How to Take Great Stock Photographs

Last week we discussed (LINK) how to turn your favorite hobby into data for a scientific audience. Now would be a good time then to understand the basic techniques involved with taking a good “stock” photograph to get the most out of your observations.

Isla Santa Catalina Desert Iguana (Dipsosaurus catalinensis)

Isla Santa Catalina Desert Iguana (Dipsosaurus catalinensis)

A perfect stock photograph, field guide shot, voucher shot, whatever you like to call them, illustrates the animal in a whole and clear fashion. They are not generally artistic in nature but still require proper lighting and composition. Emphasis can and should be placed in diagnostic characteristics such as dewlap color in Draco lizards or inguinal patches in certain frogs like this South American Lithodytes lineatus which mimics a poisonous Epipedobates species.

Leaf litter Frog (Lithodytes lineatus)

Leaf litter Frog (Lithodytes lineatus)

Many times those small differences are the only reliable way to distinguish one species from another, and thusly any photo you take of them necessitates the inclusion of those features.

Mastering the basic “field guide shot” is also a great way to become a better photographer. Most all the elements that create those awe-inspiring NatGeo photos you see, are involved with this style of photo. That style that you see in every field guide of a nicey poised lizard on a branch or coiled snake on a rock, nearly always at a 30-60 degree angle from the ground and no more than 30 degrees from perpendicular.

Baja California Rosy Boa (Lichanura trivirgata trivirgata)

Baja California Rosy Boa (Lichanura trivirgata trivirgata)

If there was only 1 photo you could show of an animal to illustrate the most diagnostic features possible, that’s the angle you would end up choosing 9 times out of 10. It would enable most enthusiasts to identify that species, at a glance, in the field. So how do you go about taking such a useful picture?

Well that largely depends on the subject. Obviously, venomous creatures pose a different set of issues than non-venomous creatures do. Large species like pythons also require a different approach than a poison dart frog would. In most situations though, I find that once you understand the basic ins and outs of your camera, the most difficult part of the process (The art, if you will) is to position the animal. To force a natural looking position on a stressed out, wild animal is no easy undertaking.

Green Crested Lizard (Bronchocela cristatella)

Green Crested Lizard (Bronchocela cristatella)

Sometimes the easiest or really only viable option is to use a long lens and simply capture the animal while it is truly acting natural. Species like a Komodo Dragon come to mind for this, or sea snakes underwater are another one of those, what you see is what you get animals.

Yellow-lipped Sea Krait (Laticauda colubrina)

Yellow-lipped Sea Krait (Laticauda colubrina)

Sometimes a great deal of patience, skill, and undoubtedly luck, are required to pull it off. You must anticipate the animal’s movements and position yourself instead of positioning the subject. This is also the least invasive and stressing of the methods for the animal as you never lay a hand on them. These would be what people call an in situ photograph which in latin literally means “on site.” For protected species like Red-legged Frogs or Sea Turtles, it is also your ONLY option since it is illegal to touch (Harass) an endangered species or any species within a National Park.

Hatchling Green Sea Turtle (Chelonia mydas)

Hatchling Green Sea Turtle (Chelonia mydas)

Most of the time I am not that lucky to be able to pull off a nice in situ shot so I resort to gently persuading the animal into a picture-perfect scene and position. The key operator here is gentle. I cannot emphasize that enough, both for the animal’s sake, and yours. The more finesse you employ, the less stressed the animal will be, the more cooperative it will be, the less damage it will incur, and the more natural the animal’s colors will appear. It is not uncommon to spend a half hour or more with an animal until the pose sticks long enough to get the shot.

Alright so now down to the nitty-gritty, a few key tips for getting the perfect stock photograph! Before you start handling the animal, determine where you will be photographing it. Somewhere absent of distracting elements like long grass or deep leaf litter and with even lighting. Also try to choose something natural. You would realistically never find an arboreal lizard on the ground and vice versa. This Mangrove Catsnake looks really nice on this Corpse Flower in southern Thailand but you would never expect to find it there naturally.

Mangrove Snake (Boiga dendrophila)

Mangrove Snake (Boiga dendrophila)

Once you find that perfect, natural spot, you should have some idea of how you will want the animal to be positioned. Take a test shot of the area without the subject first, to make sure your settings are truly as close to correct as possible.


What should those settings be? There’s no 1 answer for this but a few generalizations apply. Generally an f-stop above f/10 is not necessary for a stock photograph, but there are rare occasions that it is for smaller subjects at a closer distance. The basic goal is to capture entire animal to be within your “circle of confusion,” which is photographer jargon for what’s perceived to be in acceptable focus. Keep your ISO as low as you can and your shutter speed faster than 1/60 second, unless you have a tripod or a very steady hand. And if you don’t have one already, an external flash is probably the best investment you can make to your camera setup. With a powerful flash, regardless of natural lighting conditions, you can stay within the optimal camera settings ranges. Flash placement can make a huge different as well. Sometimes leaving it on your hotshoe is too direct and will cause harsh shadows. Instead, try setting your onboard flash to Commander Mode and put your external flash on remote. Then you can hold the flash above or to the side, wherever you need to eliminate the shadows and keep your subject clear.

