By Richard Lunsford

Special Thanks to Phil. Peak for assistance

            Hello. If you’re reading this I hope you’ve found the Turtle Forum’s Field Herping Forum section, where many of us enjoy discussing finds, equipment, techniques and photo.s from the field. And a thread there inspired this article. You see, someone once posted & asked me how I got those photo.s of wild water turtles. I answered then, but got to thinking…would that make a good article? 

            Well, I hope so ;)! I’m targeting this article to photographing common wild South Central United States freshwater turtles, but the basic principles apply to water turtles elsewhere & most any reptile or amphibian that must to photo.d from a distance. 

            That said, ATP already has an article on Digital Photography for Field Herping, so rather than rehash that info. let’s keep this article more concise. I’ll lay it out in a standard 23 step ‘tips-style’ outline. I spent the later part of my childhood in South-Central Arkansas, and I live in Southwestern Kentucky now, so my experiences draw on these locales & what I’ve learned from others.


I.)                 Equipment You need a camera with a telephoto (maximum optical zoom) of at least 8x, and preferably 10x (~ 380 mm in 35 mm terms). Most wild turtles won’t let you within 15 feet unless you have cover (approach from behind a tree, etc…). Once you’re good, you occasionally get within 8 feet (stalking with cover). That’s still not close enough to nail good close-ups of a milk saucer-sized target with a standard 3x (say, roughly 100-115 mm in 35 mm terms) digicam. So if you really want close-in photo.s of basking turtles, you’ve got to get a high-power telephoto (optical zoom 8x & up) digital camera. The Olympus 730, 740 and 750 have 10x optical zoom; the Nikon 5700 8x zoom, the Panasonic DMC-FZ1 12x, and some of the Minolta Dimage’s can hit 7x. For Canon or Nikon Digital SLR owners the Canon 100-400 IS or Nikon 80-400 VR lenses are excellent (the Canon 100-400 IS is around $1,500 online). Image stabilization is a great feature, but hard to come by these days. If you don’t have IS, you must practice your steady photo taking technique (lean on a tree, hold your breath while you take the photo., use a monopod, etc…) A tele-converter like the upcoming Olympus TCON-17 (1.7x, so a 10x optical zoom becomes 17x) is well-worthwhile (you may need a step-up or step-down ring for this).

Note: You can get good turtles photo.s of water turtles you catch with a more standard digicam (2x to 4x optical zoom). Don’t wear your good shoes & expect to get wet. This approach may work for baby turtles, & adult mud/musk & sliders. Large snappers & softshells are another story…


II.)               Lighting – You need a fairly bright, sunny day. For photo.s taken at over 6x (about 200 mm in 35 mm terms) without image stabilization, camera shake tends to often blur photo.s. You fight this with steadiness techniques, fast shutter speeds & larger apertures. To enable your camera to use high shutter speeds, you need lots of light. The brighter the day, the fewer of your shots will blur. I find many more turtles on sunny days.


III.)            Resolution – Digital zoom on the camera, or zooming in and cropping in image-editing software, is a lousy substitute for optical zoom on your camera but the higher your camera’s resolution, the more you can get away with it. For online postings, this can work pretty well. For prints, you’ll find quality drops fast. For prints, you’ll want a 2 megapixel or better camera.


IV.)            Take Several Shots & Carry a Spare Battery – Use a large storage media card (compact flash, xD Picture Card, SD Card, etc…) & carry a spare battery so you can take a lot of photo.s. Shot-to-shot, there’ll be differences in the way the camera sets the focus & exposure. So the sharpness & color hue of the photo will vary a bit, & out of 4 shots maybe 2 will have sharp focus, 2 won’t, in 1 the sun glaring off the shell will blow the highlight (shell looks like a pure bright white glare), in 1 the turtle’s eyes will be shut, etc… Never take just one photo of anything important; try for 4 or 5. You’re not wasting (or paying for) film. Welcome to digital photography!


V.)              For Captures, Take the Right Shots – If you catch the specimen, take many shots for the reasons already covered. Photograph the turtle from the front, but preferably at an angle from the side (dead-on shots of the nose tip crammed between a turtle’s forelegs isn’t attractive). Also photograph the carapace and plastron; individual & regional variation in color & pattern is interesting & it’s a big help if you want help identifying something. Remember that cameras in macro mode have shallow depth-of-field (focus); work with your camera so you know whether a 3 foot rat snake a buddy’s holding out toward you will all be in focus, or just the head & front half.


