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Through the Shutter : Panama Offers Lush, Varied Sites

September 07, 1986|CARL PURCELL | Purcell is a professional photographer.

For a photographer, Panama is a delightful place to visit. It is a diverse and visually exciting destination, literally bursting with colorful images.

The population is concentrated in Panama City and each day Avenida Central teems with throngs of shoppers. The brightly painted buses are jammed with passengers and speakers blare with the tempo of Latin Rock.

Panamanians are generally friendly, outgoing and pleased to pose for pictures. Panama, probably more than any other country in Central America, is safe and politically stable. It is one of those former Banana Republics where you are more likely to hear the clicking of camera shutters than the cross fire of a jungle ambush.

The visiting photographer will probably experience the fogged lens syndrome. Lenses often become cloudy with condensation when one carries a camera from an air conditioned hotel lobby into a tropical environment. Don't try to wipe the lens clean with a tissue because the condensation will only form again. Wait patiently for about 10 minutes and the lens will clear.

A Range of Settings

Panama City's architecture ranges from Spanish Colonial to the glass and concrete of contemporary office buildings. You can get an effective shot of the city skyline from the curve of Balboa Avenue across Panama Bay. Another dramatic vantage point is from the garden terrace of the El Panama Hilton overlooking the skyscrapers and international banks along Via Espana.

Probably the most photographed site in all of Panama is Miraflores Locks in the Canal Zone, those incredible hydraulic locks that pass ships from one ocean to another. It is an ideal location for getting dramatic pictures of the passing vessels that range from small sailboats to enormous freighters and ocean liners.

Getting good pictures of ships in transit depends on being there at the right moment, but if you miss one, another will be along shortly.

High and Low Tolls

Substantial tolls are derived from the canal. The highest ever paid was $99,065.22 by the Queen Elizabeth 2 in 1984. The lowest was 36 cents paid by Richard Halliburton when he swam the length of the canal in 1928. A zoom lens is helpful in composing good pictures at Miraflores Locks. The enclosed observation deck offers an elevated area for a better picture angle.

The Panama Canal can also be photographed from the vantage point of a cruise ship; countless luxury cruise liners pass through this impressive waterway.

Popular Site

Most photographers visiting Panama eagerly look forward to a visit to the San Blas Islands to photograph the Cuna Indians and their colorful molas, a form of appliqued fabric folk art.

The flight from Panama City is both inexpensive and convenient, but I was rather taken aback when the Cuna guide informed the members of our small group that there was a charge of 25 cents for taking a picture of any Cuna Indian. In fact there was a 25-cent charge for each Cuna man, woman or child included in a picture and another 25-cent charge for each click of the shutter. I didn't need a calculator to realize that I could go broke faster with my camera and a motor drive than I would at the roulette table at a casino in Panama City.

The commercialization of Cuna photography is not surprising. The Indians are colorful, visually interesting and enterprising; it is only fair and appropriate that they set the rules on their own islands and receive a modeling fee for their services. My advice is to compose carefully and shoot sparingly. I paid out $10 in quarters and consider it money well spent.

The brightly colored molas are prominently displayed and of course they are for sale. They can, however, be photographed at no charge. Two of the finest treats on the San Blas Islands are the lobster lunch and an outboard cruise in a motor-driven dugout canoe.

Little Sand Islands

There are 365 of these little sand islands, set like pearls in the turquoise waters of the Caribbean. The dugout takes you to several of the major islands with their arched palm trees and thatched huts. Keep your cameras high and dry in the open boat. My suggestion is to place them in your zippered camera bag or in clear plastic kitchen bags. Don't make the mistake of setting your camera bag (or anything else) down in the bottom of the narrow boat where saltwater inevitably accumulates.

Panama has diverse geography that includes white-sand beaches, steaming rain forests and volcanic mountain ranges. It is one of the few places in the world where the visitor can find such oddities as golden frogs and square trees.

One part of the country is almost like Switzerland without snow and the visitor can fish for trout or ride horses along mist-shrouded mountain trails. It is possible to swim in the Atlantic in the morning and the Pacific in the afternoon.

Obviously Panama is a country with a rich variety of subject matter for your camera. Approach it with a creative eye and you'll come back with a multitude of colorful photographic memories.

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