Also be aware of your flash’s limitations. They have a maximum sync speed which means it won’t operate properly above a certain shutter speed. For instance, if your flash syncs at 1/320sec and you shoot at 1/500th, the shutter curtain will get in the way and you will get a perfect black bar at the edge of your photograph.

Flash and Shutter Curtain

Flash and Shutter Curtain

Now that you have the right settings, bring the animal in and remember, use slow, gentle movements and it will make your life a lot easier. Keep the head raised in an alert fashion and curl the tail (If present) towards the camera.

Dickersons Collared Lizard (Crotaphytus dickersonae)

Dickersons Collared Lizard (Crotaphytus dickersonae)

Avoid hunched over, defensive positions and pay attention to the details. The toes have a tendency to look unnatural easily so use a small stick or blade of grass to move the toes as necessary. Also sometimes certain animals tend to close their eyes. A carefully aimed puff of air generally rectifies this and also brings out the tongue with snakes. This Switak’s Banded Gecko in Baja would not keep his eyes open for more than 2 seconds, so in these situations it helps to have an assist from a friend.

Switaks Banded Gecko (Coleonyx switaki switaki)

Switaks Banded Gecko (Coleonyx switaki switaki)


Follow those simple guidelines and your photography will get more popular, the animals will thank you, and so will the scientists and other enthusiasts currently trying to use the all-to-prevalent subpar field guide pictures.


I encourage you all to comment or email me with responses. Let me know if I glanced over a subject without due explanation or if you have a suggestion for a future post. Feedback is warmly welcomed!

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So you want to be a Citizen Scientist?

Welcome to my inaugural blogging venture for HerpNation! Here I’ll be discussing a wide range of topics: conservation issues facing our beloved herps, field techniques for photography and travel, gear reviews, and photographic updates from my never-ending international adventures.


Let’s kick this off with a little discussion on the marriage between field herping and conservation.


We all love going out on the weekends and appending our life lists with that long-sought species or bragging about a new county record, but what if you want more? What can you do to continue your passion and help those belly crawlers at the same time? Luckily the answer is a lot of things!


The easiest option is to simply make your data available to scientists, which instantly catapults you into the ever-growing community of “citizen scientists.” The most widely used method to accomplish this is through iNaturalist.

iNaturalist Screenshot


iNaturalist began as a student’s Master’s project back in 2008 and is now owned by Cal Academy of Sciences. With mobile apps and numerous collaborations including Google, Facebook, and Flickr, it’s the easiest and most comprehensive citizen science tool. It’s also not limited to reptile and amphibian observations. So all those weird bugs or mushrooms you find can go into the scientific cloud as well.


A separate repository exists called HerpMapper. As the name suggests HerpMapper is restricted to observations of herps but its area resolution is equally surmountable: worldwide. It also provides mobile apps for android and apple devices but does not offer the collaborations that iNaturalist has acquired.

HerpMapper Screenshot

HerpMapper Screenshot


Both are sound decisions for pursuing your basic citizen science agenda. They cover your everyday observations. Every time you road cruise, hike, or commute to work and find a DOR, you can contribute to science. What if you find something unusual though? What if you find a species where it’s never been found before or hasn’t been seen for decades? Maybe you’ve come across a species exhibiting maternal care or consuming something unusual. Any of these situations likely interests one or several researchers, but you’d (rightfully) want some credit for your hard work and dedication right? This is where you submit a natural history note, forever solidifying that you made the discovery.

Many are put off by this step. Write a publication? That’s for people with advanced degrees right? No. Not true. Anyone can submit Geographical distribution or Natural History Notes. Simply go over to Herpetological Review and follow the instructions. Photographic vouchers are allowed but they must be deposited in a University or Museum Collection. Literature reviews are also necessary to ensure your observation is truly novel.

Herp Review Cover

Herp Review Cover

This is obviously a more involved process than simply uploading to iNaturalist with a few data points. For this reason I will be going over the process, in detail, in a subsequent post to help you break that barrier and become a published author!


Right, so we’ve glanced over the options you have to report, and make available, your findings to the scientific community. Now the question becomes, where can you go to make these scientifically significant observations? The United States is pretty well scoured but that’s not to say discoveries can’t be made. Quite a bit more work and luck is needed to discover something in America than a country like Bangladesh, where education and research efforts are severely lacking. Couple that with the more complicated biome mechanics of a tropical area and you have a recipe for discovery!