VI.)            Take An Experienced Herper – Not necessary but there’s no substitute for an experienced herper guide, especially one familiar with your area. If you’re new to herping, these people will seem to have a strong intuition for spotting baskers, distinguishing turtle heads (getting air) & shells from sticks, spotting snakes & lizards, and in some cases finding things you wouldn’t have thought to look for (like salamanders). Watch how they walk, how much noise they do (& don’t) make, what kinds of areas they head for, how they sneak up on wildlife, etc… Disclaimer: experienced herpers miss a lot of what’s actually there, but you won’t notice…


VII.)         Know Your Local Species – Get a Peterson’s Field Guide to Reptiles & Amphibians & find out what you’ve got locally. If you live in New Hampshire, don’t bother looking for Southern Painted Turtles. Next, read up on your local species. In my area, we are supposed to have RES, stinkpots, Common & Alligator Snappers, Eastern mud turtles (or Mississippi’s), Southern & Midland Painted, Common Map, some type of cooter & Spiny & smooth softshells. I’ve actually found RES/YBS hybrids (maybe even YBS, period) & some that resemble Cumberlands. I can find RES & stinkpots pretty easily, common snappers occasionally, common map & softies uncommonly, midland painted rarely & I haven’t found an alligator snapper or mud turtle around here yet. Let’s take a look at common species & their needs.

1.)    RES – Can live in anything from juveniles in a suburban drainage ditch water hole (perhaps 200 gallons & up) through streams, ponds, lakes & rivers. Typically appear openly on basking areas & in high-population densities; tolerance to humans varies but you can usually get within 30 feet & sometimes within 20. RES can & do travel overland considerable distances & are such wide-spread, popular & often dumped pets that they find their way into isolated water bodies like farm ponds. Often found crossing roads, too.

2.)    Common Snappers – I’ve found them in small dirt road mud holes under 100 gallons, suburban ditches, creeks, streams, ponds, lakes & rivers. They travel overland far & well (common on roads), & produce large egg clutches so their hatchlings turn up in most any inhabitable water body. I find them basking in the Spring but due to size they’re likely to be near the bank & they are shy when basking. Occasionally encountered wandering on land; docile if left alone, savage & powerful if interfered with, can whirl around very fast & are dangerous when handled. Alligator snappers tend toward larger water bodies & are more solidly aquatic; if you see one on land assume it’s a gravel female & let it alone.

3.)    Southern & Midland Painted Turtles – Occur in larger water bodies (large lakes & rivers) & in the more still smaller water bodies (i.e.: wooded swamps). In the areas I’m familiar with, sliders are much more evident & may crowd them out. I haven’t found painteds in isolated farm ponds.

4.)    Map Turtles – Riverine & large lake turtles; I have found them in a large stream (called ‘Little River’) in Southwestern KY, which has river system connections. Range maps indicate they occur along river systems. They don’t seem to ‘spread out’ overland into ponds the way sliders do, so not likely to hit farm ponds. They bask but are reputedly skittish & hard to get close enough to for identification. You may zoom into a photo. on your computer & then figure out you found one (I have…).

5.)    Cooters – Large lake & river turtles. Unlikely in smaller, isolated water bodies like farm ponds, or smaller bodies like streams.

6.)    Stinkpots – Common in lakes & rivers; also in larger streams, particularly with river or large lake connections. Predominantly aquatic, bask more than commonly thought, & yet one of the first to show distress when water turtles are kept out of water (as discussed in the stinkpot section of Turtles of the United States and Canada). Stinkpots aren’t designed for long overland treks like common snappers & aren’t as land-capable as mud turtles. They’re not common enough in the pet trade to get dumped everywhere in large quantities. So don’t expect stinkpots in small, isolated water bodies like farm ponds. While they bask often in my favorite local site, they are small, drab-colored & if you don’t know what you’re doing they’ll hit the water before you realize what they are. Learn to look ahead, especially at wood near the bank, & notice the thicker, oval shaped body. You can get fairly close, if you’re quiet, slow-moving & sneaky.

