For me, photography and herping go hand-in-hand. I wouldn't go out looking for critters if I didn't have a camera with which to record my encounters. This not only lets me look back over time at the animals I've found, it also lets me share my experiences with people around the world.

Camera gear

Even small, not-so-expensive cameras can take inspiring pictures. I took one of my favourite reptile pictures with a 2-megapixel point-and-shoot (P-S). Expensive gear certainly helps, but the camera's not going to take great pictures by itself. Here are my thoughts on various aspects of photography as they relate to shooting reptiles.

The camera

Professionals use digital single lens reflex (dSLR) cameras instead of point-and-shoots (P-S) for a number of reasons:

  • They have virtually no shutter lag - you press the button and a picture is taken almost instantly. This is partly because their focussing mechanisms are fast.
  • You can change lenses - macro lenses for close ups, long telephoto lenses to shoot animals that are further away.
  • They have a 'burst' feature, where many pictures are taken per second.
  • They look professional

As you can see, there's no great technical reason why a dSLR would take an image of higher quality than a P-S would. The strength of dSLRs is that they enable you to take more great pictures because they operate faster and more efficiently. That being said, point-and-shoot cameras are certainly gaining ground on dSLRs, and many manufacturers are releasing impressive dSLRs aimed at beginners. The distinction between the two classes of camera is blurring.

There are many brands available, the two big names being Nikon and Canon. Other companies (such as Olympus and Sony) also produce dSLRs, but as I have no experience with them I won't talk about them here. Both Nikon and Canon have a great range of cameras. I personally use the Nikon D200 because it was (in my opinion) the best camera body available at the time. The overall quality of the images doesn't differ much between the two manufacturers, but the workflow of the camera does. In other words, how you interact with the camera to take pics, how the camera feels in your hands. The only way to figure out which one will suit you is to try out all the cameras you're considering purchasing.

Nikon tends to take a long time to get new products over to Australia. It might be months before newly announced gear is available over here. Canon, on the other hand, tends to have only a short delay between announcement and availability.


Because of their supreme unimportance to the quality of pics, I'm not even going to mention megapixels, except to say that I'm not going to mention them because of their supreme unimportance to the quality of pics. All modern cameras have more than enough pixels.

A 100mm macro lens kept this eastern brown snake (Pseudonaja textilis) at a safe distance


Nowadays, the lens has far more impact on the quality of your image than does the camera body. If you're serious about photography, lenses are the one area you don't want to scrimp on. I would buy just the camera body and then shell out for a decent lens (or lenses). The kit lens that comes with a camera/lens package is generally a cheapo that is thrown in so that you can start taking pictures immediately. For me, the sharpness of the image is what matters most. I want to be able to see every feature on the animals I'm photographing - every hair, every feather, every scale.

A 10mm lens is a wide-angle. It will take a lot of the scenery in. A 400mm lens is a telephoto, enabling you to take pics of a subject that's very far away. If a lens covers a range of focal lengths (e.g., 18-55mm), it's a zoom lens. If a lens has only one focal length (e.g., 105mm), it's a prime lens, and it's probably (though not always) sharper than a zoom lens at the same focal length. Zooms are convenient, primes are sharp.

For close up work, a dedicated macro lens is essential. Macro lenses are designed to give a 1:1 reproduction ratio. Put simply, they let you take close ups. They're manufactured to be very sharp, so every little detail of the animal shows up - every scale, every grain of sand. Considering that the vast majority of reptiles are small, a macro lens is invaluable to the reptile photographer. Macros come in various focal lengths. The most common are around 60mm and 100mm. The longer the lens, the further away from the subject you can be while still taking a macro shot. The drawback is that long lenses necessitate standing further away from larger subjects. If you plan on only ever taking pictures of crocodiles and perenties, a 100mm macro might not be the best choice.

The Nikon 105mm macro and the Canon 100mm macro are very nice. You can get other brands of macro (like Sigma and Tamron). They're cheaper, which generally means the quality is less than that of Nikon/Canon, but the decrease in quality may only be negligible compared to the decrease in price.

A wide lens captured this rainforest dragon (Hypsilurus spinipes) in its habitat

Telephotos are used to take pictures of animals that are far away. The longer the focal length of the lens, the more 'reach' it has (and the higher the price, generally).

Wide angle
Wide angles are great for landscape shots. It's always good to get a habitat shot of the areas in which you find reptiles. It's even better if you can incorporate an animal into the scene.

Lens quality
As with so many things in life, you get what you pay for. The expensive lenses are generally the best performers. It's always best to get your hands on a selection of lenses and test them out. Take your own memory card to a camera store and test out a combination of lenses on the same camera body. Take your card home and have a look at the pictures and see which lens gives you the best result. Sometimes a $1000 lens is only marginally better than a $500 lens.

