Photographing amphibians and reptiles

Photographing amphibians and reptiles – a short guide

“That’s a great shot, you must have a good camera.” Good photographers hear it all the time. However, put the world’s greatest camera in the hands of a novice and see if they can produce the results as easily. What results do you want? Can you afford the gear? How important is the camera? It can be tough for anyone just starting out to decide what they want from the camera and their pictures. The most important things are knowing your camera and how to make the most of it. In this article we’ll look at the options and their pros and cons – and of course how to make the most out of each one.

The angle… This picture could illustrate camouflage…

…but this one shows more ‘character’ [Canon EOS 500D, 1/125, f/9.0 ISO 400]

THE COMPACT “HAPPY SNAPPY” CAMERAS

These are the “normal” consumer digital cameras that seem to be in almost every handbag, pocket and backpack. Their greatest asset is their portability- you can take them anywhere. Also, they are usually cheap and easy to find. Because they are designed to be small and compact, they have serious limitations such as no inter-changeable lenses, fixed flash and not the best image quality when compared to the more complex SLRs. Typically, you have very little control over the settings with compact cameras.

 “ZOOM” CAMERAS

The next step up in digital cameras are the more professional looking “zoom” cameras. They do offer better lenses, although generally you cannot change them. On the bright side, they usually accept “supplementary” lenses that screw into the front, such as magnifiers and polarisers. Also, some models will accept additional flash guns on the “hot shoe” on top.

 SLR CAMERAS

If you want the best in image quality and want a camera that can do it all, look no further than the latest in digital SLR cameras. You can explore the world of nature photography at its best.A wide range of lenses, any number of flash guns and modern accessories are available to SLR users. On modern models you can use a variety of settings from complete manual right up to fully automatic. Soft, blurred backgrounds are available to SLR users that, for many compact and zoom camera users are simply not possible.

With good lenses and lighting, there really are no limits. The only limitation is really the size of the camera and the other gear that goes with it. Cost is no longer so big an issue as you can now find second-hand cameras and even new ones for very competitive prices. You are free to use some amazing technology, such as motion sensors, infra-red triggers and so much more- but we’ll save this for another article.

So what are the basic “rules” for all camera users? Glad you asked…

 Focus

Isolating the head of this Spadefoot makes him look thoughtful. (Canon EOS 400D, EF-S 60mm, 1/125, f/11, Flash)

It seems so obvious that getting the subject correctly focused is one of the most important factors in a good picture. Sometimes you may want your subject out of focus for whatever reason but when it is accidental it can ruin an otherwise fantastic image. So, what part of an animal should be in focus? Most of the time, small animals are photographed from the front or side. In these cases, you should ensure the eye is in sharp focus. The rest of the picture can be blurry but still look natural. When the subject’s eye is out of focus, but the rest of it is in focus, it can look very unnatural. Keeping the eye in focus generally looks more appealing, as we humans tend to look for an eye in a picture, if it is clear and sharp, we tend to “identify” with it a little more. Eye contact in pictures works wonders, so keep the eyes sharp if nothing else.

 

Correct focus in this, as in all images is essential to make it work. (Canon EOS 350D, EF-S 60mm f/8, 1/125, ISO 100, Flash)

How do we focus correctly? With modern digital cameras, you will have, in most cases “autofocus” points. The method I use to get focus just right is as follows:

  1. Select one autofocus point (see camera manual)
  2. Aim at feature that needs to be in focus
  3. Push button halfway down
  4. Allow camera to achieve focus
  5. With the button still halfway down, move the camera so that the animal is in the correct position in the frame
  6. Press button fully to take picture.

It’s heaps easier than it sounds and it ensures I have the part in focus that I want. Otherwise, I just hold the camera steady and manually focus until the image looks right. How can you tell if the eye is in focus? Sometimes low light can make focusing difficult so a trick I use is to look for points of light from say a torch or sunlight that are reflected on the eye and focus until they are pin-sharp.

Although compact cameras do not have the ability to give blurred backgrounds due to lens and sensor size, this can be a blessing in disguise for taking images that have a greater “depth of field,” or more of the image that is in focus. Depending on the model of camera, you may have to select Macro mode (usually an icon of a flower) and play around with the zoom until you get the right magnification and sharp focus. Most compact cameras seem to work best on macro mode when zoomed in from a distance, but it may take some experimentation.

  Angle

From this angle, the snake is ‘disconnected’ from the viewer

Photographed like this is more engaging

The angle is vital – it can make or break a picture. So what do you want, a shot for identification? (By the way when we are helping people with ID of frogs and lizards, this next part makes life so much easier.) If so, you may want to take the photo so it shows both the back and sides of the animal. But such an angle is not very “personal” as there is no eye contact between the animal and the viewer of the picture. If you want more of a “feel good” or “arty” image, try experimenting with angles and perspectives. Photographs seem to touch a chord with viewers if the animal looks like it’s having some sort of conversation with them. Pictures taken at eye level from the front and slightly to the side have that “conversation” aspect. With modern digital cameras you can afford to try as much as you like from many angles.

