4 Feb
Ian Plant By
Posted in: Costa Rica    6 Comments

Costa Rica: Wonders of the Osa

The Osa Peninsula of Costa Rica is truly a remarkable place, full of lush growth and life. In fact, it seems at times as if the forest is pulsating with life, with a constant background buzz of monkeys and birds chattering, and the gentle thump-thump of armies of leafcutter ants marching single file along endless tracks. If you dare stop for just a moment, you might be swept away by the endless tide of life in the jungle.

Hailed by National Geographic as “the most biologically intense place on earth,” the peninsula is home to at least half of all species living in Costa Rica, and harbors 2.5% of the biodiversity of the entire planet in less than a millionth of a percent of its total surface area. The Osa is one of the last places in Costa Rica to be settled, and even today it is sparsely populated. Covered almost entirely in virgin rain forest, the Osa packs an incredibly diverse and vibrant ecosystem into a very small area. In other words, be careful where you step.

The Osa boasts the largest population of scarlet macaws in Central America—something to which I can personally attest. I saw hundreds during my trip. I had a great session with several macaws eating figs no more than twenty feet away from me. Canon 5DIII, Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4x, ISO 500, f/5.6, 1/200 second.

Scarlet macaw, Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica (by Ian Plant)

The Pacific Coast of the Osa is beautiful, with stunning sandy beaches interrupted here and there by rocky headlands. I used a boulder submerged in the sand as my foreground for this sunset image. I triggered the shutter during an outgoing wave, using a long exposure to capture the flow of the water. Canon 70D, 16mm lens, polarizer filter, 2-stop graduated neutral density filter, ISO 200, f/16, 0.8 seconds.

Pacific sunset, Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica (by Ian Plant)

I was most interested in photographing monkeys, and the Osa did not disappoint—I saw all four species that make the Osa their home, including white-headed capuchin monkeys. I caught a moment when this capuchin briefly emerged from the shadows into the light. I like working with a mix of shadow and light, despite the challenges of dealing with an excessive contrast range. Canon 5DIII, Tamron SP 150-600mm F/5-6.3 Di VC USD, ISO 1600, f/6.3, 1/1000 second.

White-headed capuchin monkey, Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica (by Ian Plant)

For this shot of a hungry six-foot caiman, I decided I wanted a tight, eye-to-eye perspective—so I waded into the water, keeping a close eye on the caiman just in case it decided that it was hungry! Eyes tell a lot about your wildlife subject, so think of ways to get creative when you include them in your photos. Canon 5DIII, Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4x, ISO 1600, f/5.6, 1/200 second.

Spectacled caiman, Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica (by Ian Plant)

I love spider monkeys: they are the gold medal gymnasts of the animal world. Of course, it helps to have five prehensile limbs! Canon 5DIII, Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4x, ISO 3200, f/5.6, 1/160 second.

Spider monkey, Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica (by Ian Plant)

I found this interesting rock formation (which I have named “El Diablo” because of the two horns) along the Pacific Coast. I shot this at low tide after sunset. During the long exposure, the colors of twilight painted the sky a vibrant purple. Canon 5DIII, Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM, polarizer filter, 2-stop graduated neutral density filter, ISO 200, f/11, 54 seconds.

"El Diablo," Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica (by Ian Plant)

I don’t often shoot small birds, but I couldn’t resist this image of a colorful great kiskadee. I used the specular highlights in the background to frame the bird and add additional interest to the photo. Canon 5DIII, Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4x, ISO 800, f/5.6, 1/2000 second.

Great kiskadee, Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica (by Ian Plant)

Capuchin monkeys have tons of personality. I caught a candid portrait of this monkey with a tasty prize; it seems to have a guilty look on its face, as if the fruit was stolen from a rival. I used flash at low power to create catch-lights to the capuchin’s eyes, and to add just a little bit of fill light. Canon 5DIII, Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4x, ISO 3200, f/5.6, 1/200 second.

White-headed capuchin monkey eating fruit, Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica (by Ian Plant)

The main challenge of shooting in the rain forest is the lack of light, which almost always necessitates the use of high ISOs if you want to capture any action. Canon’s 5DIII camera handles high ISOs well, and my understanding is that Nikon’s latest cameras do an even better job. The trick when using high ISOs is to expose to the right of your histogram as much as possible, even letting a few highlight areas overexpose (such as the bright areas of sky behind the forest canopy). Digital noise proliferates in the shadows, so keeping your exposure away from the left of the histogram as much as possible will give you cleaner files, even at high ISOs. It was late in the day when I shot this image of a mantled howler monkey, so I had to use a higher ISO than I would ever care to use; with careful exposure, I was able to keep the noise to a minimum. Canon 5DIII, Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4x, ISO 8000, f/6.3, 1/200 second.

Mantled howler monkey, Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica (by Ian Plant)

You can see more of my Osa Peninsula images in my new free eBook Costa Rica: Wonders of the Osa.

P.S. I’ll be returning to the Osa in December 2014, leading my Costa Rica: Wonder of the Osa Photo Workshop with fellow Dreamscapes blogger Richard Bernabe. The sights, the smells, and the sounds of the Osa are hard to put into words. Why don’t you come along, and let your photos tell the story of this incredible place?

Ian PlantAbout Ian Plant (414 Posts)

World-renowned professional photographer, writer, and adventurer Ian Plant is a frequent contributor to and blogger for Outdoor Photographer Magazine, a Contributing Editor to Popular Photography Magazine, a monthly columnist for Landscape Photography Magazine, and a Tamron Image Master. Ian is also the author of numerous books and instructional videos. Ian leads photography workshops and tours around the world to help beginner and advanced photographers explore and expand their personal vision.


  • Ian,
    Beautiful photographs. Two questions, do you find outgoing waves produce better images than incoming? And do you normally combine a polarizing filter and a ND filter? I’ve been told not to do that, but I’ve always wondered what the big deal was.

    • Ian Plant

      Regarding the waves: it depends. I will usually experiment with both outgoing and incoming waves. Outgoing waves are often better for leading the viewer’s eye into the scene, although incoming waves, captured the right way, can be very dynamic.

      Regarding stacking filters: I get asked this one a lot, and I don’t know why people are told not to stack a polarizer with an ND. I do it all the time, no issues at all.

  • Did you do the Corcovado hike?

    • Ian Plant

      Hi Jason, no I did not – I had plenty to do where I was, and from what I gather Corcovado was just more of the same.

  • Awesome as usual Ian. The Osa is an amazing place, hope it never becomes like so many other areas of Costa Rica. It should remain pretty wild I think, unless access improves. Night walks there are eye-opening to put it mildly! Spider monkeys are my favorites too.

  • I love slide 19 (A chestnut-mandibled toucan eats a berry). Great body angles, lines, action, and color.