- Be­hind the Im­age: Poi­son Dreams

Ev­ery­thing ex­cept my lit­tle frog sub­ject would be out of fo­cus. Per­fect!

Howler Magazine - - Featured Contents - by Gre­gory Basco

The scene

Flash of­ten gets a bad rep­u­ta­tion in na­ture pho­tog­ra­phy. That's un­for­tu­nate. Em­ployed prop­erly and re­spon­si­bly, flash can look com­pletely nat­u­ral and help any pho­tog­ra­pher get the shot when the nat­u­ral light is less than ideal, all with­out harm­ing the sub­ject. In­deed, flash saved the day for me with these shots of a tiny straw­berry poi­son frog (oophaga pumilio) in a Costa Ri­can rain for­est a few years ago.

Straw­berry poi­son frogs are mem­bers of the poi­son ar­row/dart frog fam­ily. They have tox­ins in their skin and of­ten sport bright col­ors to warn preda­tors of their tox­i­c­ity (sci­en­tists call this apose­ma­tism). These frogs are a lit­tle over an inch long and are di­ur­nal, spend­ing their time on the for­est floor in search of fruit flies and ants, the lat­ter of which pro­vide the frogs' toxin in­gre­di­ents.

Cam­era set­tings

While most macro-pho­to­graphs are taken with small aper­tures to max­i­mize depth of field, I wanted to do the op­po­site here to pro­duce a dreamy ef­fect. While shoot­ing in man­ual mode on my cam­era, I se­lected f/4.5. Ev­ery­thing ex­cept my lit­tle frog sub­ject would be out of fo­cus. Per­fect!

On a sunny day in the rain for­est, dap­pled light is al­most al­ways the rule. In this case, the sun was hit­ting some green leaves just be­hind the frog, but the frog and the mush­rooms were in rel­a­tive shadow. The dif­fer­ence be­tween light and dark in such a sit­u­a­tion is too much for even the most mod­ern pro cam­eras. I chose to ex­pose my back­ground prop­erly. This meant that my back­ground looked great, but the frog and mush­rooms were way too dark.

Land­scape pho­tog­ra­phers are fa­mil­iar with this type of light­ing chal­lenge

(for ex­am­ple, bright skies and dark fore­grounds at sun­set on the beach) and solve it by us­ing HDR or blend­ing dif­fer­ent ex­po­sures in the com­puter. But wildlife pho­tog­ra­phers can't use these so­lu­tions be­cause their sub­jects are mov­ing. If I tried to com­bine mul­ti­ple shots, my frog would likely have moved just a bit be­tween pictures. Flash, by ne­ces­sity, be­came the ob­vi­ous an­swer.

I want to make the flash look nat­u­ral, but flash aimed di­rectly at a sub­ject — be it a per­son or a frog — rarely looks good. That's why I al­ways have a small soft­box and ra­dio flash trans­mit­ters and re­ceivers in my bag. These gad­gets al­lowed me to move my flash off-cam­era and soften its light. I held the cam­era in my right hand and flash with my left hand. The very nat­u­ral-look­ing re­sult comes from get­ting the flash off-axis and dif­fus­ing it.


I took a num­ber of dif­fer­ent com­po­si­tions, both hor­i­zon­tal and ver­ti­cal. I shot each im­age to my lik­ing, but also had in mind magazine covers in dou­ble-page spreads. It's al­ways good to en­vi­sion dif­fer­ent uses you might have for a pho­to­graph. Hold­ing the cam­era with one hand and the flash with the other can make com­pos­ing dif­fi­cult. But sup­port­ing my cam­era hand with my el­bow and choos­ing an aut­o­fo­cus point cov­er­ing the frog's eye, made my job a lot eas­ier. The bat­tery grip on my cam­era also al­lowed me to shoot much more com­fort­ably in ver­ti­cal ori­en­ta­tion. That said, it's very help­ful to bring a friend along with you to hold the flash.

At the com­puter

I use Adobe Light­room for the vast ma­jor­ity of my pro­cess­ing, and these images were no ex­cep­tion. A few sim­ple tools en­abled me to get the high­lights and shad­ows just right and also to slightly ad­just the col­ors so they look as nat­u­ral as pos­si­ble. This is stan­dard prac­tice for any photo, and pro­cess­ing took no more than a cou­ple of minutes.

The les­son

En­vi­sion­ing the type of photo you want to cre­ate, rather than sim­ply shoot­ing a sub­ject, is what takes your pho­tos from snap­shots to artis­tic im­agery. Flash can as­sist you by help­ing solve ex­po­sure prob­lems in the field when nat­u­ral light can't pro­vide what you want. Flash can be a great tool for help­ing re­al­ize your cre­ative vi­sion!

Ex­pos­ing the back­ground prop­erly un­der nat­u­ral light­ing con­di­tions had good re­sults for the im­age back­ground, but with­out us­ing flash, the frog and mush­rooms were way too dark.

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