Oops, we did it again! Russ has hired another fantastic, capable and amazing photo guide to the Backcountry Journeys team as we continue to grow.
Please help me welcome Ben Blankenship to the Backcountry Journeys team! Ben comes to us via Costa Rica, originally from Tennessee, U.S.A. His work has been published in the New York Times, The Oregonian Newspaper, and by Photographers Without Borders.
Ben was nice enough to sit down with me for a little Q&A session. Here are the results of that conversation.
Kenton: First off, let me be the first to welcome you to Backcountry Journeys! We could not be more excited to have you join the BCJ team, and look forward to working with you out in the field! Thank you for taking the time to talk to us today. We like to produce these blog posts on all of our new guides as a way to introduce them to interested readers and future guests. You will be stiffly judged by everyone on every single word you say here, so beware!!
Ha, ha! Kidding. It is all fun here, and we’re all friendly. Until you take a stance on mirrorless vs. DSLR or Canon vs. Nikon. Then, the gloves are off.
OK, let’s get going!
Kenton: You spent nearly a decade in broadcast television. That sounds exciting! Can you talk about that experience? What were some of the more rewarding aspects of this work? What were some of the challenges? What do you take from that time/work with you into what you are doing now?
Ben: Some of the most rewarding aspects of working in film/television production are seeing your work on TV and in theaters. In addition to over four years working free-lance, I worked for six years at a production studio in Portland, Oregon called Bent Image Lab. Here, I served two roles. One was as a video editor. Video is incredibly creative and interesting work. However, it does require spending long hours in a dark room. And when it comes to tight deadlines (which there always are), it is the editors who put in some of the longest hours to meet those deadlines. I once worked 130 hours in a single week to hit a deadline for a broadcast television show! My other job was as the behind the scenes photographer. Whenever productions were shooting, I was there on set capturing all the drama and process of the production. In the end, it was this separation of duties that led me to pursue photography full-time. Though, I loved the creativity of working as a video editor, I wanted to spend more of my time in the field than in a dark room in front of a computer screen.
Kenton: Can you discuss the transition from television to photojournalism/travel photography? It seems as if it would be similar in many ways, but then also different. Truth to that? If yes, how so?
Ben: I studied photography and filmmaking in college, and I have been actively shooting photography for over 15 years, whether it be as a hobby or my profession. The biggest challenges transitioning from motion picture to photography full-time was learning to work for myself. Whereas motion picture productions consist of dozens of people, the photographer’s life is most often spent working alone. I love the autonomy and independence that comes with working as a photographer, but it takes a level of self-discipline and ambition that was not required of me when working in a production studio.
Kenton: You split time between living in Costa Rica and Tennessee. Those places are pretty similar, no? Can you talk about how this works out for you? Why you do it, where you live in each location and when, etc. What do you love about each location?
Ben: I first traveled to Costa Rica in January of 2017 when I was hired as the photographer/videographer for a wildlife conservation research NGO on a six month contract. During this contract, I lived a very rustic lifestyle at a jungle camp on the Osa Peninsula in southwest Costa Rica. During this time, I fell in love with the natural beauty of the country as well as Tico (Costa Rican) culture. Life there is both challenging and more simple than living in the U.S., and the photographic opportunities are bountiful. After completing my contract with the NGO, I decided to stay in Costa Rica for another seven months, splitting my time between Puerto Jimenez and Carate, a jungle village on the border of Corcovado National Park. Now, I split my time between Costa Rica, Tennessee, and working photographic assignments around the world, the most recent of which being in Uganda.
My connection to Tennessee is familial. I grew up near Nashville, and spent my childhood on backpacking trips into the Smoky Mountains with my dad and siblings. We grew up fishing, camping, and hiking, and Tennessee offers some of the best of all three of these activities in the U.S. Tennessee will always be home, and the natural wonders of the state my backyard.
Kenton: You know, the world is such a large and wonderfully diverse place. And, if we’re lucky enough we have a long life to live in all its glory. Its pretty special to be able to live in, and experience many locales. And to have a deep appreciation, as you so clearly do, to the environment at the same time. A special connection, indeed.
Do you have a particularly favorite photograph in your portfolio? What is the reason it is your favorite?
