Scale Models

10 tips for finding the beauty in traditionally scary beasts.

Scale-Models
Scale-Models

How can you expect people to help save endangered species if they're afraid of them?

That's why photography plays such an important role in reptile and amphibian conservation: It helps folks see how naturally beautiful these creatures are. Their colors, textures, and patterns are amazing, yet often unappreciated. I like to show that it's possible to get up close without fear.

Try it yourself using a good macro lens, a flash system, trips to your local zoo and/or pet store, patience, and a few key tips.

Many zoos have an area dedicated to herpetology, and most cities have pet stores specializing in reptiles and amphibians (call to ensure they allow photos). Or attend a meeting of a herpetology club and speak with collectors, who may provide access to their animals in exchange for artistic shots.

Here are my top pointers:

1 Shoot at the animal's eye level. This is easier done in the studio than in the field, especially for smaller creatures. This perspective shows off your subject's personality much better then a top-down shot.

2 Focus on the eye. If the eyes aren't sharp, it's much more difficult for viewers to get a visual fix on the picture. You can let the rest of the body blur with limited depth of field.

Also see our tutorial on how to photograph bugs and spiders.

3 Fill the frame. Their beauty is largely in the fine detail -- scale and color patterns -- revealed when the animal fills the frame. Given the small size of many of them, macro focusing (preferably with a dedicated macro lens) is a must.

4 Manage depth of field. The great challenge of macro work is the extremely shallow plane of focus. Stopping down your aperture helps, but most likely still won't get the whole animal in focus. One simple though useful trick is to align your subject to your focal plane. Or, letting the focus fall off as the image moves from the primary point of interest can be a very effective pictorial style.

5 Make your subject pop. Simplicity increases a photo's impact, and backgrounds can make or break an image. In the studio, I use a dark, nonreflective backdrop. In the wild, I either blur out the background by reducing depth of field with a wider aperture or use flash with an aperture small enough to darken the ambient exposure beyond the reach of the flash. Much of this also can be done in digital postprocessing: Shoot for maximum data capture, then blur or darken the background with imaging software.

6 Flash through glass. Many times you'll have to shoot your subject through the walls of a glass cage. To get a crisp image that's free of reflective glare, use an off-camera flash placed either above, to the side, or at an angle to the front pane. Never flash straight onto the glass, unless you can position your lens right on the glass using a rubber lenshood.

7 Use a macro flash. Ring and macro flashes bring out the subject's features without an overpowering blast of light. Nikon's R1C1 Speedlight wireless system is particularly flexible: You can place multiple units on the top, sides, and even inside the cage with no tangle of wires.

8 Get acquainted. Don't expect to step up and take an amazing picture of an animal right away. Getting to know your subject's traits and habits improves your chances of nailing that special shot.

9 Use natural techniques. Many reptiles won't stay still for a picture. One good trick is to cover them up for a few minutes with a towel or a bowl: The darker and tighter the fit, the more comfortable they will get. Uncover them and then shoot the photo -- you'll have only a few seconds of calm before they flee again, so be sure to preset your focus and exposure. Do not put these creatures in the freezer to slow them down -- it's dangerous as well as cruel.

10 Be safe. Employ an experienced handler to set up and monitor the animal so that you can focus on taking the picture. And for your own safety and that of the animals, never handle a reptile or amphibian in the wild unless you are an experienced herpetologist.

A leading reptile and amphibian photographer, Michael D. Kern is COO of the International Reptile Conservation Foundation.

Slithery sites to see

• www.thegardensofeden.org: Michael Kern's website has many more of his wildlife photographs.
• www.ircf.org: The International Reptile Conservation Foundation specializes in protecting reptiles and the ecosystems they live in.
• www.kingsnake.com: The center of the online world for all things reptilian, it hosts a forum on reptile photography and is a good place to find reptile stores and clubs in your area.

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