Let me first tell you that Costa Rica is a terrific place for photographers—a peaceful country with people who like Americans and a place that’s very accessible. I was there at the end of the rainy season, and let me assure you, there’s a good reason why a rain forest has that name. It rained a lot, though the heaviest rain was at night (this seems to be a common aspect of Costa Rican weather).
All my gear survived with no problems. This trip taught me about dealing with wet conditions and digital gear. The worst problem I had resulted from using a Canon XH-A1 HD digital video camcorder right on the ground after a hard rain. The lens fogged up within minutes—you could actually see the scene get hazier as the video was recording. I learned not to do that again!
One great thing about many locations throughout areas of rain forest and cloud forest (the wet forests of the highlands and mountains) of Costa Rica is that lodges and other facilities often include covered walkways through the forests. Selva Verde Rainforest Reserve (www.selvaverde.com) has long paths completely protected from the rain, so you can photograph in the rain forest during a rain without getting wet. Or you can briefly step out of the protection to get the shot, then go right back under cover.
In addition, many of the restaurants outside of the cities are open on the sides (there are few problems with mosquitoes or other similarly annoying insects) and set in lush gardens with rain forest flowers and other plants. You can eat and photograph at the same time!
I loved the rain. It made everything rich and green, and the greens in Costa Rica are amazing. But it didn’t rain all the time. Actually, there were always nice breaks without rain in the daytime that could be used for photography.
However, walking around, you'll get wet, and your camera gear can get wet. I found several things very helpful:
1) An Umbrella. An umbrella can help a great deal in keeping both you and your gear dry. It makes shooting from a tripod more convenient, plus it makes it a lot easier to get gear in and out of your camera bag without getting it all wet. I brought a small, pocket umbrella that literally fit in a pocket. I’ve also seen the Popabrella for cameras from OmegaSatter, and that looks like it would be a useful tool in the rain forest.
2) Bag Rain Cover. Many camera bags have rain covers. These help a lot in keeping a bag dry as you hike from place to place. They’re lightweight and are simply pulled over the bag. If yours is a separate unit, be sure you remember it.
3) Water-Resistant Camera Bags. Camera bags can be waterproof, water-resistant or neither. Canvas bags aren’t the best. They’ll soak up moisture and be hard to dry out. Waterproof bags can be useful, but they also can be a problem when gear gets wet, as they keep the moisture sealed in around the equipment, possibly causing more problems. Water-resistant bags with rain covers are probably the best bet.
4) Rain Gear. Rain gear can be helpful, though hot, humid weather can be a problem, and it can get hot and humid in Costa Rica. Many of the locals in rain forest areas don’t bother with rain gear because the air temperature is warm, and rain gear can be uncomfortable. Using an umbrella and wearing lightweight, quick-drying clothing will work well.
Fully waterproof raincoats can get sticky and clammy inside from perspiration. Gore-Tex ® jackets can work if the temperature isn’t too high (Gore-Tex ® needs to have a gradient of heat from you to the outside in order to have a "driving force" of energy to stay breathable and keep moisture out). However, you should never keep a camera under a raincoat when you’re hot and the humidity is high. That can force moisture into the insides of the camera and lens.
5) Waterproof Hat. I actually found that a hat, even a baseball cap, is often more useful than full-out rain gear. The rains come and go, and often aren’t that hard during the day (although rains can be heavy at times, so you do need protection for your gear, such as the rain covers). So a waterproof hat with some sort of brim can keep you comfortable.
6) Camera Rain Cover. I did shoot a bit from under an umbrella. I’ve often done this, including in the temperate rain forests of the Pacific Northwest. However, I can see how someone with a long lens photographing tropical birds (and there are great ones in Costa Rica, including toucans and parrots) would find a full camera-and-lens rain cover really great protection. Kata (distributed by Bogen Imaging) makes some adaptable and easy-to-use rain covers for this purpose. When you’re setting up or refining where to place your camera, you may want to try putting a shower cap on your camera and lens (this won’t work for long telephotos). That’s a quick and simple way of gaining some protection from water. Start collecting shower caps from the hotels and motels you visit.
7) Silica Gel Packets. Silica gel in camera bags can help dry out gear. I know of photographers who go to shoe stores and ask for the silica gel packets for this purpose. The Dryzone boot- and shoe-drying products are an easier way to get this desiccant. You simply heat up the silica gel after it gets damp to remove the moisture and reuse it. You can put the packets into plastic bags with your equipment for a strong drying environment.
8) Ziploc Bags ®. I brought along a few large Ziploc ® bags to put gear into, and that helped a lot. They can be used to cover gear in the field and to enclose equipment before putting it into a pack. An important use for them comes when staying in air-conditioned accommodations. That cool air can make your camera and lenses cool, so that when you take them into the damp air of the rain forest, condensation appears all over, and in your camera and lenses—not good. Put your gear inside a large plastic bag and seal it before leaving the air conditioning. That will allow the camera to warm up before it hits humid air.
9) Hair Dryer. I wouldn’t consider traveling to Costa Rica or any wet area without a hair dryer. This may or may not help me style my hair, but the main reason for the hair dryer is to dry out gear. No matter what you do, your camera bag, at least the bottom, will get wet. Often, outside fabric will get wet even if the inside can’t. A hair dryer lets you dry all of this, which can be a huge benefit with gear bags, especially shoulder straps that get wet and hold moisture. On really wet days, I’d open everything and dry it all with the hair dryer—cameras, lenses, bag insides and so on. If you try this, don’t get high heat too close to your gear.
It’s worth the effort for any serious nature photographer to make the trek to a rain forest. I know I’ll be back. In the interest of not contributing to false impressions, I have to say that Costa Rica, like most countries today, doesn’t have "one" rain forest. Much of the land has been cleared for agriculture. Now private and public preserves protect the rain forest, but they’re often separated by pasture or banana and pineapple fields. There’s a big push for creating and protecting wildlife corridors between the tracts of rain forest and cloud forest around the country.
As more photographers come to Costa Rica to photograph the wonders of the rain forest, this adds to needed tourism dollars and support to maintain and protect the rain forest, cloud forest and enhance the land in between. That’s an additional reason to visit a rain forest, but mostly, you’ll love seeing and photographing some amazing scenes.