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#howto photograph wild amphibians and reptiles

Photographing amphibians and reptiles is my passion. I am very active on social media to share my passion for this cryptic group of animals. Amphibians and reptiles often have an elusive lifestyle. This makes them challanging to photograph in the wild, but extremely rewarding when I succeed.
It frustrated me to see so many fake wildlife photographs of amphibians and reptiles on social media. Those staged photos of captive animals in unnatural positions and situations go viral on a regular base. This “succes” can inspire other people to follow them in their footsteps. The process of staging the amphibians and reptiles involve animal cruelty. I had dedicated many Instagram stories to this subject to inform my followers about the bad practices.

After all the negativity I wanted to turn this into something positive. I wanted to educate my followers about how it should be done in an ethical way. This inspired me to make guidelines on how to photograph amphibians and reptiles in the wild.

How to find amphibians and reptiles is not part of the guidelines. The focus is on ethics and photography.

#howto be an ethical wildlife photographer

Being an ethical wildlife photographer means that you have a certain mindset. Part of this mindset is that you understand that you are a guest in nature and and that you should always put nature’s interest first.

Being an ethical wildlife photographer specifically means that amphibians and reptiles will not be harmed in the process of creating inspiring and captivating images. Your presence should impact the animals and the environment as little as possible. You should try to not disturb the natural behaviour of animals.

Sustainability should also be a priority in your behaviour. Keeping a location photogenic is in your best interest too. Imagine coming back in 20 years with your latest 2039 camera.

male Sand lizard (Lacerta agilis) in-situ

#howto keep the animals safe

With the right mindset your presence impacts the animals and the environment as little as possible. Always realize that there are people without the right mindset of the ethical wildlife photographer. That is why you should avoid sharing the specific location of animal findings. Poachers or photographers with bad ethics also surf the internet for specific locations.

#howto be prepared

Before entering a new location to photograph amphibians and reptiles it is important to take care of proper hygiene. Not that a bad smell will scare frogs away, but it is to keep them healthy. Amphibians have a a rather permeable skin that they sometimes breath through. The thin skin can also absorb toxic chemicals, radiation, and diseases. By visiting multiple locations in a short amount of time you can spread deadly diseases.

Make sure that you enter new locations with clean equipment and field gear. For the wildlife photographer this means everything that came in contact with mud, soil, leaves and other organic and non-organic material should be cleaned.

Bsal Europe provides an extensive Bsal Hygiene protocol. The short version is that you first clean your equipment (like your shoes or boots) with water. Wash it off. Then use a disinfectant. Virkon S® is widely used as a disinfectant. Wash the disinfectant off with water after five minutes. Bsal Europe also provides protocols for fieldwork in multiple languages.

#howto photograph

With the right mindset and hygiene you are good to go. Now it is time to talk about photography.
Getting a good photo is more than just pressing the shutter. Photography is a process. I follow certain steps before I press the shutter. This proces is an important part of my approach as a photographer. Without this process I can not get the results I want.

When photographing amphibians and reptiles there are three types of photos. Which type you choose depends on the situation. However they are not randomly ordered. The first type is the most ethical and has the least impact on the animal called “in-situ”. The thirds type “posing” is the least ethical and has the most impact on the animal. My advice is to pursue the first type whenever possible.

Here is the list of types of amphibian and reptile photography.

  1. Go for the in-situ first;
  2. if in-situ is not possible, go for the semi in-situ;
  3. posing when (semi) in-situ is not possible (read carefully).  

#1 Go for the in-situ photograph

In-situ means that you photograph the animal as you encounter the animal without altering the scene. This also means no altering the scene, handling or posing to get the photograph. You document the scene how it was.

Western Green Lizard (Lacerta bilineata) in-situ

In situ photography has the least impact on the animal and is the most ethical way of photographing amphibians and reptiles. It is also the most natural or realistic way of photographing amphibians and reptiles, and therefore the photo has more scientific value. After all, every pose you get is a natural pose, and not what the photographer thinks is natural. 

For good in-situ photos, especially the ones with behaviour on it, you need a lot of luck and time in the field. The perfect scenes are rare. This makes it more rewarding when you succeed. 

Mating Sand lizards (Lacerta agilis) in-situ

If you take the time to learn the habits and patterns of specific species of amphibians and reptiles you’ll be rewarded with the opportunity to get great photos without the need for disturbing the animals.  Always pursue the in-situ photograph first.

