Introduction to the Niche Hobby of Herp Photography

Herp picture taking 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 unlimited opportunities to photograph these varied and surprisingly photogenic reptiles and amphibians.   In this article, I’d like to introduce a person to  the herping pastime, the beauty of reptiles and amphibians, and some approaches to photographing herps.

Table of Contents

What are Herps?

You might have 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 looks for reptiles and amphibians within the wild, and herping may be the activity of looking for herps. When the lingo is still confusing, test replacing “herp” with “bird, ”  and think of what as the herp equivalent of bird, birder, and birding.

Why Photograph Herps?

Herps are an incredibly diverse group of animals which are also underrepresented in wildlife photography. A brief look at well-known wildlife photos – whether or not 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 very intricate patterns, striking shades, and unique forms of any group of animal.   Based on the Reptile Database and Amphibia Web , there are well over 10, 1000 species of reptile and more compared to 8, 000 species of amphibians, with more being discovered every year.

Yet, the majority of the public are familiar with very few. General knowledge of these species is very 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 only for existing.

Generally, little sympathy is found pertaining to herps. This is no fault of the lay-person, but the unfortunate consequence 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 the negative light –  it is important to highlight the true beauty and wonder of herps. Among the best ways to do this is via photos.

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

Who are Herpers?

Herpers are people who go out of their method to find herps in the wild. Oftentimes herpers are excited 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 picture taking aspect is more important compared to it is to others.   In the highest level, the results associated with herp photography can be breathtaking.

Unlike parrots, or most other wildlife, herps present an unique opportunity to harmlessly interact with the animals. It is typical in the herping hobby to catch and release snakes, frogs, and so forth For photographers, this means they have got control over the scene. When done correctly, this is a totally harmless practice which will not negatively affect the health from the subjects.

Simpler access to good cameras and social media has led to a rise in people interested in herp digital photography in recent years. The hobby draws appreciation for an undeservedly hated group, educates the public regarding 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 quotation from environmentalist Baba Dioum that is frequently used by conservationists goes: “In the end, we will conserve only what we like; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand just what we are taught. ”

Herpers start that cycle by teaching people about reptiles plus amphibians, and helping the general 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 the first time.   Many herpers also contribute to conservation efforts simply by contributing to citizen science databases, helping researchers gather more data, advocating for preservation, and raising funds regarding conservation.

Some Insights into Herp Photography

The most captivating element of herp photography is how unlimited the possibilities are. There is a large diversity of species and intraspecies variations to photo.

Different scenarios call for different types of photos. Closeup portraits can be taken associated with just the head or portion of the herp. Alternatively, the image can include the whole subject, or the whole subject plus its surrounding environment. There are also options for more abstract images that will “break the rules” by utilizing 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 five hundred, 1/320, f/6. 3

Illumination Possibilities

There are a variety of methods to lighting herp shots. Many herp photographers have a favorite lighting technique they use as a default for their photos. For some, that is a diffused flash setup. For others, it’s a multi-light setup, or even just sun light. Playing around with lighting techniques opens up many paths all 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 sunlight can make colors pop, or rough scales standout towards their shadows (though could be challenging in some situations to be too harsh). My favorite is usually golden hour, which can seem extraordinary and bring out strong, red tones that may otherwise be overlooked.

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

2 . Diffused External Flash

This setup consists of a flash (usually off-camera), a diffuser, and a way to remotely trigger the flash. This type of lighting can have a higher 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 sunshine comes from. At stronger perspectives off-axis from your camera, the sunshine can look very spectacular and stylized. I discover that my favorite angle for the off-camera flash is usually whatever direction illuminates the entire face from the subject.

The diffused light source is another important factor of good lighting. On gleaming animals – very common in herp photography – a good unmodified flash will cause a lot of harsh shadows and specular highlight reflections. Diffusers make softer and enlarge the light resource, fixing the issue.

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

Palm Pit Viper I photographed with a diffuser doing herp photography bothriechis lateralis
Within this example, the profile of the side-striped palm pitviper will be lit by a diffused adobe 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 normally the favorite of many herp photographers.

Macro images of herps can reveal many magnificent details that would otherwise be overlooked. Their eyes can be full of wonder; their pattern may display extremely refined detail; their own textures can be intriguing.

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

This image of a pair of mating glass frogs demonstrates the power in the fine detail of a macro photograph. We took it with a 60mm lens on Micro 4 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 well-known type of herp photograph is the “herp-in-habitat” shot, which includes the dog in the foreground and a lot of an environment or landscape in the back again. 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 since it combines the beauty of the landscape with the beauty of the subject. They could also tell a story associated with where these animals live.

Because herps are generally small subjects, the wide-angle lens must be very close to the subject, or it might look too small in the frame. The minimum concentrating 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 to get capturing herp-in-habitat shots of small subjects because of its one: 1 macro capabilities. Bigger subjects can be shot with your typical wide-angle lens generally.

Take the following two images. The first shows a large Great Basin Gophersnake, while the second shows a small Strawberry Poison Frog. I actually took the first image with a 9-18mm lens with a minimum focus distance of 9. 8 inches / twenty five centimeters. I took the second with the Laowa 15mm macro lens, which can achieve 1: 1 magnification.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
E-M1 + OLYMPUS Meters. 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 Photo

An easy approach to herp photography, the “textbook shot” is an image which straightforwardly depicts the topic. These images are equally lit, usually include the overall body of the subject, and do not consist of much else in the picture aside from the subject.

A textbook shot is the go-to for many herp photographers to document their discovers. Although simple and, at a glance, associated with low artistic merit, an excellent textbook shot requires a great lighting setup and an enthusiastic eye on composition.

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

More Artistic Approaches

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

First, I actually took the following photo of the Black Narrow-Mouthed Frog searching Leafcutter Ants using a brief exposure of 1/4 2nd while lit under a torch, on top of a flash. This particular combination of lighting techniques halted the movement of the ants, while also creating minor 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 Meters. 60mm F2. 8 Macro @ 60mm, ISO a hundred, 4/5, f/16. 0

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

fluorescent bones of an arboreal salamander biofluorescence in amphibians bluelight photography
DC-G9 @ 60mm, ISO one hundred sixty, 10 seconds, f/11. 0

Unforeseen and creative shots such as 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 attractiveness and peculiarity. Their magnificence isn’t known to many people, yet thankfully herp photography can shed light on this truly gorgeous side of the animal empire.

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

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