Nature & Wildlife Photography by Ronald Zimmerman

All images © 2008-2020

#Howto use flash for amphibian and reptile photography

Amphibians and reptiles often have an elusive lifestyle. Many of them are nocturnal creatures. Photographing small animals at night is very challenging, because of the lack of natural light. Artificial light is mandatory at night. Also during the day artificial light can improve your amphibian and reptile photography. This guide is about how to use your cameraflash for photographing amphibians and reptiles.

Watch the video and read the guide to learn more about how I use my flash for amphibian and reptile photography. The setups and techniques can also be used for macro- and close-up photography of other small organisms.

Reasons for flash photography

When you photograph nocturnal amphibians and reptiles at night it seems obvious to use your camera flash to get the best results. The lack of natural light forces you to use artificial light.

At daytime you might want to use the camera flash to improve the quality of your photography. The flash makes details stand out and makes the photo more attractive. Another important reason is that you can keep your ISO as low as possible and you can close the aperture to have more parts of the animal in focus.
I will post another guide about “camera settings” as a separate guide on my website.

Flash setups

In this guide I will explain two succesful setups. My first setup is the “on camera flash with DIY-softbox” and my second is the “off-camera flash with softbox”.

Setup 1: On camera flash with DIY-softbox

For this option you can use a small Canon Speedlite 270EX (only €50 second hand) or similar flash from any other brand. For the small flash I created a DIY-softbox with packing foam. DIY means “Do It Yourself” and involves some crafting.

How to make a DIY-softbox:

  1. Fold some foam sheets to make it a bit thicker. I used five layers, but you can experiment with the number of layers.
  2. Create a fixing ring of four tirips to lock the DIY-softbox on my lens. When you put the lens hood on the fixing ring can not slip off.
  3. Use hobby foam with velcro to mount the DIY-softbox on the flash. With velcro you can easily mount the DIY-softbox and take it off when you do not want to use it.

A big advantage is that it is very cheap, lightweight and gives great results.
To get good soft and diffuse photos you need a softbox that is bigger than the animal, a softbox that is not too far away (the further away, the bigger the softbox has to be). There comes the biggest disadvantage. You can not get the softbox closer without changing the composition of the photo. When the softbox comes closer, you also have to make a photo closer to the animal to get optimal results.
Minor disadvantages are that some animals are bigger than the DIY-softbox, heavy rain might damage it (so you have to make a new one), and sometimes you bump into branches.

I used this for the first time in Costa Rica, and a evolved version in Sri Lanka.

Setup 2: Off-camera flash with softbox

Currently I am using a Canon Speedlite Transmitter ST-E3-RT in combination with a single off-camera Canon Speedlite 600EX II-RT. This combination works on a radio signal so you don’t need a guiding flash on the camera. It works like a charm.

On the flash you need a softbox to make the lightning softer. The shadows will be much smoother and the highlights will not burn that much. I currently use the SMDV Speedbox 40, Lumiquest LTP and Godox 40cm x 40cm softboxes.

In the video-tutorial I explain how this method works. The photos illustrate how it works in the field.

Ethics and flash photography

So far I haven’t seen scientific proof that flash photography harms amphibians and reptiles. In some places, like Monteverde (Costa Rica) flash photography is strictly forbidden. In Costa Rica I have met more guides who where strictly against it. Saying that flash harms animals is not based on scientific facts but on assumptions. When scientists will research this subject this might change.

So far I have been in two situations where I could not use my flash for reptiles. In Malawi I have seen stress behaviour while photographing a Mulanje Chameleon Nadzikambia mlanjensis. The chameleon started rubbing the eyes after every flash. We had stopped the photo session of this animal.
The other situation was at a nesting beach in Suriname. Your torch and flash disorientate the turtles. Most nesting beaches in the world have strict rules that forbit the use of a torch (red light only) and camera flash for this reason.

My advise is to use your common sense. If animals change their behaviour after flashing or show stress behaviour, then stop the photo session.
More about how to photograph amphibians and reptiles safely and ethically can be found here.


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