February 2017. For a midwesterner like my father, this was prime time to get away. So Jon decided to acquire two tickets aboard a cruise from San José, Costa Rica to the Panama Canal. His original plan was to treat my mother to a bit of mid-winter warmth and sunshine. When she wasn’t able to go, he offered the spare to me.
I’d never been on a cruise prior to this, so when presented with the opportunity to get some all-expense paid shots of Central America, I obliged.
Yes, Jon and I packed the same shirts. No I was not happy about it but we made the best of the situation. The rooms were, in fact mirrored, this image is not a collage of multiple shots.
We set sail from Puerto Caldera and were set to visit such warm, luscious destinations as Quepos, Bahia Drake, and Puerto Jimenez to name a few.
On day two of the cruise, our midsize ship stopped short of the mouth of a bay called Bahia Drake. There, we had the better part of the afternoon to explore or, for just $200 each, we could take a mangrove tour. At hearing this, Jon and I looked at each other with that “yeah, nope” look on our faces.
So along with the two couples in our group, we took the dingy (a small boat that seats about ten turistas comfortably) to the beach to do some not $200-each hiking.
While I was grateful to escape the frigid winter, I have to admit… Costa Rica was hot. Much hotter than midwest ‘hot.’ Like 98 Fahrenheit (~37 Celsius), 100% humidity hot.
The second we stepped out of the small boat, we were sweating. And not just a little brow sweat…tourist sweat. My long sleeve, Target-branded, moisture-wicking workout shirt stuck to me. Sexy right?
We’d been walking for all of about twenty minutes through the dirt paths of paradise when our sweat ridden, pale skinned group stumbled upon a wooden bridge.
Waiting until the entire scene is void of any rays of light peeping through the clouds ensures an evenly lit scene with no blown-out bright spots that may otherwise be distracting in the final image.
After bravely traversing its neatly crafted planks, we obediently followed a gravel path to a cafe jutting out of the foliage.
At sunrise, the cafe had to be shot with a few different exposures to maintain any of the color of the sky. It’s a personal preference but otherwise the sky would have been entirely blown out. Portions of the ground and foliage were burned and contrast was added to them to amp up overall image texture and drama.
Standing behind the bar was a smaller gentleman whose kindness was apparent as his laptop cast a slightly bluish glow over his face.
He introduced himself as Yens (pronounced like “Jens”) and told us he was one of two owners of not only this cafe but the entire Drake Bay Getaway boutique resort.
For the next half hour or so, Yens told us his story — how he came to meet his business and life partner, Patrick, on a Baptist Church hike near Seattle; how they had actually been quite successful working back in the States, but were in search of a different kind of lifestyle — one not attainable there.
So they moved back to Yens’ home country, Costa Rica, and built their entire complex/resort from the ground up on land they bought from Yens’ father.
Ohio Needs More Palm Trees
Listening to this I thought, “wow, to live the life you want to make for yourself, you might have to go all in or bust; it ain’t no game of Blackjack on some passing-through cruise ship.”
Once we’d devoured this oral history, per our request, Yens led us up to one of the cabins for a quick show-and-tell.
As soon as I walked into the room: HOLY S***. It was stunning.
All interior shots were a combination of multiple exposures which I brought together in Lightroom with final touches in Photoshop, shot using a 17mm tilt-shift lens. My go-to camera body is a Canon 5D Mark IV which was tethered to my laptop.
Understanding that I had limited carrying space, I brought three lenses with me on this trip: 85mm f/1.4, 35mm f/1.4, and a 17mm f/4 tilt-shift. Zoom lenses take up a significant amount of space. The question is: what is the most important thing that needs to be photographed? If the answer is the interiors of the rooms and food then pick your lenses based on the client’s needs. Though wildlife photographs would have been great, I’ll leave that to the guests to capture at their leisure.
There was a porch that allowed for the perfect ratio of foliage to bay water to mountain views in the distance. The room, sans decoration in almost every way, enticed us to look out onto what mother nature so delicately nurtured.
These were the kind of views most only read about. We were (momentarily) one with the world.
