This site does not support Internet Explorer for Macintosh. Please use Safari, Firefox or Opera.

Program Locations

Overseas Seminars - Costa Rica


Conservation Photography in Costa Rica
Study in Costa Rica with Susan McConnell and Neil Osborne

Arrival Date in San Jose, Costa Rica: August 18, 2013
Departure Date from San Jose, Costa Rica: September 6, 2013

Information Session: Tuesday, October 9, 12:15 - 1:30pm

@Room 029 Ground Floor, Sweet Hall


What is conservation photography? One might define it as “nature photography with a mission.” Conservation photographers photograph the natural world, animals and plants, and the people that threaten, protect or study wildlife and ecosystems—all with the goal of advocating for specific conservation outcomes.

“Conservation photography is born out of purpose and may showcase the vanishing beauty of our planet and its disappearing spirit…. Conservation photography may be described as the result of photographic talent combined with environmental understanding and conservation commitment.”
                                                                           - Cristina Mittermeier

“In broad terms, conservation photography is the use of imagery to achieve conservation goals. Blending nature photography with a social documentary approach, it is an issue-oriented and proactive storytelling platform that allows photographers to put their images to work.”
                                                                           - Neil Ever Osborne

The purpose of this course is to provide students with in-depth exposure to the emerging field of conservation photography, while simultaneously examining the strategic use of visual communication in the environmental arena. The course will introduce students to the use of digital SLR cameras and digital image processing. We will examine conservation photography from its historical roots through its current manifestations in today’s environmentally active climate. Conservation issues affecting society will be analyzed through specific case studies accompanied by images, video and audio. Both theoretical concepts and applied photographic techniques will be discussed during lectures, tutorials, demonstrations and field trips. Students will create new photographic work that explores their individual interests and culminates in group projects that highlight visual storytelling. Through exposure to the work of prominent conservation photographers and by creating their own images, students will gain an appreciation for the power of visual communication and its potential for precipitating environmental action.

The first week of the course is devoted to introducing basic methods in digital photography, including lectures on basic camera operation, perspective and point of view, composition and light, and to introducing the field of conservation photography with lectures on its history and current practice. In the second week, we conduct tutorials on photoessays, sequencing images, image processing and workflow. We also conduct an in-­-depth exploration of visual communication in magazine articles, conservation websites, and documentary films. The third week is devoted to individual conservation topics and the creation of conservation-­-based photoessays featuring student works. Throughout the course, students will spend time every day in the field, photographing subjects of their choosing. The course culminates in presentations of images from the group projects and the verbal defense of the choice and sequencing of the images. 

Each student will be provided with a Canon digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) camera (Canon T2i Rebel or equivalent) for the duration of the course, along with a 17-55 mm zoom lens. A limited number of macro and telephoto lenses will be available for shared use. Students who own their own DSLR cameras and lenses are welcome to bring and use these instead, if they so desire.

Although our daily routine will vary, late mornings and early afternoons are usually devoted to lectures and discussions. Early mornings, late afternoons and some evenings are spent in the field doing photography. During the first two weeks of the course, field outings will be highly mentored in order to teach students basic camera and photographic skills. As their skills increase and students identify topics for their final projects (which are undertaken in pairs), more time will be spent shooting independently.


The seminar will take place in Costa Rica. Costa Rica is a model nation in which to explore environmental and conservation issues. Article 50 the Costa Rican Constitution states, “All people have the right to a healthy and ecologically balanced environment,” and roughly 25% of the country’s land is under some sort of protection. Article 6 of the Constitution establishes special government jurisdiction of the sea adjacent to Costa Rica’s territorial boundaries, for the purpose of protecting and preserving natural resources including bays, coastal lagoons, mangroves, coral reefs, sea grass meadows, estuaries, and any natural resources in the waters.

We will spend the first half of the course at the Cano Palma Biological Station ( Operated by the Canadian Organization for Tropical Education and Rainforest Conservation (COTERC), the station is situated in the Barra Colorado Wildlife Refuge on the Caribbean coast near Tortuguero National Park. The refuge is home to a wide variety of tropical mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians, which can be seen in their native rainforest habitat. Photographic and storytelling opportunities abound, making for an enriching field course experience. The seminar will coincide with the nesting season for Hawksbill, Loggerhead and Pacific green sea turtles, and the site provides access to numerous other animal species including manatees, two-­- and three-­-toed sloths, peccaries, tapirs, coatis, kinkajous, monkey species (spider monkey, the mantled howler, and the white-­- headed capuchin), over 375 species of birds, numerous bat species, geckos, lizards, caimans, crocodiles, and a huge variety of insects and plants. Cano Palma offers several advantages as a focal point for this course. First, its proximity to the coast offers varied opportunities for photography and for exploring marine as well as forest issues. Second, the presence of villages close to Cano Palma will enable students to include the human side of conservation issues in their photoessays.

