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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!