BEHIND THE LENS: CROSSING CHAMELEON
In this article I will explain a little more about the story and techniques behind the above image ‘crossing chameleon’, the Public Award Winner of the NatGeo Photo Contest!
Awesome fact to start with: this image won the public choice award of the National Geographic Photo Contest 2019 (Netherlands and Belgium) in the category ‘animal’. Winning this award means my photo has been published in National Geographic Magazine (November 2019 edition) and is part of a National Geographic exhibition in Museon, The Hague until March 2020. I have been participating in this contest for a few years now and I feel blessed with this award, recognition and appreciation for my photography work.
Before I decided to enter the photo contest with this Giant Malagasy chameleon I was doubting between this photo and 2 other images. I also captured several beautiful primates on my trip to Uganda, like tree chilling chimps in Kibale Forest Reserve and massive silverbacks in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. I found it hard to make a decision, since I loved these gentle giants too.
In the end I decided to go for the (maybe less favorite) reptile because I thought it would be something different than you usually see. Not only the choice for a reptile in stead of for example Africa’s well known Big 5, but also because of the different pose, scene and composition of this chameleon, since you usually see them on a branche in a tree. This chameleon is also endemic to Madagascar, which means they can’t be found anywhere else in the world! Yes, you can find them as pets in many houses, but I’m talking about wild animals here. If you want a photo of this chameleon living in the wild, you have to travel to Madagascar also known as ‘the Land of the Chameleons‘ because half of the world’s species of chameleons live in Madagascar!
This photo of an adult male chameleon (Furcifer Oustaleti) was taken during a 3,5 week road trip through Madagascar, on a main road along the Bay of Diego-Suarez in Northern Madagascar.
For this image I used a Canon EOS 7D with a Sigma 70-200mm 2.8 lens. I’m really satisfied with this sharp bright Sigma lens. I photographed in manual mode and used the following settings: ISO 250, f/9, 1/200s. Focal length 200mm.
Since all my camera-gear was already packed for my onward flight I grabbed the Canon 7D out of my Benro Traveler photography bag because my 70-200mm 2.8 lens was still mounted to that camera body. I also packed my Canon 5D MKIV, a 100-400mm 4.5-5.6 L zoom lens and 2 wide-angle lenses. Because it felt like there was no time to change bodies and lenses I had to make a decision in a couple of seconds and chose to use my brightest 2.8 zoom lens. For my trip to Madagascar I packed two zoom lenses for photographing Madagascars (endemic) wildlife and the more wide-angle lenses, for example the Canon 16-35mm 2.8 lens, for photographing Madagascars beautiful landscapes.
The image was shot on June 2, 2019 at 10.53 AM.
Time spend taking the photo
Taking a good photo often requires a lot of patience and research on the subject you want to capture, but sometimes it’s partly about luck! In my case I was lucky I saw this chameleon crossing the street on my way to the airport. I shouted to my driver to stop the car and it was a matter of seconds to decide what equipment to use.
I jumped out of the car and a few seconds later I instinctively got down on the asphalted street to get on eye-level with this colorful Oustalet’s Chameleon. I knew I wanted to capture the somewhat comic and awkward walk including both eyes; I also needed the road surface to be part of the picture, because you usually spot chameleons in plants and trees. This moment could be gone in a few seconds, so there was no time to spend a lot of time observing and capturing this particular chameleon. Apart from that, I had a flight to catch, something I almost forgot the moment I jumped out of the car.
Unexpected (lucky) moments
When unexpected moments like this occur, you need to know what you’re doing and how to use your camera and its settings. Again, I only had a few seconds to decide how I wanted to capture this moment. I wanted a fair part of the chameleon to be sharp, like head, eyes, feet and toes. I wanted the background to be blurry with enough details on my subject in the foreground including the asphalted street. Therefore I decided to use f/9 with a focal length of 200mm to get a nice dept of field ratio. The more zoom you use, the bigger the effect of the subject jumping out of the picture towards the person who is looking at the photo.
Lighting can make a lot of difference between an average image and top class photo. My favorite times to photograph wildlife is during dusk and dawn. I particularly love the beautiful and warm light at the end of the day when the sun is touching the horizon, but in this (unexpected) case it was almost 11.00 AM and when a moment like this occurs you have to work with the present light. It was a bit cloudy with no harsh lighting. I was happy with the diffuse light of that moment, because I didn’t have to deal with harsh light and shadows on the chameleon and on road.
