Seven Tips for Photographing Small Animals

Forget lions, tigers and bears—start focusing your camera on the frogs, newts and insects all around us

03-10-2010 // Rob Sheppard

The big animals get all the press: lions in Africa, polar bears in the Arctic, elk in Yellowstone. There are also the “celebrity” subjects such as penguins and rainforest tree frogs. There is no question that these are all wonderful subjects, great fun to photograph, and we enjoy seeing photos of them.

Newt by Rob Sheppard

But nature is a whole lot more than these animals. For a long time, I have been interested in telling the stories of the animals that don’t get the press. These are largely small creatures, and you don’t have to travel around the world to photograph them. There are many salamanders, frogs, toads and snakes in even small natural areas around us. Lots of great insects can even be found in your garden.

I will offer some tips on photographing these critters, but first, I want to give some reasons why you should. Spring is starting to appear in many southern locations and will start moving north. Some of the really great spring images come from the small creatures that appear, ready to mate, as warmer weather arrives.

The natural world offers a lot of benefits for us, from stunning beauty to very real ecological services, including better air and water. The little animals are often strong indicators of how well an ecosystem is doing. So if you are finding a lot of them, that is a good thing and an indicator of biodiversity.

In addition, I find it is just a lot of fun photographing these creatures. They often have fantastic forms and colors that are revealed when you get up close. Plus, you learn a lot of skills about wildlife photography in general if you search out the not-so-publicized wild neighbors of the natural areas around us. Here are some tips to get you started:

  • You don’t have to have a macro lens. Many compact digital cameras have close-up settings that let you get very close indeed. With digital SLRs, an extension tube can help any and all of your lenses focus in on very small subjects.


  • Watch the light. It is very easy to get distracted by a wonderful subject in the viewfinder or LCD and see it rather than the light. The camera will see the light. Look for light that helps your subject stand out from its surroundings.


  • Look for contrasts. A contrast in brightness or color between your subject and its surroundings will help emphasize the subject.


  • Try limiting your depth of field or sharpness. Use a telephoto setting and a wide aperture such as f/2.8, f/4 or f/5.6 to keep your subject in focus while blurring its surroundings.


  • Change your ISO setting. A lot of little critters live in the shade. You need a high ISO setting so that you can shoot with a faster shutter speed. That will help keep your photos sharp.


  • Learn about the small critters so you know where they live. Programs with naturalists at parks or nature guidebooks can help you find your subjects.


  • Be alert. Sometimes you find subjects just by sitting or walking through an area slowly. Stay alert to movement, small sounds or changes in patterns of color and tones on the ground, around plants, and beside rocks and logs.


Rob Sheppard is a photographer, writer and photography teacher in the Los Angeles area of Southern California. Visit his blog Nature and Photography for more photography tips.



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