Author: Bruce Taubert
All images copyrighted Bruce Taubert
After over 20 years of photographing frogs both in the United States and the Tropics I have developed a few techniques and put together some equipment that give me the results I need. Above and beyond having a basic understanding of frog biology these small denizens of the night offer several obstacles to the macro photographer.
To some extent or another all frogs “breath” through their skin. To make this possible the frog’s skin is moist and as a result highly reflective. Any attempt at using strobes without diffusion normally results in an image where the frog’s skin is dotted with unattractive, colorless white blotches.
Most frog photography is accomplished in the dark of the night so the photographer, unless they have a friendly assistant, needs to hold their camera and at the same time illuminate the subject in order to focus on it. Headlamps are of little use since as soon as the camera is brought into shooting position your forehead and the headlamp are covered by the camera body and attached flash.
Finally, straight on light or using a flash on the hotshoe is very unattractive so the photographer needs some mechanism to place the flash/s off of the lens axis. Otherwise red-eye, harsh shadows, flat colors, and other bad things result.
Several years ago I purchased the Canon macro twin flash. Even though they are overly expensive they are my go to method of lighting small subjects. Off camera flash brackets can be purchased or homemade for considerably less expense and I recommend going that route if money is a concern or if you are unsure macro photography is for you. Nikon also makes some very nice, and in some cases better than the Canon twin flash, macro flashes. The main problem I have with any form of macro flash is the quality of the light. If you go to You Tube there are several very informative videos that describe making inexpensive diffusers. Not being terribly handy I purchased two (one for each of the twin flashes) “sock-like” flash diffusers off of Amazon.com. The set costs about $8. Because they are made for strobes I had to use a little Velcro to ensure they stayed on the flash heads while I walked around thick jungle vegetation or desert. These small diffusers do an amazing job of reducing the specular highlights common to most flashed subjects. Frog skin shine problem solved!
Both the Canon twin flash and the Nikon macro flashes place the strobes very close to the cameras lens. Although the strobes are far enough away from the lens axis to eliminate red-eye they are so close many images can be flat looking. Some modeling light can be obtained by varying the light output from each strobe but normally the effect is not as dramatic as I want. After a brief search on Amazon.com I found a short (in the range or 3 inch long) shoe mounted swivel head. I place the swivel head where the Canon strobe goes and then place the strobe on the end of it. Now my flashes are around 5 inches instead of one inch from the lens. Modeling flash is much more effective, the amount of skin reflection is even further reduced, and I have an easier time photographing larger specimens!
A long time ago my wife refused to go out with me late at night to hold a flash light on my nocturnal subjects so I could focus. I can’t imagine why! There are occasions when I can con a friend to wander around in the dark to assist me or another frog photographer to join me in my wanderings but, for the most part, I am alone with too few hands to get the job done. While watching a video on frog photography I noted another photographer had developed a unique way of lighting their subject. The photographer used the Canon twin macro flashes and had placed a small LED video light
between the lens and the strobe. Two problems were solved at once. The strobes were placed further from the lens than normal and the video lights made it possible to illuminate the subject while focusing. Since I had solved the flash extension problem I only needed to use one video light for focusing and one flash extender on the opposite side of the flash unit. Now I can accomplish most of my nighttime macro photography with the two hands I was born with.
Using this combination of equipment modifications my frog photography efforts have become much easier and more rewarding. With the exception of the twin flashes I spent less than $60. The set-up is light weight, easy to pack on long trips, and fast to assemble. Getting the flash off camera and diffusing the light and having hands free focusing capabilities all at the same time makes life much easier and allows me to take more and, hopefully, better images.
Bruce Taubert is a biologist and Wildlife Photographer and instructor for Arizona Highways Photo Workshops.