How to Point-and-Shoot: Amphibians and Reptiles

The nights are getting louder in the Northern Hemisphere. Whether it is near a wetland or in the trees, there is a choir of clicks and croaks and ribbits all around. As these little chorus singers try to impress their counterparts, there are large, armoured, slithering creatures lurking in the waters or under the leaf litter, silently looking for their future partner. It is summer and the hearts of the cold-blooded are getting warmer in search of love. Welcome to the world of amphibians and reptiles.
Common Indian Tree Frog
Exif: 1/800sec F8.0 ISO80 at 11.60mm
We naturalists admire these warm nights as much as we love the daylight. Not for any other reason, but to walk miles in search of these love-ridden animals of the dark – the amphibians, as well as their distant relatives – reptiles, to study, photograph, or just admire them. Let’s focus on how to photograph them in the middle of a day or dark rainy nights using a point-and-shoot camera.

I have been focusing on how to photograph using point-and-shoot cameras for the past four months. If you’ve been following them, you might begin to notice some similarities in types of cameras as well as techniques used to photograph various animals. The same apply to photographing herptiles, especially in the night, too. In order to be able to photograph herptiles, any ordinary cameras with a macro range of at least 10 cm, with at least 5 or more megapixels and optical zoom of 5x or more, can be used to capture good details. Point-and-shoots are good, if not excellent, while photographing objects at a close range during nights. They are light weight, therefore easy to carry. You don’t have to change lenses as in dSLRs, and they are cheap. Unfortunately, they are also fragile, hence protecting them against rain and mud is important. I usually hang the camera around my neck and wrap a plastic bag over it to avoid any splashing during treks in rainy season. They possess a strong flash, hence a diffuser is recommended, and they possess auto-focus which is not ideal for the skittish frogs and lizards.

Although the disadvantages outweigh the advantages of a point-and-shoot (like always!), these can be overcome to achieve excellent photographs of these tiny, shiny animals. Let’s take a detailed look at what all to do:

P Firstly, avoid handling amphibians as much as possible. Some might be toxic (such as some salamanders), and the toxins are likely to be absorbed through your skin or if you accidentally eat without washing your hands. While this is least likely, it is probable. Most importantly, avoid touching amphibians because they are more likely than you to absorb any chemicals (hand sanitizers, lotions, insect repellants, etc.) from your hand, which may be toxic to them. If your hands are clean, you may touch the amphibians, but do not change their location. Amphibians are very selective of their habitat, and if you replace a Salamander which was nicely hiding under a log to an open area, it might be exposed to predators.
Painted Turtles basking on the other side of the stream
Exif: 1/400sec F5 ISO100 at 78.00mm
P Amphibians and reptiles are shy animals – any slight movement and they will dash for cover and will not reveal themselves again so easily. When approaching one, photograph from as far as possible at first, and then approach as quietly as possible.

P While photographing in the night, an external source of light on the subject (a frog, for example) is important so that your camera can focus on it. Once your camera has locked in, photograph with flash turned on. If you keep the flash off, the external light (yellow or white) will get reflected off its skin, thereby lacking in true colours. Another trick to minimize this effect is focusing on the subject under external source of light, and then turning it off. This is easy to do, because as long as you or the subject doesn’t move, the focus will be locked in at that distance, and then photograph the subject with only the light from the camera’s flash.
Ramanella sp.
Exif: 1/125sec F3.2 ISO80 at 10.00mm
P A flash diffuser works exceptionally well for photographing such subjects. I’ll talk about it in a few months, but in brief, anything that is uniformly opaque – such as a butter paper or a white piece of cloth works well to uniformly light the subject. It also helps diffuse the flash on subjects – say amphibians or reptiles that are in water. A trick to avoid a strongly reflected flash, as in this picture of Ramanella sp. is to tilt the camera a bit so that the flash’s reflection in the water doesn’t enter the frame.

P Reptiles, mainly lizards and terrapins, may have shiny scales, which sometimes can yield great colours under natural or artificial light, but often the light only reflects off their scales. This mostly happens during harsh sunlight, as in the case of the photograph below.
Painted Turtle crossing the road
Exif: 1/640sec F5.6 ISO80 at 71.70mm
It was photographed around 11 AM last summer, when the sky was clear and sunlight too bright that reflected off the Painted Turtle’s carapace, casting a strong contrast in the shadow region. It is helpful to photograph such subjects in early or late afternoon and with enough cloud cover to diffuse the midday sunlight.