We will then spend four days in the heart of Caribbean lowland rainforest at La Selva Biological Station (, which is operated by the Organization for Tropical Studies (OTS) and is located next to the Braulio Carrillo National Park. An extensive trail system of more than 50 kilometers provides access to a wide range of terrestrial and aquatic habitats, and we will encounter numerous scientists conducting research in the field. More than 400 species of resident and migratory birds have been sighted in the reserve, representing almost half of Costa Rica's bird species.

Before returning to the capital, we will spend two days in quite a different ecosystem—the Monteverde Cloud Forest (, which is located along the Cordillera de Tilarán mountain range. The Monte Verde Reserve was established by Quakers who fled the US to avoid being drafted during the Korean War. The reserve is home to hundreds of species of mammals, birds, amphibians and reptiles, as well as the largest number of orchid species in the world.


Living and Traveling Conditions

Students will share dormitory-style rooms in all locations. At Cano Palma Biological Station and La Selva Biological Station, students should be prepared to sleep in bunk beds, share a common bathroom, and have less privacy and personal space than they may be used to on the home campus. There will be no Internet access at the stations. The accommodations at Cano Palma are quite rustic—see for a video that shows living and dining spaces as well as scenes from the general area. Photos of facilities at La Selva can be viewed at Bed linens and towels will be provided at all sites. Food in the dining halls is basic but healthy. Dietary selections may be limited so students with severe restrictions should carefully evaluate their ability to participate comfortably.

The seminar will be moderately strenuous and at times physically demanding and busy. Students should expect to spend at least four hours out in the field on a daily basis searching for photographic subjects. Students must be physically fit, able to hike on uneven terrain with moderate changes in altitude (a few hundred feet), cross streams, and climb over obstacles such as fallen trees. In some regions the terrain will be muddy and slippery. The Costa Rican rainforest is home to large numbers of insects, spiders, amphibians and reptiles, and the seminar experience will be enhanced by an appreciation for these “creepy-crawlies” as well as the more charismatic mammalian and bird species that we will encounter. While the ability to converse in Spanish will be helpful on this trip, English is spoken at the field stations.

Participants should plan on bringing prescription medications as needed, a pair of knee-high rubber boots, good walking/hiking shoes, clothes suitable for hot and humid weather, insect repellent, umbrella and/or rain jacket, water bottle, flashlight, binoculars, and sunscreen. A complete list of what to bring will be provided at the pre-trip orientation.


Susan McConnell (, is the Susan B. Ford Professor in the Department of Biology at Stanford. The research in her laboratory explores the mechanisms by which neural circuits are established during mammalian brain development. Her interest in the brain is an outgrowth of a lifelong fascination with animal behavior, which also led her to delve deeply into wildlife photography. Although she has worried that an obsession with “getting the picture” causes one to lose sight of the rewards of direct experience, Sue has realized that when she’s behind the lens, she feels absolutely and fully engaged with observing and predicting animal behavior. Telling stories about wildlife is best accomplished not through the production of single images, but rather through a series of images that explore a subject and its relationships to the people who study, protect, live with, or exploit that species. Sue is particularly interested in scientific studies of animal behavior in the field and in the depiction of animal emotions. Her photographs have been published in Smithsonian magazine, Outdoor Photographer and other magazines, and have been exhibited at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. Sue is a member of the National Academy of Sciences. Her teaching has been recognized by the Walter J. Gores Award for Excellence in Teaching and the Hoagland Prize for Undergraduate Teaching. Sue and her co-­-instructor, Neil Osborne, taught Bio10AX (an Arts Intensive course on conservation photography) in September, 2011. She has visited Costa Rica on numerous occasions and is familiar with the challenges and opportunities presented there for photography.

Neil Ever Osborne ( blends his backgrounds in science and visual communication to bridge gaps between people whose respective conservation goals are best met through collaboration. He does this using photography, multimedia and visual communication strategies, while pursuing academic endeavors as a teacher and student of the conservation photography discipline. At the root of his work is the still image. Neil creates visuals that depict a narrative for the purpose of sharing stories that are meaningful for conservation. Art and science continue to fuse in his work while he seeks opportunities to inform audiences about environmental issues. While his work focuses on endangered wildlife and threatened natural places, human influences are always present in his stories. Neil’s stock and assignment images have been published by international conservation organizations and he is recognized as an associate member of the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP). Prior to becoming a professional conservation photographer, Neil worked with world-­-renowned National Geographic photographer Frans Lanting for two years. Neil currently splits his time between field excursions and teaching appointments at Universities in North America. He previously held an adjunct instructor position at Queen's University in Ontario, Canada, where he taught conservation photography and visual communication strategies in the School of Environmental Studies. He is currently heading a program on Environmental Visual Communication at Fleming College and the Royal Ontario Museum in Canada. Neil taught conservation photography courses at the Cano Palma Biological Station in Costa Rica in 2011 and 2012, in association with McMaster University in Canada.


Enrollment Capacity
16 undergraduate students.


Prerequisites and Expectations
This course will be of particular interest to students majoring in Biology, Human Biology, Earth Systems, Communications, and Science, Technology and Society. It will also appeal to students interested in photography (particularly nature photography) and to students concerned with environmental issues and activism.

