If you live in a warm sub-tropical or tropical climate, or holiday in one, you’ve likely seen many small lizards scurrying about and you may have tried to photograph them. Often times this is not as easy as it first appears as these small critters tend to be quite skittish and can disappear in a blink of an eye. In addition, they tend to be quite small so unless you can get close enough to them these lizards can end up as minor subjects in your overall image.
I had the opportunity during my recent holiday in Cuba to photograph some Curly-Tail Lizards and I thought that some readers may have an interest in some of the approaches that I used to capture images of these small lizards which are approximately 5 inches long (12.7cm).
All of the photographs in this article are shown in pairs. The first one in each pair is 100% of the original file with absolutely no cropping done to them. Each photograph is then followed by a 100% crop so you can have a better look at the detail in each image.
The first step in getting good image captures of small lizards like the Curly-Tail Lizards featured in this article is to understand the capability of your camera and lens. Since you will want to get as close as possible to your subject, it is critical that you know the minimum focusing distance of the telephoto lens you are using. For example, some large telephoto zoom lenses like the Tamron 150-600 VC have a minimum focusing distance of 8.86 feet (2.7m) or more depending on focal length used, while other lenses like the Nikon 1 CX 70-300 have a minimum focusing distance of 3.3 feet (1.0m) at 70mm and 5.2 feet (1.6m) at 300mm. Knowing the minimum focusing distance of your telephoto lens allows you to plan your shots more effectively and avoid missing some images because you’ve moved in too close to your subject only to find out that your lens cannot focus at that distance from the subject.
You’ll also need to have a good understanding of the limits of your hand-holding technique in terms of which minimum shutter speed you should use at the maximum focal length of your lens. It’s also critical to consider the capabilities of the sensor in your camera. For example, the dynamic range of my Nikon 1 V2 is quite limited when compared to a full frame camera like my D800. To compensate for the dynamic range limitations with my Nikon 1 V2 I tried to capture Curly-Tail Lizards that were in complete shade or dappled shade, and I avoided subjects that were in strong sunlight at mid-day since I knew that I’d get blown-out highlights in my images.
Approaching most lizards needs to be done slowly with no abrupt movements. It can also be helpful to wear muted colours that allow you to blend in with your surroundings. We’re not talking about wearing camo…just avoiding bright colours or large, bold patterns. As you draw closer crouch and start bending your knees to lower your approaching profile so you will be less threatening to the lizard. Also shooting from a position closer to the ground yields better profile images. It can be beneficial to look for lizards at the base of trees, partially up the trunk or on branches. They are sometimes hard to spot but if you can find them they often make the best subjects for photographs because of your angle of view.
Watch your subject lizard carefully and pay attention to any kind of movement that may signal that it is getting stressed by your presence. If so, then stop your movements and allow the lizard to settle. Once you are just shy of your minimum focusing distance slowly bring your camera up to your eye, stopping at intervals if needed to keep the lizard from feeling threatened.
Slowly adjust your zoom to get the exact framing you want and then focus on the eye of the lizard. If the lizard is positioned in such a manner that you cannot focus on one of its eyes then don’t bother taking the shot. It is far better to wait for the right opportunity. I used single point AF with my Nikon 1 V2 when taking the images in this article so I could place it directly on the eye of each subject lizard. When using a DSLR I’d also recommend using single point AF.
If you are using a long telephoto lens with VR remember to let the VR settle in before pressing the shutter otherwise you may not get the exact framing you want with your image. When possible look for twigs and other elements in your image that can act as corner exits as these can help overall composition, especially if your subject lizard is not positioned at an ideal angle.
Keep your breathing measured and shallow to help avoid sway with your telephoto lens, then press your shutter with a slow, smooth motion to help avoid any downward movement with your telephoto lens. If the lizard does not move, take a number of individual shots, as sometimes even the slightest motion of a lizard can cause image blur.
