Herpetography – Getting Close


I have gone on at some length about the necessity of knowing your subject, and being able to get close when you are working with reptiles. However, it has been brought to my attention that saying it and teaching it are two entirely different matters. This post should give you some insight into the art of getting close to lizards, and thereby making the image. For the sake of consistency, I am going to use the case of a typical Lacertid, or true lizard, for my examples. The reason being that the lizards I like to shoot (geckos, chameleons etc) are less likely to be found by the average reader, and rather different to work with. I might devote a separate post to this topic, if there is sufficient demand.

Finding The Subjects

Before you can get around to taking pictures, naturally you need to find your subjects. Finding reptiles, specifically lizards (the focus of this blog mini series), can be very difficult (though often it is surprisingly easy). Ultimately, it depends on where you are: in much of the southern hemisphere, reptiles are abundant, as their love for heat allows them to thrive. In southern Europe and North America, the same can be said, as the temperatures are warm. The further north you proceed, however, the more difficult it becomes, until finally the reptiles disappear altogether.
Deciding on a target location for searching for reptiles is the first step. You need to make sure it is going to be appropriate for the species you are trying to find (assuming you know what species you are looking for). If your target location is difficult to access, and you can’t afford to do a scouting trip beforehand (e.g. in a different country), I would advocate the use of this wonderful piece of technology called Google Earth. It sounds cliché, but this tool has been incredibly useful to me. Often it will allow you to identify areas that are suitable for your subject, but you should never rely on it 100%; there is no substitute for ground proofing when it comes to satellite imagery.
The best places to find most reptiles are those that are bathed in sunlight. Particularly castle ruins make good hunting sites, but also bridges, cliff faces, and just exposed rocky surfaces. Again, however, it depends on the species and its habits. For example, while Podarcis muralis, the european wall lizard, is often found in quarries and castle ruins, Lacerta (=Zootoca) vivipara, the forest lizard, is rarely found outside relatively shady forest (both aptly named species). Reading up on the matter is the best way to discover where your target species likes to spend time. On the whole however, rocky spots are the best place to start.
Of course, when you get to a designated spot, you might have no luck; that’s just part of the adventure. Disappointment is to be expected in this field, so just take it in your stride, and keep trying. Persistence will (almost) invariably yield good results. And let’s be honest: it’s worth the effort!

Working The Subject

Now, you’ve found your lizard. Excellent! Congratulations! You can now take a documentary shot.

The documentary shot serves more of an informative than an artistic purpose

These are just for the archives – rarely, if ever, will a documentary shot mean anything other than “Hey, look what I found this one time!” Only rarely will one of these be useful. Still, now is a good time to shoot the habitat.
Habitat shots are under-valued in this field. You should try to capture the most significant features you notice. These are useful not only to you in future efforts, but can often be of interest to other enthusiasts, and even researchers.
Documentary and habitat shots in the bag, it’s now time to start working the subject properly.
Reptiles can be tricky in this aspect. Often, you will not notice them (unless you are well practiced), until you are right on top of them, at which point it is the scurrying away that catches your eye, and sadly you have already missed the shot at this point. Your ideal subject is going to be noticed from afar – five or six metres is a good distance to start your approach from.

Approaching

Getting close to the subject is the real trick to getting a good shot. There are a few tricks to it, but ultimately there are no substitutes for practice. Remember to keep shooting as you advance, because every step closer is a little bit better of a “documentary” shot. (N.B.: This is only true in digital photography; if you are working film, then you need to be more sparing, and think more carefully about each shot. I am going to assume most of my readers are shooting digital – the flexibility of digital should not be ignored!)
The first step is to identify the attention of your subject. Where is it looking? Is it hunting? Remember, a hunting lizard is a happy lizard; if you can get close enough to your lizard, while it keeps hunting (I’ve had lizards catching flies which landed on my feet), you are doing an excellent job. If the lizard is just basking, you need to be careful. Whilst basking, the lizards have a huge amount of energy, and are typically rather flighty. If this is the case, approach with extra caution.

