Photographing herpetofauna has its own special considerations when shooting in tropical rainforests. In this article, I will go through the various aspects of herpetofauna photography and discuss some of the challenges.
Table of Contents
What is Herpetofauna?
Herpetofauna refers to all the animal species included in both the reptiles and amphibians categories, namely – snakes, frogs and toads, lizards and geckos, turtles, crocodiles etc. Although herps (short for herpetofauna) can be found in almost all types of habitats around the world, there are three broad types of geographical regions where their occurrence is more common that elsewhere – marshlands, deserts and tropical rainforests.
Needless to say that each of these habitat types has its own unique species and challenges. But for the sake of this article, I will only be concentrating on the tropical rainforests – mainly because that is where I captured most, if not all of my herp shots.
The herpetofauna genre falls under the broad genre of wildlife photography. However, the subjects involved have a wide variation in size, ranging from tiny frogs / tadpoles to huge reptiles. As such, the actual photography technique may follow either wildlife photography or other genres like portrait or macro photography.
Herpetofauna Photography Challenges
Those who have been to any of the rainforests will agree that they are quite unique – moist, mystical, magical and creepy at the same time. Firstly, it has a dense canopy of trees, limiting the amount of ambient light even during daytime. Also, the outgrowth is so dense at places, that it might obscure the trails partially. In addition to that, most of the herps are nocturnal creatures. All these conditions combined present some unique challenges in photography. I am going to outline the major ones below.
- Availability of Light. Lack of light is a serious issue almost all the time, unless you get lucky to get a subject in an open area in daylight. You will need to be prepared with a mix of natural and artificial light, or potentially even fully artificial light.
- Locating Subjects. Finding subjects that are fantastically camouflaged in the dense foliage and correctly identifying them is a huge challenge. This takes special skills which you likely do not possess. So it bodes quite well to have an expert with you. It can be a local person or a herping expert – this alone will increase your chances of getting good photographs.
- Keeping Yourself Safe. Protecting yourself from the elements is a reasonable concern. Rains can descend unannounced, and there will not be any shelter available obviously, so be prepared with suitable rain gear. Also, you may have to wade through streams in search of subjects, so be careful on slippery surfaces.
- Protecting Yourself from Harmful Creatures. Snakes, although the most threatening of these, are not the only ones here. These can range from the abundant mosquitoes, to leeches, to venomous creatures. Again, wearing suitable clothing to cover full body, staying on well-marked trails and having an expert with you are a must.
- Protecting Camera Gear. Protecting your camera gear from the elements and from falls is also very important. Having a rain cover helps, and so does avoiding to change lenses in the field.
Describing these challenges and overcoming them is a lengthy discussion in itself and I may try to address them in-depth in a separate article.
Camera Gear Considerations
Camera and Lens
You can very well photograph herps with a point-and-shoot camera that has a decent zoom capability, say 5x or so, or, depending on the subject, even your smartphone.
However, there will be limitations on the quality of photographs because of one significant reason – light availability. Therefore, it is always better to have a camera that will do well in low-light situations.
The weapon of choice, thus, is a DSLR or a mirrorless camera. Full-frame cameras are better, but modern APS-C sensor cameras are quite capable too. Also, a fast lens (one with a large maximum aperture like f/2.8 or larger) is also advisable due to same reasons.
Using a macro lens with around 100 mm focal length is particularly advantageous, since it gives you reasonable reach and you can get quite close to really tiny subjects too. They also generally produce very nice bokeh.
On the other hand, if you have an ultra-wide angle macro lens like the Laowa 15 mm f/4, or any wide angle lens which can focus decently close, you can take some amazing wide angle shots showing the habitat along with the subject. Of course, this can only be done during daytime when there is adequate light.
I personally shoot with the Nikon D500 coupled with an older Nikkor micro 105mm f/2.8D lens. It doesn’t have vibration reduction, but coupled with flash, that is not a hindrance most of the time.
