A few years ago, I was searching about the some of the most prestigious photography competitions. I wanted to compete against the best and wanted to learn from the best. Tell me who doesn’t want to?
I stumbled upon the following photograph, as I was browsing through the winners gallery of one of the best photography competitions in the world, Nature’s Best Photography Contest.
The photograph was unique. Photographers would normally shoot up, close, and personal in such cases. Tell me who gives attention to an uninteresting (in reality, definitely not in the photo) leaf? But here’s someone who has done something incredibly different. I was spell bound by the strong composition and a glaring contrast.
The next moment I was experiencing some phenomenal photographs in a website named Deep Green Photography. Everything was unique. It was truly a visual journey through the lush green forests of Costa Rica, by none other than Greg Basco.
Today, I am extremely fortunate to know him quite well. He is a fine gentleman and a very considerate human being.
Today’s interview with Greg is one of the finest interviews I have ever conducted. It’s full of professional tips, thoughts, and experiences. Greg hasn’t held anything back, making it an exceptionally useful interview for every one of us.
Since the entire interview is around 4,300 words, I have split it into 2 parts. Here’s the part-I of the interview.
Interview with multiple award-winning photographer and conservationist from Costa Rica – Greg Basco.
Prathap: A hearty welcome to Nature Photography Simplified, Greg. I am extremely happy that you accepted my request. Please tell us about yourself.
Greg Basco: Hi, Prathap. Thanks so much for having me. I really enjoy your blog – great information and a really nice design as well.
As for me, I’m actually a political scientist by training. I’ve always been interested in nature and have studied environmental politics and biology. Right after college in the US, I spent 2 years in Costa Rica in the Peace Corps and fell in love with the country and one person, in particular, my wife who is a Costa Rican native! We returned to the US for a few years where I did my graduate work in political science and tropical ecology. We then returned to Costa Rica, so I could do my field research for my doctoral dissertation on ecotourism, and then I worked for a couple of years in conservation in Costa Rica.
But during that time, I was really getting into nature photography. I sold a few pictures and bought more gear. I sold a few more pictures and bought more gear again. And in 2006, I decided to move to nature photography full-time, selling my own images for books and magazines and co-founding Foto Verde Tours, Costa Rica’s first and only travel company specializing in nature photography tours. I’m busy now with the tours I lead, trying to grow the company throughout Latin America, producing my own coffee table and e-books, and starting to build a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting conservation through photography.
So, it’s been kind of a non-traditional journey to nature photography but one that I think is finally coming full-circle in a way as I’m now in a position to try to help give back to the forests that have allowed me to make a living for my family and me.
Prathap: Your photographs are exceptionally unique and sometimes unconventional. Was it always the case? Or, did you realize at some point that you need to stand out in the crowded market? It’ll be interesting to hear your story.
Greg Basco: Thanks very much for saying that, Prathap. I do try to take photos that are different from the norm, so I’m happy to know that the effort pays off and comes through when people view the photos. I’ve always tried to shoot things a little differently simply because that’s what I enjoy and kind of how I see or feel the rainforests and cloud forests where I live and work. At various times, I’ve actually thought that I could probably sell more images by taking more traditional types of photos. I’ve always decided though that I preferred to shoot what I like and how I like to shoot and hope that the resulting pictures gain acceptance and make some money 🙂 I think any photographer looking to forge a personal style should steer clear of shooting for the market or trying to copy other photographers. I think that approach has helped me to be able to create a personal style that comes through in my wildlife, macro, landscape, and bird photography.
Prathap: Greg, you are a firm believer in getting the best results in-camera. You also have few principles that you follow while you photograph. Hopefully, we will cover this topic in depth in another discussion, but for now, I would like you to share your thoughts.
Greg Basco: The subject of getting the shot in-camera is always a controversial topic, but I think it’s an important one, especially today when, even on nature photography forums, it seems that revealing whether a photo is a single shot or a composite or was taken in the wild or with a subject in captivity is simply not done. And that’s on the dedicated photo forums. Facebook and 500 px are a different story; when the public sees nature photos in those arenas, anything goes, and people really have no idea what they’re looking at.
So, there are two main dimensions to this issue for me. First, I think that for nature photography to ensure the trust of the public, non-photographer viewers need to feel confident that what they are looking at is a real picture that came out of the camera, not something that was produced on the computer either via composite or massive manipulation. Many people say that this is not a valid argument. They’ll say that this means that nature photography must be simply documentary. If you do tons of digital manipulation, then it becomes art, so anything goes. According to this argument, nature photography is just documentary photojournalism. To produce art, you need to rely on the computer.
I couldn’t disagree more with this line of thinking. We can produce art in-camera, and we don’t have to adhere to a literal representation of nature.
So, the second dimension is that I simply enjoy trying to do everything I can in-camera and in the field to produce artistic photos. This includes looking for interesting lighting and trying to compose in-camera, and it also includes use of shallow depth of field and flash. I consider nature photography to be an art and, just as in painting, light and composition are key components.
