Randall shook me to my core by immersing me in sustainable “wild” photography adventure. Sustainable because I’ll be able to use my gained knowledge no matter how advanced cameras get. Wild because he taught me both set-up (birds come to you) and wild (you learn to find the birds) photography.
I booked Randall for an 18-day trip for the purpose of teaching me to photograph birds. I wasn’t satisfied with my photos of hummingbirds and other wildlife. My photos were good but not great (let along art worthy) and needed a lot of Photoshop work.
On the first day, Randall started me out on the basics. First were correct camera settings (I didn’t even know they existed). Then he taught full manual mode to get full control of the camera, so it shoots when you tell it (you won’t miss a shot that way) and it captures a color correct photo. Then he taught me to compose the background and compose the subject. For this beginner stuff, he allowed me to shoot birds that were “set-up” (eating a placed banana or rice). We did this at Cope’s place, who is an amazing artist.
Day two was focused on focus. This is driven a lot by camera settings. While Randall uses a Nikon, he was equally versed on my Canon. This included camera settings for color type (a huge help for overdone Canon reds and yellows), shooting mode, tracking mode, etc. He also explained what primarily drove focus algorithms (contrast), hence the need to wait for the glimmer in the eye. Focus was difficult and took me a while to learn--trust the viewfinder and only use a camera with a LCD with 900K dots or more. Prepare in advance for what you will photograph. Eye and check exposure settings. Photograph. Check the shot. To do this you need days of practice to break old habits. Hence the 18-day trip.
From day three and on, I no longer needed Photoshop. The only exceptions were to crop small birds taken from a distance that my 400mm F/2.8 lens couldn’t bring home, to adjust shadows when the sun angle wasn’t just right, to enhance sharpness (the camera sharpness setting was set off so the RAW image was natural), and when shooting conditions were extreme (dark and shooting motion using high ISOs) using the filter noise reduction.
From about day five and on, I was no longer allowed to photograph “setups”. It had to be wild. I was only allowed to shoot near “setups” to reinforce previously taught habits. Otherwise it was walking through the jungle, constantly evaluating light, resetting the camera, and trying to predict if you were shooting for flight or something stationary (big impact on ISO and shutter setting).
At day seven he started to teach me birds-in-flight without using strobes. The results were amazing. At an inn, we’d encounter other groups doing birds in flight. They were all using strobes and setups. In a setting like that, you can’t help but compare photos. There was no contest. Ours were wild birds sharply focused with natural colors and even lighting (if you know the bird and its flight behavior you can choose where to get even light). The only bird where I found flash helped was on certain hummers when you want to capture what even the eye doesn’t normally see all at once—their full-body metallic shine. I only kept one hummer photo taken by flash, that of the Fiery Throated.
So how do you photograph a lot of birds without setups? Randall is part bird. My first exposure to his talent was early in the trip when we were walking through the jungle. He heard a bird about 50 meters in the thicket. He told me to focus on a particular limb and prepare my exposure. He started talking to the bird in its language. A few minutes later the bird came to the limb. I got the shot. Randall can not only speak Spanish, English, French, and German, it turns out he also speaks several hundred bird languages fluently. His talent of “calling-in” birds mystified me at first, but then made perfect sense. As arguably the leading ornithologist in Costa Rica, he knows the language of each bird, how to speak the language, the flight patterns, the nesting behavior, the eating behavior, and has a sixth sense on being able to see a leg in the bush from a distance and know what it is or see nothing in particular but recognize when something is about to happen.
That brings up his uncanny sight. He saw 20 times what I could see and I have pretty good vision. Want to see a bird? Stick close to him. Want a quiet walk? Look for birds yourself. Being curious about how he does this, I studied his eye and head movements we walked along a dirt road. His eyes move back and forth with small ups and down. As we were walking, his eyes didn’t linger too long on objects like mine did trying to answer the question, bird or twig. One time as we walked, without looking up he just pointed up and said, “There’s a moth up there if you’re interested.” We were 30 meters from the tree to which he was pointing. The moth was about 30mm across and was 5 meters up. The moth color was brown and white and was perfectly camouflaged to match the tree bark and fungi. As I got closer (Randall was continuing to scan for birds), I finally had to stop him 3 meters from the tree and have him train my lens on the moth so I could find it. Unreal!
By day 10, after having a firm grip on manual exposure, background, shutter speed and ISO prep, and focus control, he then introduced me to storytelling—capturing a photo that tells a story. This set the final bar—being capable of shooting award winning (or if a pro, money making) photos.
We also did: landscape shots, water (falls and sea) shots using long exposures, dusk-light shots, and night photography (looking for snakes, frogs, caterpillars, katydids, mushrooms, beetles, spiders, etc.).
For me, 18 days was just right. Long enough to instill habits and short enough to not totally exhaust me.
A little about Randall. Normally over 18 intensive days, when you are one-on-one with someone, you will norm, storm, and then form. We never had a storm moment. We just normed and formed. A day or two of storming would have been fine, but for some reason we didn’t or it wasn’t noticable. Randall will drive you to exhaustion if you let him with his 5AM to 10PM schedules, but you just have to let him know that you need periods of time alone to rest, relax, or work. Each person will have their own needs. Randall is happy to photograph on his own during these down times. For me, I needed time to work on photographs to keep current. So each night I’d download photos from both cameras to my computer, review 100 to 600 photos (normally in the 350 range), learn what I was doing wrong and right, then delete 90% of them, crop/enhance the ones in need, and then play “Que es esto?” with Randall the next morning so that I could tag each photo into a Photoshop database by specie.
