PHOTOGRAPHING REPTILES AND FROGS
Photographing reptiles and frogs is essential to those who take a scientific interest in herptiles. Along with good records, photos can be used to identify a given reptile or frog specimen. This is particularly important to those who hold captive specimens and may need to identify particular specimens when stolen. Photographing reptiles and frogs can be a rewarding pass-time for many, and it should be encouraged.
The quality of photos taken largely depends upon how much one wants to spend on camera equipment. One can spend literally thousands of dollars on camera equipment, depending on camera/s, lenses, etc, purchased.
Through house break-ins, the author has lost all of his camera equipment twice. Consequently the photos in this book have been taken with a range of different cameras and equipment of varying type and brand.
The most important pieces of equipment used to photograph reptiles and frogs are as follows:
3/ Light source/s (FLASH)
4/ Film used
5/ Tripod (Optional). CAMERA
The piece of equipment fundamental to photography is the camera. A single lens reflex (SLR) camera capable of accepting interchanging lenses is mandatory. Although various film size formats are available, 35 millimeter is usually most desirable on the grounds of price, availability of special lenses, and the quality of photographs produced.
Larger film size formats are usually prohibitively expensive. Most professional photographers use 35 mm cameras.
Price is usually a good indication of quality, so one should spend as much as possible on a camera and other photographic equipment. By shopping around and/or purchasing duty free, considerable money can be saved. Well known quality brands such as Nikon, Contax, Canon, Pentax, Olympus, Minolta and Fujica should be used. All these are essentially the same except for features on given cameras and lens mounting systems. As a flash is used for about 90% of reptile and frog photography 'gimmicks' on the camera are of little importance.
Most reptile photography involves 'close up' photography and therefore special lenses and other equipment are needed. Methods used for close up photography are varied and include the following. 1/ 'Macro' lenses 50 ml and similar. 2/ Variable focal length lenses with 'Macro'. 3/
Diopter lenses. 4/ Teleconverters. 5/ Extension tubes. 6/ Bellows. 7/ Lens reversing rings. Lenses bought must be 'compatible' with the camera. This usually means that they must have the same mounting system or an especially made 'mount'.
The lens/s used must be of top quality as a sub standard lens will always produce substandard photographs, regardless of the photographer.
Things to check for in a lens are clarity of image, and image distortion when close up.
Of the above mentioned methods to get 'close up', the most popular with herpetologists is a 'standard focal length' macro lens. This enables one touch focusing at all distances from very close to infinity. The relatively small size and lightweight nature of this lens allows for maximum maneuverability around a subject at close quarters. The author rarely uses a 'standard focal length' macro lens or similar when taking photographs of reptiles and frogs.
The author prefers to use a variable focal length lens with macro (usually 70-210 mm) mounted on a tripod to take the majority of reptile photos. The lens style enables the photographer to frame the photograph adequately, and by moving the tripod if necessary, maneuverability is not lost. A tripod is essential for this and other heavy lenses in order to prevent unwanted camera shake. In reality the author virtually always has his camera, tripod mounted when photographing
reptiles and frogs, regardless of lens/s used.
Diopter lenses, extension tubes, bellows and reversing rings are regarded as being too fiddly for most reptile and frog photographers. However bellows are highly recommended as they give exceptionally good depth-of-field (line of focus) in close-up shots (e.g. head shots of small skinks).
To get extremely close (as in head photo of a small lizard), several methods may be used. The author uses seven element 2 X teleconverters (up to three in series), as well as a macro lens (about 50 ml) to get 'ultra close' focus. The above apparatus, like all extreme close up set ups does give substantial image distortion, but is better than alternative set ups.
Because this set up of lens/s with the teleconverters uses so much light (128 times that of the naked lens) it is often necessary to provide powerful lighting just to focus the subject. The author uses a 2000 watt floodlight tripod mounted at close range to provide focusing light. The author may use one or two teleconverters in series for 'intermediate' close up photography.
Teleconverters come in a variety of forms, usually specified by the number of lens elements. It is critical to get at least seven element teleconverters for reptile and frog photography.
To get even closer, microscope attachments are available. These are relatively cheap (about the cost of six rolls of slide film).
All lenses bought should be covered at all times with a 'filter'. Not only do these remove some unwanted light rays that may spoil photos, but they are cheap and serve to give scratch protection to the lens, which is usually very expensive to replace.
A blue polarizing filter is good for habitat photos as it highlights blue skies.