That doesn’t mean that I don’t post-process; I use Lightroom for about 95% of my processing and image workflow and will occasionally go to Photoshop for certain landscape photos, especially if I need to blend high-dynamic range scenes. I’ll crop once in a while if I have to, and I’ll use selective adjustments to emphasize and de-emphasize certain areas of a photo. But, my goal is that a viewer wouldn’t have a surprised reaction at the difference if I showed them my RAW capture and my final version of a photo. It’s a philosophy I enjoy, and it helps me to stay creative and to maintain focus when I’m out shooting.
Let me make clear that I admire the skill of people who can do complex post-processing, and I don’t think there’s any problem with digital manipulation as long as the photographer is honest about it. Many of the fantasy type landscapes we see these days are a difficult blend of skill in the field to take multiple exposures for tonal balance and focus stacking and then a huge dose of Photoshop wizardry back at the computer. When a photographer tries to make viewers believe that a photo is a straight shot when in fact it’s a composite, a multiple exposure, or has major processing that has seriously altered the original image, that’s a problem in my opinion.
These days it seems we have two types of viewers – those who don’t really know photography and believe any image on 500 px or Facebook is a straight shot and those who know a little more and now simply assume that every shot has been Photoshopped to death. So, for casual viewers, we have an audience now that’s either quite easy to fool or an audience that doesn’t trust us as nature photographers and assumes we’re already fooling them!
Prathap: In bird photography, no one uses side lighting as it casts a shadow. But, you insist on using it, and you have got some fantastic photos too. Why do you think one must go unconventional and try different things? How does it help to develop you as a photographer?
Greg Basco: I love sidelighting and backlighting for a couple of reasons. For one, this kind of lighting to me speaks of the mystery and wonder of the tropical rainforest and cloud forest. We rarely have frontal light in the forest. We have a soft directional light on cloudy days or we have dappled light on sunny days. Even when I go out to more open areas, I’m trying to avoid frontal light!
And on a more technical note, I always like the effect that sidelighting has on bird feathers. In comparison to the completely frontal lighting that bird photographers are often taught to seek out, sidelighting brings out shadows between feathers. That’s micro-contrast and that enhances sharpness. So I look for natural sidelight, and when I work with flash either out in the forest or at a multi-flash hummingbird setup, I’m trying to produce sidelight in order to add drama to a bird photo and to add that micro-contrast.
Prathap: You have won several prestigious awards, including Wildlife Photographer of the Year and Nature’s Best Photography Awards.
Can you talk about some of your favorite awarded photographs? And share a few thoughts about how you select the images to enter the competition. Any tips about how to enter the prestigious photography competitions would be very helpful.
Greg Basco: For the past few years I have submitted to the two most important contests for nature photographers, the BBC/Veolia Wildlife Photographer of the Year and the Nature’s Best Windland Rice Smith. And I have been fortunate to have been honored in both.
For the first contest, I always like the photo called Chachalacascape that was honored in 2011. It’s a photo that most bird photographers wouldn’t have taken. It’s a fairly boring species, it’s small in the frame, and the light is all wrong. Those were precisely the things that caught my eye 🙂
A couple of years ago I won the Art in Nature category in the second contest with a macro photo that was kind of the same as the photo above. It’s a photo of a glass frog but the frog is actually secondary. The main interest is the design of the leaf. Glass frogs were nocturnal so this one was taken out in the cloud forest where I was lucky to find some of these frogs on a rainy night.
As far as contests go, I feel like they are kind of a double-edged sword. As a photographer, being lucky to get an award (and it is a combination of hard work and plenty of luck) in the big contests is great for PR and to have on your resume. It’s kind of like winning an Oscar or a Grammy or being an NBA All-Star. You’ll always be able to have that tag with your name, and it’s a nice validation of your work.
At the same time, I see a disturbing trend with regard to contests these days. The drive to win awards in contests can lead to unethical behavior in the field or at the computer, as a number of recent controversies have shown. I see lots of photographers these days photographing explicitly to win contests. I think the love of nature and personal style should always be the driving force for our photos. Some of my best photographer friends (a couple of whom are with me on your list of the top bird photographers in the world) haven’t won awards in contests but it doesn’t in any way diminish their work.
So my advice is to shoot what you love and how you like to shoot it, enjoy nature, and enter contests knowing that if you win an award it will be a nice accomplishment but, if you don’t win, it’s not because you’re not a good photographer. Judging is subjective, and you’ll see lots of great pictures winning awards in contests along with lots of so-so images, even in the big two contests mentioned above. You never really know what they’re going to want so just submit what you think are your best images and hope for the best.
In part-II, we’ll learn about several exclusive tips and techniques about:
- Flash photography techniques, which Greg specializes in.
- How to combine Flash with Slow shutter speed to get creative results.
- How to get out of the up, close, and personal framing to make something more compelling and unique.
- Some of the professional nature, wildlife, and bird photography tips.
Till then have a look at gorgeous photographs of rainforests in Costa Rica by Greg Basco.
Talk to you soon.