7.)    Eastern & Mississippi Mud Turtles – Very similar to stinkpots but more extensive plastrons provide better protection on land; mud turtles spend more time on land & may occur in more isolated water bodies like farm ponds. I haven’t observed them basking. Gravid females may be found on roads. In a local river-connected large stream, I see many stinkpots but not mud turtles; I suspect where both occur that competition is a factor.

8.)    Softshells – Largely aquatic riverine species not designed for overland treks. Confined to rivers & larger lakes; will infiltration large streams connected to rivers. Not likely in farm ponds. The Florida softy is more prone to also inhabit small water bodies than the spiny or smooth. In my experience softies are alert, shy & can be hard to get close to.


VIII.)       Know Your Local Habitat Type – Consider your herping site & what it can support.

Let’s take a look at common habitats & what they feature.

1.) Mud holes – The only turtles I’ve found with any frequency in dirt road mud holes were juvenile common snappers. Many woodland mud holes can last a few weeks & harbor tadpoles & crayfish in cramped quarters, so these snappers eat well & grow fast before moving.

2.) Suburban Drainage Ditches & Rural Streams – In South Central Arkansas, I found juvenile RES & hatchling up to adult common snappers in such habitat. If a river runs nearby & connects to the system, you might see occasional riverine species such as map, softshell & stinkpot.

3.) Farm Ponds – In South Central Arkansas, the only turtles I saw in these were RES & common snappers, although Mississippi mud turtles were in the area & almost certainly also lived there. I never found stinkpot there & wouldn’t expect riverine species like map or softshell.

4.) Lakes – Varies with size, age & locale. The larger the more likely it is to contain riverine species. The older it is, the more likely some ex-pets have been dumped in it. Locale is relevant because a nearby river can seed the lake with maps, softies & alligator snappers; an isolated lake may show little besides sliders & common snappers.

5.) Rivers – Anything is game. RES, Common Snappers & mud turtles live here, just like in farm ponds. So do those species who like larger water bodies; maps, softshells, stinkpots, alligator snappers & cooters.


IX.)            Choose Your Herp Site Wisely – A plain water body with a large gray rock bank (common tactic to fortify banks; looks neat to humans but eliminates shore vegetation & fauna) & no debris (logs, roots, etc…) is usually a crappy place to herp for freshwater turtles. The same water body with 2 fallen trees in the water and a muddy well-vegetated bank can be great. The former is common in city parks, the latter in rural areas & ‘natural’ areas.


X.)              Know Your Specific Herp Site – Frequent the same spot often. Learn where the best basking logs are, what areas of the water body have the juveniles vs. the adults, where the ‘big boys’ tend to hang out, etc… In a given water body there will be a few favorite basking spots; particularly fallen trees, but also logs & sticks, tree roots, flattened rocks, most anything sticking out of the water. Turtles will bask on the bank, but many prefer basking spots surrounded by water.


XI.)            Learn How To Look – For RES, you can walk along the bank or float along in a boat, & watch ahead about 30 – 50 feet. At that range, the turtle won’t jump in but you can see it basking on a log. More challenging & less productive is to also watch the shore edge if the bank is steep; occasionally look down over the grass & see if you can see them before they see you (this is a lot harder). Snappers don’t bask as much, may be just under water or along the bank, & look like rocks; common snappers may leave mashed down trails through grasses near the shoreline. Basking snappers are shy & will bail quickly, so carefully take what pics you can. Softshells are alert & shy; you need to be looking way up ahead (like, 50 to 100 feet), watch for a really odd flattened shape & they do bask so watch for them. For stinkpots, watch those tree roots along the bank & logs out in the water; look for thicker, tapering oval-shaped dark turtles. If the water’s clear, you can scan the bottom for them, too.


XII.)         Start Out Simple – On a warm, sunny Summer day (with no recent rain) in a good habitat in their native range, finding a RES is almost guaranteed. They’re also the easiest to spot & get close to so start out with RES photography. Painted turtles are similar. Use that high-powered zoom I recommended & sooner or later you may get home & find out your ‘RES’ was actually a map turtle. Sooner or later you’ll run across a common snapper. Softshells are harder but put in your time & it’ll happen. Stinkpots are probably there waiting for you to learn how to see them.


XIII.)       Choose Your Time of Day – I like to herp between 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. That way I get the turtles coming out to warm up & start the day before it gets severely hot in late afternoon. I have the best luck on sunny days when there has been no rain for several days (muddy fast-flowing high water & cloud cover are bad news).


