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Jardines Topotepuy is a private botanical garden nestled in a cloud forest named Bosque de La Virgen (the Virgin’s forest). Here a myriad of flowers and luscious tropical plants make up an 8-acre piece of land that preserves a relict cloud forest which overlooks the valley of Caracas from the mountains south of the valley. This high point allows its visitors to see the whole valley framed by the Coastal Cordillera portion that makes up El Avila National Park. This beautiful location was chosen for our Digital Camera Adventure, which was shared with a fashion photographer and 4 moms who wanted to experience a digital camera assignment on a natural setting.
Topotepuy’s marketing strategies are designed to attract a wide segment of clients based on catering specific activities to the corporate, retiree, young adults and children segments of the population. This is possible by a wide array of services that include: corporate events, gardening and landscaping workshops, birding tours, photo shoot locations and nature interpreting and nature photography for the general public. One can find within its grounds rooms for workshops, a large gazebo for cookouts and outdoors meals and they recently adapted the orchid and bromeliad green house for tea parties and small reunions. Its success is based on its repeat business, as former clients book in advance the dates for their events and groups. Their clientele include groups like fashion companies, medical labs, banks, the different gardeners clubs of Venezuela, Venezuela’s Audubon Society, and the orchid, bromeliad, and palm societies which make this botanical garden their fund raising place of choice to visit.
As far as photographers are concerned, the place offers a secure and well-guarded acreage where you may roam at will with your gear in absolute safety. You will have a cloud forest for your own self; along with greatly manicured gardens with a large collection of the major plant groups, all of which, can be found in a short walk. Topotepuy is a private wildlife sanctuary as well. It is one of the few places in Venezuela with wonderfully tame cloud forest humming birds, which are used to humans being close to their feeders.
Fashion photographer and instructor Omar Ponceleon asked me for a workshop on nature photography for four of his students. As I have been photographing the botanical garden and the cloud forest in and out for over a year (recording the cloud forest dynamics in response to seasonal changes), I suggested this location for our experience. Our adventure started early in the morning, and as we arrived to the botanical garden, a heavy cloud cover mixed with a persistent drizzle (a true enemy of digital cameras) was covering the area. We decided to cover some of the theory speaking to our students about the natural history of the cloud forest, the humming birds, green jays, sloths and plant-animal co-evolution, so our audience could think up photographic themes of their own. This was to encourage them to plan their photography so they could hone their photographic skills based on specific goals for their photography. Planning a shoot, and what you will need to photograph to make a story, is just the beginning of the job. Getting the pictures for your story is the real challenge.
The objects of the Workshops became photographing the structure of the forest from the ground up. And paying special attention to document the botanical garden’s potential for learning about its plant collection.
Some people may think that plant photography can be dull, however, once you find yourself in a forest, you will be overwhelmed by its diversity, the amount of things that take place in there, the changes of light and trying to pick the subject you want to photograph and use to make a story. One of the themes is the plant/animal interaction, which can go unnoticed even by the most skilled photographer. I illustrate this in a short story further on (Photo Gallery), where a solitary bee/plant interaction clearly illustrates co-evolution in a jaw dropping way.
To document the advertising used by plants to attract its pollinator is a wonderful challenge. Insects, birds and bats, are the plant clients, for which, they adopt a specific strategy to insure pollination. In fact, without insect pollinators the world’s plant populations would be diminished to such an extend, that many of the domesticated species of plants used for food, cosmetics and medicine would disappear from the face of the earth.
To document nature with photography, one most take into account the changes of seasons. In the tropics, this may be two well-marked seasons, as we get roughly 7 months of a dry period, 3 of torrential rains and a month of transition in between the two. However, when you get an assignment to document nature, you may not be as lucky as to spend a whole year to make your pictures in order to document these changes and you would have to choose when to do so. Ideally, the months of transition will give you the best choice. For me, the best comes from dry to rainy season, as it shows great dramatic extremes in wilderness survival for all the creatures involved. Therefore, working a successful botanical garden shoot requires great skills to deal with the same situation and now, man has this down to a science. The choice to plant plants that will bloom and others that will make the place attractive for your audience guarantees the success or failure of the botanical garden. This forces man to adjust its plants planting to the changing environment and making the right decisions in how to keep the place pleasant for it visitors.
My goal was to teach the new photographers how to see nature. It ranged from seen the obvious like the vegetation, flowers, landscapes and animals to viewing the less seen things such as the abstract details deriving from the great variety of forms, textures and different sources of light that the forest and gardens forces us to work with. As Aristotle said “To learn about any subject, one most see it from far and then, one most see it from a very close distance” this is vital in nature photography. To get their shots, the ladies used every thinkable angle to frame their pictures. They worked from ground level to high up in the hills. As time passes fast, when one is having a good time, the activity did not escape this, as we had booked a 4 hour workshop which took us 8 hours to finish.
One of the techniques which all of the attendees wanted to master was to photograph humming birds. These masters of flight are everyone’s favorites in the new world tropics. The garden’s managers know this, so they have placed feeders where people are regularly resting or hanging out. This has made the local population of humming birds very people tolerant. In fact, one can get as close as 3 feet from these little birds without affecting their feeding or acrobatics. Well, once you find a feeding spot or perch you need to pre focus their flight path to their flowers or feeders. Then, you most use manual focus so the spot remains the same, thus avoiding the autofocus to get off the site when the bird flies through. AS the humming bird approaches, one most shoot a burst of pictures as fast as your camera allows (1/259th to 1 500th of a seconds and F stops ranging between f/8 and F/16) to capture the bird. The shutter speed and the depth of field most be fast and deep to increase the chance of securing the photograph, so a high ISO is recommended. Photographing one of the fastest birds in the world requires multiple shots and unrestricting editing since one will thrash many pictures before you get a few keepers!
Patience most be a nature photographer’s virtue. As one of the butterflies, bees or any pollinator’s object of survival its food, placing oneself near the food source will provide the photographer with the possibility to get his/her shot. Our group and I used a singe zoom lens for most of the shots. This forced all of us to approach our objects with care and respect. The use of a single lens forces your creativity and this was one of workshop’s goals.
The other challenge was light, we worked inside the forest, out in the open and in the green houses. All these locations offered us the chance to photograph a beam of light falling on a cobweb anchored to maiden’s fern and a philodendron leaf, a back lit bromeliad, kois and water lilies in a pond, blooming reeds, orchids in fact all kinds of lighting situations that forced all of the photographers to handle, light, composition and creativity to the best of their abilities. The attendees had to adjust camera speeds to beat the wind blowing the reeds out focus, stop down the f stop to kill reflections and to open their lenses to allow enough light to take a picture of the forest floor. In all, Topotepuy was a pleasure to photograph and to use as the first post in the Digital Camera Adventures Blog.
Whe close the blog with a panoramic of the valley of Caracas in the twilight of our shoot…enjoy and see you soon.
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Natural History Stories (Click on the Image to enlarge it)
Gallery (Click on the images)