Travel photography in Central America

Stuart Forster answers some of the key questions that photographers ask before they experience travel photography in Central America.

Whether you’re into nature and wildlife, landscapes or urban photography, you’ll find plenty of subject matter while travelling in Central America. The big question is, what kind of kit will you carry?

Many people getting into photography ask what the best lens is for travel photography. Ultimately, that’s a tough question to answer as it comes down to what you’re most likely to photograph.

If you’re interested in landscape photography then you’re likely to benefit from owning a good wide-angle lens. Should wildlife be your passion then you’ll benefit from using a lens with a significantly longer upper focal length—say 300 millimetre, 400 millimetre or even more—so that you can capture details of the creatures you see while travelling.

Prime or zoom lenses?

Several years ago few professionals would have said that they favoured anything other than prime lenses—in other words, lenses with fixed focal length. They were highly regarded because of the quality of the images that could be captured with them. The need for good optics meant that most pros would carry a range of lenses on assignments.

A 24-millimetre lens was seen as a decent wide angle lens, a 50-millimetre lens was regarded as standard, while lenses of around 100-millimetre were a popular choice for flattering head and shoulder portraits. High-quality prime lenses, for example those produced by Zeiss, are still prized for use on assignments but many photographers now make use of zoom lenses, particularly when travelling.

Changing technology is one reason for that change. Zoom lenses can provide quality while representing good value for money. Instead of purchasing three or more lenses, using a reliable workhorse, such as a 24-105 millimetre lens, means you only need to make one investment.

Also, when you’re on a beach or out in rain it can be beneficial not to change lenses, as doing so exposes your equipment to sand and water. Importantly, you save on weight and bulk too, something that’s important to bear in mind when airlines can apply hefty penalties should you have too much baggage.

The crater of Poas Volcano in Poas Volcano National Park, Costa Rica.
The crater of Poas Volcano in Poas Volcano National Park, Costa Rica.

Choosing the right camera bag

If you’re a regular traveller it makes sense to purchase a sturdy camera bag into which you can fit your equipment and protect it from knocks. It makes sense to invest well. Numerous companies—including Lowepro, Manfrotto and Abonnyc—produce well-made backpacks in a variety of sizes.

Check that you can alter the size and shape of the internal compartments to suit your kit. Comfort is important while you are walking around looking for memorable shots and padded, adjustable straps can provide that. Don’t forget that you may also want to carry a laptop plus reference material such as guidebooks and maps. That said, ensure the backpack you choose complies with airline baggage regulations (check online well ahead of flying).

Travel photography in Costa Rica

Costa Rica is a relatively small country, covering just 0.25 per cent of the world’s landmass, yet it’s the home of five per cent of the planet’s biodiversity. If you enjoy photographing birds and butterflies then you’re going to be busy. You can view more than 800 bird species.

A tele-zoom with an upper focal length of 400 to 500 millimetre will prove useful for capturing images of the toucans and hummingbirds that prove so common around jungle clearings. A teleconverter—essentially an optical ring that you insert between your camera’s body and the lens—is a cost-effective means of expanding the range of your lens, though it may mean you have to focus manually rather than automatically.

Tree frogs thrive in the region’s humid jungles. Native tribespeople traditionally use secretions from the colourful frogs to poison arrows for hunting. Frogs no larger than a human thumb can prove deadly. A macro lens will enable you to capture details.

Photographers working beneath the dense jungle canopy might be tempted to use a flash but naturalists warn against it, as the burst of bright light can detrimentally impact the amphibian’s vision.

Keel-billed toucan (Ramphastos sulfuratus) in Poas Volcano National Park, Costa Rica.
Keel-billed toucan (Ramphastos sulfuratus) in Poas Volcano National Park, Costa Rica.

Travel photography in El Salvador

Both El Salvador and Costa Rica are dotted with active, dormant and extinct volcanoes. If you get to the ridge of Poas Volcano on a clear day you’ll be lucky enough to look down into the broad crater that’s scarred from previous eruptions. An extreme wide-angle lens, of around 17mm, will allow you to show the scale and stratification of the volcano.

Wide-angle lenses also prove useful when photographing in markets and on Central America’s streets. When you’re among people they can be unobtrusive, enabling you to record everyday scenes. You may also be fortunate enough to see parades or religious processions on the streets of cities. Few people in the region object to being photographed.

It’s worth remembering that, wherever you are in the world, expensive photographic equipment can attract unwanted attention from criminals. If you’ve got a safe in your hotel room sometimes it makes sense to leave some of your kit behind, to minimise risk when you’re out on the streets.

Men in Suchitoto, El Salvador.
Men in Suchitoto, El Salvador.

A tripod for travel photography

A lightweight tripod is always worth packing into your suitcase, so you can photograph inside churches and other heritage buildings. The small city of Suchitoto, in El Salvador, is a great place to explore at dusk. Murals on the walls of houses convey the history of the region and offer colourful backdrops for images. The blurred shapes of people moving can effectively convey how busy public squares are after nightfall.

You can’t be prepared for every eventuality all of the time, but a little pre-trip planning means you should be able to carry enough equipment to capture a memorable array of images from your forthcoming travels.

Further information

Find out more about the region by taking a look at the Visit Centro America, El Salvador Travel and Visit Costa Rica websites.

Enjoy this post about travel photography in Central America but don’t like the idea of carrying a bag full of photography gear? This article on smartphone photography in Central America might be more your thing.

Photos illustrating this post are by Why Eye Photography.

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