Since Jon and I were planning on kayaking in the bay, I’d neglected to bring my camera with me for sake of not ruining a $5,000 piece of equipment. At this moment, I kicked myself for the missed opportunity to gorge myself in photographic pleasure.
When our brief visit concluded, Yens returned to the cafe and we took to the seas in our single-person kayaks.
After heading out and back in with our watercraft, I made the executive decision to go back to the ship, have a quick lunch, grab my camera and take the next available dingy back to shore to snapshots from the cabin that wowed us two hours ago.
Meet the Locals
When I got back to shore, I ran (jogged) as fast as I could back to the resort, where I found Yens once again working on his laptop.
Still being a gringo in the jungle, sweat-soaked and panting I politely asked if I could continue my run back up the hill to snap some quick shots from the room.
His hospitable reply was, “Of course, send them to us when you get home!”
When I’d had my photographic fill, I careened back down the hill and thanked Yens for our tours and, most importantly, the conversation.
As incessantly-curious tourists, my father and I value nothing more than meeting locals and hearing their stories. If Jon and I have learned anything while traveling it’s this: the best way to fall in love with a new place is to know it through the eyes of its people.
That’s just something you can’t get in the Costa Rica Pavilion at Epcot (if there is such a treacherous thing).
After returning my gratitude, Yens, noting the sweat dripping from my SPF 50 laden nose, offered to make me a smoothie on the house. I did not want to be greedy by any means, but dear god did that sound great.
I took my shoes off, set down my camera bag, and continued to chat with Yens while I waited on the smoothie; pineapple and coconut, a house specialty. As he prepared the drink from scratch, he asked about my family and what I did for a living out in Columbus, Ohio.
Though I know he’s heard plenty of stories being in the hospitality business, he had a genuine interest in my midwestern tale of a starving artist. Between desperate gulps, I told him that I was a photographer and graphic designer, among other things.
He was able to empathize from his years in the States, and having met so many travelers as a resort owner, he had advice for anything under the sun. I soaked in as much of this wisdom as I could, knowing if his advice could lead me to a life anywhere near his, I’d be quite happy.
When I’d finished my refreshment, I checked my phone to find that another hour had whipped by. My sweat had temporarily dried into stains. It was time to part ways.
As I struggled with the laces of my boots, Yens opened a case on the railing. He carefully selected a bracelet and presented it to me. “For your Mom,” he said.
I graciously accepted knowing full well how much she’d love it.
Nights came and went as the cruise pushed on. Highly trained waiters who referred to each of us by name served us gourmet food, plate after plate, drink after drink. Between meals, our time was filled with water sports, music, and intermittent napping.
A week after leaving Bahia Drake, we inched our way through the Panama Canal to the final destination: Colon.
As I wandered the city’s streets wearing the only other “cologne” I’d heard of — Intense Euphoria for Men, tastefully bottled by Calvin Klein — I indulged in a less obnoxious form of euphoria as I reflected on an amazing set of experiences.
When our adventure was through, Jon and I returned to Chicago (my hometown) so that I could spend a day regaling my mom with our stories from the trip.
As I told her about Yens and Costa Rica, I presented her with the bracelet he had given me. Her eyes puddled up as she put it on her wrist as I expect most moms would.
Months slid by with a few messages exchanged between the hotel owners and me. We discussed the photos I’d taken, but beyond that, we had very little communication. Certainly nothing like the invigorating conversation I had with Yens on my trip.
Until about a week before Christmas.
Long Time, No See
Reflecting on the past year, I decided to send another email to Yens and Patrick, at this point out of the blue.
Normally I don’t chock much of life’s happenstances to what many refer to as “luck.” But in this instance, I had trouble finding another storyline that led me to Yens’ doorstep.
Between that good fortune and founding my company, 301 Original, it was one of the highlights of my year. I noted this much in my “Hi, how are ya” email.
To my surprise, within no time at all, I had a response waiting in my inbox. Yens was delighted to hear from me and after a number of months, he still remembered who I was (the photo of us I attached probably helped; not included here for photography geek reasons).
