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Digital Desktop Studio Photography
The Complete Guide To Lighting and Photographing Small Objects with your Digital Camera

Case Study—A Snapping Turtle

When photographing plants and animals in nature, the setting is extremely important but rarely perfect. The ground is wet, the light isn't right, the wind is blowing, the rain is falling. Because of the challenges, nature photography is very enjoyable, but there are times when you may want to move things into the studio. We've decided to do this with a newly hatched snapping turtle before releasing it back to its pond.

The Assignment

The assignment is to photograph a snapping turtle hatchling so it looks like it's in its natural environment.

1. Composition

To create a natural looking environment, we used a piece of flagstone for the background, with overhanging privet hedge leaves. The turtle was lively, so we had only limited control over its position and had to take advantage of pauses in its travels.

2. Lighting

The main light—acting as the sun—is to the right and shines through a "full sun" filter to add a warm tone to the image. The fill light—acting as the open sky is to the left and shines through a diffuser.

3. Camera Settings

Since we are using a color filter, we first adjusted white balance and then used clothespins to clamp the filter in place over the main light. If we white balanced after placing the filter over the light, its warm tone would be corrected for and not appear in the captured image.

The snapping turtle hatching was only a few days old but much faster than we expected. With dim lighting, and a wide open aperture, we had serious problems with depth of field and subject blur. Most of the images were not usable.


The setup uses two lights, one through a diffuser and the other through a color filter.

One of the captured images looks fairly natural and the turtle is clear and sharp. Although the turtle looks at peace here, this really was a two-person job. One acted as turtle wrangler, keeping the turtle from falling off the table and repeatedly placing him where we wanted him. The other laughed and took the pictures.

Here the turtle is out more from the leaf cover. Despite repeated attempts, we did not cover ourselves in glory with these shots. You can certainly do better!

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