Ben: Like most photographers, my favorite shots are often the newest ones. And the ones that other people react to the most often surprises me. I’d say many of my favorite shots are coming out of my most recent job in Uganda, which will be making their way to my website soon. Other than that, I love nighttime photography, both of landscapes and of the creatures that inhabit the nighttime jungles of Costa Rica, specifically the amphibians and reptiles. I have many frog photos from Costa Rica I am quite proud of, specifically of the glass frogs, a species of tree frog that has transparent skin, allowing you to see its organs and bones beneath with the naked eye.
Kenton: What are you looking forward to most about guiding Backcountry Journeys guests?
Ben: One aspect of photography that I love nearly as much as getting that perfect shot is sharing techniques and experiences with other photographers. I worked for several years as a photography instructor while at university, and I love that aspect of the work. Furthermore, I am a nature-nerd to the max. I love natural history and biology, and I very much enjoy sharing what I know on the subjects as well as continuing to learn about it everyday.
Kenton: That is awesome, Ben! Love hearing that because that is a big part of what we appreciate about Backcountry Journeys tours. There is more to the trips than just photography. And great food. And amazing scenery. We feel it exceptionally important to talk and educate about where we are, and what makes these areas so special in addition to the scenery and animals.
Why should folks who may be looking around the BCJ website pay special attention to the Costa Rica tour, in your opinion?
Ben: For those interested in wildlife photography, Costa Rica is a dream destination. Costa Rica is one of just twenty countries considered to have the highest biodiversity in the world. With over half a million species of animals, and a landmass making up just .03% of the world’s total land, people visiting Costa Rica can expect to be up close and personal with wildlife on a nonstop basis. Whatever your wildlife interests are, Costa Rica has it in abundance. Large mammals are commonly sighted, including tapir, puma, and tayra. And encounters with capuchin monkeys, coati, and anteaters occur on a daily basis. Some of the most iconic and beautiful birds reside in Costa Rica, including the toucan, scarlet macaw, harpy eagle, and quetzal. If you’re like me, and you love all things slithery and slimy, there are giant boa constrictors and a seemingly endless list of beautiful snakes and frogs to be seen. And on top of all this, the Osa Peninsula contains the largest swath of virgin Pacific rainforest in Central America and miles of pristine black sand beach.
Kenton: Man, that is one of the finest sales pitches for Costa Rica I’ve ever hears. Are you sure you don’t moonlight with the Department of Tourism there?? Kidding.. Amazing. We are thrilled with that particular trip offering, as well. The Osa is outstanding as well as the Lookout Inn, the eco lodge where we stay while there.
Let’s just get it out of the way… The seemingly classic photography argument. Nikon or Canon?
Ben: Both! For my own personal photography, I’ve spent many years shooting film, reserving my digital setup for professional gigs only. And, when it comes to a 35mm SLR setup, the Nikon F2AS cannot be beat. And, I think that vintage Nikon glass is some of the best in the world. Digitally, I shoot with the Canon 5D Mark IV. I still use some of my vintage Nikon glass on my Canon body. For portraits, they provide a distinct quality and character not found in most modern lenses.
Kenton: I love that answer. What about the new topic du jour, especially now that Nikon and Canon are joining the fray. Care to weigh in on the Mirrorless vs. DSLR conversation? Any opinion either way?
Ben: I do not have much experience with the newer mirrorless setups. But, I love rangefinders and I am a Leica-phile to the max! I’ve owned a few Leica 35mm cameras (M3, M4, M6 TTL) and some incredible Leica prime glass in my day, including the 35mm summicron and a 50mm summilux lenses. My dream digital setup is a Leica M10. But, oh the cost though!
Kenton: Perfect segway to the next topic! Care to talk us through your current gear setup? Shooting wildlife in Costa Rica must present some gear related challenges, yes? If so, can you talk a bit about that?
Ben: When it comes to shooting wildlife in Costa Rica, there are really only two setups I worry about; a super telephoto and a macro. The super telephoto needs to be able to reach out beyond 400mm (on a full-frame camera), as birds, monkeys, sloths, and other arboreal creatures are often fairly high in the jungle canopy. I feel that it is important to have your super-tele lens be a zoom as opposed to a large prime, because, just as often, wildlife can be quite close. And often this wildlife can be quite large (like a 600 lb Baird’s Tapir)!
The macro comes into play with the high variety of colorful frogs, lizards, spiders, and snakes that you will come across, especially at night. Frogs are especially photogenic, allowing you to get your lens within inches of them without disturbing the animal. I also like to use a ring flash for my macro work.
