A few years ago, whilst walking in the Grésigne forest near our home in France, I was very fortunate to discover a remote waterfall hidden way up in the hills. I spent some time taking photos there, but it wasn’t until June 2015 that its true secrets were revealed…
At the bottom of the fall lies a shallow pool only a few meters wide, which happens to be an annual breeding pond for all sorts of marine life, but most interestingly for fire salamanders (Salamandra salamandra)! Armed with a broken camera I attempted to take photos of them, but with little success. A year later I have returned, with a little more experience and a vision of the type of image that I wanted to produce.
First of all though, a little biology. Fire salamanders have two life stages but spend most of their time on land, hiding most commonly under leaves and wood on the forest floor. They are primarily active at night, feeding on insects, worms and slugs depending on the species of salamander. During mating season in early spring, a spermatophore is transferred from the male to the female, fertilising the female’s eggs internally. Returning to the water a few months later, females will then lay directly into the waterbody where the larvae are left to fend for themselves. At this point the juveniles are specifically adapted to an aquatic lifestyle; gills protrude from their neck, allowing dissolved oxygen in the water to be absorbed. After about one month of being water babies, it’s time to head for land as the gills start to slowly disappear! At this point, I have noticed that the colouration starts to become more prominent, as the characteristic fiery-orange patterns begin to cover their skin.
I wanted to emphasise this incredible feature of the larvae (the gills), and I knew that the brown sediment in the background of my previous photos was very dull. Having heard a bit about using “snoots” in the past, it sounded to be the answer to my problem. Snoots are basically funnels which reduce the coverage of your flash, creating a thin directional beam of light. This would allow me to highlight only a small portion of the animal, whilst creating a more pleasing black background. Problem solved?
Well it turns out underwater snoots cost an arm and a leg, so I decided that it was time to do a bit of DIY. Drum roll please for… the baked bean tin! With a hole drilled in one end, I inserted a thin plastic pipe 1cm in diameter, held in place with Gaffa tape (the solution to most problems in life!). A touch more tape and it was attached to the front face of my strobe and ready to go.
The problem with using a snoot is that you are trying to aim a minute beam of light onto an even smaller object, all of this whilst floating in a shallow pool of water, trying not to stir up sediment and not scare away the salamanders! They are very sensitive to vibrations and were particularly uncooperative, turning away from the camera at any opportunity. I think it also didn’t help that a grass snake was swimming around me, and the salamanders wisely decided not to stay still for too long!
Following the advice of snoot guru Keri WiIk, I mounted my home-made contraption on a tripod of strobe arms (modifying a triple clamp that I had purchased previously). This allowed me to position myself freely around the ever moving salamanders, direct the light beam and then alter my composition accordingly through the lens. Altering the distance of the snoot from the subject changes the diameter of the beam and therefore the entire feel of the photo. Not easy stuff at all, but I am quite pleased with my first attempts over the past few days, considering how fast a salamander can shift when it wants to!
My final word will be about the environmental considerations to take into account when attempting a similar photo shoot. Endeavour to minimise you impact on the environment by thinking about a few things:
-Don’t stress the animals, never touch or harass them into a different position. Take a few photos and move on to another individual to avoid potentially damaging their eyes. Remember that they couldn’t care less about your Facebook “likes”; their welfare comes first!
-Do your research first, make a plan and stick to it. This helps avoid accidents, often to the detriment of the animals.
-Think of what products you are using on your body or equipment, which if not biodegradable, which could harm the ecosystem that you’re entering. No sun cream, hair gel, talc power for getting into dry suits, WD40 on any camera kits etc. Salamanders in particular are very sensitive to even small levels of toxins, but this should be a general rule for diving. Eco alternatives available here at Stream2Sea.
-As when visiting anywhere, leave it as you found it. Don’t move rocks around to sit on, or leave any rubbish behind.
I hope you’ve enjoyed the series of photos and that they create some enthusiasm for herpetology (the study of reptiles and amphibians). As with all things, create enthusiasm for an animal and people will want to save it! 1/3 of all amphibians are threatened with extinction (IUCN, 2004), so they really are in dire need of a helping hand.
If you have enjoyed this post and would like to contribute towards amphibian conservation and research, then please donate to: Amphibian and Reptile Conservation (ARC)