Feeding also makes a great opportunity for behavioural photography

Begin to move closer. Tread very carefully and deliberately. Avoid thumping with your shoes. Herps are equally sensitive to sounds as they are to ground vibrations, and a heavy footstep could send them running for cover. At this stage, you need to keep your eyes trained on the lizard, watching very carefully for escape signs. When alarmed, most lizards will run a short distance, stop and turn their heads, to assess the continued threat. As I approach, I tend to lower my profile, eventually (depending on substrate), descending to elbows and knees, and even prone.
Recall, as I have mentioned on many occasions, that the lower you are, the more exciting the photograph is going to be. A shot from above looks imposing.

This European wall lizard was caught poking its head out from its hiding spot

Be sure to get a shot from above before moving in for the level image, just in case.

A shot from head on is personable.

Notice the much more personable impression that this lizard strikes with its elevated poise.

Once you have locked in on your level shot, you can continue to approach the subject.

A shot from below is rare and can be very impressive (or terrifying).

The Inevitable Flight

When the lizard runs, and it will, do not lose faith. Most lizards will only flee for a short time, and will come back soon after. Some become habituated within minutes, and will completely ignore you. If you are willing to devote a significant tract of time to it, sit motionless for a length of time in the hunting ground. True motionlessness is not absolutely necessary; you can afford to scratch your nose (which you WILL need to do – it is a law of this kind of tense situation), but make all movement deliberate and slow. The lizards will usually return quite un-perturbed, and you will have many a good opportunity. It is in this way that I have achieved all of the mating photographs I have taken – and if a hunting lizard is a happy lizard, a mating lizard is an ecstatic one.

Baiting

There is a habit amongst many wildlife photographers of baiting for their subjects, allowing them to be persuaded to perch in that ideal location for a stunning shot. Personally, I strongly disapprove of this practice, because it is more likely to give a false representation of the behaviour of the animal I am photographing. It also takes the challenge out of it, and the challenge is half the fun! Thus, I recommend that you take the natural approach, and just hope for the best. It can be a good recipe for some surprising images.

The Run-and-Stop

As I said above, when a lizard flees slowly, it will often run a few metres away from you, stop, and turn its head to one side, to keep you in sight. This can also be a good opportunity for you to get a shot, especially if you have a longer macro lens (200mm for example).
If you are still enough, and low enough to the ground, most lizards will flee only once or twice, before turning around and heading back for food. Especially castle-dwelling lizards are likely to become quickly habituated, because they are used to having heavy-footed tourists traipsing around their homes.

Disturbance

I just want to say a few words on the topic of subject disturbance, while I have it on my mind. Shooting reptiles can be great fun, but a photograph should never come at the cost of its safety, or the integrity of its habitat. It is easy to get carried away in your effort to chase a lizard down, often tearing apart its habitat by overturning stones and fallen logs. Avoid doing this where possible, and ALWAYS return turned objects to their original orientation, unless doing so risks crushing a subject. Much like a bird’s nest, too great a disturbance will often lead lizards to abandon their homes completely, inducing unnecessary stress.
Try also to avoid working the same subject for too long in one session. Prolonged stress can literally kill some lizards, and is not necessary if you have a large enough population of subjects. Also, it helps to have a bit of variety in your shots, going for both males and females, young and old.

Handling

I know that I have shown several photos on my blog that show a lizard in my hand, or the hand of one of my colleagues. This is a classic case of “Do as I say, not as I do”, but I feel it is valid; I study lizards, and generally will not catch one unless I need to take measurements of it for my research. Every time you try to catch a lizard you risk making it drop its tail. Not only does this make it a rather unattractive subject, but it also costs the lizard rather a lot of energy.
The temptation, once you have caught a lizard, is to take it to a nice setting, release it, and photograph it there. Although this gives you pretty pictures, again they are not natural, and you are likely to mislead both yourself and viewers of your photographs by doing so. Also, taking pictures of animals in your hands rarely produces anything but informative photographs, and should generally be avoided by the typical photographer.

Thus ends the first installment in this blog miniseries. Keep tuned for more!

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