Whip Scopion eating Vietnamese Gecko

Asian Whip Scorpion (Phrynichus orientalis) eating a Cat Tien Bent-toed Gecko (Cyrtodactylus cattienensis)

Mexican Hognose Snake (Heterodon kennerlyi)

Mexican Hognose Snake (Heterodon kennerlyi)


Nearly every time I visit a tropical area, I observe something not noted and published by anyone else. It’s what keeps me going back! Good luck discovering a novel species in the states, but go to a military controlled island off Vietnam and good luck NOT discovering one.

Con Dao Blue Ornate Flying Snake (Chrysopelea ornata)

Con Dao Blue Ornate Flying Snake (Chrysopelea ornata)

Con Dao Blue Ornate Flying Snake HDR

Con Dao Blue Ornate Flying Snake (Chrysopelea ornata ssp.) HDR

Unfortunately, even though international travel is easier than it has ever been, people are still dissuaded by sensational media hype and financial constraints. Careful planning can significantly reduce the stress and monetary burden. For example, I will be traveling to the states of Quintana Roo and Chiapas, Mexico next month for 15 days, all for less than $800 including airfare. That’s pretty reasonable for a 2 week vacation, especially if you compare it to the amount of money you spend living in the states for 2 weeks or, more starkly, at a beach resort anywhere. Different areas do tend to require vastly different strategies for successful and cheap herping. But this topic too requires an in-depth discussion, so let’s revisit this topic soon.

Lastly, one of the most helpful things you can do is volunteer your time as an assistant to the numerous graduate students and research groups that desperately need qualified help. Put those herping skillz to use! Go to your local university and visit the bulletin boards or visit them online, and you can really make a difference. You don’t necessarily have to limit yourselves domestically though, think big!

If you have the funds, there are ample opportunities to make international research a reality. Our own Bangladesh Python Project workshop welcomes any and all enthusiasts regardless of field experience. Come to learn a wide variety of lab and field techniques or even come to endeavor on your own independent research project!

Bangladesh Python Project 2015

Bangladesh Python Project 2015


Not all of us have the mounds of time or experience necessary to properly analyze data or apply for grants to elucidate one of Nature’s myriad mysteries. I know most of you have more field experience than many academics I know, and thus have that key skillset required to render you valuable to any field research initiative. I can’t begin to count the number of horror stories I have heard from researchers about poor quality undergrad assistants and thrown out data. And I can’t help but wonder why more of our community doesn’t dedicate their field knowledge and expertise to the academic world. We all want the same things: to experience and preserve the nature around us. Both parties can benefit greatly from each other’s skillsets so let’s make it happen.


That’s it for now but come back week after week for new posts and photos from whichever country I may find myself in!

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Bangladesh Python Project 2014 Editorial!

A great 4 part editorial on our work with the Bangladesh Python Project by one of our June 2014 participants, Jonathan Hakim.

Interested in joining us next summer in Bangladesh? Send me a message or stay tuned later this week, when we start officially advertising


Elongated Tortoise (Indotestudo elongata)

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Happy World Snake Day!

Happy World Snake Day everyone! Today, give a snake a second look and their beauty just may surprise you!


Happy World Snake Day!

Happy World Snake Day everyone. Today, give a snake a second look and their beauty just may surprise you!

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Nudibranch – A Rare Encounter

2 weeks ago I was blessed with this rare encounter of a scenic landscape portrait of a nudibranch during midday. Generally too small to use anything but a macro lens on, this nudibranch offered a unique opportunity to capture some of the beautiful coral surroundings in the shot as well. Probably one of the very few times I’ll be able to pull off a wide angle of a #nudibranch! This Red Gilled Nembrotha (Nembrotha rutilans) was spotted off the island of Flores, #Indonesia on a dive with some spectacular visibility!

A cool Nudibranch!

Red Gilled Nembrotha Nudibranch (Nembrotha rutilans)

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A Tiny Seahorse with a Big Problem

After 2 long and arduous attempts at diving “Ray Point” off Mobul Island solely in order to photograph a Pygmy Seahorse (Hippocampus bargibanti), we finally managed these shots and it was truly a team effort.

Pygmy Sea Horse (Hippocampus bargibanti)

Pygmy Sea Horse (Hippocampus bargibanti) off the coast of Mobul


Prior to arriving to SeaVentures (A converted Oil Rig in the Celebes Sea) we were blissfully unaware that innocently photographing these little guys has a tragic outcome. Turns out, they are exceedingly sensitive to flash photography and prone to going blind and dying if one isn’t careful. Several horror stories were recounted to us of divers having exceeded the Sea Horse’s tolerance and finding them hanging, dead or dying with their eyes having been “exploded” from the high energy flashes. Surely no one would intentionally harm these adorable fellas but not enough care is being taken by divers (In far more than just this respect) to be ecologically conscious while underwater.

