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Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Rainforest Rhapsody

How to protect your equipment for a trek to a tropical jungle environment

Labels: Photo Traveler

Hikers on the Arenal Hanging Bridges in the rainforest near Arenal Volcano in Costa Rica. In the tropics, protecting yourself and your gear is essential for getting good photos.

For many nature and travel shooters, the boom in ecotourism has provided many new, exciting photo opportunities. Places that used to be known as "rain-soaked, muddy, impenetrable, jungle hellholes barely fit for beast or bug, and certainly not for man," are now simply called "the rainforest." And that brilliant bit of rebranding has resulted in us flocking to these inhospitable places in droves, toting our digital image-making and editing gear along with us.

If I had a nickel for every photo enthusiast I've seen who wanders into the tropical jungle in search of images of the myriad exotic rainforest flora and fauna that live there, only to emerge wet, muddy and picture-less, I'd have one of the bigger houses on Easy Street.

And, yet, there are pictures to be had (maybe not as easily as the ecotourism brochures would lead you to believe), but they take some preparation, hard work and a bit of luck to get. I can only help you with the preparation part. Without preparation, however, luck and hard work are rendered nearly useless!

It's A Jungle Out There. Whether you're going on a cruise down the Amazon in Peru or a hiking vacation at a rainforest lodge in Costa Rica, it's going to be wet. In fact, you should almost hope for rain (or at least overcast) because overcast light is soft and non-contrasty, and if there's one thing that looks terrible when recorded on our sensors (or film!), with their limited dynamic range, it's that mottled sunlight pouring into the forest floor.

Recent tech headlines indicate that there may be a digital sensor coming down the pike that will be able to record the necessary dynamic range to record such extremes, but until that happy day, you're better off shooting jungle scenics in the soft light of overcast.

If it's really wet and slick, I like to add a polarizing filter, as well. Why, with the lack of a blue sky and puffy clouds, would you use a polarizer in the deep, dank jungle? It takes the moisture sheen off the foliage, and this pops the saturation of your greens, like our old favorite slide film, Fujichrome Velvia, used to do. My colleague, Mike Yamashita, once did a story on Japanese gardens for National Geographic, and he wouldn't shoot a garden unless it was rainy or misty, and had a polarizer on for most of his shots.

Exposure-wise, dark jungle foliage will trick many a camera meter into overexposure. Even if you shoot RAW, it's a good idea to get your exposures nailed as best you can. If you're not shooting RAW, or shooting JPEG and RAW as I do, setting your JPEG Picture Style to Vivid or Landscape (or whatever your particular camera brand calls the punchiest-looking JPEG style) will result in some beautiful-looking files. With careful fieldcraft and working those Picture Style choices the way I used to pick slide film emulsions, I find my JPEGs can look so good that I often forego processing.

If you're reading this magazine, I'm going to assume you're up to speed on protecting yourself from the rain with a proper jacket, but don't forget to do the same for your camera.

To this end, I prefer the more light-weight, deconstructed (and, dare I say it, cheaper) rain covers from Storm Jackets from Vortex Media, or you can go really lightweight with the sleeves sold by OP/TECH, Ruggard and others.


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