Saddled With Extra Work

Sometimes you don't have to go looking for a shoot. Sometimes you get volunteered to do it by your wife. While on vacation.

Which is what happened to me while we were in the cloud forest community of Santa Elena a couple of weeks ago.

More on this after the jump. But if your name is John Harrington, do not click on the "more" tag. (Click here instead...)

In Santa Elena, we stayed at the Arco Iris Lodge, a wonderful little enclave that is just a block from the center of town, but feels like you are miles from nowhere. Arco Iris is Spanish for rainbow, and sure enough, they get one like you see above on every sunny afternoon.

That's because there is this crazy, ultra-fine mist that hangs in the air in the cloud forest community of Santa Elena. Just like walking through one of those cooling misters at the county fair on a sunny day. It's very refreshing, actually.

Susan and Em immediately hit it off with Susanna, the proprietor of the hotel. Among other things, they are all horse people. Susanna keeps horses on the property but does not rent them out. (They are pretty high-octane models.) Susan and Em had wanted to ride while we were on the trip, so Susanna hooked them up with Sabine's Smiling Horses, where the horses are positively spoiled well cared-for. The girls' equine experience could not have been better.

Em and Susan rode all afternoon and hung out before and after with Sabine and her young daugher, Tara. It didn't hurt that the day was perfectly clear. They could even see the Pacific Ocean from the mountain ridges on the ride. We could not wipe the grin off of Em's face all day.

As it happens, Susan was so happy with the recommendation she volunteered me to shoot a couple of much-needed interiors of the rooms for Susanna. (John, if you are still here, I warned you.)

And you know what? I am totally cool with that. Sure, I may grumble a little at first at the idea of having my (nonexistent) schedule twisted around a little bit. But it really is nothing for me to spend a few minutes doing a couple of interiors that will make a big difference to the folks at Arco Iris. The place is not exactly dripping with photographers and Susanna does not even own a camera.

The place is beautiful in a cool, eco way. And we were patting ourselves on the back the entire time for choosing to stay there. BTW, we got a great two-room, two-bath cabin for $140/night there.

(Just like London! Not really!)

It's very laid back, with exotic plants everywhere, monkeys hanging out in the trees and the occasional scorpion to keep you on your toes (or give you an awesome story to bring home to your soccer team.)

But with the bag I packed, I did not include a very wide lens. The 24-70 gets me about a 36mm equivalent on the small-chip D300. So for the rainbow shot above, I just shot a series of photos and stitched them together in Photoshop CS3's automatic panorama feature. (I love that little trick.)

For interiors, it's much harder to do panoramas because of having to keep the lines straight. So I decided to do a couple of interior detail shots that I could handle with my modest wideangle lens.

Second problem: I only have one light stand, and no white ceiling to use for bounce. The rooms are beautifully paneled in rich, dark wood -- including the ceilings. It's very nice, but a little nightmarish with just a couple of hard speedlights. I had one stand and one umbrella, but that would not get me very far. And in the end, I wound up not even using either.

The bathrooms (God love 'em for including a kids' bathroom) were clean and bright, and very easy to light with just one SB-800. Any bathroom that has a shower with a neutral curtain has a built-in soft box, so that's exactly what I did here.

Sounding like a broken record here after the MVI shoot, but I used a Bogen 175F "Justin" clamp to mount an SB-800 to the soap holder in the shower. The doors were frosted plexi, so I just closed them and used them as a diffuser.

You can see how simple this is, although I did open the door a little here for clarity. I set the flash on 1/4 power for a little oomph, set the camera on 1/250th, and just adjusted my aperture until the bathroom looked good.

Then, I opened up the shutter speed (which controls the ambient) until the light coming through the window in the mirror looked right. Piece of cake.

Total elapsed time? Maybe 5 minutes. Woulda been faster, but I had been in Pura Vida mode (Costa Rica's national slogan) for a full week now. Just cruising at a relaxing pace.

But the room wasn't gonna be so easy. Given my gear and the dark tones, it would be a series of compromises. No ceiling bounce -- my go-to technique for fill, normally. Just underexpose the room by two to three stops with that soft, mushy ceiling fill and accent light the interesting stuff. Not this time.

No large modifiers -- and no tripod, either.

So, I decided to use the two windows as diffusers. They had white curtains, and one had a porch railing outside. I could fire flashes though them and get reasonably big sources to paint the room and get the speculars to be as small as possible in the wood panels. (They were still pretty bright.)

How to mount them? You guessed it -- Justin clamps again. They are named after some guy McNally knows, but to me it means "Justin case you ain't got nothin' else" to mount a flash with.

That window is right by the front door (camera right) so it gave me frontal soft light which I like -- and a specular that I would have to live with. It's not so bad, really, as it also shows the texture and finish of the wood. C'mon, rationalize along with me.

I thought about sculpting it with snooted strobes, but that room ate up so much ambient that I had to flood it with as soft a light as possible.

Light two was the side window, on camera right out of the frame. I opened the curtains, JC'd another SB-800 in there and closed the curtains. Not as soft, but clean -- and fine for side fill.

It is only as I sit here writing this that I get a Homer Simpson moment:

D'Oh! Sheets!

It's a hotel, you idiot. They have extra sheets out the wazoo.

I could have taped them to every non-visible wall in the photo and bounced flashes off of them. Oh, well. I'm just gonna have to go back to Arco Iris and fix that next winter. And I am pretty sure Susanna will hook me up with a room, too.

So, here is the way it looked with my Architectural-Digest-On-The-Cheap setup. I am no Scott Hargis, but I am happy with it, all things considered. Shutter was dragged to bring in the three lamps, so the whole thing glows warm and woody.

For ten minutes of head scratching and minimal gear, I am cool with it.

That is Now, This was Then

Okay, at 43 years old and traveling with kids, you want the wood ceilings, tiled bathrooms, monkeys and other niceties if you can swing it. And I am not making every decision based on price now, so the $140/night is doable. But twenty years ago if I were traveling through I would have stayed a block away at the way cool Pension Santa Elena, where the rooms start at **$6.00** a night and max out under $50 for doubles with private baths.

The pension was the place to be come nightfall, with beverages and conversation flowing well into the evening. The wifi from across the street is free and open, and backpackers meet, make friends and share experiences. I have seen a lot of hostels and pensions in my day, and this place is maybe the coolest one I have visited -- and cheap to boot.

Great people (thanks for the wifi, Ran) and totally recommended if you are shoe-stringing it through Costa Rica. And the taco stand next door rocks, too. Depending on your price point, you cannot go wrong with either hotel when visiting Santa Elena / Monteverde in Costa Rica.

If you end up at either place, tell Ran or Susanna that David from Strobist says hi.

How Far do I Have to Go to Get Away From You People?

We were walking back to our cabin one night at Arco Iris, when I see what appears to be a real photographer walking past us. He has a 1D-Mark-Something, pro glass and a carbon tripod. I generally introduce myself as another shooter and at that point I recognize the guy as Paul Souders, a friend from way back in the '80's.

Paul bypassed the whole newspaper thing altogether (smart guy in retrospect) and has spent the last 20 years on an amazing path as a travel/adventure photographer. Better yet, he is blogging from the road and is very much worth a slot in your RSS reader, if only to see where he will turn up next.

He's as good a writer as he is a shooter, which is saying something. Main site is here, and his blog is here.

Check him out if you are into, you know, the whole world and stuff.


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