In terms of post processing of the RAW files used to produce the images in this article, I used DxO OpticsPro 10. For the most part I used the default settings in OpticsPro 10, but made some adjustments to ClearView, setting it to 40; I took highlights to -20; added some Microcontrast to 10; and adjusted the Lens Softness settings to 1.21 in Global and 70 in Detail. I’ve found that lizard images tend to have a lot of subtle highlight and mid-tone details so taking the highlights down can really help the overall look of an image. These settings are obviously image and camera specific and if you are an OpticsPro 10 user your adjustments will likely be different than what I used.
I then exported a DNG file into CS6 and Nik Suite for additional adjustments as required. These will vary based on the camera used as well as the nuances in each subject image. Typically I make additional adjustments with highlights, shadows, contrast and black/white levels in CS6. I find that I can get more precise final adjustments using CS6 rather than trying to get everything spot on with OpticsPro 10. I suppose if I practiced more with OpticsPro 10 I may be able to avoid these final tweaks in CS6, but I am very comfortable with my existing process so I don’t mind staying with what is working for me. If needed I may make some minor adjustments in Nik Suite, and if I do it is often with Viveza 2.
I certainly appreciate that composition is a personal choice and many folks may want to take images of groups of lizards as in the photograph below.
Shooting groups of lizards is not something that I would recommend as it is often very difficult to get an image in which all of the subject lizards remain motionless. Additionally, as you can see in the crop below, it can also be a challenge to get all of the individual lizards in focus given the shallow depth-of-field of long telephoto lenses. Stopping the lens down to get more depth-of-field is always tempting in these types of situations, but then you run the risk of diffraction setting in and getting soft looking images as a result. To my eye the third lizard in the background does nothing positive for this photograph at all, and if anything is a distraction from the two lizards in the foreground. Plus, having multiple lizards in the image causes some visual confusion. For my shooting style I’ve always found that photographing individual lizards creates more dramatic images.
All images in this article were taken hand-held with a Nikon 1 V2 with a Nikon 1 CX 70-300 f/4.5-5.6 VR lens. I found this set up was ideal for this subject matter as I could get very close to the subject lizards, i.e. within 5.5 feet (1.7m) and shoot at 300mm, giving me an equivalent field-of-view of 810mm (not counting any potential effects of focus breathing). As a result I could usually fill the frame with the subject lizard and avoid any kind of cropping in post which helps with overall image quality.
Article and all images are Copyright Thomas Stirr. All rights reserved. No use, duplication or adaption is allowed without written permission
Thank you for the nice post.
Thanks Kafkiano, I’m glad you enjoyed it!
I love lizards, and yours are great. I live in Greece and we have lots of lizards about and I love them, although I haven’t seen any yet this year (been rather cold). And they do indeed to scatter when you appear, but slowly creep back out if you wait.
I am in search of lenses since I have been saving for quite a long time. I have on my list the Sigma 150 mm (OS) macro or Nikkor 105 lens because I also go in search of butterflies and the like. Tom, in your opinion would this be a good lens for capturing lizards too? Or are we better off with a longer lens at a greater distance (since I am thinking of getting the Tamron 150-600 also)? At the moment I only have the kit lenses 18-55/55-200mm, and while the 55-200 can be OK, I am looking for better.
Since you didn’t mention using Nikon 1 gear I’m assuming that you are shooting with a DSLR (the images in this article were shot with a Nikon 1 V2 and a Nikon 1 CX 70-300 zoom lens). Using a longer telephoto zoom will give you quite a bit of flexibility when shooting lizards, butterflies and other types of subjects. You can also add some extension tubes to get more of your subject in your frame…although you will lose the ability to focus at infinity when using the extension tubes, as well as losing some light as well.
A dedicated macro lens like the Nikkor 105 f/2.8 (or Sigma) will produce beautiful images, especially when using a tripod. It will depend on your style of shooting whether a dedicated macro lens or a telephoto zoom like the Tamron is the best choice for you. I would think that for true macro work a dedicated macro lens would be preferred by the majority of photographers, assuming that they are prepared to make the investment in a specialized lens. The Nikkor 105 f/2.8 Micro is also a pretty good lens to use for portrait type work as well so it does give you that added flexibility. I assume that the Sigma would also be good for this type of work.
