a point-and-shoot camera. That’s nothing an SLR camera with a good polarizer and a proper choice of aperture and shutter speed can’t fix. Yet, you will not see interesting wildlife on a tourist-crowded beach. To get some fun critters, you need to go to more natural settings. Tropical rainforests are actually quite dark. The canopy stands 40 or 50 meters above your head, and towers over multiple layers of lianas, trees and shrubs which are terribly effective at catching every ray of light. In a healthy tropical forest, it gets quite dark. It can sometimes be difficult to spot snakes on the path. Whenever a shaft of light does go through and reaches the ground, it is so bright compared to the surroundings that it is simply impossible to get a good picture involving such a bright section. You will either have one blinding white star in the middle of a well-exposed picture, or a well-exposed and well-lit section with pitch-black surroundings. I work in a relatively disturbed forest. On a sunny day, each square meter is mottled by many of these overly-lit spots counterbalanced by a very dark background. Good luck getting a good shot.

Leptotila cassiniThis is one of the best pictures I ever took under a patchy canopy. The darker parts of the image are well exposed, but where incident light was hitting this Gray-Chested Dove, all colour has turned to white due to over-exposure (Photo: Nicolas Chatel-Launay).

Clouds are actually a good thing for tropical photography. When it is cloudy, only diffuse light reaches the ground, and all surfaces seem to be lit the same way. Thankfully, it gets cloudy quite a lot, there’s a reason why such an ecosystem is called a tropical rainforest. A new issue emerges though. When clouds cover the sky, it gets really dark, twilight- dark when a storm is coming (which happens every single day during the rainy season). In this darkness, the only way to get a proper picture is either to augment the ISO sensitivity to the maximum and get a grainy picture (remember that crocodile?), or to reduce the shutter speed to half a second or even slower. Well guess what, most animals try to get away when they see a human being. In half a second, they can move quite a lot, which gives perfectly ridiculous pictures. Obviously, in such conditions, a tripod is an absolute necessity. A flash can help with these problems, but that only works at short distances and even with a diffuser, it is difficult to get a natural-looking picture. Also, the further you need to zoom, the less light enters your lens. So the darker it gets, the closer you need to be from an animal to get an acceptable portrait.

BLURRY BIRDLet’s just say that any attempt at identification will prove difficult. I tried to photograph this bird in Chagres National Park. With a long exposure time, you really need the subject to stay still (Photo: Nicolas Chatel-Launay).

Speaking of the rainy season, it seems like an obvious statement, but cameras and water do not mix. Showers here are impossible to predict, sudden, and will drench you to the bone. I need to keep all my equipment in little dry-sacks to protect it. That means every time I switch from my telephoto lens (to photograph far-away subjects like birds) to my macro lens (to get close-ups of insects), I need to open my backpack, open a dry-sack, take the lens I was using off my camera, put the new one on, protect the other one and start shooting. Most animals are gone by then. That’s if I’m lucky. If I am not, fog will have condensed on the camera’s sensor during the switch, and that means no more pictures on that day, or until I can get the camera back to an air-conditioned room and wait for that water to evaporate again.

Fog is really the worst part of it. The rainy season is now well on its way. Ambient humidity often reaches 98%. At this level of saturation, water will condense on anything. If you make the mistake of getting out of an air-conditioned vehicle with your camera in hand, it will get completely wet. When I get to the field, I simply have to let my camera acclimate in its dry-sack (which gets wet outside) for a few minutes before pulling it out. The problem with condensation in the tropics is that, since the air is already at saturation, that condensation only goes away very slowly. Wiping your lens will not help, it will only fog up again immediately. I spend an inordinate amount of time waving my camera around gently, while keeping my attention on both an animal to follow its movements and my lens to see when it is fog-free enough to hope for a good picture.

EuchromaThis Euchroma specimen was ready for a photo shoot. But in Chagres National Park, fog decided otherwise (Photo: Nicolas Chatel-Launay).

Basically, unequal lighting, too little light, and fog are my three banes when it comes to photography. I could not forget, and therefore, award an honourable mention to mosquitoes and ants. Yes, mosquitoes are numerous, and can be distracting when framing the perfect shot. Since good photography is also about getting the good angle, I often move around quite a lot to get the right frame. Sadly, with my little side steps, I walked straight into bullhorn acacias a few times. These plants are protected by armies of ants that have a nasty sting.

14168644000_8607c3d1c1_cThe last thing you want is to brush against a bullhorn acacia. These little ants are ruthless (Photo: Nicolas Chatel-Launay).

For those of you that are not yet convinced, I’ve adapted the “Dingométhode, l’école des explorateurs”, laid by the famous French comic artist Gotlib, for tropical photography training. On the evening prior to your training, try to collect as many live mosquitoes as possible (a couple hundred will do). First off, you will need to get into your bathroom. Place a subject for your photograph such as a potted plant or a basket of fruits somewhere in there. Then, let the water flow in your bathtub or shower at its hottest, the goal is to saturate the room with water vapor. Make sure the bathroom light is turned off, your bathroom window is probably brighter than a rainforest is. In the absence of a window, a small camping light should do the trick. If you own an electric kettle, use duct tape to secure the power button so that it keeps going after reaching a boil. Fill the kettle with water, and plug it in the bathroom. Release the hungry mosquitoes and close the door. As the bathroom slowly turns into a wet sauna, move to your closet to get yourself ready. You will need heavy long pants, heavy socks (preferably woolen socks), hiking boots or rubber boots, a long-sleeved shirt and a hat. Cover all of this with your favourite mosquito repellant, set aside to dry. While the repellant dries, fill a hiking bag with useless weight. You need at least the equivalent of two liters of water, field equipment, a lunch, a complete change of clothes and all your photography equipment, so plan for at least 5 kilos (that’s for half a day of field work, for more, add the weight of the extra water). Grab your mosquito-repellant clothes, walk to your kitchen and soak all these clothes and your boots with water (it will have most likely rained on you by the time you want to take a picture). Dress up with the wet garments. Make sure your heavy pants are tucked into your woolen socks and your long-sleeved shirt is tucked into your pants. In real life, you do this to keep away mosquitoes, ticks, chiggers, ants, botflies, spiny plants, etc. Put on your heavy hiking bag. Take your camera and bravely walk in your bathroom closing the door behind you. Stand there for five minutes to make sure the mosquitoes notice you and to start getting sweaty (soaking your clothes should have removed most of the repellant, just like in real life). You are now ready, get as far from your subject as you can, aim your camera towards it and try to take a picture. Having trouble? You might now have a little idea of what it feels like. By the way, if any of you have vacations in June or July, you are welcome to spend them with me in Panama.

GOTLIBA special thanks to my dad, Marc Chatel, who managed to dig up a copy of the “Truc-en-vrac 2” album by Gotlib, published by Dargaud, from which this tropical photography training is inspired.

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