Canopy Lizard Costa Rica Herp Photography Polychrus guttorosus
Posted in News
17/06/2022

Introduction to the Niche Hobby of Herp Photography

Herp photography is all about finding and photographing wild reptiles and amphibians. The general public often deems such creatures ugly and undeserving of attention, but herping enthusiasts give them the appreciation they deserve.

As photographers, there are endless opportunities to photograph these diverse and surprisingly photogenic reptiles and amphibians. In this article, I’d like to introduce you to the herping hobby, the beauty of reptiles and amphibians, and some approaches to photographing herps.

What are Herps?

You have probably never heard the word “herp” before. It comes from the word herptile, which is a group of animals including both reptiles and amphibians. So, a herp is a reptile or amphibian.

A herper is somebody who actively searches for reptiles and amphibians in the wild, and herping is the activity of looking for herps. If the lingo is still confusing, try replacing “herp” with “bird,” and think of the words as the herp equivalent of bird, birder, and birding.

Why Photograph Herps?

Herps are an extremely diverse group of animals which are also underrepresented in wildlife photography. A brief look at popular wildlife photos – whether in magazines, on Instagram, or in photo contest winners – will show you lots of birds and big mammals. Rarely do herps make the spotlight.

But the truth is that herps possess some of the most intricate patterns, striking colors, and unique forms of any group of animal. According to the Reptile Database and Amphibia Web, there are well over 10,000 species of reptile and more than 8,000 species of amphibians, with more being discovered each year.

Yet, most of the public are familiar with very few. General knowledge of these species is extremely lacking. Even worse, reptiles and amphibians are often persecuted for being “gross” or “dangerous.” They are deemed ugly and undeserving of protection, and for the case of many, especially venomous snakes, even killed just for existing.

In general, little sympathy is found for herps. This is no fault of the lay-person, but the unfortunate result of instilled fear and ignorance passed down through generations and perpetuated by the media.

Because they are so unseen – and when they are seen, it’s usually in a negative light – it is important to highlight the true beauty and wonder of herps. One of the best ways to do this is through photos.

Canopy Lizard Costa Rica Herp Photography Polychrus guttorosus
One of the many wonders of the herp world is the Canopy Monkey Lizard, Polychrus guttorosus

Who are Herpers?

Herpers are people who go out of their way to find herps in the wild. Oftentimes herpers are enthusiastic about photographing their finds as well. Naturally, after spending many hours searching for a rare species, there is a desire to have a photo to commemorate the moment. For some, the photography aspect is more important than it is to others. At the highest level, the results of herp photography can be breathtaking.

Unlike birds, or most other wildlife, herps present a unique opportunity where one can harmlessly interact with the wildlife. It is typical in the herping hobby to catch and release snakes, frogs, etc. For photographers, this means they have control over the scene. When done correctly, this is a completely harmless practice which does not negatively affect the health of the subjects.

Easier access to good cameras and social media has led to an increase in people interested in herp photography in recent years. The hobby draws appreciation for an undeservedly hated group, educates the public about myths and misconceptions about reptiles and amphibians, and cultivates a passion for conservation in young people.

No one fights for the conservation, appreciation, and respect of reptiles and amphibians more than herpers. A quote from environmentalist Baba Dioum that is frequently used by conservationists goes: “In the end, we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we are taught.”

Herpers start that cycle by teaching people about reptiles and amphibians, and helping the public understand them better. Herp photographers are especially helpful in this regard, since they share beautiful photos that help others to appreciate these subjects, sometimes for the first time. Many herpers also contribute to conservation efforts by contributing to citizen science databases, helping researchers gather more data, advocating for conservation, and raising funds for conservation.

Some Insights into Herp Photography

The most captivating element of herp photography is how endless the possibilities are. There is a huge diversity of species and intraspecies variations to photograph.

Different scenarios call for different types of photos. Closeup portraits can be taken of just the head or part of the herp. Alternatively, the image could include the whole subject, or the whole subject plus its surrounding environment. There are also possibilities for more abstract images that “break the rules” by using longer exposures or unusual lighting. I’ll cover some of these possibilities below.

Snake in cracked mud and artistic photo of a snake variable groundsnake
DC-G9 + OLYMPUS M.60mm F2.8 Macro @ 60mm, ISO 500, 1/320, f/6.3

Lighting Possibilities

There are a variety of methods to light herp shots. Many herp photographers have a favorite lighting technique they use as a default for their photos. For some, that’s a diffused flash set up. For others, it’s a multi-light setup, or even just natural light. Playing around with lighting techniques opens up many paths each of which can lead to drastically different images.

1. Using Natural Light

Natural light is full of possibilities for herp photographers. An overcast day can make for soft, diffused light that doesn’t dramatize the subject. Meanwhile, direct sun can make colors pop, or rough scales standout against their shadows (though can be challenging in some situations for being too harsh). My favorite is often golden hour, which can look extraordinary and bring out deep, red tones that may otherwise be overlooked.

Another good way to use ambient light is to capture a subject that’s in the shade. This type of light can give you the evenness of an overcast day with less of the dull, gray colors. However, low light creates challenges of its own. One trick is to shade your subject through a white umbrella, which gives you diffused light without being too dark.

2. Diffused External Flash

This setup involves a flash (usually off-camera), a diffuser, and a way to remotely trigger the flash. This type of lighting can have a steeper learning curve than natural light, but it also allows you to have full artistic control of the scene.

