One of the more common things we are asked here at Ectotherm Empire is how do we take the photos on the reflective black backgrounds? I will try to explain the best I can with some photos of the setup.
One of the most important things for advancing your photography is getting used to using strobes (off camera flash). I personally only use two to keep the setup basic and relatively portable. You will need some form of lighting modifier to soften the light. I previously used soft boxes, which worked well for years, but I have recently switched to a 24 x 24 x 24 Lastolite Cubelite light tent. The latter helps not only in providing a soft light, it also allows for better animal control as there is only one direction for the animal to escape in. Soft light that is relatively color stable is by far the most important factor to have when trying to get accurate photos of your animals.
The next step and the one most people are curious about is the black background and reflection. I use a black granite tile from Home Depot. They are cheap, sturdy, and I like the slightly blurred natural look of the reflection in the granite. A very popular alternative is black plexiglass. It is smoother, lighter, and provides a very clear reflection. As far as the backdrop I use a black sheet of card stock from the craft store. There are much better materials to help with light control like muslin.
Unfortunately, to get clean images you will always need to have some form of post-production. I have never shot a single image of an animal that did not have some dust either on the animal itself or on the granite tile. I use Adobe products-- primarily Lightroom and Photoshop depending on the needs of the individual photo. There are plenty of cheaper alternatives available, but with dust the main thing you will need is a good spot healing brush.
I have tried to organize these in the order I feel are most important as you can get great photos with an inexpensive camera and good lighting, but you will never get good photos with the best camera and bad lighting. That being said, a quality camera can make all the difference in the world when shooting animals, as they tend to do what they want, and you can never predict how or when they will give you their best pose. A camera with a good frames per second rate (FPS) can help with this, as can a good memory card (high MB/s record speed) so you don’t get stuck with your camera filling its frame buffer faster then the card can write. I personally shoot with a Canon 5D mk iii with a Canon 100mm 2.8 macro lens. For working with larger macro subjects like snakes, a 50 or 65mm macro may be a better option since it allows for a closer working distance and therefore, more animal control. When it comes to cameras the more you can afford, the better this piece of equipment will be, but without the time to learn to properly use it, it will have little to no benefit to your photography. Finally—How to get your animal to pose? They don’t. Having an assistant can help with corralling/monitoring the animal while the photographer shoots away. Taking the shot lower than or equal to eye level with make for a more personal image and will help the animal appear more powerful. Shoot a lot more then you will ever think you need. When shooting macro, critical focus (that is, the area that is in complete focus) is such a narrow plane that an image in camera may look great until it has been uploaded onto a computer and can be seen at full size. An excessive number of photos allows for a higher chance of getting the pose that just pops.
I hope this helps and happy shooting!
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