One other consideration when choosing which lenses to bring along is that guests will come very close to monkeys and macaws at the lodge where we’ll be staying. So, bring along that medium telephoto as well for getting up close and personal. I like my Canon 70-200 2.8L IS for this.
Another gear tip for Costa Rica is to pack some moisture absorbing silica packets into your gear bag. Costa Rica’s humidity can occasionally damage electronics. So, I always make sure to buy a 50 pack of silica packets from Amazon before heading into the jungle, and toss a few packets amongst my gear.
Kenton: That is fantastic insight, Ben! Anyone who books a Costa Rica trip should read your last statement. If they do, they’ll be well prepared! And happy.
What do you feel are the biggest challenges in landscape and wildlife photography?
Ben: Landscape and wildlife photography absolutely present their own set of challenges. For me, wildlife photography is not so much about getting a great photo of an animal; it is about getting a great photo of animal behavior. I feel that the best wildlife photography is all about great action or the perceived emotionality of an animal’s experience. This can obviously be quite challenging to capture. So, I think the approach is to be patient and spend as much time with the animal you are photographing as possible. Observe and gain a deeper understanding of the animal you are photographing, and the photography will improve as your understanding of the animals grows.
With great landscape photography, it is the photographer’s burden to find and accentuate the drama of the landscape in their photograph. This is something that takes practice and diligence, but in the end, the goal is to develop a signature style of your own, a way of seeing the world and photographing it that is uniquely yours. For this reason, I encourage young photographers, at least at first, to avoid shooting obvious setups like sunsets. I tell them, use the best light you can, but photograph something other than the sky. Look to how the setting sun’s light interacts with the landscape as opposed to just trying to capture the colors in the sky.
Kenton: Fantastic insight and recommendation, Ben. What is your prefered lens for shooting things like Macaws?
Ben: My preferred lens for shooting Macaws is again the 70-200 2.8L IS. This does require that you get quite close to the birds, but this, in my opinion, is what will make the best photo; proximity to the animal. But, there are many scenarios in which Macaws are encountered in Costa Rica. One of the most common scenarios to observe them is seeing them fly from tree to tree just above the beach almond and palm trees along the beach. The Lookout Inn provides a perfect vantage point for capturing Macaws in flight from afar, at which point a super-tele lens would be used. But, they also feed at the lodge’s porch, allowing the perfect scenario for lenses like my 70-200.
Kenton: Right? The Lookout Inn offers an almost unfair advantage with regard to capturing Macaws.
What are the most rewarding aspects of your career?
Ben: The most rewarding aspect of my careers is absolutely being able to travel for work and meeting people from around the world. Photography is a great unifier in many ways, allowing people to see the world through the eyes of another, and I love the joy of sharing my work with others.
Kenton: Looks like photography takes up a great deal of your time, which, why not? All of us here completely understand that! How about, then, your spare time? Do you have any rad hobbies?
Ben: It has been my lifelong love for the outdoors and traveling that helped me grow as a photographer. And, when not working, I still love to camp, hike, and go fishing. I love traveling as much as possible, especially in Central America and South America where I get to use my Spanish skills. And, as much as traveling and photography are tangled up with me, I cherish opportunities to put the camera down and experience other cultures without the distraction of worrying about getting a great photo.
Thanks again, Ben, for your time and insight. After having this conversation it is exceptionally clear that whomever joins Backcountry Journeys tours that you’re on will have a high quality experience.
Look for Ben on the next Backcountry Journeys Wildlife of Costa Rica Tour, set to launch this December as well as in Yellowstone, Yosemite & Utah this fall!
Great stuff, Ben!
Kenton Krueger has spent the past several years guiding guiding backpackers, hikers and photographers into the wild places of the American West such as Havasu Falls, Grand Canyon and Yellowstone National Parks as well as in the Grand Staircase Escalante in southern Utah. In addition to backpacking and camping, his adventures include rock climbing, exploring the slot canyons of southern Utah, mountain biking, and bagging 14ers in Colorado’s San Juan Mountain Mountain Range. Kenton is a trail runner, former pilot, newspaper photographer and writer. Kenton looks forward to utilizing his years of guiding experience, combined with his passion and experience behind the lens to provide memorable and unforgettable experiences at the wild places we will visit together.