Costa Rican Humming Birds and Frogs

Humming Birds of Costa Rica

My very first hummingbird photo in Costa Rica.  This is five separate humming bird photos blended together in Photoshop.

I was familiar with many great nature photos taken in Costa Rica, so I jumped at the chance to go for a couple weeks with a good friend of mine on an organized nature photography workshop.  We photographed endless hummingbirds, frogs, toucans, bats and vultures.  Most of it in a torrent of daily rainstorms.  Thank goodness we went in the dry season.

Costa Rican Countryside

We had a few hours to drive north from San Juan, Costa Rica to our first stop in the higher elevations to photograph hummingbirds.  We crossed the continental divide of Costa Rica and soon experienced a very different climate zone.  I’ve crossed the Continental Divide several times in the States, including in ‘Colorful Colorado.’  For a quick comparison to Mexico, I felt Costa Rica was much cleaner, had some nice homes, much less litter and fewer stray dogs.

On this photo trip there was no landscape photography, no sightseeing of famous destinations.  We never visited the volcanoes or visited the beaches of the Caribbean or the Pacific Ocean.  Nature photographers are generally a single minded group.  No desire to taste the local food or wander about in the quaint local towns.  The closest to that we got was on our restroom breaks…  ‘Take me to your hummingbirds…. NOW!’


Costa Rica Countryside

On the way to our hummingbird heaven we saw very beautiful green countryside.  It was infinitely cleaner and better economically than the rural parts of Mexico I’ve seen.


bars ob windows

While we passed many miles of beautiful countryside with milk cows as a common sight, there were still those too familiar sights of homes with lots of bars on the windows and metal gates.

Too Many Hummingbirds

Tourism is a primary source of income for Costa Rica.  It claims to be among the most biodiverse areas on the planet.  Farmers and restaurant owners have found that they can make a lot more money by showing off their wildlife, and in this case their hummingbird population, than serving food or harvesting alone.  Once the lunch crowd leaves, the photographers arrive with their expensive cameras, many tripods and fancy lighting systems.  The restaurant simply needs to provide hummingbird feed in the interim to keep the birds in the area interested.

Violet Sabrewing

The Violet Sabrewing consumes twice its weight in nectar each day.  It is also the largest hummer found in Costa Rica.  Might you feel better knowing the Latin name is Campylopterus hemileucurus?


Garden Emerald

A pair of Garden Emerald (Chlorostilbon assimilis) hummingbirds take turns on a flower full of nectar, filled with a syringe.

A Quick Peek at the Landscape

We interrupt this string of hummingbird photos to bring you some landscape photos.  This waterfall view was no more than 50 feet from the patio where we were shooting the hummingbirds.  It was an afterthought.  No hiking down to see it, no hiking part way down to check out the views.  “What? Are you crazy?  We are here for the hummingbirds and I think you’re up next.  Get in there….”


Nobody cared about the name of this waterfall. We were told to not bring any polarizing filters which would have taken the glare off of the water and the rocks. No need for those, “There vill be no landscape photos!!”


This ‘video’ was taken with an iPhone.  It appears to be a video but it really is not.  The photo was taken with iPhone Live View.  Then in iMovie I brought in ten or more of the same clips, stringing them together, so it looks like a movie.

Now Back to Our Regularly Scheduled Program, “Endless Summer… of Hummingbirds and Frogs.”

Talamanca Hummingbird

A Talamanca Hummingbird takes a rest on the public food trough.


heliconia plant

‘He went that-a-way’. Two Garden Emerald hummingbirds sit on an equally amazing tropical heliconia plant.  As we would get near the site of the next hummingbird shoot, the guides would get out of the van and chop down appropriate flowers. The unwritten rule for nature photographers is you can’t photograph a hummingbird on a plant that is transplanted or not indigenous to the area…  Just found out these green emeralds could be green crowned brilliant.  Hey, this is getting to be a lot of work….


fuchsia blooms

Unusual poses while feeding on the common fuchsia


Hummingbird trio

It may appear I know what I’m talking about regarding the names of these hummingbirds. The true nature photographer is quite serious about knowing the exact name of each bird and if it is a male or female, juvenile or adult. They kept yelling out names for each hummingbird that flew in and quickly buzzed off. I really have no idea, but did my best to look them up on the Internet.

I was told I could download an amazing free app from Cornell Labs called Merlin.  This app would then identify birds directly from my computer monitor.  So far, no luck.  Sounded great to me at the time, so I made little effort to copy down bird names during the trip.


night time hummer

This was a different flash setup. It was taken in the early evening with only one constant light source from below, not a flash. I experimented with slower shutter speeds and really wish I would have gone much slower to get a more abstract bird trail.  I think this hummingbird is a lesser violet ear.

The Ol’ Bait and Switch

How is it possible to get so many hummingbirds and how come all your backgrounds look the same?

The movie clip below shows some of the action.

1).  Step one is to fly four thousand miles to a spot naturally abundant with hummingbirds.  Did you know Costa Rica is directly south of Atlanta?

2).  Fill colorful local flowers with nectar using a syringe and needle.

3).  For a nice blurred background, bring your own green, blurred photo background and hang it several feet behind the flower filled with nectar.

4).  Five flashes are then set up to illuminate the bird from the front, bottom and sides.  The background poster also needs a flash on it.  These flashes are then wirelessly tied to my camera.