Randall is a photographic maniac. He will choose to photograph over eating and sleeping. Be firm and be prepared to be teased. Randall takes teasing right back with laughter. He even tells you his rules of photography in Costa Rica jungles. #1 Secure the shot. #2 Safety (note that it’s not #1). #3 Compose an award winning shot. In reality, these rules don’t apply to him. We were walking through the jungle with vipers hiding in the bush early one morning. We came to a clearing caused by a blow-down. The sun was just coming up. The perfect sun rays peering through the fog under tree limbs showed itself to Randall’s artistic eye. Randall without warning sprinted 10 meters into the jungle bush. Click. 10 more meters. Click. Two more times he repeated this until he was 40 meters deep into the bush at the right spot to compose the shot. Then he paused to look around and said, “Look carefully, walk slowly, come quickly.” Then we carefully cleared away some brush interfering with the perfect photo and got an incredible shot. So maybe his actual rule is Secure, Secure, Secure, Secure, Safety, then Compose.
Eating. Randall normally puts together packages that includes everything plus food (this is real ... in addition to the trip fee plus airfare, I only paid for a gift I bought my wife and the airport return tax). Randall doesn’t drink. I do. So I’d have a beer with food that was less expensive like a hamburger. He was OK with that. But normally I think he would have you pay for extras like alcoholic beverages. Let him know your expectations before the trip. He will plan the trip accordingly and cost it fairly. I never did get him trained to bring me ice-cold beer while sitting in one of his portable blinds while waiting for and finally take really nice Great Green Macaw shots at their nest. I stayed away from unknown water sources and tried to eat thing that were boiled or thoroughly cooked. At half the places I drank their lemonade after being satisfied with their water purification methods. Never had a problem.
Bugs. Treat long-sleeve pants and shirts with DEET for clothes before you come. Then bring a 6 oz bottle of DEET for skin and long sleeve pants and shirts. If you stay away from the Caribbean side you don’t have to worry about Malaria. All the bugs usually attacked Randall not me. And he didn't even charge for that.
Camera gear. Bring two camera bodies. I borrowed my brother’s. Depending on your photo targets, bring the right lenses. I brought the following since we shot just about everything: Canon EOS Rebel T1i + a D1-Mark III, 100mm macro F/2.8, 400mm macro F/2.8, 17 – 85 mm standard (a faster F/2.8 would have been nice for the night shots), tripod (a good one), ring flash for the macro, binoculars (never used them), remote camera trigger, spare batteries for the cameras (plus chargers) and accessory equipment. I also brought the standard 100 - 400mm F/5.6 zoom. Never used it and probably would have thrown away all my Canon gear and bought Nikon after the trip if I had. Why? You are up against Randall--a professional photographer using professional grade near top-of-the-line Nikon gear. Without my F/2.8 telephoto lens, I would have not been able to come close to what Randall was doing. In my opinion, you need F2.8 to shoot well in the jungle. With only the F/5.6, I would have returned with 50 great telephoto shots instead of 250. F/5.6 with a powerful diffused flash may work well for birds less than 12 meters away. But most of my amazing photos were taken over 50 meters away or so close that it would have scared the bird using a flash, hence fewer photo attempts. There were too many amazing photos taken in dark conditions or too far away for flash that would have been missed. Randall, after experiencing what I was able to do with my F/2.8, was kicking himself for selling his 300mm F/2.8 and buying the 500mm F/4 (which by the way he can hand hold and take perfectly focused shots ... again unbelieveable). I’ve also come to the conclusion that the 300mm F/2.8 with the 1.4 multiplier is the best choice for moderate budgets.
Clothes (18 days) [a guy list not a gal list]. 1 pair excellent hiking boots, 6 pair socks (change every day), 3 pair underwear, 2 jungle pants, 4 undershirts, 3 pair jungle shirts, 1 jungle sun hat. Machine washed clothes once at one of the inns and hand washed over night as needed.
Bags: All carry-on. A Tamron Expedition 8X for my computer and camera gear including two telephotos (48 lbs). A brief case for my clothes.
I came away with knowledge of how to take wildlife and waterscape photos with 400 really good photos of over 100 species of birds of which about 25 photos are art-show stunning. The stories I can tell are fun and humorous. The bargain deal was a new amigo in Costa Rica that I can tap for life with photography questions.
If you want to go on a birds-of-flight or photography tour where eight of you stand around props and setups taking flash photos, then the top four tour guides are good. But if you want the real deal and personal attention, Randall is it. He is several levels above anyone else. When he goes in the jungle, the other tour guides stay close. When Randall moves quickly, they come running. Quite a few photographers were drawn away from the other groups when we crossed paths. The talent Randall has is as clear as a Quetzal is colored. My only regret is that I didn’t plan one more day so his daughter could teach me how to surf (yes … he, his wife, daughter and son do that too)!
This review is the subjective opinion of a TripAdvisor member and not of TripAdvisor LLC.