So armed with this knowledge, Ash and myself limited ourselves to being able to take only 2 photos, good or bad. Our strobes were also turned down as much as possible along with our ISO being cranked up to reduce any retinal impact. It was by no means an easy task to photo a 1cm uncooperative creature in a current and actually get him in focus.

Pygmy Sea Horse (Hippocampus bargibanti)

Pygmy Sea Horse (Hippocampus bargibanti) in Mobul


Like most Hippocampids, they have this REALLY annoying tendency to face away from the camera and move into the most awkward positions. And it’s not like you can go in like you can with a lizard and manually position his head — you just have to deal with the cards you’re dealt. To add insult to injury, he was on the side of the Sea Fan (Muricella sp.) facing the current which made it impossible to stabilize myself underwater. Ash ever so graciously then faced me, braced one hand against a rock and used the other to push me backwards, keeping me just steady enough to land these shots. I wish someone would have photographed us doing this but just trust me, it was sufficiently awkward looking!

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An Unlikely Encounter with a Rafflesia Flower

3 weeks of 3-4 dives a day has me itching to get back into the forest, so I’m reminiscing of a chance encounter we had with one of my biggest targets in Thailand: The Mangrove Catsnake (Boiga dendrophila).

Mangrove Catsnake with Rafflesia kerrii

A Mangrove Catsnake on a Rafflesia kerrii or Corpse Flower in Khao Sok, Thailand

This little guy was found while scouring Khao Sok National Park, Thailand for the (in?)famous Corpse Flower (Rafflesia kerrii). While this isn’t the largest species of Rafflesia, it sure was impressively huge, and fortunately for us it was also the last bloom of the season. I was kinda bummed as the namesake corpse smell is only present in the morning and this was only finally found in the late afternoon. Good thing for us, Borneo is quite famous for these too, so first objective here after our last dives tomorrow is to get a good whiff of one.


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Finding Vine Snakes

Despite the dry conditions, we were still able to manage a few neat finds on our recent road trip through Thailand. This Green Vine Snake (Ahaetulla nasuta) was found sleeping in a low branch one night near the Burma border in Erawan National Park.


Green Vine Snake (Ahaetulla nasuta)

Green Vine Snake (Ahaetulla nasuta) found in western Thailand


Searching for Vine Snakes at night is the easiest way to spot them as they tend to sleep at the end of branches, in a somewhat conspicuous manner. Seeing a green snake bundle in a sea of green leaves can be difficult, but once you get used to it, the act can be repeated several times a night. Photographing them at night does present challenges for artistic expression though, unless one has the time to rig an overly-elaborate flash setup. I always find it interesting though that during my travels and the educational talks that Ash and I provide for the locals, the general populace is pretty terrified of this cute little guy. They falsely believe that because of its head shape (Which slightly resembles that of a viper) that it can deliver a deadly bite. Luckily for them, the bites are generally entirely benign unless gnawed on sufficiently. Even then they can inject only a weak venom that will cause mild local irritation in rare cases.

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Scuba Diving with Sea Snakes

After finishing our 7 day liveaboard through the Surin and Similan islands in the Andaman Sea, I’m glad to say that we knocked off a few bucket list animals. This Yellow-lipped sea krait (Laticauda colubrina) was my first encounter scuba diving with sea snakes and I was actually more excited to see this than anything else on the trip which includes Whale Sharks and Mantas. Call me crazy but I am enthralled with the idea of marine reptiles, especially snakes.


Yellow Lipped Sea Krait

Yellow Lipped Sea Krait found on a dive of the Similan Islands in the Andaman Sea near Thailand.

What a marvelous feat of evolution for these terrestrial creatures to have carved out a niche for themselves in a seemingly foreign and hostile environment. Still needing to come ashore to nest and drink fresh water, these snakes spend the vast majority of their lives hunting, sleeping, and mating under the waves of the worlds tropical oceans.

This particular snake is one of the most iconic of the sea snakes but there are 62 recognized species that occupy anything from mangroves, estuaries, reefs, and even the open ocean. The Yellow Lipped Sea Kraits famously come ashore in the state of Sabah, Borneo (Where I happen to be right now) so I’m very much looking forward to more opportunities to photograph these guys and hopefully have some more time to get some standout shots.

And a quick fun-fact: Though extremely venomous they rarely show hostility towards divers and carry on with their daily activities without being hindered by our presence. It is often said it is safe to be around them due to their mouths being too small to physically bite a human. This is, in reality, a blatant fallacy as there are several bite cases per year from fisherman removing them from nets. Nonetheless it was far less nerve-wracking to photograph this Elapid than most.

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Adventures in Thailand: Elephants

Turns out a seemingly difficult task of spotting Asian Elephants in the jungles of Thailand is not as difficult as one might think. At both Kaeng Krachan National Park and Khao Yai National Park elephants abound! A

Posted in Trip Accounts