P As always, try different compositions. Photographing frogs peeping out of water from an eye-level perspective is slightly challenging, but it is well worth it. For such a perspective, you will have to stay pretty still to avoid any ripples in the water. It can be achieved by photographing from about a distance of 10 feet more or less, and then zooming onto the eyes. Similar photographs can be taken for reptiles as they peep out of water, or are walking on the forest floor/trees. I photographed the above Painted Turtle in the same way. Such photographs can achieve good subtle fore- and backgrounds. I had already discussed this in How to Point-and-Shoot Snakes and Birds articles. Also try to photograph frogs, especially males, as they call out for their mates.
Common Indian Toad flexing his vocal sac
Exif: 1/250sec F3.2 ISO400 at 11.90mm
This male Common Indian Toad was one of the many males flaunting a nice golden colour in a small pond. After failing to photograph them from far, I had to approach this one carefully. Fortunately, he did not run for cover, but he stopped calling. After patiently sitting beside him, he resumed his singing, and I managed this photograph. While it might not be possible to get close to all frog species, given their dense habitats and shyness, it’s easy to obtain a photograph from a close range with the help of zoom.
Green Frog
Exif: 10/800sec F5.0 ISO200 at 5.50mm
P Photographing a subject in its habitat also makes for a great composition. This not only adds an artistic edge to a photograph, but also some visual information about the animal’s home. I tried photographing this Green Frog near Bridal Veil Falls on Manitoulin Island with the waterfall in the background, but there were so many people around that it was hard to get all of them out of the frame. Yet, I feel the greens in the background and this frog’s preferred perch on the boulder definitely add some details about the frog’s whereabouts, and perhaps a perspective on its point of view.
Calotes rouxii
Exif: 1/100sec F4.5 ISO80 at 78.00mm
These are a few ways in which you can photograph amphibians and reptiles. Many new species are still being discovered, and, unfortunately, many are also fast vanishing from the face of our planet. It is our responsibility as naturalists to spread awareness about these delicate, ancient creatures to our friends and relatives. Photography is the key, probably one of the most important keys, when it comes to informing the general public about the fascinating world of herptiles, about their unique way of life, and their plight in today’s changing times. Without visuals, it is hard to relate the natural world to the one’s disconnected with it, hence I recommend everyone to go out and observe, and if possible, shoot!

Have a great monsoon if you’re in India and a great summer if you’re in North America!

Leea - An Insect Haven

Leea inflorescence - Not all flowers bloom at the same time
The clouds roared and rain poured in Mumbai on the evening of 2nd June 2011. The weather is still (extremely) sultry, but after a long summer, the cloud cover is beginning to take over the sun. As the pre-monsoon showers bathe the ground and wash the dusty leaves, many little flower buds will bloom into a grandeur celebration. While the rain will provide a respite for shriveled roots and thirsty throats, the flowers will provide a nutritious feast for the nectar lovers. It is that time of the year for one of the favorites of all the butterflies, bugs, beetles, ants, bees and wasps – Leea.

Leea is a genus of a perennial shrub in the family Leeaceae (or Vitaceae, according to Angiosperm Phylogeny Group II System). There are around 34 species found in the Indo-Australian region and parts of Africa. About 10 species have been recorded in Mumbai’s forests – with L. indica and L. macrophyla being the most common. Both of these are easily distinguished from the shape of their leaves – L. indica possesses double- or triple-compound large leaves, while L. macrophyla has single large leaves. The flowering season begins by the end of June and beginning of July, and lasts until September.
Angled Pierrot
Although I’m not sure about the quantity of nectar, or any other nutrients present in these tiny flowers, they sure must taste delicious! And for this reason, Leea is renowned in the insect world. As Monsoon is just around the corner, let’s take an exclusive look at Leea, and a few other monsoon flora including the rival Lantana camara.