#Howto photograph in-situ

  1. Don’t move. Observe the scene first.
  2. Look for the best angle. Make sure there is nothing between the animal and your camera. Make sure you have the light from the right angle. Choose your position to photograph the animal.
  3. When you found the right angle then move slowly to the chosen position and make the photo. When you move slow you reduce the chance of being noticed by the animal.
  4. If you want to get closer, move slow, and observe the animal. When you approach the animal from a low angle the success rate is higher. While moving closer make photos after every step you take. Don’t wait to photograph until you are too close, or you will end up with nothing.
    When the animal moves you are probably noticed. For example a European Wall Lizard will probably wave at you and a European Tree Frog will turn around in jumping position. If you are noticed but the animal doesn’t leave, don’t move and wait. When the animal looks relaxed (in the original pose), try to move forward slowly.   
  5. If the animal escapes, in some cases it pays off to wait. Especially with basking lizards. They will probably return.
Three-striped Poison Frog (Ameerega trivittata) in-situ

#2 If in-situ is not possible, go for semi in-situ

Semi in-situ means not posing or handling the amphibian and reptile. The difference with real in-situ is that there is a small amount of altering the scene.

Semi in situ could be bending branches, moving distracting objects out of the way or letting the animal jump or walk to a better spot to photograph. Touching the animal is not needed and you can improve the scene and get a better photograph. This is not as “pure” as in-situ, but it is far less harmful than handling the animal. Also make sure you don’t destroy the habitat. The animal still needs some cover to hide.

Granular Poison Frog (Oophaga granulifera) semi in-situ

#Howto photograph semi in-situ

  1. Don’t move. Observe the scene first.
  2. Look for the best angle. Make sure there is nothing between the animal and your camera.
  3. If this is not possible, make a plan. You can move distracting branches or leafs out of the way. Another option is to motivate the animal to move to the desired position without touching the animal. Of course this doesn’t work with species who run off and disappear. Most tree frogs will do one jump and many lizard species run a few meters. Decide where you want to photograph the animal and if you work like a “very gentle sheepdog” the animal will be in a better position. The animal will also look like how you encountered it.
    Another example is to bend (but not break) branches so you can photograph an animal without moving or handling the animal. A snake perching on a high branch can sometimes be bend within reach.
  4. Execute your plan gently and move to the chosen position to make the photo. When you move slow you reduce the chance of being noticed by the animal.
  5. If you want to get closer, move slow, and observe the animal. When you approach the animal from a low angle the success rate is higher. While moving closer make photos after every step you take. Don’t wait to photograph until you are too close, or you will end up with nothing.
    When the animal moves you are probably noticed. If you are noticed but the animal doesn’t leave, don’t move and wait. When the animal looks relaxed (in the original pose), try to move forward slowly.   
  6. If the animal escapes, in some cases it pays off to wait. Especially with basking lizards. They will probably return.
Amazon Tree-Boa (Corallus hortulanus) semi in-situ

#3 posing If (semi) in-situ is not possible

Do not catch and pose an animal if it does not serve a clear purpose. It is clearly better not to catch amphibians and reptiles for photography. Many amphibian and reptile species are very fragile. Touching them could be very harmful and impact their health. In fact, it could be lethal in some cases.
The reason I include posing is that most people will do it anyway. And if people do it anyway, it is better to teach the least harmful and most efficient way.

A clear purpose to pose an amphibian or reptile for a photo could be for research, a field guide or to raise awareness and appreciation for the species. 
If you don’t pursue the ultimate photo of a species it is better not to pose at all. An evidence photo does not have to look good. Use in-situ, semi in-situ or just enjoy watching the animal. A good memory is more valuable than a bad photo.

White-lined Leaf Frog (Phyllomedusa vaillantii)

To the serious photographers: “Accept that you can’t make great photos of all animals that you encounter”. This can be hard to accept. Some species might be a once in a lifetime encounter, and some are not. If you are good at accepting this, it will reduce your stresslevel significantly.  

Both in-situ and semi in-situ are the more ethical methods, but in some situations posing the animal is the only way to get a photo. Some species have a very elusive lifestyle under logs or rocks for example. Other species notice you first, are very quick and leave before you have a chance to make a photo. In this case it is not possible to choose between (semi) in-situ or catching. The moment goes too fast. If you can accept that they are gone, you do not have to catch and pose. You are probably also a rare and elusive species of wildlife photographer yourself.

Asp Viper (Vipera aspis)

#howto pose in the least harmful way

Important note: the purpose of my tips/advices is for the benefit of the animals. You are always responsible for your own actions.

