In this particular article I'd write only about the non-venomous reptiles and some tips or tricks for photographing them. The venomous reptiles would be covered in a future article after I've completed studying their behavior. I've had a lot of interest in reptiles and earlier I used to observe them a lot. Right now, I'm trying to photograph some common species around. It doesn't look like a hard experience after having observed them for years. But they are impossible subjects if you're not ready for the challenge.
In my last article about bird photography I had mentioned mainly about precautions like not wearing a bright shirt or using cover to hide. But photographing reptiles is quite different. A non-venomous reptile is usually defenseless and thus they have to rely on their senses to get them out of trouble. When going to photograph lizards, think like a predator would - and do the opposite.
The biggest threat a lizard basking in the sun would face is from a bird - a crow or an eagle ready for a meal. So make it a point NOT to tower over them or cast a harsh shadow on them. That would scare away most of the lizards. And once a lizard is scared of you, you just cannot go near it again.
Reptiles aren't usually affected a lot by what you wear, neither our clothes nor your perfume. They know humans don't eat them just like squirrels don't. So as far as you look like you're doing your own business, they'd never be interested in you. The best approach is to stand at about 6 feet. Or crouch down, if the lizard in on the ground. Keep moving very slowly towards it till you notice it's turn to look. Lizards don't have to turn their heads. They can look at you even if you approach from exactly behind them - their eyes are protruding and both eyes are independent. Left eye would cover the front and the right would cover the rear - you're going to be seen whatever you do. So note their reaction. If it looks at you, back off a foot slowly. Stay there a few seconds, go closer slowly again. Do this a several times and you'd be about 1 or 2 feet away very soon without it's running away. Start taking the shots from 6 feet though so that you can go home with a series of photos to choose from.
If a lizard is basking on a rock in the sun and it's lower body (belly)is in contact with the rock, it is not in a mood to run and relaxed. If it stands up on all four legs when you approach, it's most probably going to run off. So back off a bit and hope.
You can use a macro lens too if you're able to approach very closely. Otherwise stick to a telephoto. 100mm to 300mm are the best. If you use 400mm or higher, it might not be able to focus from a very close distance. If you're using telephoto, I'd recommend use of tripod because at close range the depth of field becomes very tight with telephoto. Always focus on the eye and use a continuous or serve AF with burst mode to capture at least 5 photos at a time. What happens is, when you are using a telephoto and after you focus the eye and press the shutter button, you have moved enough to shift the focus to somewhere else. Burst mode ensures you don't go back with all shots spoiled.
Avoid walking or changing steps. The best position is to crouch with left leg forward, left hand elbow resting on your chest and the palm flat, facing upwards providing a platform for the camera. Use the right hand only to press the shutter slowly. The right leg should be behind so that you can propel yourself forward or backward without moving your feet. This is the best and the steadiest position when working with butterflies too.
Never forget to put your cell phone to silence. All lizards would respond to any shrill and sudden note because they mistake it for a predator bird. A cell phone is a nuisance when chasing birds too. Answering your girlfriend's call might be a do-or-die business but so far I've never seen any wildlife subject understand the fact and cooperate. Never make any sudden movements even if your phone goes off. It also pays to keep your eye into the viewfinder at all times. A ready to run reptile can usually give you a very "active" looking shot.
As a final warning (yes, not a suggestion or advice): If you've not handled reptiles before and don't know how to do it, NEVER touch a lizard. They might not be poisonous (very few species are venomous) but their mouth contains bacteria that can cause severe infection if they bite you. They would most probably bite you if they find no other way to escape. I've been bitten once and it is painful because they have teeth pointing inward and they refuse to let go. As for venomous reptiles, stay away in all cases if you're not sure.
Good luck with your shooting sessions and watch out for the article on photographing snakes (coming soon)!
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Photo credits: Pratik Panda.