An off-camera flash allows the photographer to determine what angle the light comes from. At stronger angles off-axis from your camera, the light can look very dramatic and stylized. I find that my favorite angle for the off-camera flash is usually whatever direction illuminates the entire face of the subject.

A diffused light source is another important aspect of good lighting. On shiny animals – very common in herp photography – an unmodified flash will cause many harsh shadows and specular highlight reflections. Diffusers soften and enlarge the light source, fixing the issue.

The diffusers used by herp photographers come in all shapes and sizes. Some, who are very particular about their light, will carry huge, bulky, homemade diffusers through the wilderness. Others prefer midsized popup diffusers that fit in a bag, while some will use LED video lights with diffusers for great results as well.

Palm Pit Viper I photographed with a diffuser doing herp photography bothriechis lateralis
In this example, the profile of a side-striped palm pitviper is lit by a diffused flash. The diffuser ensures there are no harsh highlights or shadows in the image.

Macro

Herps are usually small, especially amphibians! The macro lens is usually the favorite of many herp photographers.

Macro images of herps can shed light on many magnificent details that would otherwise be overlooked. Their eyes can be full of wonder; their pattern may show extremely refined detail; their textures can be intriguing.

These traits are usually best captured in a macro photo. I find that a lens anywhere from about 80mm to 150mm (full frame equivalent) is ideal. It lets you shoot very close-up shots without blocking the light, but it doesn’t make you stand so far back from the subject that you have difficulty photographing larger herps.

This image of a pair of mating glass frogs demonstrates the power in the detail of a macro photograph. I took it with a 60mm lens on Micro Four Thirds, which is 120mm full-frame equivalent.

Mating Glass Frogs Macro Photography
DC-G9 + OLYMPUS M.60mm F2.8 Macro @ 60mm, ISO 160, 1/250, f/11.0

Herp-in-Habitat

Another popular type of herp photograph is the “herp-in-habitat” shot, which includes the animal in the foreground and a lot of habitat or landscape in the back. These images are best captured with a wide-angle lens – including, for smaller subjects, a wide-angle macro lens.

A herp-in-habitat shot can be powerful because it combines the beauty of the landscape with the beauty of the subject. They can also tell a story of where these animals live.

Because herps are generally small subjects, a wide-angle lens must be very close to the subject, or it could look too small in the frame. The minimum focusing distance is the limiting factor of many wide-angle lenses.

A wide angle macro lens like the Laowa 15mm f/4 is an excellent choice for capturing herp-in-habitat shots of small subjects because of its 1:1 macro capabilities. Larger subjects can be shot with your typical wide-angle lens in most cases.

Take the following two images. The first shows a large Great Basin Gophersnake, while the second shows a small Strawberry Poison Frog. I took the first image with a 9-18mm lens with a minimum focus distance of 9.8 inches / 25 centimeters. I took the second with the Laowa 15mm macro lens, which can achieve 1:1 magnification.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
E-M1 + OLYMPUS M.9-18mm F4-5.6 @ 9mm, ISO 1250, 1/500, f/11.0
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
E-M1, Laowa 15mm f/4 Macro, ISO 400, 1.3 seconds, f/7.1

The Textbook Shot

A simple approach to herp photography, the “textbook shot” is an image which straightforwardly depicts the subject. These images are evenly lit, usually include the entire body of the subject, and do not include much else in the photo aside from the subject.

A textbook shot is the go-to for many herp photographers to document their finds. Although simple and, at a glance, of low artistic merit, a good textbook shot requires a good lighting setup and a keen eye on composition.

Tropical Night Lizard Textbook shot I photographed in Costa Rica doing herp photography
In the image above of a Tropical Night Lizard, I took care to balance the artificial lighting of the foreground and background. I also photographed the lizard from an attractive spot and a dynamic diagonal angle.

More Artistic Approaches

As is always the case in photography, rules can be broken, and you can take as much artistic license in herp photography as you please. You can make some unique images by playing with long exposures, flash, composition, and even fluorescent lighting. Let me show a couple of example images to demonstrate some of these possibilities.

First, I took the following photo of a Black Narrow-Mouthed Frog hunting Leafcutter Ants using a brief exposure of 1/4 second while lit under a flashlight, on top of a flash. This combination of lighting techniques froze the movement of the ants, while also creating slight motion blur to capture the movement of the leafcutter ant trail.

Black Narrow Mouth Toad hunting leafcutter ants with a slowed shutterspped to show motion blur and second curtain flash
DC-G9 + OLYMPUS M.60mm F2.8 Macro @ 60mm, ISO 100, 4/5, f/16.0

Then, in the following image, I used a blue light and a yellow long-pass filter to nearly give the camera X-Ray vision, highlighting the bones in the hand of an Arboreal Salamander.

fluorescent bones of an arboreal salamander biofluorescence in amphibians bluelight photography
DC-G9 @ 60mm, ISO 160, 10 seconds, f/11.0

Unexpected and creative shots like these are always possible if you put thought into the types of photos you want to take.

Conclusion

The world of reptiles and amphibians is full of beauty and peculiarity. Their magnificence isn’t known to many people, but thankfully herp photography can shed light on this truly beautiful side of the animal kingdom.

As a subject, herps provide the photographer a plethora of photographic opportunities, challenges, and unique results. It’s also an important genre because it provides people insight on a world they may never otherwise see. That’s why I love herp photography, no matter how niche of a hobby it is.

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