Words and images by Angi Nelson
So, you fancy capturing some nice shots of your (or your friends) pet reptiles or frogs but can’t quite get the shot that you want? Well, here's a quick guide packed with handy tips and ideas to help you get a nice image that you can display around your home.
To avoid any undue stress on the animal I aim to keep the photography session to a minimal amount of time, only placing the chosen subject for the images when everything is in place, including the pre-focused camera. It is worth considering just how many scenarios you would like to capture the reptile in, I often have two complete mini set-ups ready, as well as a quick change of background or props to hand.
There are so many options for backgrounds these days ranging from professional backdrops to coloured pieces of card or material, I even hand paint the occasional piece of card for a specific effect. You will need a large enough background to cover the different angles you may use, as you don’t want to see lines where the chosen backing runs out within your image. Live or false plants can make for lovely naturalistic backdrops. Look around the house to see what you can use, sometimes a nice wall will suffice or even bedding, providing they don’t have prominent patterns which may distract from having your reptile as the main subject.
When considering the rear of your scene, think about whether you want it in focus or out of focus. These days it is very popular to have a clean, uncluttered out of focus background. Utilising a plain coloured piece of card or material could work well whichever your chosen aperture and effect. For a more natural look you could place plants quite far away in the background so they will blur, or even set up in your garden – just make sure your pet is safe first and cannot escape or be attacked by a cat or frightened by birds/ traffic etc.
Also consider the foreground or floor of your image, it is best not to have anything busy which will draw the eye or attention away from your pet. Consider how it blends or meets with the background. Sometimes it can work well having the foreground and background all the same by curving a piece of material or card behind and underneath the scene.
I have such a huge array of props that it fills a large box and I’m always adding to it. I always have my eyes peeled when I’m out shopping, in a garden centre or on a walk in the countryside and often bring new bits home.
The props I find most useful are probably the more natural items such as a piece of cork bark which you can buy from most reptile shops, they come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, even as hollowed out piece which can double up as a perch for birds. Other natural items that are good are branches covered in lichen, leaves, flowers, rocks or moss. It is wise to be careful where you acquire these items as you do not want to introduce parasites to your pet, if found in the wild you can sterilise some things in boiling water before use, or moss can be bought pre treated and packed from reptile shops. There are some plants and woods that should not be used around reptiles or frogs as they can be detrimental, so it’s always good to research the item with regard to your species before use, this can be incredibly important when it comes to a reptile that eats plant matter such as a tortoise. Some useful links to help you are:
Sometimes I like to go for a different look and will use unusual props such as an unusual gemstone, a Peacock feather, a gift box, an ornament or household object. Use your imagination. One fun set I produced for a competition involved me sitting a frog on a pan with a misting system inside, the title was “How to boil a frog” and aimed at producing an image for a movie title. The frog was perfectly safe and not disturbed by the mister as it was the kind often used in terrariums for frogs to keep their environment humid.
Composition, settings, focus and lighting
Before positioning the star of your images it is worth thinking about how you want the image to look, what exactly are you trying to capture. A good starting point is focusing on the props and taking a few test shots, this will not only help you work out which compositions look best, but you can decide on your lighting set up and camera settings. Focusing on the eyes is very popular and works with many compositions, but don’t rule out abstracts – reptiles have the most fascinating scaly skin and patterns, not to mention stunning eyes.
You would be amazed at the amount of different lighting situations I use, depending on the species' temperament, environmental requirements and the intended end result. Natural light from a window or two can work very well; if you have a species that isn’t particularly active, household lights and studio lights can help you create wonderfully dramatic appearances, but be careful that the lighting does not cause your animal stress either from brightness or heat. Be aware of your animal’s natural habitat, from temperatures to humidity and light; try not to deviate from this too much. Some reptiles or frogs will not tolerate very high or very low temperatures, so do carefully consider the temperature of the room and the lights, have a thermometer handy and keep an eye on it if you are unsure.
For the creatures that move around then flash is your best friend, but I would strongly advise against using strong flash and would advise against using flash with albino animals as their eyes can be damaged easily. I know of an albino snake that was blinded by a so-called professional filming team and it's just not worth the risk. Using diffusers can help reduce the glare for your animal or even bouncing the flash of a reflector can often give you better results than aiming it directly at the creature. If you feel the animal is displaying any signs of stress at all then stop and place them back in their own environment.
While it is impossible to guess exactly how your pet will sit, you can build up a good idea depending on the species, some will sit still for a little if carefully placed, providing they feel safe and comfortable, so consider what they are resting on and ensure it is appropriate for the species. Consider your pets temperament, some pets are pretty unsuitable for studio photography, such as a Tokay gecko which can become stressed quickly and flee so quickly you miss where they jump or run too, the last thing you want is a stressed or missing pet. Others may become aggressive or may not settle with bright lights on as they are nocturnal. Having an extra person who is competent at handling the species can be very useful, so that you can concentrate on taking photographs while the other person can ensure the safety of your pet and assist with positioning.
Pet’s temperament and requirements, plus safety
Know your species before you even start setting up or have someone who knows the creature present to look after it. Get to know its likes and dislikes, its behaviour and how it communicates. If your animal is arboreal and climbs a lot then you will need to anticipate some jumping and climbing while it is out, you can position a few props for it to jump between, this way it can carry on with its normal routine of exploring while you move around it to capture photos. Some animals will happily sit on a very narrow branch, whereas other will only feel safe with something large and sturdy to rest on.
Be aware of just how much handling the species will tolerate, delicate species such as frogs should have minimal handling and should only be handled with wet hands. Any water used should be left for 24 hours to allow harmful chloramines and chlorine to dissipate. Frogs may require spraying while out to ensure they do not become too dry, this misting can provide amazing opportunities for creative images (not just with frogs) if you have someone to assist. Many species will drink droplets of water off themselves or their surroundings which can be a nice natural behaviour to record in an image.
A useful safety tip is to ensure no household cleaning products or air fresheners are used in the area as they can be harmful to reptiles and amphibians. Also the person carrying out the handling should have clean hands without products such as aftershave, perfumes or hand cream on their skin.
Do remember, as with most animals reptiles and amphibian can carry pathogens, resulting in the spread of diseases known as zoonoses, such as Salmonella. This is not really anything you need to worry about provided you thoroughly wash your hands and other areas that come into contact with the creature using hot water and soap. Cleansing of the props and surrounding equipment is also prudent as these can act as vectors. Anybody who has a compromised immune system due to illness or medications, or even children under 5 and elderly people should take extra care with hygiene when around all animals.
Words and images by Angi Nelson
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