XIV.)      Move Slowly – Walk toward the turtle very slowly; you’re stalking it. Take photo.s every few steps; digital ‘film’ is free & whenever the turtle finally jumps in, well, that’s as close as you got! The less you move, the closer you’ll get.


XV.)         Use Cover – If you can put a large tree or bush between you and the turtle while you approach, do it. You can reach around the tree to photo. without exposing your whole body (use the tree to steady your camera, too). Turtles aren’t human & don’t think like we do; anything you do to reduce the size of your moving silhouette is a plus. Turtles tolerate my small friend Wallob getting close better than me (I’m much taller & a bit more, uh, robust than Wallob. Yeah, that’s it…robust…).


XVI.)      Don’t Advertise Yourself – Turtles aren’t deaf & baskers sometimes sleep. Be quiet. At least some turtles can see color; you don’t need full hunter camouflage but don’t wear loud bright colors. If you’re in a boat, use the trolling motor (don’t swoop in with the regular motor blasting, swamp the area with a huge wake, & expect instant gratification).


XVII.)    Watch the Turtle’s Body Language – When a turtle extends & raises its head, it’s alarmed & thinking about jumping in. After you creep up on a couple you’ll learn how to tell when they’re thinking about jumping. Be still a few minutes, let it calm down, shoot a few photo.s from where you are before creeping closer. In fact, consider getting ready for an ‘action shot’ of the dive in!


XVIII.) Learn to Wait – Turtles that dive in often return to their basking spots in 20-30 minutes if you sit down & hold still. You may also have good luck ‘herping’ from a boat while fishing, if you are still.


XIX.)      Take Advantage of Public Parks – these have a high level of human presence & activity, so the turtles get desensitized (they have to, or they’d never get to bask). In Swan Lake in Dunbar Cave Natural Area in Clarksville, TN, you can get within 15 feet of adult sliders. You can get within 10 feet of musk rats. It’s a lot harder to get close to the truly wild.


XX.)         Take Advantage of Other Subjects – Awhile back I went herping & couldn’t find turtle subjects so I photographed wild flowers. I photograph songbirds, squirrel, muskrat, bullfrogs, Bradford pear & redbud trees, scenic landscape & naturalistic features, dams, bridges, etc… You can also learn to find salamanders, ringneck snakes, lizards & so forth. If you’re got a digicam with strong macro capability (like the Nikon Coolpix 990), you can take real close-ups of interesting insects & spiders. Take a pic of a large jumping spider from 2 inches away, make an 8x10 for the office & see if it doesn’t freak people out…


XXI.)      Herp Responsibly – Don’t roll over the rock & expose the ringneck snakes until bystanders walk on by. Tell the nosy kid you’re just photographing ‘whatever turns up.’ If you find & photograph wild bog or spotted turtles, please don’t tell anyone where they are. The habitat under logs & rocks is very important to some creatures & takes a long time to develop; if you roll over rocks & logs, put them back. Don’t destroy the habitat! Don’t encourage other people to do so, either (such as by blabbing that you find snakes at such-and-such place).


XXII.)    Herp Safely – Muddy embankments are slick & you can hit the ground fast (I’ve sprained an ankle, banged up an arm & broke through knee deep into some sort of hollow, all in separate incidents within the past 2 years). Especially since you may be trying to protect the camera while you fall (I’ve actually had the old cliché ‘Bones heal & chicks dig scars’ dart through my mind…). Copperheads are incredibly well-camouflaged in dead leaves (must be seen to be believed); water moccasins (a.k.a. cottonmouths) can get large & lair along the bank, particularly in branches or vegetation. If you’re in their range & like to prowl along the water’s edge in vegetated wild areas, you will find cottonmouths. They usually ignore people or flee. They are in issue if you go wading barefoot (I used to do that; almost walked right into one) or in water near the tops of your rubber boots.


XXIII.) If All Else Fails – You can take a captive turtle, put it on a stick in a backyard mud hole or suitably ‘doctored’ kiddie pool, and click away. A few things to keep in mind are 1.) Only use native species. 2.) Watch the back ground (especially if you use a kiddie pool). 3.) Beware your turtle escaping! Some can bury into mud faster than you’d believe. If you get caught, I don’t know you. 

Well, it’s been fun & I hope it’s been helpful. Later.


Richard Lunsford.