How to Photograph Reptiles in the UK
There is class of wildlife that has even the most dedicated of animal lovers divided: reptiles. But love them or hate them, these pre-historic-looking creatures can make for some great images when photographed well. But how do you photograph species of wildlife that have survived for millions of years by avoiding being seen? Many people are surprised to learn that we have both snakes and lizards living wild here in the UK.
If you want to find these secretive, scaly creatures you’ll need either a great deal of luck or a great deal of patience. I’m going to share some of my tips with you to help you get close to these illusive beauties and photograph reptiles.
The UK has six native species of reptile, and all are afforded some degree of protection by UK and European Law. The common adder, grass snake, slow worm, and common lizard are all protected by law against being harmed or traded in any way. Our rarest of reptiles, the sand lizard and smooth snake are fully protected by law, making it an offence to disturb them in any way without a licence issued by Natural England. So, unless you have a licence, the only way you’re likely to photograph these reptiles is by accompanying a licence holder. From here we’ll concentrate on the four remaining species that you’re most likely to find and hopefully photograph.
The 4 species of reptile in the UK
Slow worms are in fact legless lizards, and they can be found in heathland, tussocky grassland, woodland edges and even gardens, where they are often found hunting slugs and other insects around compost heaps. Viviparous, aka common lizards, are not as common as their name suggests, but they can still be found across the UK. They have adapted well to many environments and can be seen in a variety of habitats including gardens, heathland, woodland edges and glades, open meadows, log-piles and hedgerows.
Grass snakes are our largest snake species and particularly favour wetland habitats, but they can also be found in grassland near streams or rivers, or even gardens where there is a pond nearby, allowing them to feed on amphibians, or a compost heap where they can incubate their eggs. Adders are our only venomous snake. They are regularly associated with heathland, rough, open countryside, chalk grassland and woodland edges or clearings within dense woodland.
How to find reptiles for photography
As with any wildlife photography, knowing your subject is key to getting the photos you’re after, so reading up on the species you’re aiming to photograph will help you find and get close to reptiles. Reptiles are cold-blooded, which means they rely on the sun’s rays to warm their scaly bodies; the best way to find them is to catch them basking in the sun.
Different species favour slightly different habitats, but they all rely on open basking areas adjacent to vegetation where they will quickly disappear for cover if disturbed. During the summer, reptiles warm up much more quickly and subsequently they need to spend less time basking. Therefore, the best time to see them is during the spring or autumn. The most successful days will be ones of warm, hazy sunshine that follow days of rain when the reptiles were unable to bask.
Reptiles are quite nervous creatures and are easily spooked, but there are a few tips to finding them basking and getting close enough to capture photographs.
Approach south-facing potential basking areas with the sun behind you, but watch where your shadow falls as casting a shadow on the reptile could send it fleeing for cover. Reptiles, especially snakes, have a great sense of smell which can be seen in action as they flick their tongues back and forth, tasting the air for the slightest trace of possible predators or prey.
With this in mind, if you want to get close to reptiles it’s best to approach from down-wind and to avoid wearing aftershave, perfume, or heavily scented deodorant. Both our lizards have good hearing, but snakes are technically deaf. This means that although they can’t hear you chatting between yourselves, they do pick up on the slightest vibrations in the ground – so walk slowly and tread softly.
Be considerate of reptile behaviour
Reptiles are creatures of habit. They regularly use the same basking spots each day, and if accidentally disturbed they will often return to the same spot within half an hour if you remain very still and quiet. Once you have learned where they are likely to be, you can arrive at the start of the day and get your camera set up and ready for their emergence in the morning as the ground temperature rises.
With the recent rise in interest in photographing reptiles, it is worth discussing the need for respecting these beautiful creatures. If you take the time to learn their habits and patterns you’ll be rewarded with the opportunity to get great photos without the need for disturbing the reptiles. The catching and handling of reptiles, especially snakes for the purpose of photography, can be extremely detrimental to their heath and should be avoided.
This practice has become quite common lately and is potentially one of the contributing factors behind the decline in numbers of reptiles found at many sites. It’s something I was previously guilty of myself until I became aware of the severity of the negative impact such actions can have on reptiles, especially snakes.
Read more: An Ethical Guide to Wildlife Photography
If caught, lizards have a useful trick to evade capture. They can drop their tails, which will simply break off and continue to thrash about to distract a potential predator’s attention whilst the lizard makes its escape.
Although lizards can survive without their tail, which will eventually grow back to some degree, their tails do contain vital fat supplies used to sustain the lizard throughout the winter hibernation months.
Adders are very easily stressed, and excessive disturbance can cause an adder to stop feeding, or in extreme cases one may simply abandon the site completely and go off in search of a new site where it’ll be left alone. Obviously, such sites are very difficult for the adder to find so they may end up starving to death or freezing when the weather turns cold and the snake no longer has access to its known hideaways. Plus, there is always the risk of being bitten when handling an adder.
Adder bites can be very serious and usually require medical attention. Adders will not attack humans unwittingly, but they will defend themselves if they feel threatened and so it’s best to keep a respectful distance. A 300mm lens is perfectly sufficient to enable you to achieve frame-filling shots without disturbing the snakes.
5 bonus tips for photographing the UK’s reptiles
1. As with most wildlife images, forming a connection with the viewer is best achieved by focusing the camera on the subject’s eyes and taking images at eye-level. With reptiles, this usually means getting down on the ground. At this level the camera can be well supported by resting your elbows on the ground or by resting your camera on your kit bag.
2. The most striking images of snakes often depict the snake’s tongue flickering back and forth. To capture this you’re going to need a fast shutter speed of at least 1/400th second. The faster the speed the greater your success rate. Shooting a number of frames with the camera in burst mode will greatly improve your chances of capturing the flickering tongue in the perfect position.
3. Most reptiles won’t often be found completely out in the open. Be aware that your backgrounds might be messy, so consider your depth of field if this bothers you.
4. Timing is everything. Occasionally some reptiles, especially common lizards, may be brave enough in the early morning to allow you to get close enough to use a macro lens resulting in some really sharp images. If you move very slowly and allow the reptile time to feel safe in your presence, you might even get the opportunity to use a wide-angle lens.
5. The best way to encounter reptiles and to learn more about their behaviour is to get involved with your local volunteer Amphibian & Reptile Group. These conservation and recording groups can give you great advice and help you get involved with surveying for reptiles. To find your local ARG group visit www.arguk.org.