Rochester, New York
By Adam Fenster
When I got a call from one of the publicists in University Communications a couple of weeks ago asking whether we should try to find stock art or make our own photos to illustrate a recent paper by University of Rochester PhD student Daniel Scantlebury, I immediately jumped at the chance. I had read that the paper, which describes a slowdown in the rate at which species form on Madagascar, involved obscure gecko species and, as an occasional photographer of frogs and other critters, I thought it would be a great opportunity to make some interesting studio photographs, push my photography skills and at the same time help to publicize a critical scientific study.
I emailed Dan, explaining what I wanted to try and emphasizing that the comfort and safety of his geckos was critical. I had been told he had a collection containing some of the animals in the study but was distressed to learn upon meeting him in his office later that he had given them away. Fortunately, as someone with close ties to Rochester’s “gecko community”, he was able to put me in touch with Thomas Wood, a local expert and aquarium store owner who possesses a large collection of the same leaf tailed gecko species that were part of the study.
After we set up a time to meet at Tom’s house I tried to figure out how I wanted to photograph these animals. I had long been inspired by the work of National Geographic contributor Joel Sartore, particularly this photo. But when I saw the stunning gecko photos of Shikhei Goh I knew exactly what I wanted to try (minus the kung fu part). I sourced a piece of black plexiglass from a local plastics company, then made some test shots in our office combining the plexiglass on a small table with a black backdrop and two lights: a Paul C Buff Einstein with 35” gridded octobox, placed camera left and another Einstein with a grid spot at upper back right. Gridding a light source minimizes light spill and maximizes directionality, which was important in getting everything to go solid black to create contrast to set off the unique features of the geckos. If I were to do this again I’d use even smaller light sources as there was still a bit of spill, or I’d move the backdrop a little farther back. I triggered the lights using the newer Pocket Wizards (radio transmitters) that allow for power adjustment on the fly with a little gadget that clicks into the camera’s hot shoe. This proved helpful as some animals frequently changed their distance to the lights in addition to having various hues that required more or less light to photograph suitably. The results were about what I had hoped for so I packed everything back up and waited for our shoot day.
I drove with Dan to Tom’s house and after introductions were made I was led down to the “Gecko Room” in Tom’s basement. I had been expecting perhaps a handful of old cages containing a small sampling of species but was greeted instead by the sight of literally dozens of vivariums filled with live plants inside which held some of the most fantastical animals I have ever seen in person: bizarre-looking, bearded and bumpy, and almost invisible with their perfect camouflage. I’ve been to zoos and pet stores that do not have the equipment and species variation in that room. After more introductions to the various species we settled on five or six that we thought might best lend themselves to being photographed. After that I set up my little studio in Tom’s living room upstairs, did a few tests and we then began to methodically photograph them. Tom and Dan handled and positioned the geckos while I photographed, manipulated lights and made species IDs using voice tags on the back of the camera. After about three hours (and a growler of local microbrew) we were done. Tom and Dan did a masterful job in selecting and handling the creatures and I can say with complete authority that no geckos were harmed in the creation of these images.
As far as camera gear goes, we’re a Nikon shop here at the university and we just took delivery of a D4 earlier this year. It’s a great camera with speedy autofocus and a beautiful file. We also have a D800 which offers a bigger file but doesn’t seem to do quite as well with autofocus speed and accuracy, which proved critical for this shoot as some of the animals like to move around. Many are also very small which required macro equipment and the resulting focus tolerances are very narrow, even at the high apertures I was using and again rendering autofocus accuracy critical. For the first animal — an 8-10” Henkel’s leaf-tailed gecko (Uroplatus henkeli) — I was able to use a 70-200mm lens but for all the others I reverted to a 50mm 1.4 coupled with my personal Canon 250D closeup lens. While not ideal for this sort of work, the combination did just fine.