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