Lowland rainforest near Carara National Park, Costa Rica
Time / Date:
20:49 / May 17, 2009
Camera Body: Canon 5D Mark I
Lens: Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 macro
Flash: Canon 550 EX w/TTL cord
Modifier: Westcott Micro Apollo Softbox
Shutter Speed: 1/200s
Focal Length: 100mm
I photograph everything nature and always strive to give a different twist to any image; I don’t want my picture to look the same as everyone else’s photo of a given animal or place. That idea went double for this subject, as the red-eyed tree frog (Agalychnis callidryas) is probably the most-photographed frog in the world!
Most photos of this frog show off the amazing colors – not only in the eyes but also the blue on the flank, the orange feet, and the lime green all over. These shots are cool, and I have some in my portfolio, but I wanted something different for this picture. When I came upon dozens of these frogs calling for mates around a stagnant forest pool on the grounds of an ecolodge I frequent, I decided to go for a shot that would (hopefully) look somewhat like it was taken with moonlight. I wanted to focus on the frog’s namesake eyes by obscuring the rest of the body and, with careful lighting, to hint at the frog’s nocturnal habits.
I shoot everything from macro to landscapes to wildlife but for this image, the obvious choice was my 100 mm macro lens. Flashlight could have been one option for illuminating the subject, but setting up a tripod was going to be difficult to impossible because of the wet surroundings and because the frogs move around a bit. The necessity to work handheld meant relying on flash. I chose only one flash so that I could hold the camera in my right hand and the flash in my left.
Making the Shot:
When working this way, I usually prefocus for my likely composition and then move in and out, using myself as a kind of human focusing rail. Autofocus for this type of subject was out of the question as there was too little light for it to work. Once I saw the image come into focus I would shoot. The real trick here was the lighting. Most photographers shoot macro with light coming from the front to eliminate all shadows. I wanted just the opposite here and placed the sole flash above and just a touch behind the frog’s head, which served to create shadows on the front side and draw attention to those great red eyes. The softbox served not only to diffuse the light but also to provide a larger catchlight more in keeping with the moonlit sky look I wanted. It took a few tries but once I had the shot I wanted, I moved on so that the frog could get back to its business of looking for a girlfriend.
Editing & Processing:
I try as much as possible to get what I want in the field and then rely on the computer to optimize the image through pretty simple adjustments. I rarely spend more than two or three minutes processing an image. In this case, I did a little bit of darkening of the blacks in Lightroom to further deepen the shadow areas my lighting created on the frog.
I was quite happy with this shot as it is totally different from any other I have seen of this frog species, before or since. It obscures most of the dazzling colors that make the frog so attractive but to me, it’s the very reason that the shot works as an image that moves away from a literal representation of the subject and hopefully toward a more artistic rendering.
Forging one’s own style is important for any photographer. At the same time, I try to keep adding diversity to my portfolio. I definitely don’t want each shot of mine to look like somebody else’s work but neither do I want it to look exactly like what I’ve done before. This line of thought keeps me mentally fresh and helps to keep me from getting stuck in a creative rut.
I love the ecosystems of Costa Rica and am inspired first by the amazing designs of nature. I also enjoy trying out different photo gear, and the technical challenge of working with new gear can lead to new photo ideas. I like sports and music too and especially enjoy learning about how athletes and musicians add new wrinkles to their skills in order to keep improving and innovating.
About the Photographer
A political scientist by training, I photograph the Costa Rican rainforest, with credits including National Geographic and Newsweek and promotional ventures with Canon. I’ve been fortunate to have images honored in the BBC/Veolia Wildlife Photographer of the Year and Nature’s Best Windland Smith Rice competitions, most recenlty winning the Art in Nature category in the latter. Last year, I co-authored the popular e-book, The Guide to Tropical Nature Photography.
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