Greg Basco: From Amateur to Professional
In our interview series “From Amateur to Professional,” we will be asking established nature photographers to share their photos and see how their practices have developed, changed, and improved over time. You’ll get to see the progression of their images, learn how they got started, and find out how they transitioned from amateur to professional.
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Greg Basco is a Costa Rica-based professional nature photographer who specializes in Latin America.
When not leading workshops or scouting new locations for his company Foto Verde Tours, he’s out photographing for personal projects, writing magazine articles, producing videos for his YouTube channel, or writing e-books such as his most recent, the comprehensive new work Flash for the Nature Photographer.
When and why did you first catch the nature photography bug?
While in graduate school studying political science and tropical ecology (conservation and sustainable development), I worked at the Missouri Botanical Garden which is famous for its tropical plant research. I was in charge of public exhibits about the tropical rainforest, and one of my tasks was to procure nice photos for the displays.
I enjoyed choosing the photos and started to wonder how they were taken.
When I travelled to Costa Rica for my research I bought a camera and a macro lens. I enjoyed it and took some nice photos – I then sold a few of those photos and bought more gear. I sold more photos, and bought more gear… and the cycle continues to this day!
After finishing school and working for a couple of years in Costa Rica in conservation, I finally made the move into full-time nature photography.
Show us one of the first images you ever took. What did you think of it at the time compared to now?
This photo of a Hooded Praying Mantis (Choeradodis rhombicollis) in a Costa Rican rainforest is one of my earliest photos. I took it with a Canon 10D, a Canon 100 mm macro lens, and a Canon ring flash.
I started out doing a lot of macro photography because it interested me and because the rainforest is full of great macro subjects! This one is OK, and while the lighting is kind of cool (I held the ring flash underneath a leaf) it doesn’t look natural because light from the sun or moon doesn’t come from below the subject.
Show us 2 of your favourite photos – one from your early/amateur days, and one from your professional career. Why do you like them, what made you so proud of them, and how do you feel about the older image now?
This photo of the famous red-eyed tree frog (Agalychnis callidryas) is one from my early days, but it’s still one of my favourites.
This is probably the most photographed frog in the world; I wanted to capture it in a different way by accentuating those amazing eyes, and with light that looked like moonlight. I took this handheld, at night, with one flash and softbox which I held off-camera.
Years later, when I was working on a coffee table book of Costa Rica photos, I became interested in photographing animals in their natural habitat.
I was again able to take a unique photograph of this same frog, but this time showing this nocturnal frog species against a starry sky. It involved flash and some tricky in-camera focus changes to obtain the depth of field that I needed.
I love both of these photos, but the more recent one is most representative of my approach today. I still take nice tight portraits when they present themselves, but now I try whenever possible to show the environment of the subject as well.
That’s true whether I’m using a wide angle, macro, or telephoto lens.
When did you decide you wanted to become a professional photographer? How did you transition into this and how long did it take?
My interest in nature and conservation is what originally drew me to nature photography, and my conservation and budding nature photography careers co-existed for a few years until 2008. That’s when I met my friend Paulo Valerio, a Costa Rican ecologist and tourism entrepreneur, and we decided to form Foto Verde Tours – Costa Rica’s first photographic travel company.
With the photo tours adding to income from photo sales, I quit my job and committed fully to nature photography. While I enjoyed working in conservation, I found myself staring out the window and thinking about photography when I should have been writing grant proposals!
Was there a major turning point in your photography career – a eureka moment of sorts?
I would say that there were two.
The first, in terms of improving my photography, was learning to successfully combine flash with natural light. This really opened up new worlds for me regarding when and what I was able to photograph.
I love great natural light when it presents itself, but using flash allows any photographer to go way beyond the traditional shot, even if the natural light is terrible or non-existent.
The second turning point relates to photography as a career. I came to realize that being a good workshop leader, a good e-book producer, and a good article writer was every bit as important as taking good photos in terms of making a successful living as a nature photographer.
Are there any species, places, or subjects that you have re-visited over time? Could you compare images from your first and last shoot of this? Explain what’s changed in your approach and technique.
As I mentioned above, the main change in my approach has been to include more space around my subjects rather than simply filling the frame with them. I’ve also tried to take different images that tell a story about my subject.
I find this forces me to use lots of different lenses and techniques, which is key to keeping up my interest rather than using the same lens and taking the same kind of photo all of the time.
For instance, I’ve photographed a lot of birds in my home country of Costa Rica. I started with frame-filling portraits set off against clean backgrounds.
Then I graduated to trying to shoot through the foliage with shallow depth of field, and/or deliberately looking for busier backgrounds to add more feeling to my images.
