Herptile Photography

September 28, 2016

Chasing Dragons


For as long as I can remember I’ve always had an interest in the natural world and photography was my way of documenting it. Since childhood I owned pet reptiles like leopard geckos and bearded dragons but soon wanted to go after the British Herptiles (the collective term for amphibians & reptiles). There are six native reptiles to the mainland and a further two on the Channel Islands, 3 snakes and 5 lizards.




The slow worm isn’t actually a worm or despite its appearance a snake but a legless lizard and the most common species of reptile you’re most likely to encounter in the UK. They are a good species to start on, as they don’t move quite as fast as there four legged cousins so allow more time to compose the image and experiment with camera settings. Feeding on a mixed diet of slugs, snails and beetles they are very popular with gardeners and allotment owners so always a good idea to start looking there. Being quite vulnerable they have a defence mechanism that all the UK lizards have which is to shed the tail when a predator attacks them allowing them to escape, this is also one of the reasons its best to avoid handling the lizards as this can trigger them to shed tails.




The common lizard despite its name isn’t as common as you’d think but still covers a range of habitats from heathland, woodland and coastal dunes. They will bask in the mornings normally on a south facing bank to warm up for the rest of day. Another name for them is the viviparous lizard, which means they give birth to live young. They will quickly make use of boardwalks and anything black like old tyres and carpets to bask on (as they absorb heat quicker then the surroundings) so it’s a good idea to look out for these when photographing reptiles.




Sand lizards are the UKs rarest lizard and a protected species and without a licence if you disturb, handle or photograph them you can be in with a hefty fine so best to either go on organised reptile walks (RSPB Arne run these in the summer) where people who have the licence will take you around to see them and get photographs. The males are vibrant green while the females are a browner colour so you can instantly tell which is a male and which is a female.

The licence also applies for smooth snakes, natter jack toads and great crested newts.



Grass snakes are the most common serpent in the British Isles from southern Scotland right down to the Channel Islands and everywhere in between. They also are the largest, some reaching nearly 6ft in length!  Despite this though they are completely harmless and will mostly slither aware when a photographer approach’s them making them a tricky subject at the best of times.  Using a lens such a 300mm is ideal as this allows you to stay away from the snake allowing it to get used to you and getting the shots without disturbing it.  They are sub aquatic preferring to live by rivers and lakes where the majority of there food lives such as amphibians & small fish.


Smooth Snakes are constrictors and have mostly reptile diet which along with habitat preference for heathland restricts there distribution to southern england. There habit of eating reptiles doesn't help them as a species as they are highly cannibalistic. The Smooth Snake can be distinguished by its more slender body, round pupil and less well-formed dark pattern on its back. It is usually grey or dark brown in colour. 


Palmate Newts are more likely to be found in ponds in upland areas and moorlands than other newt species. Our smallest newt, the Palmate Newt is peachy-yellow underneath with few spots on the belly, but none on the throat. In the breeding season males develop black webs on their hind feet and have a thin filament at the end of their tail. Females are difficult to distinguish from female smooth newts.


 Our biggest newt, the Great Crested Newt is almost black in colour, with spotted flanks and a striking, orange belly. The skin is warty. The males have a long, wavy crest along the body and on the tail during the breeding season, giving them the appearance of mini dinosaurs. Young GCN are impressive predators eating anything that will fit in its mouth.



Adders are often the brunt of a lot of people’s misconception but for the most part will shy away from people. Though they are venomous they rarely use the bite only for prey and in some circumstances self-defensive.  The adder is the worlds most wide spread snake covering most of Europe and into Asia tolerating the freezing temperatures of the artic circle! To avoid harm to your self and the snake its best to use a longer lens as they often move away back into a hole or bush when they see a person.




Green lizards are one of Europe’s largest lizards reaching lengths of 30cm and can be found all over Jersey. Being completely green though not quite as vibrant as the male sand lizard. They like to live on sandy dunes looking for small insects to feed on. Living on a sandy environment this means they warm up quicker and become active quicker so it’s a good idea to get out very early to try and find them before they are to quick to take a photograph.

Wall lizards unsurprisingly like to live on walls, but naturally like cliff faces. Jersey is another hot spot of the little lizards darting around the rocks for insects.  Both the wall lizard and green lizard have been introduced to mainland Britain to areas like Bournemouth cliffs and are now quite well established there. 




Common frogs again like the common lizard aren’t as common as their name suggests but with the help of garden ponds there numbers are stable. Building a pond is a great way to attract amphibians to your own garden meaning you don’t have far to get your shots and have a lot more control over them. Most amphibians begin to breed in spring so this is a great time to capture mating behaviour as they are often more preoccupied with each other then the photographer.


Common toads are a wide spread species and can often come into danger when crossing roads to get to ancient breeding ponds promoting people to set up toad patrols to help them cross the roads. Rather then having clumps of spawn like frogs the toads lay strings of spawn. The tadpoles also secret a toxin over there skin making foul tasting to predators. Common toads can reach ages of up to 50 and return to the same pond year after year. Similar to the slow worm they are a great subject to start on when photographing amphibians, as they are slow moving and very photogenic.





Marsh frogs are an introduced species to the UK spreading from areas in the south east like Romney marsh. They have throat sakes and have a fairly loud call to attract females. They also will fight over females making a great photographic opportunity. They also have a range of colours from bright green to a mottled brown. They can prove quite shy and will dive bomb into the water when danger approach’s.




As for our newt species the smooth newt is numerous through the UK and the male can be confused with a great crested newt as it two grows a crest in the springtime but is much smaller and not as black. The other species that is numerous is the palmate the smallest newt species and particularly abundant in the south west of England.  



Midwife toads are so called because the females pass the eggs on to the males to look after. They have a limited range in the UK mostly in bedford, worksop and cheshire. About the size of a 50p they are much smaller then common toads and pose little threat to native amphibians having been introduced over 100 years ago.


When dealing with some of the more common species experimenting with macro and wide-angle lens can really yield great results. Focusing on the patterns, scales and textures of each individual species shows their own unique qualities of.





Top Five Herptile Locations


  1. RSPB Arne, Dorset – Dorset is the reptile capital of the UK and holds all 6 native species as well as few exotics! Arne hold guided trips around the reserve allowing the photographer to take pictures they would never normally be able to.

  2. London Wetland Centre, London – Common lizards lay on the board walk and the ditches in the area are full of Marsh frogs providing food for a lot fro the birds in the marsh like bitterns, herons & egrets.

  3. Peak District, Derbyshire – with plenty of rivers and lakes for the amphibians and grass snakes the moors and heath provide great areas for adders and slow worms.

  4. Bissoe Valley Nature Reserve, Cornwall – despite being a past arsnick mine it holds palmate newts, toads and frogs in good numbers as well as common lizards in the grassy areas.

  5. St Ouen, Jersey – if you want to see native wall lizards and green lizards then jersey is the place to go and if your very lucky you may even come across the rare agile frog which is only found in Jersey in Britain.



Top Five Herptile Photography Tips


  1. Get up early, all reptiles need to bask so look for south facing banks where the sun is going to hit first.

  2. Tins, old carpets or even bits of wood often have herptiles hiding underneath so they are always a good place to have a look under to see who’s at home. 

  3. They can often get away with remarkable speeds so a fast shutter speed is advised to capture the movement.

  4. Make sure you research your species, as you don’t want to be disturbing something that might land you a fine of £5000!

Lens such as 300mm 2.8 are ideal for long-range reptile work while a 105mm marco is perfect for close up de

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