There are no prerequisites for the course. Prior experience with photography is not required, nor is Spanish language proficiency.

In addition to the mandatory orientation sessions in Winter Quarter and Spring Quarter, all students are expected to attend two mini-symposia on conservation issues that affect tropical rainforest and marine environments, with talks presented by Stanford faculty and graduate students who conduct research in Costa Rica and similar ecosytems. The mini-symposia will be held on Saturday April 20 and Saturday May 13 from 2:00-5:00 p.m. (Note: Dates are tentative and will be confirmed by the end of fall quarter.) These sessions are required.


Grading Basis
Satisfactory/No Credit.


Passport and Visa
Students are solely responsible for obtaining their passport and visa. Every BOSP participant MUST have a signed passport that is valid for at least 6 months after the scheduled RETURN date from the overseas program. Students who do not have a valid passport must apply for a new or renewed passport immediately. For information on obtaining or renewing a U.S. passport see To expedite your passport processing, click on the following link and go to the appropriate tab:
For visa information for this specific seminar, please click on the link below and go to the appropriate tab:


Health and Safety
Students on international programs should be aware that attitudes toward medical conditions, disabilities, and psychological conditions vary by culture and under the laws of the host countries. These differences impact the level of treatment and accommodation available abroad. Students should give serious consideration to their health and personal circumstances when accepting a place in a program and should consult with their physicians.

Students must be aware that certain immunizations are required to protect their health in Costa Rica. Students must review the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website for complete information on health conditions and vaccinations in Costa Rica at Students must also consult the on-campus Vaden Health Center Travel Clinic ( Students are expected to make an appointment with the on-campus Vaden Health Center Travel Clinic as soon as they are accepted to the program at (650) 498-2336 ext. 1 to discuss any health concerns, pre-departure immunizations and any personal prescriptions before going abroad.


Students must review the U.S. State Department’s consular information website for complete information on safety and security in Costa Rica at


While overseas, students are advised to be alert to their surroundings, and be particularly aware of any health and safety advisories for the areas in which they will be visiting. As with any foreign travel, emphasis will be placed on staying away from questionable situations, avoiding injury, and preventing infectious disease. Students will be expected to travel in groups, avoid travel at night, and stay with the group unless prior approval is obtained. Additional issues of personal health and safety and precautions will be discussed in detail during the mandatory pre-seminar preparation and upon arriving in country.


Other Considerations

In Limon Province, where Cano Palma Biological Station is located, there is some risk of malaria, thus prophylaxis with chloroquine, Lariam (mefloquine), Malarone (atovaquone/proguanil), doxycyline, or primaquine is recommended. Students should discuss options with their physician and/or registered travel health clinic what malaria medications to take.

Students must be aware that no swimming in the ocean and/or estuaries or lagoons/ponds is allowed during the seminar. The currents can be swift and dangerous and there are few lifeguards or signs warning of dangerous beaches.

When hiking in forests and near estuaries, there is a risk of encountering dangerous animals including poisonous snakes in the forest and crocodiles in estuaries, as well as spiders, insects (ants, wasps, bees, and mosquitoes) and dangerous plants (many rainforest plants protect themselves with spines, thorns, or caustic substances). Students are cautioned to view all snakes as potentially lethal and to slowly back away from a snake if seen. The best way to avoid snake incidents is to stay on the trails and never wear open-toe shoes in the forest. Crocodiles measuring up to five meters live in rivers and estuaries throughout the lowlands. It is easy to avoid crocodile incidents by never swimming in rivers that crocodiles are known to frequent, and never wading in estuaries and mangroves.

In general, students are advised to avoid direct contact with animals, insects and many plants. More information on recognition and avoidance of dangerous animals and plants will be discussed during the pre-seminar preparation and upon arriving in country.

While hiking, students should always travel in groups and carry ample water to avoid dehydration. While a snake bite is not a common accident, falling down is. Slipping and falling while walking the steep slippery edge of a trail trying to avoid a puddle is a particularly common accident—for this reason students are advised to bring knee-high rubber boots for hiking. In general, much of what is interesting in the tropical forest is up in the trees, and much of what is dangerous is on the ground. Therefore, for safety it is important to remember two simple rules:  1) When you're looking up, don't move your feet. 2) When you're moving your feet, look down. 
Students are advised to bring a good insect repellent (with DEET) and proper clothing to ward off bites from bugs, mosquitoes and sand flies. Bites from sand flies (which are found on beaches and are most active during sunrise and sunset) can leave irritating and somewhat ugly welts.

As is true of travel anywhere, there are concerns about crime, particularly petty theft by pickpockets looking for cash, jewelry, credit cards, electronic items and passports. In towns and cities, students should avoid wearing flashy jewelry, hold firmly onto purses and backpacks, and keep money in front rather than back pockets. Be aware that local custom is that cars do not yield to pedestrians.

If you are uncomfortable traveling under such conditions, you should not apply to this seminar.