For most of us, Costa Rica is a different environment from what we're used to back home, so packing and preparing for a trip there may be a new experience. It's also important to remember that we're visiting some wild places during the tour. Many of the parks and lodges have well-maintained trails, but it's not uncommon for things to get really wet, muddy, buggy and hot... and occasionally some bushwhacking may be required. Use the suggestions below to help you put together the right clothing, gear and photo equipment that will allow you to meet anything Costa Rica throws at you head-on.
Since this is a photo tour, we should discuss some of essentials and other recommended gear that will let you take advantage of some exciting photo opportunities. While it's easy to just try to bring all your gear and see what works best once you get there, weight considerations also need to factor into your packing decisions. The key is to choose the best combination of gear that you still feel comfortable toting around in a hot, humid jungle!
What's the toughest thing about shooting in the rainforest? The lack of light. A dense forest canopy blocks out sunlight and makes for dark conditions, which drops shutter speed and makes it difficult to capture sharp images of what are often moving subjects. Here are some tips on photo gear that can help maximize your photography experience.
A Good Camera Body
If you're interested in this tour, you probably own a digital SLR camera body. The more recent the body you have the better. We don't say this because we're gear snobs. Improvements in camera sensor technology allow some of the more recent digital bodies from Canon and Nikon to perform incredibly well in low light situations. If you don't have a professional or even "prosumer" body don't worry... your lens is actually more important (see below). Here are some recommended DSLR bodies that perform well in low light:
More Importantly: A Good Lens (or Two)
Most photographers will tell you that good "glass" is more important than a good body. This rings true when it comes to rainforest photography. However, while the quality of the build and clarity of the glass are key, there are more important factors you should look for when it comes to your lens choice: stabilization, aperture and focal length.
Image Stabilization (Vibration Reduction for Nikon users) can typically save between 2-4 stops of light. In common jargon, it reduces that shaking we all produce by handling our cameras, helping make for sharper images in conditions where we may not have much shutter speed to work with. Your main lens for this tour should have IS/VR/OS, especially if you are shooting hand-held.
A lens with a wide aperture can help you capture subjects in low light.
Ideal Focal Length is an important consideration, and often depends on your subject matter. If you plan on shooting scenery or macros the whole time, you can get away with a lens with a shorter focal length (10 - 100mm). However, if your goal is to seek out larger wildlife, you need to prepared to shoot subjects that are further away (high up in trees, for example). The minimal focal length we recommend is 200mm for a "cropped sensor" camera body (most entry level DSLRs have a cropped sensor). You can get up to 500 or even 600mm, which is useful for rainforest bird life. Just be prepared to deal with the extra weight (and the lower aperture) of those longer lenses!
Keep in mind, you'll likely want to bring multiple lenses to handle a variety of situations. The most common combination is a medium-long range zoom combined with a wider zoom or macro lens. And, by the way, having a second/backup camera body isn't a bad idea either!
Here are some recommended lenses that work well for rainforest wildlife shooting. Please note that these are mostly Canon lenses, so Nikon users should look for their equivalents. For those thinking about purchasing new gear for this trip but are worried about cost, both Sigma and Tamron make decent lenses which have many of the same functions as Canon and Nikon, but cost significantly less.
- Canon EF 500mm f/4 IS*
- Canon 300mm 2.8 IS
- Canon 70-200mm 2.8 IS*
- Canon 24-70mm 2.8* (doubles as a macro lens when used with extension tubes)
- Canon 100mm 2.8 macro
- Nikkor 500mm f/4G
- Nikon 200-400mm f/4G
Note that if you plan to bring a large lens such as a 500-600mm, you should feel comfortable hauling such weight around over a few kilometers in a hot, sweaty jungle!
There are plenty of other lens options as well. A teleconverter can come in handy too. A 70-200mm 2.8 IS with a 1.4x teleconverter attached can be a very useful combination for rainforest wildlife.
Flash can be a useful tool for macro photography.
