Photo masterclass part 10: Reptiles and amphibians

Don’t ignore reptiles and amphibians – they can be the most rewarding photographic subjects you’ll ever encounter. You just need a bit of old-fashioned fieldwork and plenty of patience to capture a really special image.


Photo masterclass part 10: reptiles and amphibians article spread

Don’t ignore reptiles and amphibians – they can be the most rewarding photographic subjects you’ll ever encounter. They occur in a huge variety of unusual forms and colours, but you need a bit of old-fashioned fieldwork and plenty of patience to capture a really special image.

Reptiles and amphibians aren’t top of the must-shoot list for many wildlife photographers, but they make remarkably photogenic subjects. The zig-zag markings of an adder basking in early morning sun, a cloud of translucent frogspawn, the wonderful feet of a climbing gecko, the startling colours of a panther chameleon… the range of potential pictures is staggering.
Some species are relatively easy to approach and photograph. These are the sun-worshippers, such as turtles and alligators, and the species that are slow-moving by nature. But the vast majority of amphibians and reptiles are more challenging.
Merely finding them is hard. Some live in swamps, under rocks and stones, among thick foliage or in other habitats that make them difficult to locate, let alone shoot in-situ. Many are nocturnal. They are often well camouflaged and tend to be shy.
They require endless patience – for example, after long periods of inactivity, doing little but basking, hiding or waiting, a lizard will scuttle off into the bushes, a frog will hop back into the water or a snake will strike with little or no warning. And finally, just to make things more interesting, some species are venomous.
But photographing amphibians and reptiles need not be as frustrating as it may sound and, as we show this month, the challenge is all part of the fun. Best of all, since herps (a useful colloquialism!) are overlooked by many photographers, just a little effort can produce really unusual and eye-catching results.
Joe McDonald celebrates 40 years as a wildlife photographer this year. Author of seven books, his work has appeared in every natural history publication in the US.
I caught up with Joe McDonald in Yellowstone National Park, where he was photographing wolves and bears. “But I can’t resist turning over the odd stone in search of frogs and snakes,” he laughs.
Joe has been photographing amphibians and reptiles for more years than he cares to remember. “When I was a kid, I wanted to be a herpetologist,” he says, “and have been fascinated by these captivating and misunderstood animals ever since.
“The challenge is to shoot something out of the ordinary,” he explains. “Make an effort to show a blue-tongued skink’s blue tongue or a gaboon viper’s record-breaking fangs, of course, but then go a step further and capture the essence of the animals, too.”
Amphibians and reptiles are often ignored or vilified, but Joe strongly sympathises with them – “which is why I try to show them in the best possible light,” he says.
This requires patience. “I abhor the way some photographers cut corners by cooling animals down in a fridge to make them less active. I believe in as little disturbance as possible – in old-fashioned fieldcraft and patience.”
Over the years, Joe has photographed countless frogs, lizards, snakes, turtles, crocodiles and their relatives. But one species had eluded him – the Komodo dragon. It had been top of his wishlist for many years.
“But I achieved my ambition recently, in Indonesia, and the dragons exceeded my expectations,” he enthuses. “Now I have a new goal – to photograph all the world’s sea turtles. There’s certainly no shortage of subjects.”
Joe’s top tips for reptile and amphibian photography
  • Establish a degree of intimacy
    Looking down on animals from human-height gives them less importance, so it is vital to treat your subjects as equals by getting down to their eye-level or even lower. Most people view amphibians and reptiles from above, so looking them straight in the eye immediately establishes a degree of intimacy and offers a fresh perspective.
  • Don’t be afraid to use flash
    Many wildlife photographers shy away from flash, but when photographing amphibians and reptiles, even in bright sunlight, it’s often necessary to use one or two flashguns. These help to fill in the shadows and, by increasing depth of field, enhance the sharpness of the entire image. The trick is to balance your flash with the ambient light to make it look natural.
YOUR STEP-BY-STEP GUIDE: Mark Carwardine shows you how to apply the theory to get the perfect picture.
Watch the eyes
  • Make the eyes the point of focus. Few close-up pictures of reptiles and amphibians work if at least one of the eyes isn’t pin sharp.
  • Experiment with different lighting conditions to give the eyes energy and soul. Highlights make them look alive – eyes without highlights can look lifeless. The sun or a well-positioned flashgun will produce the necessary white spot (but if you use more than one flashgun, try not to get more than one highlight – it looks odd).
  • Place the eyes off-centre, rather than in the middle of the frame, for a more interesting composition.
Work with depth of field
  • Don’t worry about the limited depth of field (the amount of an image that is acceptably sharp) in close-up photography.
  • Experiment with shallow depths of field. It is possible to throw distracting backgrounds and clutter out of focus, for example, or to focus on the eyes alone to make them ‘pop’ (visually – not literally). 
  • Try working with a greater depth of field to ensure that the entire head, and even the whole body, is in sharp focus. Bear in mind that depth of field extends one third in front and two thirds behind the point of focus.


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