Home Newsletter Locations Diary




Photographing Snails (Project)

Every year photographers go all over the world to find different exotic animals and insects to photograph which because of TV, magazines and the media in general gets all the publicity. Going on expensive trips to get a shot of a polar bear or penguin in their natural habitat, or on safari for the Lion, Elephant or Cheetah, but there is just as much interesting wildlife in the UK and particularly in your own back garden, if you look - from mammals such as field mice, to visiting birds, bees on the flowers and of course the target for our project - the garden snail.

Take a look in any garden, but particularly your own and you will come across a snail. They are very common in UK gardens and can be found usually around garden plants, plant pots, border beds and anywhere they might find a food source. I have put together a fact sheet on the Garden Snail so that you can find out more about them, but here I am going to concentrate on how you might go about photographing them.

Of course you could photograph the snails in their natural environment in the garden, as they aren't fast movers you should be able to get some decent shots. The other way of course is to collect 2 or 3 from the garden and take them into a controlled environment indoors. Snails are only small so you don't need a vast amount of work area and with the Nikon creative lighting system the amount of kit you need is small. For this project I used:

  • Nikon D300 camera

  • Nikon 105mm VR macro lens

  • Manfrotto 190ProB tripod and 460MG head

  • Nikon Macro flash kit (using two SB-200 flash heads on the ring)

  • Nikon right angle viewfinder

  • Lastolite Easybalance (to set White Balance PRE)

  • Green card (2 pieces)

  • Collection container

  • a little water!

Click on image to see larger version See Larger Image

I set up my work area on the dining table. Using two pieces of green mountboard card I could set up the space I wanted available for the snails to use. One piece was placed flat on the table, the other was propped up behind it to create a background.

Then I set up the tripod to be level with the baseboard on the table so that when taking the pictures I was looking straight at them, not at an angle or from above. This way you get good portraits of them as well as seeing the detail on their shells. The 190PROB and head have spirit levels on them, so I used these to make sure the tripod was level.

Now How to Light the subject

There are various ways to do this and I considered the options that this could be done before settling on using the macro flash kit. I could have used a full studio system with pop up tents and hot lights coming in from various angles - but the snails may not have been so active because of the heat from the lights - as well as it seemed a bit of an overkill for such a small subject.  You need a lot of space for this set up. Then there is the opposite extreme of just using the pop up flash on the top of the D300 - but this would have been too direct on the subject giving flare back and probably not give off enough light definitely not where I wanted it, as well as more shadows. Of course I could have got over some of this by using my SB-800 on top the camera giving  more light but still too direct. One of the advantages with the Nikon Creative Lighting system and having the built in commander mode, another option, would have been to use the SB-800 off the camera and a reflector to bounce back the light onto the subject, or using more than one Nikon flash to give all round lighting. However the option I went for was to use the Nikon Macro flash kit - this allows the use of a number of flashes on a ring on the front of the camera giving a more even light coverage but without the heat for the snails to become inactive, but also giving me the flexibility to move position.

Next I turned my attention to setting up the camera. I decided to use the 105VR macro lens, that way I wouldn't have to be so close, and I would get up to 1:1 actual size snails. Also of the two macro lenses I have this is the only one sturdy enough to hold the weight of the Macro flash kit. I mounted the ring on front of the lens and attached 2 of the SB-200 flashes. I used the pop up flash on the top of the D300 as the commander and put a infra-red shield in front of it so that it's signal flash didn't affect my shots.

So the camera settings were:

Set the Mode to Aperture Priority (A)

Set ISO to 400 and of course I always take RAW images.

Within the menus:

flash into commander mode
        (e3 Flash cntrl for built-in flash)

Built in flash Mode = off  Comp = off

Group A mode = TTL  Comp = +1

Group B mode = TTL  Comp = 0

Channel 1

Set to control exposure on the (front) sub command dial
       (b4 Easy Exposure Compensation = on)

See Larger Image Click on image to see larger version

Setting the SB-200's

Made sure both were set to channel 1 to line up with camera settings.

The flash on my left was then set to Group A, and the one on the right to Group B, this with the difference in power above meant the main light was the left one and the right one in-filled all the shadows rather than having a completely flat picture.

Took a couple of shots using a model of similar size to get the right angles of the flash heads.

The camera is now ready to mount on the tripod and you are nearly ready to start. There are two further functions to perform:-

Set the White Balance on the Camera - I like real colours and for this the best setting to use is the PRE. To set this up you press the WB button and turn the command dial until PRE is in the LCD panel. Let go of the WB button and then press again, this time holding it until the PRE is flashing. Now you're ready to use your grey card or Lastolite Grey Balancer - put it in front of the lens and push the shutter release button. If the camera is happy it will flash GOOD in the LCD panel. If not try again.

