Techniques

Herp Photography

by Pierson Hill | September 13, 2010

© Pierson HillSo what exactly is “herp photography?” Aside from the subject matter—reptiles and amphibians—there is no single defining attribute. Because the increasingly popular discipline spans a wide range of techniques, gear, and strategies, this article will serve as a primer and will simply cover the basics of how to capture images of creepy crawlies. I will emphasize photography in the field, but many of the techniques I cover can be carried over to herps in zoos or other captive situations.

The Philosophy of Reptile and Amphibian (aka Herp) Photography

It sounds silly saying this, but before you can photograph wild herps, you need to be able to find them. That might seem like an obvious enough task but it’s not always an easy transition for photographers who have trained their brains on birds and bees. I could probably write volumes on how, when, and where to find herps in the wild, but I’m going keep that part of this article to a minimum so as to keep the focus of this article on the photography.

There are some fundamental differences between herp photography and other types of nature photography. First and foremost, actually finding your subject is the biggest challenge, not to mention grabbing it before it slithers into a thicket of palmettos, crawls down a burrow, or retreats into a rock crevice. Because of this, a gear-laden photographer isn’t going to be too good at making the grab when the opportunity finally presents itself (or is invariably going to break something expensive in the process). So, equipping oneself for the pursuit is just as important as the actual photography.

I understand that some nature photographers are opposed to disturbing their subjects for the sake of a photo, but I also understand those photographers don’t have many herp shots! The fact is that many species of reptile and amphibian are so secretive that waiting for them to present themselves in a photo-worthy situation could take a lifetime. Best of luck to the photographer who wants to photograph a wild One-toed Amphiuma without digging one out of a knee-deep mud pack. So, a herp photographer must generally be willing to temporarily restrain or manipulate an animal while also being cognizant of the animal’s well-being. For instance, amphibians should be kept cool and wet during a session and not be handled with hands tainted with sun screen or insect repellants. Physically distressed animals should be released at the point of capture immediately. Lastly, many species are legally protected from harassment by Federal, state, or local laws so make sure you know the rules before going hands-on. In some cases, simply flashing an animal can be interpreted as harassment. Use your best judgment!

The Shots

The Portrait (aka the “Field Guide Shot”)

This classic style is the glamour shot approach to photographing a herp subject. Often the goal is to position the entire animal tightly within the frame in a natural posture while also emphasizing important field characters. When an animal is positioned on a flat surface, then the standard angle the photographer should take is roughly 35 degrees. The most pleasing images have the subject facing slightly towards the frame from perpendicular, so the head can be seen in near profile. Achieving a natural and comfortably alert posture from your subject is often difficult, especially with species that constantly flee or hide their heads defensively. Many snakes and lizards can be temporarily covered with a shallow opaque object, like a plastic dish or cupped hands. This will afford them the feeling of safety and gives then time to settle a bit (this is a good time to check your camera settings and flashes). After a few moments, the dish can be gently lifted and the subject will often remain motionless long enough to nail the shot. I find that if a critter’s head is flat against the substrate, it can often give it an inert or lifeless feel. This is usually remedied by using a long thin object (e.g. plastic coffee stirrer, stray twig) to gently raise the subject’s head to give it an alert and dynamic appearance. For tongue-flicking snakes, it’s nice to catch the tongue fully extended (this takes a bit of practice and luck).

Bush anole © Pierson Hill

It can be difficult to achieve pleasing compositions for species with awkward body proportions. It was quite a challenge to include the full length of this bush anole’s long slender tail in the frame. Fortunately, I was able to use a small twig to gently manipulate the tail into position for this shot.

One convenient aspect of herp photography is that small subjects can be moved to several different substrates within the vicinity of capture, allowing for experimentation with an array of natural studios. Background elements should not be distracting and help to emphasize the animal’s features. For instance, photographing a copperhead on a background of dead leaves is a bad approach — the snake’s cryptic colors cause it to blend in seamlessly to its background. The use of off-camera flash(es) is recommended to help freeze moving subjects, minimize and soften shadows, and emphasize elements of anatomy and color. Diffusing your off-camera flash is helpful in reducing reflections off of shiny scales or wet skin—Sto-fen omnibounces or Lumiquest mini softboxes are rugged enough for frequent field use.

Amphibian © Pierson Hill

Using diffusers on your flashes helps reduce reflections off the moist skin of amphibians. While some reflection is desirable on a naturally shiny animal, too much can be distracting and hide color and pattern. I used multiple diffused flashes to minimize highlights on this Eastern Mud Salamander.