In most cases, due to reasons mentioned above, you will also need a flash. The built-in flash can be adequate sometimes, but as in the case of portraits, it will result in harsh, unpleasant shadows. You can use a diffuser (available online quite cheap, or you can make one yourself) to alleviate that issue, but it presents another issue. Location of the built-in flash is fixed, so you are quite limited in the amount of diffusion and creativity. Moreover, in case of very small subjects, your lens may cast a shadow on the subject.
Again, an external flash, either a camera-mounted or a remote triggered one can change lighting dramatically, improving image quality immediately. In case of remote triggered flash, it can actually open doors for creative lighting situations, just as in portrait photography. It goes without saying that any kind of flash will need a good diffuser / bounce card or a combination of them.
There are specific macro-oriented flashes available on the market viz. a ring flash or a twin flash like the Nikon R1C1 or the Canon MT-26EX-RT. However, both Nikon and Canon flashes cost a fortune, and I would only advise it for people who are really into macro photography. A nice alternative to that has been introduced in the market recently by the Chinese brand Meike with reasonably good reviews, but I have no experience of using it.
As for ring flashes, there are many third party options and some of them are quite cheap. However, the cheaper ones generally don’t have enough power to provide the desired illumination, so I would be wary of using them.
As of now, I use a simple manual camera mounted flash with either a bounce card or a DIY diffuser. I still have not decided whether to upgrade to a sophisticated TTL flash or a special macro flash, as I am only a hobbyist photographer. Also, macro or herp photography for us in India is limited mainly to about 3 months of monsoons every year.
In addition to flash, you will need a few more items such as:
- An umbrella to protect yourself and your gear from rain.
- A flashlight to find your way / subjects.
- Proper rainwear to keep you dry and to improve maneuverability.
- Shoes with good grip. Waders / gumboots are excellent provided they come with a grippy sole.
- Rainproof camera bag or at least a good rain cover for the camera bag.
As with any wildlife photography, try to capture the natural behavior or action, if possible. That means hunting, mating, mating displays, laying eggs etc. Of course, you need luck to be able to witness these activities, but such images are a lot more interesting than standard ones you see every day.
Again, similar to wildlife photography, try to capture your subjects at their eye level. For herps, this will sometimes mean getting down, dirty and wet on the ground, since many of the subjects are ground dwelling.
Though your intention is to shoot herps, you will likely come across other interesting creatures such as gastropods like snails or slugs and scorpions, spiders, giant moths etc. Many of them will be quite unique to the region you are exploring, so keep an open eye and mind, and enjoy capturing those beauties too.
For these trails, I would strongly advise to go around in small groups of 3-5 people, including a guide or an expert. This will ensure better spotting of species, as well as flexibility to shoot (one or two persons can take turns holding diffusers, while others shoot). More than 5 will likely be somewhat chaotic, as the group is more likely to split while wandering around. With everyone trying to get a good shot, they will most likely end up with others in the frame, along with the subject.
I personally consider herpetofauna to be a separate genre of photography, because of all the unique considerations that I have tried to list in this article. It is quite tough – many times you’ll have to wander in search of species, or wait for specific behavior very late into the night, braving the rain. But when you get unique photos of some unique species, it all is worth it in the end!
Even if you do not get the photos you want, getting to know the practically unseen and unnoticed world out there, is an experience on its own, every time.
I hope you enjoyed reading this article. I hope that some of you will get the inspiration to venture into this genre. I also understand that amongst the readers there may be persons with far greater experience than me, so if you have any questions or feedback, or just want to share some photos, please feel free to use the comments section below.
Great to see one of my favourite photography websites posting on a distinctly different topic. Thanks too for the link on Meike flash system, and good to see it uses AAA batteries as the Nikon system use an obscure size – expensive and very hard to find in rechargeable option. The other recent innovation are LED lights – eg the Kaiser 90, which I must hunt down and try.
