Being a student almost always means that you have very little money. But as an aspiring nature photographer I refuse to allow this reality keep me from pursuing my dream. Over the past several years I have studied and learned the basics of photography. I have spent countless hours in the field and shot thousands upon thousands of images of the natural world. And I have slowly but surely aquired the equipment necessary to pursue my dream.
In November of this year (2005) I set off on a trip to Costa Rica to photgraph the beauty of this country and its many, many animal inhabitants. The trip was to be, for me anyways, a test to see if I could capture proffessional quality images, build up my portfolio and, upon my return to Canada, begin to publish my work. I knew that this would be an incredibly difficult task as there are so many unbelievable nature photographers out there (such as: Wayne Lynch, John Shaw, Art Morris, Frans Lanting, Steve Bloom and Andy Rouse) whose work I admire and am at least in some way intimidated by. Would I be able to produce images of this quality? Would I find a style of my own in the process? And would I be able to get some of my work published and truly begin to feel like a professional? These were all questions that I set out to answer...
I knew that the task would be difficult given my limited budget for the trip. I would not be able to afford to stay at, or in many cases even visit, the well known attractions. If I did decide to pay to visit the more expensive attractions I would have one shot and one shot only to get the photographs that I needed and I would definately not have the luxury of a proffessional guide. My subjects would be often found on unmarked trails in unnamed forests with noone else anywhere near me for kilometers around.
Monetary concerns however would however not be my only obstacle. To further my challenge I would be travelling around the country by bus. This presented a serious limitation to my mobility as well as a very real risk to the wellbeing and security of my gear. You see, here in Costa Rica, the drivers often insist that all bags go under the bus. This means that every time we stopped I would have to get up and peer out the window to make sure that noone liked the look of my Lowepro phototrekker better than their bag of pineapples. Perhaps even worse though has been the simple fact that the roads here in Costa Rica are often very bumpy and my gear definately has been getting jostled around quite a bit. Recently the hood for my 300mm f/2.8 was damaged as well as one of the clamps on my tripod leg. What would I do without duct tape?
Another huge issue when travelling on a budget with expensive equipment is trying to find a safe place to stay. Relatively cheap hostels are easy to find in Costa Rica. But how do you know they are safe? Can you stay in a dorm room with other travellers and leave your gear in the room? For me these two questions have been a constant in my mind and while I have yet to have any serious problems with theft I remain cautious and fearful that the worst could certainly happen.
Another issue of concern for me has been the insessant humidity of this country. On a shorter trip I would not be too concerned. But because my trip is to last six months I am extremely fearful that I will begin to have serious problems with the electronic componnents inside of my camera body and lenses. Only 5 weeks into this trip the DVD burner on my laptop that I was counting on to backup my images has stopped working. While I do not know for sure, this problem certainly could be humidity related?
There is no doubt about it - traveling by bus in a humid country is rough on gear. On a longer trip you are almost guaranteed to run into problems with equipment. In the end my casualties included my DVD burner, my 550EX flash and 3 of the clamps for my tripod. But nothing that prevented me from taking pictures right up until the last day of my trip.
If you are going on a photo trip to a tropical country I would definitely suggest brining along durable zip-lock bags loaded with silica, packing your gear carefully each and every time you move, and definitely get insurance that will cover theft as well as any major equipment malfunctions.
Tropical environments can be challenging and hard on camera equipment - but the rewards of photographing these special places are well worth the frustrations.