Flowers provide a rich diet to many animals, therefore it is not surprising to see some that are completely dependent on it as a primary source of nourishment. The largest numbers of species relying directly on nectar belong to the class Insecta. From a butterfly commonly associated with flowers, to a male Mosquito of a species known to spread malaria, everyone feeds on it. What makes Leea special is not only the nutrient it contains, but the time of the year it flowers, that is, when there is an abundance of mouths to feed. Leea, like many flowering plants, profits from its free buffet by getting pollinated in return – an important return of favour from the visitors.
A Great Eggfly and a Blue Tiger in the bar
And these visitors range from a wide variety of Orders. Butterflies are probably the first to be attracted to Leea as everyone – from Family Hesperiidae and Lycaenidae to Pieridae, Nymphalidae and Papilionidae make sure to pay a visit to the local Leea Bar. In the Hymenoptera world, too, almost everyone drops in. Ants usually scavenging on the ground, such as some Camponotus sp. easily find a way to the top of this shrub’s canopy – a meter high from the ground, as do the arboreal ones, such as the Crematogaster sp. Bees ranging from small Stingless Bee, to large Honey Bee (and an as yet unidentified bee) have been observed feasting/collecting nectar/pollen. Wasps such as Potter Wasp, Paper Wasp and Scoliid Wasp, all notoriously shy when approached closer for photography, have been observed even more closely on Leea.
A Bee (which?) on Leea
All of these insects are known to feed exclusively on nectar. There are some you wouldn’t expect to see who also have a knack for this sugary treat. Bugs in the Order Hemiptera, such as the Shield Bug (Superfamily Pentatomoidea) pierce the flowers (and not the stem). Assassin Bugs (Family Reduviidae) have been noticed lurking beneath the inflorescence. A variety of Beetles and Weevils, such as Click Beetle, Fireflies, Net-winged Beetles and Leaf Beetles have been seen on the flowers – probably feeding on nectar as well as other flower parts. Flies (Order Diptera) also love to lap up the juices, with Bottle flies (Calliphoridae) and various Muscid flies visiting the flowers, but, surprisingly, not in large numbers.

It is truly marvelous to observe so many insects feeding co-operatively on a single plant, making Leea Bar a safe place to drink and enjoy – but nothing is as decent as it looks. There are dangers lurking in the downtown surrounding Leea – beneath, or even on top of the flowers. Predators such as Assassin Bugs and Praying Mantises stalk the streets day and night.
A Lynx Spider on Leea inflorescence
There are also arthropods of the fourth kind (I mean with four pair of legs) – Arachnids, the commonest observed on the flowers are Lynx Spiders (Family Oxyopidae), besides the wandering Jumping Spiders (Family Salticidae) and stealthy Crab Spiders (Family Thomisidae) and sometimes an odd Orb-weaver (Family Araneidae). I have also observed Harvestmen (Order Opiliones) on the inflorescence – but I’m not sure if they were feeding on the plant or predating on the visitors.

It’s quite something to count all the Families as well as species that visit Leea. In a study conducted by my friend on insects that feed on Leea indica, she found about 20 species of butterflies (adults) feeding on its flowers. In all the amazing flora diversity in Mumbai, the only plant that may openly challenge Leea is Lantana camara – an exotic species introduced as an ornamental plant from the American tropics.
Tailed Jay visits Lantana as much as it visits Leea
Lantana is equally, if not more or less, attractive to nectar feeders, and the most common animals seen on Lantana are butterflies and birds. While Leea undoubtedly wins in the diversity of species feeding off its nectar, Lantana probably gets more hits from number of visitors (of the same species or Order) – perhaps because the flowers are brightly coloured and bloom for a longer period of time. It must also depend on the shape of the flowers, which are easily accessible to those with a long proboscis.
Blue Tiger butterfly on Cockscomb
Other flora to look for, especially for insects this Monsoon are – Balsam (Impatiens sp.) which are good to observe bees, flies and Crab Spiders; Pea (Vigna sp.) are commonly visited by butterflies; Tridax is an excellent herb to observe butterflies; as well as Cockscomb (Celosia argentea) and Commelina sp. among others.

It will be interesting to make notes of the feeding activities of different animals on Leea and other monsoon flora. If you’re willing to keep notes, do share your observations which will help us understand more about these plants’ role in the ecosystem within the city limits and beyond.
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Also, I went for Tree Plantation conducted by WWF MSO and Keshav Srishti, Uttan on the eve of World Environment Day. We planted about 25 native saplings on a reclaimed land. The event was a great success attended by toddlers, students as well as seniors. Unfortunately, my hands were too full of manure and wet soil to take pictures, but here’s one blurry picture of a Vine Snake one of us spotted on the way out:
Vine Snake on a Mango tree!
Happy World Environment Day!