Back in 1990, I started with a Nikon F3 bought Used, a 55 Micro-Nikkor (often with PK13 ext ring) and dedicated SB-21A ringflash that only fits the F3 hotshoe. This system worked well for many years on small mammals as well as herps and invertebrates. As I was the only curator with such gear in our natural history museum, I built a decent portfolio in both field and lab. The film of choice back then was Fujichrome 50 – wonderful medium. Some of my subjects such as large venomous savanna snakes we get in Africa have their challenges, so one needs an assistant to keep one bite-free!
Although I shoot macro subjects less often these days, I have been able to upgrade to D850, Z7 and current macro-lenses. These cameras also enable focus-stacking but only IF your subject keeps still! I really enjoy the 85 PCE Tilt-Shift. The heavy Sigma 180 f2.8APO is also excellent with convenient nice reach for small animals. But yes it’s a brute to handhold for a long time. However I still rate the older AI and AIS Micro-Nikkors very highly, even a 55 f3.5 AI-converted – circa 1967 vintage – I found for a bargain.
But my lens of choice is still the unique 70-180 Micro-Nikkor, which is now scarce and overpriced. The tripod collar is a joke (reinforced mine with 2 capscrews, epoxy + arca-swiss plate) and AF is sluggish, and there’s no AF on the Z Nikons; but the ability to frame by zoom is a huge plus. Shut down to f8 or f11 gives great IQ on today’s high res cameras. Let’s hope put out the long overdue upgrade of the 70-180 as a Z-Nikkor. This should sell very very well.
Thank you Dr. Glad you enjoyed the article. You have certainly handled quite a lot of interesting gear. That 55 mm micro is a legendary lens. I was once seriously considering getting one from the used market, but eventually got the 105 mm just for the reach.
Thanks. Well let’s hope Nikon jump around and upgrade their other older Micro-Nikkors to enable focus-stacking. Badly neglected. Only the 60 f.28G and 105 f2.8G allow this.
I should have mentioned 300 f4E PF Nikkor is another very useful prime for close ups, including herps. This tiny telephotos is hard to match for versatility for most wildlife subjects and challenges, because it also works well with TCs, and particularly on a Nikon Z camera.
Indeed. The 300 f4 PF lens is wonderful, although I am slightly skeptical about the focal length for small subjects. If the light is good, then no issues, but in bad light or at night, one will need a very strong flash due to the distance from subject.
Your articole enjoyed me. I use also an 100-400mm zoom with a small ring(10-20 mm). Of curse at 400 mm focus îs manual only. At 100 mm auto focus works. Sometime I use 70-200 f/4 zoom. At 200 mm auto focus works
Thank you Radu. Glad you enjoyed the article.
Guranath, I enjoyed your article and your compositions. I use the same gear. There is little to no scientific data on the effect of flash photography on animals only opinion and conjecture. There has been a lot of concern especially in underwater photography and muck diving in particular to the extent that places like Lembeh that employ local guides to put photographers onto tiny sea horse subjects often ask folks to limit the number of flash exposures since under water macro/close-up requires flash. That is probably a good thing even though there is no historical or controlled evidence to support the need. I have been using flash off and on for a while and some of my professional friends use it frequently. There was a time when I was less judicious but my intuition tells me too back off when shooting underwater and respect local customs if there are any. As an underwater photographer I think the idea of weather sealing is a mixed bag because some folks confuse that with being truly waterproof such as using a housing. I carry a dedicated water proof cover wadded up in my camera bag for occasions when its raining and hope that a few drops don’t get in to my gear but then it only takes one in the right place. I truly enjoyed your images and like your composition that remind me at times of work by Susan Middleton and David Liittschwager. I hope to see more in the future. Good hunting.
Thank you Andy. You are right of course, and I too try to limit the use of flash as far as possible. Underwater photography is something that I have not tried yet. Maybe one day.
Very nice photos and some beautiful ones!
The Small Tree Frog reminds me of a professor supervising his pupils doing a written exam!
Thank you Kristian. That analogy made me chuckle.
I liked the article and have tried to incorporate some invertebrates as well as amphibians and reptiles when lucky enough to cross their path. I have been reluctant to get too close to some of the species such as Bothrops, Crotalus in Central and South America without a telephoto.