Vibration reduction
Vibration reduction (VR) and (optical) image stabilisation (OIS/IS) are features of lenses (and some camera bodies) that counteract camera shake. While it might sound gimmicky, it really does work. It enables you to shoot at lower shutter speeds, in lower light, at higher apertures, and at longer focal lengths. If you can afford it, get a lens with VR (or IS or OIS). It's also useful when framing a shot, as the lens will be stabilising the image when you're looking through the viewfinder (but only when you half-press the shutter release button).


Photography is all about light. "Photography" literally means "light drawing".
Most Australian snakes are nocturnal, as are many lizard species, so much herping is done at night. Flashes are therefore an important part of a photographer's kit.

With no flash, direct sunlight causes harsh shadows.
Using some fill-flash evens out the lighting.
Roll your mouse over the image to change it.

Fortunately, most cameras have very decent built-in flashes. The built-in flash is fine for many situations. I use two external flashes on a bracket, plus my camera's built-in flash. This eliminates the harsh shadows that are generated with a single flash. It also provides enough light to enable me to shoot at very narrow apertures (see below for discussion of aperture).

Flashes are also useful during the day to provide fill light. I always shoot with my flash, even if I'm in broad daylight. Even if I'm ten metres away from the subject. The images on the left of a central netted dragon (Ctenophorus nuchalis) illustrate the effects of fill-flash during daylight photography. The image taken without flash shows a shadow on the dragon's head and forebody, whereas the flashed photo has nice, even light over all of the dragon's body.

I use the Nikon Creative Lighting System to trigger my external flashes remotely. I've set my camera body to be the master, and the two external flashes to be the slaves. When I press the shutter release button on the camera, the camera uses the built-in flash to 'talk' to the external flashes and set them at the appropriate power level before taking the picture. This works flawlessly 99% of the time, but it can malfunction in bright light and sometimes it just malfunctions for no apparent reason.

Using external flashes on a bracket can help illuminate a subject and remove
the harsh shadows that are generated by a single light source.

Using the camera

Once you've grown accustomed to your dSLR, take it off auto-pilot and play with the manual settings. Controlling the shutter speed and aperture yourself will give you greater control over your images. If you're taking a close up of a reptile, you'll need to stop the aperture right down to get a decent depth of field. Something like f/22 might work. When you narrow the aperture that much, you restrict the amount of light reaching the camera's sensor. You can slow the shutter speed down to about 1/60th of a second to capture more light. Anything slower than this and you risk producing a blurry picture due to camera shake. It's always a good idea to get to know your camera by photographing an inanimate object. This way you can concentrate on getting the settings right while not having to worry about your model escaping.

Altering the aperture changes the depth of field, blurring
the background and highlighting the frog.
Roll your mouse over the image to change it.

Depth of field
An image's depth of field refers to the amount of the image in focus in front of and behind the subject. A wide-open aperture (e.g., f/2.8) will produce a shallow depth of field, meaning that the subject will (hopefully) be in focus, but not much in front of or behind it will be. A very narrow aperture (e.g., f/32) will give you a much greater depth of field, enabling more of the objects in front of and behind the subject to be in focus. The images of the red-eyed tree frog (Litoria chloris) at left highlight the difference the aperture setting makes to a picture's depth of field. With a narrow aperture, the reeds in the background are in focus and distract from the frog. By opening up the aperture, we can decrease the depth of field, blur the background and help make the frog stand out from the reeds.

There's no right or wrong aperture or depth of field. Photography is very subjective (as is all art), and your own personal tastes will dictate the effects you want to obtain.

Most people will look at the eye of the critter in a photograph. We're inherently drawn to the eye, so make sure it's in focus (unless you want it out of focus for specific effect).

The gear I use

This is the gear I've got

  • Nikon D200
  • Nikkor 105mm f/2.8 VR macro lens
  • Sigma 10-20mm wide-angle lens (the Nikkor 12-24mm was too expensive)
  • Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8 VR telephoto zoom lens
  • Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 lens
  • tripod
  • Nikon SpeedLight SB-800 external flash
  • Nikon SpeedLight SB-600 external flash
  • macro bracket to hold the two flashes
  • Nikon remote flash cord (so I can use my flashes off-camera)
  • generic brand right-angle viewfinder bought off eBay
  • Nikon remote release
  • spare camera batteries
  • an awful lot of rechargeable AA batteries, plus an assortment of chargers

Gear I want (just in case you're struggling to find an appropriate birthday present for me):

  • underwater housing (with a dedicated camera)

Useful sites - stacks of info, lots of it technical and detailed. Mainly on Nikon cameras. - general photography info.
Field Herp Forum - a place for like-minded people to share their herping stories and pics.

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