South America Costa Rica
On Location: Guanacaste
Worried that water and camera gear don’t mix, our photographer takes precautions
Howler monkey wakeup call; artist at work in Casa Museo; Carlos snorkeling off Playa Blanca.
I’d never been to Costa Rica, but some of my friends raved about it. So I was excited when I stepped off the plane on assignment—but I knew I faced a challenge. I was there to shoot our story about the beach towns in Guanacaste province, on Costa Rica’s west coast, and getting good images of surfing and snorkeling would require exposing my precious camera equipment to water. I’d already done some research, reading online advice from underwater photographers and renting a waterproof camera housing.
After checking out several beaches, I found that the better surfers were hitting the early morning waves at Playa Grande, about two hours south of Liberia (the airport where we had landed). My assistant, Stewart, handed me my 200mm telephoto lens and I walked out in the crystal-green water until I was chest-deep to get closer to the action. It took me a while to determine which surfers were good enough to reliably stay up on the board for more than a minute. I spent the next hour or so shooting, up to my elbows in the ocean, keeping one eye on the viewfinder and the other on the waves coming at me so I could jump as needed while holding the camera up out of the splash zone.

Before I did any snorkeling shots, I figured I should try snorkeling myself—somehow, I’d never learned. I signed up for a lesson at the Four Seasons Papagayo, and met my instructor on Playa Blanca. After Carlos fit me for equipment, we waded waist-deep into the water so I could practice using the mouthpiece. Hearing the “whoosh, whoosh” of my own breathing through the tube felt like being in an isolation tank with Darth Vader. I soon got the hang of the snorkel and flippers and was ready to set off gliding through the water. Ahead of me, the ocean floor stretched out, dappled with sunlight, as far as I could see.

For the next day’s snorkeling shoot, we decided to use a dinghy so that Stewart could pass me the equipment. We put the cameras and lenses in dry-bags to keep them safe if they accidentally tumbled into the water. Carlos rowed us to an offshore reef, where we met the two swimmers who’d agreed to be my snorkeling models. I admired their ability to follow my underwater hand motions as I worked to keep them in the frame. The tropical fish moved so fast it was hard to grab a shot of them, but I did manage to capture a school of shiny little herrings.

There were plenty of other highlights during the shoot. I loved photographing horseback riders on the beach, fresh ceviche and handsome chefs, tanned beachgoers and beautiful pools at twilight. When I visited the Casa Museo gallery in Islita, I got a chance to shoot the artisans as they created designs for pottery, woodcuts and other artwork. Since the women spoke no English, I had to rely on the phrase I’d been repeating since I arrived: “¿Puedo tomar su foto?” (May I take your picture?) After laughing at my pronunciation, they all said, “Sí.” Perhaps the most memorable moment of my trip came when I was awakened one morning by a roaring troop of howler monkeys right outside my villa. Luckily, I was ready: The night before, I’d put a telephoto lens on the camera, and set it to a high ISO and rapid shutter speed. I ran outside to find a cluster of monkeys in the trees around the villa. I was glad I didn’t have to ask their permission to shoot.

NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.
Published: July 1, 2010 
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