Thank you Joshua. I can understand your trepidation. In fact, the South American rainforests have some quite toxic frog species too.
Cicadas, snails and leeches are not herps. They are invertebrates. Great pictures though!
.. as the author points out himself (above the cicada photo)!
Absolutely Nick. Thank you.
Thank you so much Gurunath for sharing your experience, beautiful photographs and thoughtful ideas regarding shooting herps. I look forward to more informative articles from you!
Thank you Neil Glad you liked it.
Snail picture is wonderful, and so is butterfly.
Recently I photographed a vine snake in day light in Sakaleshpura (Karnataka). I used 200mm macro. First time I shot subject like that. I want to do such photography but what bothers me is usage of the flash. That do not want disturb the subject just for the sake of a picture. Any how that is a personal choice :-)
Thank you Ramesh. I think you mean Cicada. As for snakes, they have a very weak vision – they can only make out broad shapes. So I believe they are not much bothered by the flash. Anyway, as you say – it’s a personal choice.
Most animals do not respond to flash.
But IMHO flash, unless diffused and carefully set up to also illuminate the background (try that with a moving subject in the field!) gives horrible results.
Gurunath, thanks for the lovely article. I wish this was published a week before as I went to Amboli. Any suggestions for rain covers to protect the camera (D850) with external flash?
There are many rain covers on the market – what is best for you is dependent on your budget, how often it will be used, and in what conditions. I have three different ones I use – one intended for light use and or mist or light rain. The second is one I designed and my wife made, from waterproof light nylon material and we seam sealed it. The third is a professionally made one that I save and use for trips to rain forest areas. The first two are lighter and easier to pack and have served me well in the US, Europe, and Africa. The third has worked well for me in the few locations I have visited in Central and South America.
For most, budget and availability will impact what you choose – just choose more than you need. Also consider the lens/lenses you will use as this comes into play with many of the commercial options that are available – and impacts the price. In truth, I have, in a pinch, used a light plastic grocery bag, and kept the gear just fine – but this is gear that is designed to handle a bit of light rain. Your gear, conditions, and budget will influence what is best for you.
Thank you Jeyaram. Bad timing eh? Hope your Amboli trip went well and you had good sightings. Regarding rain covers, yes, there are multiple choices available in the market, but I use something similar to this one on Amazon –
There is one issue with these rain covers, that is using the viewfinder is somewhat of a pain. As such, I don’t use it unless it’s absolutely pouring.
Gurunath, thanks for your response. I have followed Sperncer’s tips on Macro photography. I would have loved to try the wide angle habitat shot. It is good learning.
Had good sightings in Amboli and it was a wonderful experience.
Having done around 20 trips to Africa I can offer the following advice.
Most safari vehicles have canopies (and drop down sides if conditions get really bad) so rain is generally not a problem. Most good quality gear can shrug off a bit of rain. I have shot with rain literally running off my D800E +500mm lens. I just mopped it with a towel from time to time. No problems.
Most rain covers are more trouble than they are worth – bulky, clunky and get in the way – and if you are in a thunderstorm believe me you won’t be taking photographs. Most animals stand like statues with their backs to the prevailing rain and their heads down. Birds just disappear. Not photogenic.
The best protection for such conditions is a large plastic garden bin liner. Take two or three in case one gets torn. Stick your camera + long lens inside and fold over or knot the open end This will survive anything and it’s easy to whip out the camera if something does happen.
I once spent a whole night out in the bush when my vehicle got bogged down. My camer bag was laready full so I put the D800E + 500mm on the gimbal pointing 45deg up, pulled a bin liner over the whole lot and tied a knot in the end. We sat through one of the worst African storms I have ever experienced (no sleep, cold, wet and hungry with a pride of lions a 1/4 mile away). The rain penetrated my camera bag. The D800E and 500mm were just fine.
Walked 4 hours back to camp the following day.
Excellent and well articulated information . It surely provides enough and exciting insight to herps photography. Thanks
Thank you Abhijit.