  1. Is it necessary to pose the animal? Is (semi) in-situ still possible? Does it serve a clear purpose? If it is still necessary proceed to the next step.  
  2. Make sure you know when it is the right season to handle or pose the amphibian or reptile. It is better to never manipulate an animal when you disturb their reproduction. For example the Adder Vipera berus. It is better not to touch them during the mating season or right after hibernation. Right after hibernation, in early spring, males need the solar energy to ripen their sperm cells. So it is better not to disturb their basking behaviour during this period.

    It is better not to touch or get near venomous snakes if you have no experience and do not apply the needed safety precautions.
  3. Make sure you take precautions to keep the amphibian or reptile in good health before you start posing the animal.

    For the health of the animal hygiene is very important. Especially amphibians with their sensitive skin. When you handle or pose amphibians make sure:
    – you don’t have insect repellent or sunscreen on your hands.
    – disinfect your hands or use disposable powder-free gloves.
    Nitril gloves are recommended  
    – you wash your hands with water and keep the frog wet with water. Not just the insect repellent and sunscreen can harm amphibians. It is better to keep their skin moist.
  4. Catch and pose them at the moment you want to photograph them. If you keep them for a short time make sure the animal is kept safe. I use a “Pop-up Port-a-bug” with some vegetation in it and put it in the shadow to prevent the animal from overheating.
  5. Make sure you photograph the amphibian or reptile in the same specific microhabitat where the animal is found. Do not move or relocate the animal too far. Otherwise it takes more time and is more stressful for the animal. Photograph the animal on the same spot or a more beautiful spot within a few meters. 
  6. Before posing the animal make sure you have the right camera settings and composition to make the photograph. It is very important to photograph quickly! Practice with your camera at home so you can get the right exposure and sharpness you want instantaneously. You can come up with better compositions while photographing, but this does not take that much time. Amphibians and reptiles should not have to wait until you master your gear. 

    If you want to try more different settings make as many photos as possible with the different settings and compositions. Choose the best photos afterwards (after releasing the animal) and keep the best. This reduces the time of the photo session. This is beneficial for the animal you are photographing. 
  7. Make sure you touch the animal as little as possible. Every touch could be stressful or not good for the health of the animal.
  8. Make sure you know what the animal can tolerate. Once you see stress signs, stop the session and take a break. If the animal is still stressed after the break, end the session. You should always respect stress signs. The animal is always in the lead.
  9. Most of the time it is also beneficial or the photo to let the amphibian or reptile make their own pose after you have put it on a spot. It looks more natural and you touch the animal much less. 
    Make sure you just do natural poses. Let the animal make his own pose. As I have mentioned before, this is beneficial for the photo. Every pose the animal gives you by itself is natural. Do not force amphibians and reptiles into poses and do not let your fantasy run wild.

    I do not pose lizards, because it is very hard to pose them naturally without them looking stressed on the photo. Specialists will see, and the photo will be worthless to me.
     
  10. Make sure you move slowly. Every action or movement should be slow. If you are calm the animal is most likely calm too. This applies to many snakes and frogs.
     
  11. You release the animal on the exact location as where you found it. Make sure that it is in the same specific microhabitat. Amphibians and reptiles can have very small territories.

    Before releasing an amphibian wash it with water. Disinfect your hands after the release.

To successfully follow and execute all steps you need a lot of knowledge about your subjects. Make sure that you prepare yourself with a lot of knowledge from books or make use of someone with a lot of experience to teach you (professional guides or scientists for example).

Hoogmoed Harlequin Toad (Atelopus hoogmoedi)

my own behaviour

My own mindset is to follow the guidelines as good as possible. If you ever doubt my ethics or you see me doing wrong, feel free to contact me by email. I am open to feedback and willing to learn.

contribute

This guidelines on how to photograph amphibians and reptiles in the wild is a working document. If you have suggestions to improve this document feel free to send me an email.

Contributors

Contributors are the people or organizations who contributed to the text by reacting on my Instagram stories or were used as a source. Others have taught me knowledge or skills over the years.

Bobby Bok, Gertjan Martens, Gerrit Jan Verspui, Matthijs Hollanders, Niklas Banowski, BasalEurope (and partners) and RAVON

SUPPORT ME

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Feel free to ask me for information about this blog or when you are planning your own adventure. You can find more about my techniques in the blog post about the gear I recommend and the blog post about flash photography.

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Verder Bericht

© 2019 Nature & Wildlife Photography by Ronald Zimmerman

Thema door Anders Norén