This image would be best for display

…and this would be best for identification or a field guide

Lighting

Lighting is also important in a good picture. Photography literally means “writing with light” so it is what makes a picture a picture. Light must reach the film or sensor and there are several ways to control this: aperture, shutter speed and ISO. As for the light itself, generally the best is natural light, but you’d want to avoid bright, overhead sunlight in most cases. Human eyes see many shades of light and dark, but cameras only see a few. What looks like minor shadow to our eyes at midday will likely be interpreted as black by the camera. Dappled light under, say for example a tree can show as pure white “burned out” spots on a photograph where our eyes would see detail. There are many ways to soften harsh natural light like using frosted glass or plastic between the sun and the subject (known as “diffusers”), filling in shadows with flash or using reflectors of some type to add light from another angle. Cloudy days produce excellent diffused light without the harsh shadows, as does early morning and late afternoon sun.

Light can convey emotion. Flash was used here and the frog looks comfortable…

…and with the natural light he looks gloomy and depressed in his puddle.

The most popular way to photograph small subjects is with a flash. I could write pages and pages about flashes and little tricks, but I’ll start you off with the basics for now.

Small compact camera flashes can be some use, but as the lens is usually so close to the flash, you may find the lighting “flat.” Not a huge amount can be done about this due to the design of the cameras, but a good idea with moist subjects like frogs is to cut out a piece of white tissue paper to put over the flash. It reduces the harsh white reflections off the skin.

Turning the camera upside-down and the flash illuminating the underside of this Green Eyed Tree Frog produced an unusual effect.

SLRs and some “zoom” cameras are compatible with external flash guns, so a whole new world opens up. This is where you can perform all sorts of amazing tricks, but I’ll keep it fairly simple here and share some more ideas later. If you are stuck with only one flash gun you can try “bouncing” it to make interesting lighting. This is a neat trick. At a motel one night I caught a small skink and wanted the effect of two flashes, but I had only one. So I set up a small “studio” out of leaf matter… in the shower! I then positioned the lizard and aimed the flash at the white tiles to the side. The effect was perfect, as you can see here. You can do the same for very close subjects with a white piece of paper or aluminium foil to bounce the flash off.

Two flash units are so very versatile. I made an adapter for mine by literally splitting the external hot shoe wiring and splicing in another.

Reflecting the flash from the walls had the desired effect.(Canon EOS 400D, EF-S 60mm, 1/100, f/11, Flash)

It worked very well (until I had a major stack on it in Irian Jaya and busted it!) I used one flash on automatic metering and set the other one on low power to fill in shadow; this added dimension to the pictures. Modern camera manufacturers are leaning heavily towards wireless flash units where the flash is controlled away from the camera by either infra red or radio signals. All the user has to do is follow the instructions for the individual units and set up the flashes in the right positions.

The shutter speed is another variable in lighting. Faster shutter speeds require more light, slower shutter speeds require less light. Getting a handle on shutter speed versus aperture takes some experience, but read the manual for your camera, and use the light meter. Light meters in SLR cameras today are quite accurate.

F/stops, or Aperture

All lenses have a kind of wall with a variable hole in them, called an “aperture” which is basically like the pupil of a human eye which can widen or shrink to adjust for light levels. The level the aperture is open or closed is expressed in a number, just after the letter “f.” The lower the “f” number, the more open the aperture is. Different lenses will open to different maximum widths, some will go right to f/1, some will open only to f/5.6. The lower the number the aperture can open to, the more light sensitive, or “fast” it will be (and usually more expensive as it takes more, and better quality glass to manufacture really “fast” lenses.) What is the point of this? Well, just like the human eye that has a pupil that will shrink to adjust for bright light, cameras need to cut out excess light or encourage more in to get the right level for a balanced picture. Users of SLRs and good zoom cameras can take advantage of manual aperture settings. A small aperture (expressed as a high number, say f/16) will allow less light, but will put more in focus. An open aperture will let more light in but produce a photo where only very little is in focus, what we call a “low depth of field.” Obviously, the lower light levels need a slower shutter speed to compensate.