On a personal basis, since I bought extension tubes for my Nikon 1 gear I haven’t used my Nikkor 105 f/2.8 FX lens at all for my casual ‘macro type’ shooting. I use my Nikon 1 30-110 and 70-300 CX lenses with the extension tubes for macro type work and I find that set-up really suits my style of shooting much better than using a dedicated macro lens…but that’s just me. I am very partial to using zoom lenses and very, very seldom shoot with primes unless I’m doing video work. If I didn’t need my Nikkor 105 f/2.8 Micro for client video work I would likely sell it.
Thanks for that Tom. I deleted out my camera in editing – I have the D5000. At the moment it’s a toss up between the focal lengths as far as the macro lens goes … of course the Sigma has better reach but is rather more expensive. I hadn’t really considered using extension tubes with a zoom. Will have a think about that.
I don’t have GAS just I have been saving like mad to move up from the kit lenses, especially at the 200 mm end. I am holding off on the Tamron until I am better convinced of the QC (seen a few problems appearing with Nikon mount ones recently), and may even go for a 300 mm f4 instead if I can find one at a decent price. I love BIF but they usually mean having to go out and about a lot, whereas lizards and the like are more accessible to me, when I can creep up on them OK. You have made me quite envious with your beautiful shots. Can’t wait for it to warm up a bit here!
Another thing to keep in mind is the age of your current body. When I tested an early version of the Tamron 150-600 there was noticeable focus lag with older DSLR bodies like a D7000. For static subjects it wasn’t much of an issue but it did impact the ability to capture birds in flight.
My personal copy of the lens which I acquired in early September does not exhibit the same focus lag as did the original review sample that I tested. I’d suggest trying out a Tamron 150-600 with your D5000 before purchasing to make sure you’re happy with the AF performance. I’ve also been reading that some early copies of the new Nikkor 300mm f/4 are exhibiting some AF issues. Many new products suffer from initial problems and its often advisable to wait for the bugs to be worked out.
As far as the Tamron 150-600 goes, engaging more cross type focus points does help AF speed and performance. If you’re planning on shooting mainly static subjects it will be less of an issue for you.
Thanks Tom, that is precisely my thinking. (if you want to skip the long verion, I have a question at the bottom!) I’m not always that happy with the focusing on my D5000 as it is. But I have astigmatism so that really doesn’t help when checking the rather low res LCD panel in the field.
I had been saving for the old AF-S 300mm f/4 when the Tammy appeared, and was twixt and tween, but finally decided on the Nikon. Then having saved enough and being ready to order in January 2015, I go online to see the old f/4 has gone from the ~1000 € that was on par with the Tammy’s price (hence the initial dilemma) to 1500 € :-( AND Nikon finally brought out a new f/4 (not that I will be able to afford it) so it seems it will be the usual situation where I live, the price of the old one will be held or increased, and then pulled from shelves as soon as the new one is about. I know the not-new 300m f/4 will be fine on my D5000. Plus it’s a well
proven lens, so I can’t really go wrong with that I guess, but that 500
increase since last autumn has really thrown a spanner in the works for
That makes the Tamron 150-600 the better buyng option right now as far as telephoto goes. You have suggested to me about trying before purchase, that just isn’t possible here, from my asking around anyway. Even if I did buy it and wasn’t 100% happy, I am sure I could always find a buyer without losing much.
I have also been debating whether it might be more prudent to upgrade to a better body at this time, with more cross-type focus points. But I can’t decide on that one. Many newer models have too many bells and whistles of the type I am just not interested in, rather than being truly functional upgrades. I had a little look at the D7100 though, nice camera!
Since we are talking about AF issues, can I ask something: like the D40 my D5000 has no motor in the body for focusing, I get that. What I don’t get is this, a comment on John’s One Night Stand with the Tamron states “with the D40x the AF doesn’t work when a lens is stopped down below 5.6” … Does my body have a similar restriction? How does this come about? Where do I find the info for that?