Working distance is an important consideration, especially when you’re dealing with flighty animals that need to be contained or venomous snakes which can deliver a dangerous bite. For taking portraits of small subjects like salamanders, frogs, or lizards, I recommend using a macro lens of a focal length of 100 mm or more. A medium range zoom is most useful for larger subjects like turtles, pythons, or rattlesnakes because it allows for split-second adjustments in composition without the photographer having to move.

Blacktail rattlesnake © Pierson Hill

This photograph of a Blacktail Rattlesnake illustrates the essentials of the portrait shot. The snake neatly fills the frame while displaying the species’ namesake black tail. Fill flash was used to soften shadows and all color and pattern elements are clearly visible. I was even lucky enough to catch a tongue flick! This snake was photographed only a few feet from where it was found. Make sure to maintain a safe working distance with venomous species!

The Herp-in-habitat Shot

This popular technique is used to depict a herp subject in the context of its preferred microhabitat. This is most easily achieved using a close-focusing wide angle lens in the 10-30 mm range along with appropriate camera support and lighting. The most pleasing compositions often place the animal subject in the foreground in a bottom corner of the frame, facing inwards toward the center. The photographer should try and pick a vantage where elements of a particular species’ preferred habitat are displayed in the background, and the subject placed so that it is prominent yet comfortably integrated in the composition. Avoid compositions where the herp subject is more brightly lit than the background—it’s always easier to expose for the background and light the herp subject in the foreground with a directed flash.

Pigeon mountain salamander © Pierson Hill

In addition to achieving a relaxed and natural posture from the herp subject, I try to include habitat elements that are characteristic of that particular species. The Pigeon Mountain Salamander lives in and among granite outcroppings in the southern Appalachian Mountains. Because these salamanders are largely nocturnal, a full sunlight photo would have seemed a tad unnatural so I was very fortunate to have an extremely foggy morning in which to capture this shot.

Herp Behaviors

Photographing herps engaged in interesting behaviors is largely a serendipitous affair. Some observations, like two male rattlesnakes in combat, can be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to capture in photos. However, some behaviors can be staged in a controlled situation (like a snake feeding). Other behaviors, like the chorusing of male frogs, are predictable and relatively easy to photograph in the field. By and large, to get good behavioral shots you have to spend vast amounts of time outdoors observing the animals and always be prepared for the photo op! The best strategy is to have a versatile medium range zoom and a flash ready to use and within easy reach. For this purpose, I like to keep my camera chest-mounted on a harness while hiking so that I’m not disturbing my subjects by setting down and rooting through a large backpack.

Treefrog © Pierson Hill

Capturing images of a calling treefrog is a relatively easy task compared to photographing a feeding snake. Frogs are pretty approachable on any wet night while feeding snakes can be quick to regurgitate their meal and slither away upon the slightest disturbance.

Snake © Pierson Hill

The “in situ” shot

If you’re not all that enthusiastic about grabbing slimey, bitey, and scratchy critters, then you can tailor your pursuits to more conspicuous species which can be observed at a distance. Some of my most rewarding images resulted from situations where I didn’t have to interact with the animal at all. Some lizards, turtles, and crocodilians will bask in the open during sunny weather and can be carefully approached. Many frogs can often be approached closely on humid overcast nights. Obviously, a long zoom is going to be the most useful in this situation. For wary lizards, it’s often helpful to have a second person off frame keeping the critter’s attention at a distance while the photographer creeps into position. Basking turtles can often be approached much more closely by kayak or canoe than they can from shore. For this, I will often paddle upstream of my subject, prepare my camera, and let the current take me back towards the turtle as I click away.

Jorrow's spiny lizard © Pierson Hill

I was able to photograph this basking Jorrow’s spiny lizard on a talus slide simply by using stealth and patience. Lizards are most approachable early in the morning before they have a chance to fully warm up.

Obviously, the above list is far from inclusive and photographers should inject creativity into their herp shots wherever they see fit. Some of the best herp photographs I’ve seen don’t neatly conform to any of the above categories and often combine several approaches at once. So, get out there, try to ignore the bears and butterflies, and try not to get your camera too dirty.

About the Author

Pierson Hill is a Tallahassee, FL native who became an avid naturalist growing up in the wilds of the Apalachicola region of the Florida panhandle. Focusing his passion for nature into a career, he is pursuing a graduate degree at Florida State University where he studies the evolution and conservation of reptiles, amphibians, and freshwater fish. Over the past 5 years, he has integrated photography with his academic pursuits, with a particular focus on documenting the reptiles and amphibians of the Southeastern United States. His photography has been published in various herpetological references and field guides and can be viewed online at www.flickr.com/photos/nclarkii.

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