 

Depth of field

Hand in hand with exposure or lighting and aperture is the subject of depth of field. What this is all about is how much of your subject is in focus. We have already covered how to focus and what an aperture actually is. Depth of field is less evident in the smaller lenses. Short lenses,or “wide angle” seem to have a greater depth of field, pictures from them look more thoroughly in focus than longer or “telephoto” lenses. This is merely an optical illusion, as a 10mm lens at f/5.6 has the same depth of field as a 100mm lens at the same aperture. It’s just that the smaller lenses cram more into the photo and things being out of focus are less noticeable. This offers some advantages. If you want to show an animal in its habitat, a wide angle is the way to go. If you like a blurred background, a longer lens will do that for you. It just depends on what you want at the time. Some of the problems with choosing a lens are solved by buying a zoom lens, but expect a drop in image quality, and the potential for the lens to suck in dust and debris when being extended. To fine-tune your depth of field, use the aperture settings. Using higher f/stop numbers will decrease the light getting into your picture but it will put more in focus. Going too high and too small an aperture will bring another issue. Diffraction is the overall blurring of an image brought on by shrinking the aperture too much and is caused by light waves travelling through too small a hole. Different lenses will show it at different settings. My 60mm lens shows it noticeably at f/16 and higher. So be careful not to go too high as you can lose sharp focus for the whole image.

Users of compact cameras, due to the size of the sensor and lens have a range of different f/stops. The depth of field is also much greater due to the way light behaves in these smaller cameras, but they offer little flexibility if any when it comes to blurred backgrounds and other creative uses of depth of field.

 

ISO

Another way of controlling the lighting of your picture is by adjusting the ISO. Most cameras today have automatic ISO settings that will adjust for you depending on how much light you have. Basically, the higher the ISO number, the more sensitive the sensor is to light which means the less light it requires to operate. This has its disadvantages too. The contrast is increased so light becomes brighter and shadow is made darker. Also you will find higher ISO settings promote “grain” in pictures, making them look like they are made of sand. If you want this look, it is easy enough to produce this effect in image editing software, but for the most part it is unwanted. So I prefer to set the ISO as low as possible and only increase it when I must.

 

Position of subject

Where the subject sits in the picture will have a massive impact. If you have the time, use the viewfinder for its intended purpose and move the view around until you get the position you want.

Dead centre, or “bullseye” in the frame has its moments, though should not be over-used. Typically, use the “bullseye” position when you want to emphasise symmetry. Most other times putting the subject in the dead centre can make a picture very “static.”

The other position that works well in many situations and is a great “go-to” idea is to use the “Rule of Thirds.” This basically divides the image into three equal horizontal parts. Centering the subject on one of these points is often pleasing to the eye.

Obviously, each picture is different, and experimentation is the best way to find what works in each situation.

Background

The background is often as important as the subject itself. Have you ever gone to great pains to take a picture of a subject in a natural looking environment, only to realise later when the moment is gone that there is a white bucket or a red car in the background that you never noticed through the viewfinder? I have many times. Yes, programs such as Photoshop ® can fix these problems but I think we can all agree that they are best avoided. So the first bit of advice I can offer is to look at the whole picture through the viewfinder before taking the shot. Such things save hassle in the long run.

As for choice of backgrounds I would suggest to put subjects in front of an appropriate background. An article on snakes of the rainforest for example would be a poor choice for a picture of a rainforest snake in the middle of the road, in most cases anyway. As would a picture of an arid country gecko on a fern leaf. If you want to really emphasise natural environments you cannot do better than photographing subjects in their habitats. It seems obvious, but it is a rule often ignored. This is of course unless you want to emphasis the animal being outside its natural environment.

Then comes the idea of false backgrounds. If done correctly, printed backgrounds can work well, provided flashes do not bounce off them and cause white patches. Single colour backgrounds can also be effective in isolating the details of an animal. Black seems to work especially well in this regard. As a personal preference I do tend to gravitate to natural backgrounds wherever possible and if I go for a single colour I will use black to imitate deep shadow or to emphasise the shape and form of an animal.

So this, in a nutshell is how to go about taking better pictures of our scaly and moist-skinned friends. You will obviously develop your own style and find out more tricks of your own but stay tuned for more tips and tricks.

Frogs often stop when you approach

…But be patient and they may resume calling…

   The lens that does it all. In this article, the lens used for practically all of images is the Canon EF-S 60mm f2.8 Macro. It’s a great lens for macro as well as portraits and even excellent, sharp action shots due to its large aperture. If you want to get into macro shooting and have a Canon SLR, this is the lens for you without a doubt. This is the best price I could find:

I hope you enjoyed this article on photographing amphibians and reptiles!

One comment on “Photographing amphibians and reptiles

  1. Hi I just recently got a rebel eos SL1, I have been taking photos of Mediterranean House Geckos and Green Anoles I haven’t been getting the quality I would like using 18-55 mm kit lens. Specifically I can’t get the photo in enough focus to see the mouth clearly just the eyeball. I’ve been using the automatic setting as I don’t know very much about my camera yet, any tips would be greatly appreciated and I really enjoyed reading your tips. Thanks,

    Joe

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