The detailed specifications on the Nikon website may tell you the f/stop AF limitation of various camera bodies. Based on the age of the D5000 my guess is that it has an f/5.6 AF limitation. Since the Tamron 150-600 f/5-6.3 is above f/5.6 on the long end of the zoom range not all camera bodies are able to have AF operational with it. This is not the case with all bodies though. For example, The D7000 has an f/5.6 AF limitation but that particular body will AF with the Tamron at f/6.3. My guess is that Tamron has done something with the lens firmware that makes the D7000 body think it is still auto-focusing at f/5.6 when the lens is fully extended out to f/6.3. Some older bodies like the D40 may not be able to do so, and based on the age of the body Tamron may not deem it necessary to adjust its firmware to accommodate it. I haven’t shot with the older bodies like the D40 so unfortunately I can’t comment first hand on this.
Some new bodies like the D7100 have an AF limitation of f/8 so they have no trouble matching up with the Tamron. I’ve shot a few frames with that particular combination and found that the AF was quite good, i.e. fast and accurate. I think a lot of nature shooters are finding that combination to be a very good set-up.
I used to have a D7000 and really enjoyed shooting with it as it has more of a ‘pro’ layout in terms of external controls, plus dual card slots and decent weather protection. Nikon has recently discontinued that model so it is likely more ‘bargain’ priced.
Since there is a D7200 rumored to be coming out early in 2015 you may be also able to get a good deal on a D7100. I’d watch the pricing to see if it gets discounted locally. As far as the new Nikkor 300mm f/4 VR goes…it is quite a spike up in price but that new lens does have a wealth of new technology in it. I think it will be sharper than the old 300mm and has VR which will give it a lot more flexibility for users at slower shutter speeds when shooting static subjects. Plus it is quite a bit smaller and lighter than the old lens. Whether it is worth the $2,200 CDN price tag vs, $1,650 CDN for the old version will be up to buyers to decide. Personally I don’t do enough paid telephoto work to justify the $2,200. I find that the Tamron 150-600 and Nikon 1 CX 70-300 meet my needs quite well…but that’s just me.
Thank you so much Tom for taking the time to explain that and for your useful advice. AF f/stop limitation was something I have never heard of before, despite all my reading. I don’t get any paid telephoto work and am already explaining to my other half why my passion is so much more expensive than his (which is looking after trees!). I have only seen a UK price on the new 300mm so I am guessing here it will reach about 2500€.
I will keep an eye on D7100 prices. For the time being I will concentrate on saving more euros (hoping Greek banks don’t go bankrupt, taking my hard-earnt savings with them) for better glass and finally make my mind up in time before Spring gets here (time to stop dithering!). (I have a special Big birthday this year, I should treat myself!)
Great photos…..thanks for sharing.
Glad you liked them!
Glad you enjoyed it Keith!
Hi Thomas, how would you compare Nick Suite to Topaz? Which one do you prefer?
Since I only use the ‘art’ filters in Topaz when creating photo art, I really don’t have broad experience with the company’s other products so I can’t compare these two programs as I use them for completely different things.
Sorry I could not be more helpful.
Thank you for the nice pictures. For me, the most difficult part would be to get focus on the eye. Do you use the “focus-and-reframe” technique or you select your focusing point? Even for the still people portraits I have not decided which technique is better. Do you have any recommendation?
Also, I have a question not directly linked to taking pictures of lizards. You mention using OpticsPro 10. Have you ever considered Capture One Pro 8? I am in the process of migrating from Aperture and considering Capture One Pro 8 or OpticsPro 10.
Speaking about the lizards, comparing to the New Orleans lizards, 5 inch lizards are rather big.
Thank you again,
When using my Nikon 1 V2 I never use ‘focus and recompose technique’ as I can place my single point AF anywhere on the frame. I find it much easier and faster to simply place it as I am composing my images. When using my D800 I will use focus and recompose since I don’t have the same degree of latitude placing my single AF point.
