How to Photograph Rainforest Frogs
Rainforests are renowned for their great biodiversity and fantastic wildlife photography opportunities, particularly for the macro photography community.
However, they are also renowned for the difficulties they can present in finding any wildlife in such lush, dense environments, and because the lighting conditions are incredibly tricky to manage.
Nevertheless, the rich array of vegetation and the complexity of the environment as a whole creates many niches for great biodiversity, and luckily frogs are abundant in the tropics, so there are many opportunities to photograph frogs in rainforests.
You can expect to find several different species, each with a unique natural history.
Where and how to find rainforest frogs
To give you an idea, Colombia has 700 species of amphibians, Ecuador has near to 580 species, and Costa Rica has 200 species!
When setting out to photograph rainforest frogs, you must keep in mind that some species are endemic to specific locations, and others have a more widespread distribution.
Depending on the species you want to photograph, you first need to decide on the kind of place you will look in, and the time of day.
For that reason, it is important to learn about the animals you are aiming to photograph and pick up some information about their behaviour and natural history before you go into the field.
You will find some frog species in the lowlands and different ones in the highlands. Some frogs are diurnal such as poison frogs, and some that live on the leaf litter tend to be harder to spot.
Then you have the array of nocturnal species that you can find on the ground, on leaves, on epiphytic plants high on trees, or in water bodies.
Amphibians are water-dependent in different grades depending on the species; my best piece of advice is to look for them near creeks, rivers, or permanent or temporary bodies of water, such as lagoons or ponds.
However, as the rainforest is humid itself, sometimes you will find frogs in the middle of the forest, far from any kind of body of water!
It’s hard to predict, so you must keep your eyes open and attentive everywhere you go. They’re not very big, and even the most colourful species can be easy to miss.
Read more: Photographing a Species In-depth
Top species to photograph
There are many species to photograph, but here are a few to get you started.
One of the most attractive and charismatic amphibians in the American tropics is likely considered to be poisonous frogs due to those brilliant colours, and the aposematic colouration in most of them.
They are diurnal creatures that you will find mainly on the leaf litter, and sometimes on fallen trunks, or leaves on the lower vegetation.
Many poison frog species are dedicated parents and, if you are lucky enough, you may be able to photograph the amazing behaviour of the tadpoles on the back of the male.
Some examples of these frogs are the strawberry poison dart frog (Oophaga pumilio), the green-and-black poison dart frog (Dendrobates auratus), the granular poison frog (Oophaga granulifera), the Golfodulcean poison dart frog (Phyllobates vittatus), and the rainforest rocket frog (Silverstoneia flotator), all found in Costa Rica.
Read more: How to Improve Your Wildlife Action Shots
Red-eyed tree frog (Agalychnis callidryas)
The most famous of all frogs is perhaps the red-eyed tree frog, iconic of Costa Rica.
This genus is native to forests in Mexico, Central America, and north-western South America. They are completely nocturnal animals, and ponds or bodies of water are essential in their reproduction, so they are always found near these areas.
Glass frogs are also a popular photography choice, with the amazing behaviour of males taking care of the egg mass. Their translucent skin is also remarkable to photograph, as it lets us see the internal organs of the frog.
Among glass frogs in Costa Rica you can find, the emerald glass frog (Centrolene prosoblepon), the white-spotted Cochran Frog (Sachatamia albomaculata), and the La Palma glass frog (Hyalinobatrachium valerioi), among others.
Some of these species can be found on the underside of leaves but knowing the differences in their behaviour will help you know where to look for them.
Hourglass tree frog (Dendropsophus ebraccatus)
Native to southern Mexico, Belize, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, western Colombia, and north-western Ecuador. This beautiful and common tiny frog can be found in ponds and on aquatic vegetation at night.
They can provide a fantastic opportunity to capture the frog singing with its vocal sac inflated.
One of the features of the tropical rainforest is its two marked seasons: the dry and rainy seasons. Since frogs are attached to water in one way or another, the possibility of finding them active is also linked to changes in the seasons.
The best time to look for them is the beginning of the rainy season when all of the frogs go out to reproduce after the dry season.
Depending on the location, you can get incredibly lucky and find several species together in the same spot, normally in small bodies of water such as ponds. After this time, you can expect their levels of activity to decrease a bit.
Whilst you could technically explore the jungle on your own, I highly recommend that you reach out to a local guide to help you track and find the species you are looking to photograph.
They will make the search much faster because they know the forest well, and they usually know the locations of certain populations of specific species. You can also take part in a photo tour, but you must look for ones that prioritise working with their subjects ethically.
Unfortunately, with smaller fauna subjects, the ethical guidelines for wildlife and nature photography are often forgotten, and manipulation and staged sessions are sadly quite common.
It is very important to understand that amphibians are extremely sensitive; their skin is highly permeable, and they are vulnerable to toxins, so they should never be handled.
If you are wearing insect repellent for instance, and you touch them, you can harm or even kill them.
Amphibians are also facing a global decline because of a fungus (Chytrid fungus) that is spreading around the world, due mainly to the illegal animal trade.
It is transferred by direct contact between frogs and tadpoles, or through exposure to infected water. If we touch them, we can also transfer that fungus from one animal to another.
Equipment and settings
Now let’s talk about the gear you need to capture great images of rainforest frogs.
