Shooting in Panama

Because fashion retailers have to prepare a full two seasons in advance, we often find ourselves shooting far across the planet, in a climate that’s the mirror opposite of our own temperate, Northern Hemisphere one. It’s pretty hard to get a more direct contrast to the Utah mountains in the wintertime than the Bocas del Toro Caribbean archipelago in Panama.

For the past two Januarys, we’ve escaped the cold and dark to shoot in Panama for our longtime client, Athleta. Here’s what stands out most in my mind about Bocas del Toro: authentic and beautiful indigenous people, warm air and water, thick green rainforests, boats everywhere, bugs everywhere, too, and lovely sheets of warm rain.

During both trips, the crew and models for the Athleta shoot stayed at the enviably situated Tranquilo Bay eco-adventure lodge, which is run by two nice and helpful American families. This was a very involved shoot, with a large crew that hailed from all across the U.S.—from New Hampshire and New York, to Utah and Texas, to California and Hawaii—plus a couple of folks from Mexico. After a night in Panama City, we all caught an early-morning puddle-jumper to Bocas del Toro. I’ll never forget the initial vision of clear turquoise waters ribboned with emerald rainforest as we touched down on the dirt runway.

Shooting in Bocas is extremely technical, making me grateful for my talented crew and our extensive experience shooting in remote locations. A typical day there began with loading up the boats before sunrise and lighting out with the models for some far-flung and unimaginably beautiful destination. I think my very favorite spot was the Zapatilla Cayes, part of the Bastimentos Marine National Park.  I mean, look at this place! What’s not to love? we got some great photos and a few we sent and got a portrait commission to turn them in to a painting, such a nice memory.

When we headed out each morning, we had to be prepared for anything. And when it rains in Panama, it RAINS. We had to be very deliberate about packing our photo and computer equipment and had to consider how to keep our lenses and other equipment from fogging up due to the high humidity. I cannot stress how critical it is to keep equipment dry.


In addition to the water, the other consideration was the bugs. After getting practically eaten alive the first year, the crew became scientific about keeping the bugs away. The second year, some crewmembers started eating huge quantities of raw garlic in the weeks preceding the shoot. Others slathered themselves with a greasy, strange-smelling local concoction, while most people went for that time-tested, toxic avenger: DEET. Personally, I covered myself from head-to-toe with lightweight clothing and actually considered a full suit made of mosquito netting, but whatever sense of style I possess just couldn’t allow that abomination. Really, the models had it the worst, since they were clad in nothing but bathing suits.

Despite the bugs, we’ve had two unforgettable shoots in Bocas del Toro, resulting in fantastic images and even better memories. One of my favorites of the latter was the befriending of my digital tech guru, Ben, by Rosando, a local 6-yr old boy. One day we were shooting on a sandy beach and Rosando appeared, curious about the commotion and totally fascinated by Ben’s computer. Shy at first, throughout the day he moved closer and closer to Ben until he had pretty much assumed a position on the crew. He especially liked when Ben pulled up some images of snow on the laptop. We all fell in love with this inquisitive little guy and were delighted the following year when he showed up on the beach again. I had brought along some toys in hopes we would see him, and as we left the beach that evening by boat, we saw Rosando and his friends playing in the sand with a plastic farm animal set.