Use of a wide-angle lens for close-up photos of animals in their natural habitat allows the photographer to be able to incorporate the photo of the animal and a habitat photo in a single shot in a way that no other lens can.
LIGHT SOURCE (FLASH)
Focussing the subject is usually no problem. If lack of light causes focusing problems, a floodlight, photographic lamp, or similar may be used.
I prefer to use floodlight/s as they are considerably sturdier and less prone to malfunction, (and cheaper too!).
For photographing reptiles and frogs the key to success is maximum 'depth of field' (line of focus). To obtain this one must take photos with the lens 'stopped down' to the smallest aperture. (The smaller the aperture, the higher the f-number). For most reptiles and frogs f-11 is a bare minimum for useable depth of field. Most lenses go as far as F-22 and one should try to use this when taking photos of most reptiles and frogs.
One should remember that the closer one gets to a subject the less the depth of field and the greater the need for a small aperture.
If relying on natural light your shutter speed will regulate your aperture (depth of field). Unless using 'fast' film one would rarely be able to attain maximum depth of field at above 1/60 of a second. Below this shutter speed the risk of camera shake and/or subject movement blurring
the picture becomes unacceptably high.
When using a flash, the shutter speed is set at a given 'specified' 'flash sync' speed, usually 1/60, 1/100 or 1/125 of a second. At close range most flashes are considerably more powerful than the brightest sunlight. As one needs as much light as possible to get maximum depth of field I recommend the largest flash possible, (Guide number 45 upwards).
When taking photos the flash may be mounted either on/adjacent to the camera, or elsewhere depending upon requirements. When taking most reptile and frog photographs the author has the flash mounted at a predetermined distance from the subject (often on top of the camera), and moves the tripod mounted camera if necessary. Although most herpetologists use 'automatic' settings on their flashes, the author prefers to use maximum 'full power' manual setting in order to maximize light output and possible depth of field. When taking extreme close up photographs with added teleconverters, the flash may be mounted as close as 15 cm from the subject, (in this case getting correct exposure is tricky and requires accurate distance measurements to be taken regardless of flash mode used).
A flash may be used to 'fill in' shadows caused by sunlight, or two flashes may be used in combination when photographing subjects, with the aim of minimizing harsh shadows. A double shadow effect may occur, and the author finds this unappealing. In all photos harsh shadows or 'black spots' should be minimized. In most cases this is best accomplished by having the flash head mounted above the camera and subject, and between them, or to have the subject facing the flash head if the flash is side mounted.
Powerful 'studio' lights may be used to provide light for photographing reptiles and frogs. In general these are undesirable as they still fail to provide sufficient light, are highly prone to mechanical failure, and special 'blue' filters are usually required.
'Film speed' is a term used to describe the light sensitivity of a film.
The higher the rating (Film Speed), the less light is required for taking photos. For each DIN increase or ASA doubling one can double shutter speed or gain one more f-stop. As depth of field is all important to reptile and frog photography, 'fast' film is usually more desirable. The trade off is
that 'fast film' produces 'grainier' results than 'slow film'. ('Grain' shows up as small deposits or spots of silver iodide, when the photo is enlarged).
The total trade off becomes the need for depth of field, combined with the lenses' light requirements, versus the power of the flash. Film speed chosen should reflect the need to obtain maximum depth of field, but should not be any 'faster' than necessary. For example using a 50 ml macro lens and a guide number 45 flash at one metre for most photos, 64-100 ASA film would probably be most desirable for herpetological purposes.
Most people prefer colour film to black and white, and today black and white is used mainly for press or scientific publications. Colour slides (positives), give better reproductions than print negatives, although what is finally used should be a matter of personal needs and preference.
Modern computer technology and programs makes the relevance of choice of film type (slide or print) less relevant as programs such as Adobe Photoshop allow the conversion of positives to negatives and vice-versa.
One of a number of accessories many reptile and frog photographers use at various times, the author depends heavily on tripods. When taking extreme close up photographs the author will use three tripods; One for the camera, One for the flash and one for the floodlight to provide focusing illumination.
Usually the function of a tripod is to prevent camera shake. For this reason it is important to buy one of rugged, sturdy construction. The tripod should be easy to assemble and dismantle, and pan and tilt smoothly and efficiently.
Sturdy camera case/s are essential to protect photographic equipment, as is useful camera cleaning gear such as lens tissues and air spray cleaners. A number of miscellaneous camera attachments may be used by herpetological photographers. These include infa-red remote flash controls, shutter cords, etc.