I proceeded to portray my birds smaller in the frame so that I could show a greater sense of habitat.
More recently, whenever possible and not intrusive to my subjects, I’ll work with a wide-angle lens for a dramatically different perspective with tonnes of impact. I would say this approach helped me in two ways; improving my photo skills, and of course adding some diversity to my portfolio.
Has anything changed in regards to how you process and edit your images?
That’s an interesting question, and the answer is yes. I used to be pretty strict and even wrote a fairly controversial article called “RAW Perfection”.
Though I stick by many of the things I wrote back then (e.g. trying to get the best image in-camera, and disclosing any major processing), it seems a little pretentious with age. It’s also limiting in terms of allowing us the freedom to fully express our photographic vision.
So these days, to enhance my images and bring out what I was seeing and feeling when I captured a given image, I take full advantage of the selective adjustments and new masking capabilities in Adobe Lightroom (I do all of my processing there).
I still shy away from all but minimal cloning and basically never remove anything from a scene. I certainly never add anything that wasn’t there when I took the photo. But, I have definitely become a bit more liberal in my processing philosophy.
What was the biggest challenge you faced starting out, and what’s your biggest challenge now?
I’ll address this question with two answers.
First, rainforest photography is tough. The light is rarely very good, and clear looks at subjects are hard to find. You need some good exposure and flash skills, as well as naturalist abilities. I truly believe that if you can take good nature photographs in the rainforest, you’ll be well-equipped to take good photos anywhere.
So those were the challenges I faced starting out, and I really didn’t think much about it. I was learning photography in Costa Rica and totally enjoying the process, but looking back I’m thankful for the boot camp. I think it has helped to make me a more complete photographer.
Second, I started my photographic journey right when the whole digital vs. film thing happened.
Photographers of the generation before me used to make lots of money selling stock photos, but by the time I hit the scene stock photo sales were declining because everybody had a digital camera.
But that was an opportunity as well. Since more people had cameras, more people wanted to learn how to use those cameras and take better photos.
Through my company, we’ve been able to work with several lodges and farms in Costa Rica that have great bird feeders, making it easier to get clean looks at awesome subjects like toucans and hummingbirds. While that’s certainly diluted the stock photo pool, it has created the opportunity that we have to run photo workshops for our clients.
What’s the one piece of advice that you would give yourself if you could go back in time?
I’m not sure that I would do anything differently in terms of the trajectory of my nature photography career.
Through sheer luck and perhaps a pinch of intuition, I think I was able to open up a pretty clear path to success. Stock photo sales were on the decline so I focused on what I liked to shoot, not on what agencies wanted. Rather than chasing agency want lists, I photographed what caught my eye. That helped me to develop a recognisable style.
At the same time that stock sales were declining, an opportunity for photo workshops was emerging. Though more and more people had access to digital cameras and thus the ability to take nice photos, there were more people with digital cameras who wanted to learn how to better use those cameras.
I was lucky to meet my business partner just as the photo workshop business was emerging as a possibility. This allowed us to be pioneers in our home country, and we’ve expanded our efforts to other countries within our home region of Latin America.
We just visited Panama last month and have since been busy with meeting hotel/lodge managers and directors of conservation foundations. All in efforts to set up some mutually beneficial photo opportunities for our clients on future workshops to that amazing country. As with any business, success tends to be a combination of luck, preparation, and timing.
Being a bit lucky on those two fronts meant that I was a bit relaxed in another aspect of the nature photography business – promotion and marketing.
I still struggle with that today. I’m simply more interested in taking my own photos when I have my own time and helping my clients to take great photos when I’m out leading workshops. I prioritise those things over promoting what I have to offer to a wider audience.
However, I really encourage other nature photographers to focus on the marketing aspect. Having a plan of what to offer and when to offer it is a super important skill.
That said, it can’t be all sizzle and no steak (as the old advertising adage goes). These days, lots of PR and marketing by photographers and camera companies is mostly glitz and glamour but with little substance. That can work in the short term, but it’s not sustainable.
You have to take awesome photos and produce great educational content first. Although, you should definitely give the marketing angle equal weight. I really wish I had taken some marketing/business courses back in the day – maybe it’s not too late for me!
Finally, I just want to say thanks to Nature TTL for the fantastic questions. It’s been interesting to look back on my earlier photography years.
I truly hope that this helps up-and-coming nature photographers. My main piece of advice is to learn the technical aspects of photography so that these become second nature. Then go out and take photos that express your own vision.
Share that with your audience in a humble and clearly understandable way, promote your talents to an audience that matters, and you’ll be on the road to success!