His report was fairly standard; the hotel was booked for the foreseeable future (obviously), he was glad that my freelancing was going well, yadda yadda.
But halfway through my skimming, one sentence caught me off-guard.
“We are actually in great need of a pro photographer in exchange for a free stay at our resort.”
Perks of the Gig
As I read that, it was snowing in Columbus. The painfully cold kind that no one wants to go sledding in. I pounded out my response as fast as my suddenly dysfunctional fingers could.
I was in.
After a few breaths, beers, and emails to hash out the details, they flew me out for a total of ten life-changing days.
When photographing dark interiors contrasted by a bright, open-air landscapes, keep in mind that if the interior exposure does not match that of the outdoor vistas the entire shot will be ruined.
Long exposures help canote movement in a bustling kitchen as well as hide the identities of the ever-changing chefs per the request of the hotel owners. Maintaining a proper white balance is always critical to keep in mind when there are multiple light sources.
If I do not have my tripod with me for a shot of a sunrise (like this cabin, for instance), I underexpose the shot significantly so as to maintain the details in the highlights. I bring up the shadows while still maintaining the details in the sky and grass in post.
Each dish was photographed with my 35mm using available light. I earned my food — like clock work, I had to be down in the cafe in time for breakfast, lunch and dinner to photograph the food before the guests came down.
I was up at 5am to ensure I didn’t miss a moment of the sunrise to get this shot. Two strobes (LumoPro LP180’s — small, lightweight, and cheap in comparison to other studio strobes — I shoot everything from portraits to interior design with them and they travel nicely) lights were focused on the Toyota to ensure it’s brilliance in the final image.
Light painting is a great way to beef up and landscape image. The shutter was open for thirty seconds, in that time I popped my LP180 multiple times to “paint” in certain elements in the foreground.
All modesty aside, I killed it and came away with an awesome set of portfolio pieces. But I also built lifelong friendships with two amazing gentlemen.
And that’s not just because I did solid work: Yens and Patrick are some of the most passionate, hospitable people I know. They foster an environment that allows guests to be their true selves, a rare thing in today’s world.
Fortunately for all of us, their unwavering amiability hasn’t gone unnoticed.
By the time I was invited to join them once again, they’d caught the eye of some other amazing people, including the editor of Forbes Travel Guide.
Going into the trip, I had no idea that was the case; four days in they had me scramble to send off whatever pictures I had to Forbes as they were due to be listed as the top boutique hotel in Costa Rica.
And after I left, they’ve continued to see their names (and mine, by extension) popping up in the likes of GQ, Forbes, and numerous other travel and leisure publications.
As I’ve spent most of this article regaling you with the luscious details of my two free trips to Costa, I’ve also been avoiding an elephant in my room. Jon had a spare ticket for that first cruise because my mom hadn’t been able to finish her chemo in time to go with him.
As incredible as this whole experience was for me, the fact that the opportunity came because of my mom’s cancer keeps me grounded and truly grateful.
The good news is she’s fully recovered from her second round of ovarian cancer and she’s taken to mentoring others through their own struggles with that atrocious disease.
I’ve been blessed to have such mentorship all my life and she constantly inspires me to hold nothing back as I craft my life into one worth living. In her battles with cancer, I’ve been keenly reminded that life is fragile.
Missing a moment to tell someone how much they mean to you is to let life fizzle out unnoticed, to let the world end in the proverbial whimper. So over the past few years, I’ve taken to continually asking myself: how can I make the most of the precious few moments I’ve been allotted?
To my surprise, the answer can be as simple as sending a quick email to someone you met once, thanking them for a small gift they gave you.
And in this moment, I think it means sharing some small bit of wisdom I gained from the above experience, so I’ll leave you with this:
Be courageous, be yourself and get out there where life is lived while you can. Because every once in a while, despite the heartaches and hardships, it’s totally worth it.
About the author: Kyle Asperger is a commercial photographer, graphic designer, and the founder of 301 Original. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can find more of his work on his website.