Two photographers would be linked to five flashes and nectar baited flower on the right and two other photographers would be tied to the set-up on the left, which has five other flashes and a different flower also full of nectar.  The guy below is baiting the flower with nectar while flashes go off around him.  After about 10 minutes of firing off hundreds of flash photos every time a hummingbird comes close to the flower, the photographers would switch to the other flower.  The old bait and switch move.  Fortunately, we were always under awnings so we were protected from the daily rains.  The two photographers could fire off too quickly or at the exact same time and the result is a totally black photo.  Not a problem as you still have hundreds to choose from.

fuscia setup

Here is another view of a hummingbird set up. In the right of the photo you can see the fuchsia hanging down with the green background about four feet behind it and two of the five flashes.  The dirty looking net-like-thing behind the green screen is a dirty net-like-thing used as a wind and rain break.

Creating My Own Photo

Of the literally thousands of hummingbird photos I took, the one I like the best is the very first, top photo.  For those silhouetted hummingbirds in the lead photo, I took a lot of photos before the flashes, baited flowers and backgrounds and tripods were set up.  I visualized the scene I could create by taking photos on a relatively slow shutter speed, 1/200th of a second, allowing the bird wings to be blurred.  The natural forest was my blurred background in the distance.  I always prefer taking photos I find and create myself, rather that following a guidebook or some professional setup. You can see that the top photo with the natural background has many hot spots and not quite smooth as the staged paper photo background.


Next We Attacked the Frogs


red eyed tree frog

The red eyed tree frog is likely the most popular frog for tourists in Costa Rica and for good reason.

The visit to the frog habitat really was a farm several years prior.  One day the farmer showed a passing photographer a colorful frog.  The farmer quickly realized how lucrative the frogs could be when the photographer paid her for snapping a few photos of her colorful frog.  The family eventually stopped farming completely and now only cater to photographers.  While not a good decision during COVID, it seems they are doing well now.  Problem is, competing neighbors can get in on the action as well.   These frogs are not in captivity, rather the owners walk through their forest and find frogs for us to photograph.  At the end of the photo session, they release the frogs.

The Frog Staged Set-up

Doug and Frog

The frog is on top of a small red blossom.  The flash lights up just the frog. The other camera settings make the background dark. Even though you are taking photos in the daytime, it looks like night. Some of the frogs are nocturnal so it looks more appropriate to nature photographers who care about such things. (ISO 1,000; f14; flash power 1/64)  Another frog setup is in the upper left of this photo.

Seven Costa Rican Frogs

All of the frogs we photographed were quite small, maybe like the size of a 50¢ piece…. or smaller if you can remember what those looked like.

frog red flower

Here is the daytime photo of the masked tree frog taken on the setup pictured just above with my friend Doug.  Each photographer had a couple minutes to walk around the frog, bobbing up and down changing the viewing angle, then the next photographer steps in.  In the end, the better photographers really do get the better photos.  On the other hand, there seems to always be a bit of photo envy.  Everyone else’s photos and compositions seem to look better than yours.


Spiny glass frog

A low angle was desired for the spiny glass frog so the viewer can see some of his innards through his somewhat transparent body.


strawberry poison frog

While looking on the internet verifying the name of this strawberry poison frog, it stated the skin is poisonous making them too dangerous to touch. However, our frog handlers, a brother and sister, handled this frog for over 30 minutes with no gloves. He did state it was important to not wipe your eyes after handling them. He did so once and his vision took weeks to return to normal.


red eyed tree frog

This shows just how small some of the frogs are. In the lower left of this photo you can see an ant wandering through my frame. The frog did not eat it nor seem to notice it.


reticulated glass frog

Another frog with a somewhat transparent body, the reticulated glass frog. I mainly like the eyes.


Chirripoi glass frog

This is the Chirripoi glass frog. To me this was an especially nice setup.


red-eyed tree frog

The leader of the workshop let us know he would never take such a photo as this. While humorous, this is not a natural pose for this frog. I just want a photograph that can elicit a response. If humorous, all the better. Regardless, after jumping off the perch a few times, the session was over and the frog was returned to the wet, leafy environment. Apparently hundreds of flashes do not affect their eyes…..

Farewell Until Next Time

Please ‘hang around’ for a while as up next will be toucans, bats, colorful birds, king vultures.

three toed sloth

This is a three toed sloth. They are friendly. The two toed sloths are mean and aggressive…. I am told.



14 thoughts on “Costa Rican Humming Birds and Frogs

  1. Harold these photos are amazing, and thanks for talking me through them. I’m making my first trip to Costa Rica this year, Lord willing. Patrice

  2. Great collection.
    Vivid colors, and the bait and snap shots that one individual was taking, so cool.
    I do believe the frog series caught my eye more.
    Thank you for sharing.

  3. Your photos are spectacular! Brilliant work! National Geographic can’t hold a candle. Thanks for taking the time to describe your process.

  4. I am with you and do not really want to do the set up bird photos like those hummers and do not. I used a flash on birds in my distant past a few times and just that alone bugged me and seemed to disturb some of the birds and never used a flash on an owl and will not.

    Like the Sloth the best 🙂

    • Thanks for following my blogs after all these years. Yes ALL is just fine. Currently at the southern tip of Chile getting ready to head to Antarctica for a couple weeks on a photography tour. BTW I often tell people how to say ‘100″ is Spanish…. Very funny joke to me an one I remember.

  5. These pictures are both impressive and fascinating. Imagine giving up farming to cater to photographers. Whatever works!

    • Other than there were no customers during Covid, they have a much easier life now it seems and no longer dependent upon the weather. Photographers will pay anything for good photos.

  6. Great post and images, Harold. While I also like the first photo of hummingbirds my favorite is the one you used a flash with that with the wings in motion (black background). Its unique and seemed to keep me looking at it for a bit as well as returning to look at it a couple times. Thanks for sharing your travel/photo adventures.


  7. LOVE your photos, Harold. Thanks for continuing to post them for the rest of us to enjoy. Keep ’em coming!

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