One glance at a Google image search of “Puerto Rico,” and you’ll be enchanted by its white-sand beaches, swaying palms, lush forests, charming cities, and historical sites. If you’re planning a trip to the tiny territory, don’t forget your camera — it’s a locale that has inspired photographers for years.
Old San Juan
Located within the confines of the capital, this barrio (also known as La Ciudad Amurallada or “the Walled City”) is both the oldest settlement in Puerto Rico and the most colorful example of the island’s Spanish-colonial influence — an occupation that spanned the 16th and 17th centuries. Comprised of 400 meticulously maintained and restored buildings, the area is steeped in old-world charm. And, with an area encompassing only seven square blocks, the neighborhood is easily traversed and photographed.
Hit the streets during the early morning hours or wait until late afternoon to capture the pastel buildings at their prettiest. After you’ve gotten your fill of these cotton-candy colored houses, head to Raices Fountain for a spectacular shot — tamp your aperture to a small opening (f/22) to capture the sun’s rays as they illuminate the fountain from behind. If you decide to employ this trick, set your camera on a tripod or other surface and extend the shutter time (2 to10 seconds) to let in enough light and to compensate for the small aperture. Continue to chase color in Old San Juan at the Cathedral of San Juan Bautista, the second-oldest in the New World and the final resting place of the island’s inaugural governor, Juan Ponce de León. There, you’ll spot impressive stained-glass windows, lovely tile work, and intricate engravings. Be sure to open your aperture to capture these details in the cathedral, as it’s plagued by dim lighting during mid-day hours.
If you’re up for an hour-long scenic drive (from San Juan) along the island’s northern coast, there’s no better photo op than Cueva Ventana. Located atop a limestone cliff in Arecibo and overlooking the verdant valley below, the cave offers both a compelling window-like overlook and a challenge to enthusiastic hikers.
Pack your camera in a bag and be sure to protect it from the elements as you begin your ascent up the cliff — you’ll want to focus on keeping your footing, not dealing with gear bouncing around your neck. Once you reach the mouth of the cave, take a moment to appreciate the view. Use your viewfinder to frame your images and ensure that the view of the cave mouth and the valley beyond is centered within the darkness. Shoot aperture-priority to ensure that your focus is correct and expose the image for the scene’s bright spots. If any element of the photo appears too dark, you can adjust while post processing.
Puerto Rico is a land of contrasts — from crystalline waters to stunning forests, this island seems to have it all. And no forest is prettier than El Yunque. The only subtropical rainforest in the U.S. Forest System, this 28,000-acre expanse is decorated with unique flora and fauna and laced with hiking trails that allow everyone, from amateurs to experienced trekkers, to enjoy the beauty of the biodiverse locale.
To combat the humidity of the forest, protect your gear with a plastic bag. Photograph the spectrum of plants using either a zoom or fixed lens, depending on your style and preference. Capture a variety of specimen with your macro lens, opening your aperture to an f/stop of f/3 or larger to create an image with a shallow depth of field that highlights the object of interest. To photograph the tree canopy, expose for the “light” of the image to prevent it from being “blown out” or overexposed. You’ll be able to correct any dark shadows in post.
Regardless of whether or not you spend your free time catching waves, Puerto Rican surf culture should be celebrated — and photographed! As the surf capital of the Caribbean, the island is often dotted with colorful boards and adventure-seekers looking for promising swells in its turquoise waters. Puerto Rico’s best surf spots are located on its western coast, so those seeking out the biggest barrels and boldest surfers should visit Isabela, Aguadilla, and Rincon.
To photograph from the water, invest in a good waterproof case or an action camera, such as a GoPro. To photograph from the shore, be sure to bring along a lens with an extensive reach — 300 to 400 mm will do the job nicely. Shoot in manual mode to achieve the best results, selecting a shutter speed of 1/600 or faster and an aperture of around f/8 to keep a consistently deep depth of field. Always keep your ISO low to combat excessive noise and grain. To handle reflection and flash, consider bringing a polarizing filter along to minimize bright highlights.
If you spend a night in Puerto Rico, be sure to turn your eyes skyward — absent of much light pollution, the island territory is home to one of the most beautiful night skies in the Caribbean. However, make the pilgrimage to Puerto Mosquito or “Mosquito Bay” (don’t let the name detract you), and you’ll forget all about the heavens. The locale — which has recently been nicknamed the more tourist-friendly “Paradise Bay” — is home to the world’s brightest bioluminescent bay, which is filled with tiny sea organisms (pyrodinium bahamense and dinoflagellates) that glow in the dark and turn the warm waters into a seemingly star-spangled sky.
The bay, though beautiful, poses some challenges to photographers who wish to capture its unique glow. The key to getting good photos here is to utilize your digital camera to the best of its ability — set your camera on a tripod or another stable surface, open the aperture fully, set the shutter speed to at least 15 seconds, and experiment with varying degrees of fill flash until you reach your desired result.
If you’ve been to Puerto Rico and don’t see your favorite photo ops listed above, let us know which locations on the island inspired your best images!