Collect your subjects - the SNAILS. Remove your subject from the collection container and place on the green card in position and shoot.

Snails love damp places and damp weather, so running a tap over them has the effect of cleaning off their shells, making the colour in their shells show up, just like with pebbles, and wakes them up encouraging them to become active. I wanted a sheen on the shells, had I not wanted this I could have dried them off with a paper towel before they came out.

I had three different sized snails that I had collected and as well as taking individual shots I also took some shots with sometimes two in and at others all three. What you will find:
  • When you pick up a snail they will retreat back inside their shell. Leave them a few seconds and they will emerge and if you're ready you will be able to get them at different stages throughout the emerging process. First a ball of flesh appears then they unravel their head and feet and out of their head comes 4 tentacles, the top two larger ones being their eyes, the bottom two smaller ones being feelers.
  • They will rise up their head and you can get to see their mouth and underneath.
  • They love to climb, they were happy to not only climb the backing card, but also would climb on each other.
  • As they travel they use a mucus to give their feet friction and this creates trails behind them, but also as it pours out of them it forms as bubbles on the surface of their skin.
  • Their skin is not smooth, in fact it is bumpy and close up macro can see this - you will also notice that not only their shells can be different colours, but their bodies can be as well.
  • They don't move very fast so you can get the shots that you want and because you can pick them up and move them around you can position them to get the image you want - only having to wait for them to reappear from the shell.
  • Some can fix themselves quite strongly to the base board - so be careful when picking up that you do not harm them.
  • They liked to investigate each other - and when put on the card they did seem to travel towards each other and interlink.
  • When climbing on each other they will investigate and look around so can create some interesting shapes and combinations.
  • They move at different speeds, some moving about quicker than the others - noticeable when more than one was out at the same time.
  • They will go to the edge of the card and if it's hanging off the edge of the table, they will extend themselves off the edge to see and in some cases they will slide underneath and in effect be travelling upside down.
  • As they like damp weather they are more active when moist so coating them in water gives this effect.

See Larger Image Notice the bubbles under the shell

See Larger Image Click on images to see larger version


Their shell when wet gives off a sheen and in some cases with the lighter shells they can appear translucent.

You could get some vegetation in from the garden and place them on it to get a more environmental outcome. This may also keep them in one spot for longer if they are feeding on it.

Snails naturally will take the lazy course and ride on the back of another snail on the move, they therefore quite naturally climb on top of each other. In some cases you find two each trying to climb on the other, and a number of other arrangements. Usually while one is moving and one riding they will be both looking in the same direction. They will also after a while get used to you and happily climb on your hands and not constantly go back into their shells.

Of course if you can't find live snails you could always collect snail shells - you'll be surprised at the different shapes, sizes and shell patterns you can get.

Try and do something different - something others wouldn't expect. It may only be a garden snail, but it can make a good and interesting photo subject.

To watch out for:

My photographic session was for a couple of hours, in doors in the afternoon and I took around 350 pictures. Towards the end of the session I did have a problem with autofocus, it wasn't the position of the snails or even the lens malfunctioning it was merely that the surrounding light level was reduced enough that the lens was struggling to find the subject to focus on. So turning on the room lights got over this problem - although you may want to re-do the White Balance again to make sure the colours you get are accurate.

When I came to dismantle and put away the kit, I found the two SB-200's, which had been switched on for all the time, had got quite warm. Not dangerous and not a problem, but just not expected when I put my hand on them to take them off the camera.

And finally Remember to put the snails back out in the garden when you finish......

Below is a further selection of the shots I managed to get.

Now it's your turn. This may seem a very simple project, but it's worth doing and will give you both some additional experience and some different photos.

See Larger Image
See Larger Image

See Larger Image Click on images to see larger versions

See Also

Garden Snails - a wildlife fact sheet on the garden snail giving an idea of size, suitable environments to find them and more.....

Photographing small wildlife

Comparing Nikon Flash Units, this shows the SB200 and some of the parts of the Marco Flash kit.

Setting the White Balance PRE

See Larger Image


By: Tracey Park Section: Molluscs Key:
Page Ref: photographing_snails Topic: Wildlife and Animals Last Updated: 04/2011

This page:

Link directly to this page, with text or the button on right.

Text linking: Photographing Snails (Project) on Photographers Resource

Linking Instructions                            http://www.photographers-resource.co.uk/

Photographers Resource, all the information for the photographer