A tripod or monopod can add more stabilization to your photo set-up. You can never have enough stabilization in the rainforest! A tripod/monopod is recommended for those toting around longer lenses (300mm 2.8, 400-500mm). However, the downside is that they're bulky, often inconvenient to set up quickly and can get caught on vines and other brush in the forest. If you do choose to bring a tripod, a lighter option that's easy to carry but still provides a sturdy base is ideal.
Other Gear and Accessories
Here are some additional items we recommend to fill your photo bag. All of these items can be found in Max's bag.
- Second or backup camera body
- Extension tubes (useful for macro shooting)
- Flash or ring flash unit
- Better beamer, for fill flash
- Remote trigger
- Rain gear! (Even if it's just a plastic bag)
- Extra memory cards & storage (such as the Nexto DI storage device)
- Extra batteries
- Lens cloth, pen brush
Finding a way to comfortably pack and carry all this gear can be challenging. We recommend either a good photo pack or pouch system, keeping in mind that you have to tote the rest of your luggage around as well! A good pouch and belt system full of gear can be carried on a plane, and can be worn with the main backpack that holds your clothing and other essentials.
If you're looking for a pouch system, check out Think Tank's Skin System. They also make some great photo packs and other bags.
I shoot with Canon equipment. If you are interested in renting a lens for the tour (e.g., 500mm f/4 IS, 300mm 2.8 IS, 100-400mm IS), please let me know.
Clothing, Toiletries & Gear
Regardless of whether you're going to take pictures, you need to make sure you can endure what are sometimes tough conditions in the rainforest. Your main concerns should be sun, heat, humidity and bugs. Those participating in the Corcovado extension should note that Sirena Station is remote and does not have much in the way of supplies. It's a good idea to pack in some basic essentials (TP, soap, shampoo, small towel).
- Light convertible or "outdoor" pants (not jeans!)
- Short sleeve shirts
- At least one long sleeve shirt (the cloud forest can get cool)
- Durable socks (Smartwool works well)
- Hiking boots or shoes, waterproof if possible
- Teva type sandals (necessary for Sirena Station or for any potential river crossings)
- Hat to protect from sun and rain
- Breathable waterproof jacket or rain poncho
- Shorts (if you don't have convertible pants)
- Swim Trunks
- Warmer fleece/sweatshirt (again, the cloud forest!)
- Warm hat/light gloves
- Water Bottle(s)
- Water Purification Tablets or Steripen
- Headlamp or Flashlight
- Bug Repellent
- Essential Toiletries (toothpaste, deodorant, contact lenses, eyeglasses, etc.)
- Moleskin or Foot Tape
- Ziploc Bags
- ½ TP Roll (for Sirena visit)
- Travel-sized Soap/Shampoo (Sirena)
- Travel-sized Towel (Sirena)
- Sleep Sack or Bedsheets (Sirena, a sleeping bag will likely be too hot)
- Mosquito Net (Sirena)
- Energy Bars or other snacks (keep well-sealed to avoid attracting ants/critters)
- eReader or books (especially for Sirena)
A Note About Packing
It's generally recommended that you pack as lightly as possible, particularly if you are bringing heavy photo gear. We're actually avoid domestic flights for the most part during this tour, so baggage limits aren't as great of a concern. However, you will have to tote your gear occasionally to get to certain areas (e.g., the walk from the boat to Sirena Station is about a half mile through the forest). A suitcase isn't the best option for a trip like this. Transporting your belongings will be much easier if you have a backpack or duffle bag with shoulder strap.
A great way to save space in your luggage is by using travel compressor bags for consolidating clothing.
Money and Paperwork
Don't forget these essentials or you won't get very far!
You'll never make it to Costa Rica without it!
US Dollars are widely accepted in Costa Rica. You'll need cash primarily for tips, as well as food, gifts or other expenses in places that don't take credit cards.
Not required (since most of the trip is paid for up-front), but recommended in case you need to get cash or pay for additional food or expenses.
Copies of Your Important Documents:
If you accidentally drop your ID in the Rio Tarcoles, it's preferable to have a copy or scanned backup rather than wrestling the crocs for your wallet!