One of the questions I’m asked repeatedly is whether I believe being a talented photographer is a natural gift or a skill that can be learned. In my opinion there is only one answer to this question: there has never been a great photographer who just picked up a camera and was great from their first capture. Photography requires sustained and inspired effort to achieve success. However, what’s equally true is that not every photographer is driven by the same passion. While anyone can learn the requisite skills to produce technically successful images, what separates the exceptional photographer from his or her peers is the investment they are willing to make during their journey with a camera. This investment takes many forms including time, money, physical effort, and sacrifice. During a photographer’s growth there will be periods where one or more of these requirements will predominate, but all eventually make demands. Here is how they shaped my quest to capture a fab photo of the red eyed tree frog in Costa Rica.
Having never been to Costa Rica it’s crazy to think that I would visit twice in a month’s time. As the 2015 calendar unfolded I was asked to lead the Mentor Series trek there in April, only to have my family independently decide to vacation there in May. This gave me the opportunity to capitalize on an adage from landscape photography: if you want great photos of a place, return there as many times as possible. Different seasons, weather, time of day are variables that result in amazing photographs as opposed to here’s-what-I-got-while-I-was-there snapshots. Our Mentor Series group visited a butterfly conservatory near Lake Arenal. The butterflies were lovely and spread in multiple, spacious habitats allowing photographers to spread out and work solo. These conditions made it possible to capture wonderful shots like this glass wing butterfly (Greta oto).
Despite the name Butterfly Conservatory we also discovered the property included a frog habitat. To my delight there were red eyed tree frogs, a perennial favorite among photographers because of their bold colors. Unfortunately the beautiful creatures were (a) asleep, since they are nocturnal and (b) were poorly illuminated in a large terrarium behind somewhat dirt-streaked glass. Photographers, by their nature, will try to make images under the worst of conditions but I understood that shooting through the glass was doomed from the start. An excellent photo of a red eyed frog was taped to the glass as identification for visitors. I gently confronted our guide, the owner of the conservatory, asking under what conditions a photo such as this could be made. Once attuned to our needs he stepped up and literally took a hands on role in assisting us. He gently awoke one frog by warming it with the body heat of his palm. Once awake the frog was placed on a more accessible plant for us to photograph, but nine people jockeying for position through a narrow opening was still a suboptimal setting. A few pleasant images would be made among the group, but nothing approaching the image I saw in my mind’s eye. I took the owner aside and made a suggestion about a technique to showcase the frogs, placing the plant on a lazy-Susan so it could be gently rotated to continually fine tune the frogs position without repeated handling. He was excited by the suggestion but of course couldn’t implement it that day.
Back home and preparing for the second trip, I made the decision to return to the conservatory under optimal conditions and create the image in my mind’s eye. I emailed the owner and explained my willingness to donate the lazy-Susan if he would assist me after hours to photograph the frog. He was intrigued by the prospect and extended an invitation to return at night when the animals would be active. As we’d be shooting in the pitch darkness I knew I’d need a variety of lighting tools. I researched macro lighting techniques and chose 3 light sources: a ring-light (that mounts on the lens itself to provide shadowless lighting), a unique translucent diffuser (also a lens mount design) to simulate a flash soft box and finally an LED flashlight with a flexible gooseneck to serve as a constant light source. My idea was to employ all three units and produce different creative effects. For camera bodies I’d use a Nikon D810 and a Df, playing high resolution against high ISO quality. I practiced shooting macro shots of insects in my backyard to gain familiarity with the new equipment.
Once back in Costa Rica, now with family in tow (non-photographers all), my anticipation grew by the minute. We had several things planned around Lake Arenal so I scheduled the frog shoot for our last night in the area. On our first day at Arenal Volcano we hiked thru rain forest in route to a lava flow, for a panoramic landscape view. One hour into the three hour hike, a torrential storm suddenly unleashed it’s unrelenting fury. The two hours back to the car taught us first hand why it is called rain forest. Despite my best efforts the weather claimed a victim: the D810 was dead on arrival back at the hotel.
That quickly, camera and lighting plans for the frog shoot were thrown into disarray. The pop up flash on the D810 had been perfect for macro with the on lens diffuser, so I had not packed a hotshot flash. The ring light was not powerful enough to illuminate through the diffuser. Options dwindled before my eyes. Though discouraged, I was determined to make the best of a plan B situation limited to shooting the Nikon Df with the ring light.
I took my family to visit the butterfly conservatory during the day, when conditions were good for the butterflies. I returned by myself again that night to meet the owner and his assistant where we descended into the rain forest habitat, accompanied by rain. Still smarting from my D810 loss, I inwardly groaned at the wet conditions but the owner was jubilant, “This is perfect for the frogs! They’ll love the sound of the rain and the moisture.”
Setting up by flashlight I was thankful I had practiced with the ring flash and was able to assemble it by feel. A few test exposures later any concerns I had about a dramatic result evaporated. The Df body, Micro Nikkor 105mm lens and ring flash combination produced stunning results. My guides collected a beautiful specimen and placed it on the lazy-Susan-plant (don’t look for that on Wikipedia). Gently rotating the plant as the frog moved over the stems and leaves allowed me to follow it unobtrusively. With my mind in the viewfinder time flew.
At one point as I lifted my head away from the camera the frog jumped into the darkness. We all began looking for the frog but as I turned my head to search something felt wrong. That’s when I sensed it. The frog had jumped onto my face, and was plastered beneath my left eye with one foot on the lower edge of my glasses, body stuck to my cheek. I told the others to look at my face and they burst out in laughter. As I moved my head into what I thought was the focal distance of the macro lens, I said, “Fire off a few shots and see if you can get the frog!” You can see quite vividly why I was very glad I was shooting the red eyed tree frog and not a poison dart frog!
Suddenly he jumped again. Your natural instinct is to look on the ground, yet where I found him defied all odds. He had leapt from my face onto the ring light at the end of the camera lens! Hanging off the side of the ring light was one of those your-eyes-can’t-believe-it moments, but I had no second camera to take the shot. Then it hit me: iPhone camera. I whipped out my iPhone 6 and quickly shot a series of angles and compositions before he leapt yet again into darkness.
Over the following days in Costa Rica I began to reflect on how my best laid plans had unfolded. All the effort I invested had been absolutely essential. Securing after hours access, choosing redundant lighting techniques, packing multiple camera bodies… each choice was put to the test as Murphy’s law did it’s best to throw up road blocks. The key to success was keeping my eye on the goal and not letting equipment or weather obstacles distract me from that vision. Every time I look at the photos from that night knowing what I went through makes them even more satisfying.
Mark Alberhasky is a Nikon Mentor for the Mentor Series Worldwide Photo Treks,
and leads destination photo tours for PhotoZoneTours.com.
Join him as he travels and share his enthusiasm for photography and learning