An essential piece of equipment for this subject is a macro lens, or at least some accessories to convert your lens into a macro one, such as close-up lenses or extension tubes.
Both of these options will allow you to get the focus closer to your subject and provide you with the magnification you need to photograph such small but charismatic animals.
One of the features of macro photography is the almost non-existent depth of field. For that reason, we normally rely on narrow apertures to maximize it.
A good setup to start with is 1/200, F18, ISO 100, but after you feel comfortable with this technique, I recommend you play around with wider apertures to get more interesting frames incorporating more perspective.
As you probably already know, when we work with macro lenses the working distances are short. For that reason, you must approach the frog you are photographing extremely slowly to avoid disturbing them, and to be able to get the shot.
In my experience, the handheld technique is more comfortable than using a tripod. However, you are of course welcome to do so if preferred.
Going handheld will allow you to change your perspective in an easier and faster way; you will be able to follow the movements of the frog, e.g. if it decides to jump.
They can of course do this at any point, so stay as alert as possible when shooting and watch closely for tiny movements that may indicate an encroaching leap. This can generate exciting images if your reflexes are fast enough!
Macro photography lighting
A key aspect of macro photography is lighting, but managing lighting in a rainforest can be extremely difficult. Even during the day, you will probably need to use artificial light due to the lack of light inside the jungle.
A Speedlight is a good option, and for softer, more realistic/pleasant lighting, you will need to use a diffuser. The diffuser and the use of soft light are important for the quality of the image in your frame, but also because they will reduce the impact of flash on the animal.
It is best to begin with a Speedlight with a diffuser on it. If you need more lighting, you can incorporate LED lights into the scene, or even take advantage of a flashlight. Ideally, this will also be on your equipment list to help you find your way at night.
For more creative frames and lighting, I recommend using the flash out of your camera and playing with the direction of the light. You can also try with more than one source of light, combining flashes or a flash with a flashlight.
The advantage of using a flash is that you can use the power of the flash to freeze any undesired movement.
If you still do not feel comfortable with these techniques, you can use the flash in TTL (through the lens) mode. This is also a good option when you change your distance to the subject or the parameters of your camera.
The flash will decide the right amount of light considering all the parameters, then if you want to adjust and create different moods, you can use the exposure compensation settings.
If you already have some practice, you can set up your flash in manual mode and decide for yourself the amount of light you want in your scene.
Despite the lack of studies to tell us how flash impacts these kinds of creatures, we should always try to err on the side of caution and reduce our disturbance to them.
We can do this by using a diffuser and not abusing the number of shots we take on the same animal. Compose your images carefully, and only press the shutter when you know your shot is ready.
In addition to good lighting, having a strong composition can be the key ingredient to making your frame an outstanding one. Here are some top tips:
- Analyse the whole frame, not just the main subject.
- Place yourself on the same level as the frog you are photographing when composing your frame.
- Play with the perspective and the angles from which you take the image. Sometimes, changing your position just a little bit can create completely different shots.
- Go close sometimes and look for close-up frames, but also see if you can play with other elements in the scene to create compelling compositions that incorporate the wider environment.
- Good backgrounds make a huge difference. Be aware of them when composing your image! They can be very busy in a rainforest setting, so play with your lighting to help the focus remain on the frog. Unless of course, you are looking for a wider, environmental-style image.
- Remember to focus on the frog’s eyes. If you want all of your subject to be in focus just place the sensor parallel to the animal.
Read more: How to Take Impacting Portraits of Wildlife
Combatting the challenges of rainforest photography
Rainforests are amazing places for nature photography but being in the jungle involves some often-vexing complications. Here’s some advice:
Be patient; it is sometimes difficult to spot the animals, particularly small amphibians, in lush environments. Take your time to slow down and connect with nature and its rhythms. Hearing the songs and sounds can help you find what you are looking for.
Be prepared to work in humid conditions. In the tropics, not only can it rain anytime, but the high percentage of humidity can interfere with the functioning of gear, as well as making us feel uncomfortable.
Research the best ways to look after your equipment in these conditions. Consider giving yourself some time to adjust to the climate (if you are not used to it) before setting out on your photography adventure.
It is always better to be safe than sorry: if you are out at night in the jungle, please dress appropriately, and at least wear rubber boots as protection from snakes. Several snakes are nocturnal, and with their secretive nature, even people who are used to finding them sometimes don´t see the snake until their foot is right next to it!
Top tips to finish
First, learn about the specific species of rainforest frog that you want to photograph. That knowledge will give you the advantage of knowing where to start looking for them, and how to capture their behaviours.
Be respectful of the animals and the environment. If we are patient and we learn the technique, we can get outstanding shots without needing to manipulate the animals or build a stage. Nature will always provide amazing opportunities if we take the time to explore.
Be patient to find your subject and wait for the best moment to take the picture.
Remember to play with different perspectives.
Use off-camera flash to create artistic and moody frames.
Enjoy, observe, and learn all the things nature can teach you over time.
And of course: practice, practice, and practice.
Despite the often-difficult conditions, attempting macro photography of these charismatic and unique creatures can be an extremely rewarding experience.
Though not without its challenges, the memories of capturing that moment of a rare and beautiful amphibian in its natural environment will stay with you forever.
It may even have you coming back to the rainforest in no time, looking for more!