Photography of amphibians and reptiles using the Nikon Micro 105mm f/2.8 lens

Publications | Photo articles | Herp photography with Nikon's 105mm

Author. Sebastián Di Doménico.

Meet the Nikon AF-S VR Micro-Nikkor 105mm f/2.8G IF ED Lens. This is one of Nikon’s six macro lenses having an f/2.8 max aperture. It also has a minimum focusing distance of 31.4 mm, an incredibly fast autofocus system, and a 3-stop vibration reduction system (VR).

Sigma 15mm f/2.8 lens

Nonetheless, the lens has some drawbacks, including some chromatic aberration, extremely shallow depth of field and high susceptibility to humidity and fungi (well, in the Amazon rainforest everything is, right?).

For these reasons, and to give an example of how I do macro photography, I give you seven tips that you can use to take advantage of this macro lens for Nikon users!

1. Always focus on the eye. The extremely shallow depth of field can cause some undesirable blur in the subject even using apertures like f/8 or f/16. To avoid this, take several shots and double or triple check sharpness in the eye. If you are photographing a snake, you’ll notice that in one picture the head might be sharp but parts of its body blurred even with f/11 aperture. If this kind of blur bothers you, I suggest you try focus staking.

Eyelash Palm-Pitviper on a branch

2. Take advantage of that strong bokeh. Some people are obsessed with images that are sharp from back to front, but you can take advantage of shallow depth of field to improve you composition. You might actually create an image where the subject is better isolated against the background. To take advantage of this, choose elements in the background that are not distracting, and shoot through vegetation. For example, in the image below, I photographed through some moss to produce extra blur and create a vignetting vegetation effect.

Yellow-headed Sun-Gecko sitting on moss

3. Freeze the action! Take advantage of that fast-focusing system. Being the only Nikon guy in Tropical Herping has given me the opportunity to compare my lenses with its Canon relatives. I’ve noticed that the Canon 100 mm f/2.8 macro and the Micro-Nikkor 105mm f/2.8 are both amazing pieces of equipment, but the Nikkor lens focuses 3-4 times quicker! The Canon is slower, specially in low light situations. That being said, you can take advantage of the Nikkor’s quick focusing to capture events that are happening very fast. For example, in the image below, a Black-lined Parrot-Snake (Leptophis nigromarginatus) was biting a Giant Gladiator-Frog (Boana boans) and the frog started to jump around trying to escape. In amidst of this, I grabbed my camera and took this picture, but it wouldn’t have been possible without that fast-focusing lens.

Black-lined Parrot-Snake preying on a frog

4. Take pictures of textures and patterns. In the tropics, you can find an incredible diversity of amphibians and reptiles in terms of colours and patterns. Get the most out of this diversity by doing the following. Get close and use an aperture smaller than f/8 to increase your depth of field and use an off-camera flash that will allow you to use a fast shutter speed to reduce motion blur. Finally, try to keep the front element of the lens parallel to the subject’s pattern to increase depth of field.

Close-up of the face of a Rainbow Whiptail

5. Use fill flash. Most of the animals will not be brighter than the surroundings without the help of a flash. Using a flash will make the subject pop up from the image and will bring more attention to it. I strongly recommend you to use an off-camera flash so you can move the light around and look for a perfect angle. For example, in the picture below, Western Worm-eating Coralsnake (Micrurus ortoni) is laying in the shadows and there is not enough ambient light to have a decent exposure, for that reason I decided to use a flash.

Western Worm-eating Coralsnake foraging on the leaf litter

6. Use a tripod. I usually take pictures alone so it’s rare for me to have someone helping me with an extra hand for flashes. To overcome this, I shoot using a tripod. If my subject stands still long enough, I can use my free hand to hold one of my flashes. For example, the picture of the Spotted Lancehead (Bothrops punctatus) below was taken using two flashes, to do that I placed my camera on the tripod and triggered it using a timer so I could take my flashes and place them in the right positions. Another reason why you should use a tripod is to overcome the usually poor lighting conditions inside the forest, which translates into shutter speeds below 1/50th of a second. To avoid blurred pictures, it is always wise to use a tripod because even at 1/40th of a second the VR is not good enough for you to create a sharp image.

Spotted Lancehead perched on a branch

7. Shoot the big animals too. A lot of people use their wide-angle lens as soon as they see a an animal larger than 60 cm. I’m not saying you should refrain from taking wide angle shots. I’m actually a fan of those pictures, but the Nikkor 105mm is a great lens for portraits. If you find a cool looking animal and you want an image with a blurred background instead of a wide angle shot, take your macro lens and shoot! I know this is a tutorial to photograph herps but this lens is also pretty good for almost everything so for this last tip I will show a picture of an Giant Otter (Pteronura brasiliensis).

Giant Otter swimming