POSING THE SUBJECT
It usually takes some practice before one can take correctly exposed photos of small animals, with maximum depth of field in all types of conditions.
Reptiles and frogs will not pose for photographers whilst in the wild. It is effectively impossible to photograph a wild reptile or frog in a 'nice' position without disturbing it. Therefore all specimens to be photographed will need to be caught and 'held' prior to being 'posed' for photographing.
As far as getting a subject to pose in a desirable position it is fair to say that the beginner is usually easier to please than the 'expert'. A 'good' or 'bad' photo in terms of composure cannot be strictly defined as it is a matter of personal opinion. However most herpetologists tend to agree on a number of features desirable in most photos of reptiles and frogs.
When possible, the background should reflect the natural environment from where the specimen originated. There is no point in photographing a reptile from coastal areas on red sand and spinifex, or vice versa. It is fairly easy to construct a small 'stage' on which to photograph specimens with 'bits and pieces' of logs, rocks, gravel, sand or whatever that will look like a natural setting. By photographing down onto the subject one only needs an area of 'natural setting' slightly greater than that occupied by the posing specimen itself. It goes without saying that one doesn't want bits of carpet or table top in the corners of the picture. Most photos of reptiles and frogs taken by the author are on the type of 'stage' just described. The subject should be in the middle of the photo, and ideally fill most of the frame.
When taking 'body shots' it is best to have as much of the body showing as possible. The dorsal surface should always be visible and as much lateral surface as possible should also be visible. The head, in particular the eye, is the most important part of the animal and this part should always be in focus. Head shots by themselves are also very important to herptile photographers.
When photographing specimens, important and unique anatomical features should always be visible. Examples include the black spines on the toes of the male Giant Burrowing Frog Helioporus australiacus, or the unusual tail of the Death Adder Acanthophis antarcticus used in caudal luring. (It is obviously difficult if not impossible to show things such as pelvic spurs in general 'body' photos).
Long specimens, including snakes should be coiled as opposed to being in a line, as this allows one to get closer to the subject. A photograph of a large fully stretched snake will look little different to a piece of rope, with few features being visible.
Getting the subject to sit still is always a problem. 'Cooling' specimens by placing them in a fridge or freezer is a common trick of most herpetological photographers. By slowing down the metabolic rate and movements of the herptiles the risk of the subject escaping whilst being photographed is reduced. Most 'cooled' specimens are more reluctant to move anyway, often choosing to bask on the 'stage' while being photographed. About a fifth of the reptiles and frogs photographed by the
author are 'cooled' beforehand. This includes most small skinks and highly venomous snakes.
Agamids are best 'heated' in order to bring out their brightest colours.
As they are usually very fast when hot they should be photographed in a sealed room, where they can't escape if they run off the 'stage'.
When 'cooling' or 'heating' reptiles or frogs it is important not to let the specimens' body temperature drop below or rise above those normally experienced in the wild state.
When photographing frogs it is advisable to regularly dip the frogs in water to keep their skin free of debris that will otherwise stick to them.
Regular immersion in water also prevents dehydration, skin irritations and generally makes frogs less jumpy.
Often a specimen can be placed under a container, such as a pot or bucket on a stage, where it will hopefully settle down. Once the specimen stops moving (under the container), the container is lifted and the specimen is photographed before it moves away.
The pinnacle of a herpetologists' photographic career is when photographing copulating reptiles or frogs, their laying eggs, etc. With the exception of frogs, who are easy to find breeding in the wild,
breeding activity in reptiles will usually only be seen and photographed in captive specimens. All breeding activity photographed in this book was photographed in captive collections, (virtually all were specimens held by the author).
When breeding, reptiles and frogs are usually too busy to be put off by photographers taking pictures of their activities. Two copulating Death Adders Acanthophis antarcticus continued copulating after a 2000 watt photographic light dropped on top of them and smashed. (Young were produced about 9 months later).
No aspect of herptile photography should be cruel to specimens. The discomfort to specimens through being handled, 'cooled', etc, is only minimal and should not discourage one from taking photos of herptiles.
To continue to the rest of this section (Conserving reptiles and frogs)
The above was from the book Australian Reptiles and Frogs by Raymond Hoser and now available on a fantastic CD-Rom along with a vast amount of other information, papers and the like on reptiles, frogs and other wildlife.