I have never used Capture One Pro. I know many readers here at Photography Life use it and like it. I decided over a year ago to make DxO OpticsPro my sole RAW processor and I love using it. It does not offer spot adjustments which is one of the reasons why I still tweak images with CS6 and Nik when needed.
The choice of software is a personal one. At the end of the day as long as you use something you like that produces good results for you I don’t think it makes much difference. Most software does similar things. Not all software does everything equally well. That’s why I use a combination of programs and use what I consider the best functions from each.
I have read very gladly your article, as owner of Nikon V2 and Nikkor 70-300 CX. I have found this combo very very effective also for “near macro” photography, but we have to remember that at 1.6m the real focal lenght of the Nikkor becames about 195mm. This is the so-called Focus Breathing, due to the floating optical scheme of the lens. I have experimentally established that at 1.6m, the focal lenght of 300 becomes indeed 195mm, at 6m it becomes 250mm and at 12m it becames 285mm. Nevertheless, the Nikkor 70-300 CX remains a higly efficient weapon :-)
Ciao and thanks for yours precious sharings.
Thanks very much for your additional insights – much appreciated! Focus breathing is an issue that affects many lenses, even very expensive ones. Since I haven’t done any focal length testing as you have I’ll accept your calculations at face value – and thanks for sharing!
It is good for readers to know that focus breathing can affect the final size of the main subject in their image frame, especially when shooting at the long end of a lens at its minimum focusing distance…i.e. ‘near macro’.
Just for fun I did my own crude test this morning, comparing the CX 70-300 and the CX 30-110 both shooting just over 5 feet away from the subject. This test would favor the 30-110 as its minimum focusing distance at 110mm is 3.3 feet (1m) so it would likely have less focus breathing at the same distance (i.e. 5.2 feet) away from the subject as would the CX 70-300.
Under these conditions I found that the subject image with the CX 70-300 was just over 2.3 times larger with the CX 70-300 than it was with the 30-110. I suppose based on fully extended focal lengths of the two lenses we may have expected this to be 2.7 times. And, if I apply the 2.3 image factor it would indicate that the CX 70-300 was operating at about 253mm when compared to the 30-110 at an identical distance from the subject. This, of course, is a bit of a subjective measure since I don’t know if the 30-110 was actually operating at 110mm at the 5.2 foot distance.
The advantage of the CX 70-300 was reduced significantly when the 30-110 was used fully extended at its minimum focusing distance of 3.3 feet (1m) with the same subject. Under these conditions the image size of the subject when using the CX 70-300 at 5.2 feet was about 1.5 times larger than the image size of the same subject was at 3.3 feet when using the 30-110.
Sometimes discussing focus breathing can cause some folks to feel ‘cheated’, just like it can when some folks find out that most lenses are not actually operating at their marketed focal length.
I think at the end of the day most folks who own a CX 70-300 would rotate the lens out to its marked 300mm, see the equivalent 810mm marked on the barrel of the lens and just take their shot. They likely would not even think twice about their distance from their subject and any potential effects of focusing breathing. I know when I’m out shooting it isn’t in the forefront of my mind. I’m just concentrating on how much of the subject I can get in the frame and how to position it.
Hi Thomas and thanks for sharing your interesting comparative between 30-110 and 70-300. To calculate the real focus breathing I have used this formula:
Real Focal Lenght = Focusing Distance / (1/M + M + 2) where M is the magnification. Using this formula, the Nikkor AFS 300mm f/4 shows a real focal lenght (at 1.45m) of 243mm (-20%), whereas the Nikkor CX 70-300 VR shows 195mm (-30% at 1.6m)…and the Nikkor 70-200 AFS VRII f/2.8 at 1.4m is “only” a 139mm (-30%)…
I think that is a bit ambitious to praise a minimum focus distance of 1.6m at the end zoom when you “have” to cut the effective focal lenght of 30%…probably it would be preferable to extend the minimum focus distance at 2m or more and preserve a more conservative focal lenght…
An intriguing subject which I shall investigate further…