The RAW file needed some level of processing to do justice to the scene I photographed. First I did some basic adjustments to the highlights, shadows, contrast, exposure, clarity and vibrance of the image. After those adjustments I had to straighten the photo a little bit and I chose to position the chameleon slightly off to the left side for a more natural looking and well-balanced photo.
In photography it’s good to know some basic ‘photography rules’, like the Rule of Thirds. This rule is often used as a guideline and suggests that the best place to put the subject of an image is not in the center but on the side. I often use this rule, but not always! I also have images where I positioned my subject, for example a leopard, right in the center to get a powerful image. For the crossing chameleon the rule of third worked perfect for me. I positioned the chameleon on the left while he is looking to the right.
Besides some basic adjustments in Lightroom I only removed one tiny spot in Photoshop. It was a blurry leaf lying on the road between me and the chameleon.
Madagascar is home to half of the world’s species of chameleons. No wonder Madagascar is also called ‘The land of Chameleons’. Spotting chameleons (or Tanala in Malagasy) was one of the reasons to travel to Madagascar. I already watched several chameleons on my Uganda Trip and I was amazed by their behavior, beautiful colors and movement. Apart from visiting Avenue of the Baobabs and spotting Madagascar’s endemic Lemurs, I knew this was another reason for me to explore the beautiful treasure Island of Madagascar.
Chameleons in general
Chameleons are family of the lizards, which belong to the Iguania. They possess some characteristic aspects no other animals have. The most well-known feature is the ability to change color. That is why I thought it was beautiful to see this yellow-colored chameleon walking on the grey asphalt. Colour change has functions in camouflage, but they don’t change color to match any color of their environments. All chameleons have a natural color range with which they are born and can change by temperature, mood, and light. Colour change signals a chameleon’s physiological condition and intentions to other chameleons. For example they tend to show brighter colors when displaying aggression to other chameleons. For a long time it was thought that chameleons change colour by dispersion of pigment-containing organelles within their skin, but research showed that pigment movement only represents part of the mechanism.
Apart from that chameleons have very long, sticky elastic tongue and remarkable eyes. They can move their eyes seperately, with each eye having a field of 180 degrees. Sometimes it might be useful to have 360-degree vision, because nobody likes being sneaked up on. With a 360-degree view they can focus their eyes quickly and enlarge the subject they are looking at, just like a camera lens. I knew I wanted to capture both eyes looking in different directions and as you can see in the image, they are able to move their eyes separately in every possible way. One eye is keeping an eye on me and the other one on the road. Another reason why I’m happy with my image.
The adult male chameleon I had in my lens belongs to the Oustalet’s Chameleon also known as the Malagasy Giant Chameleon. The scientific name is Furcifer Oustaleti, a species of chameleon that is endemic to Madagascar and found in dry and moist habitats, at both high and low elevations throughout Madagascar. It’s one of the most adaptive and common chameleon species in Madagascar. The name ‘Furcifur’ means forked and refers to their feet while ‘Oustaleti’ refers to the last name of French biologist Jean-Frederic Emile Oustalet, in whose honor the species is named. Males can grow up to 68,5 centimeters in length. Females are usually half the size.
The Oustalet’s Chameleon is very territorial and spends the majority of its life in isolation, apart from mating sessions. The arboreal chameleon is a real climber and usually lives in trees, but uses the ground to for example cross streets or areas without bushes/climbing opportunities. Although you will sometimes find them on the ground It’s not very common to see this giant Malagasy chameleon crossing the street. I had to take advantage of that moment. The risk of lying down in the middle of a main road in Antsiranana, I took for granted. As I wrote before I instinctively got down on the street to be on eye-level with this reptile. I knew that was the perfect way to capture this moment. Being on eye-level with your subject usually gives your image more power, like there’s a connection with your subject and that is what I see when I look back at my image. Because of the very low vantage point I was able to create a perfect dept of field ratio.
After reading this section you now probably know what inspired me to take this photo. I can watch chameleons for hours; how they move in a robotic slowmotion way. Truly amazing. I was lucky to spot several chameleons during my trip in Madagascar, but still not as many as I hoped for. One of my goals is to go back to Madagascar to focus on different chameleon species throughout Madagascar.
Normally you only spot chameleons in plants and trees and it’s sometimes hard to get a good shot with all these leaves and branches covering the chameleons. Some guides tend to pick up chameleons to give you the chance of taking a ‘good’ photo, but I usually tell the guides to leave them where they are because I feel kind of sorry for these animals being disturbed by us humans. They are also being held as pets on a large scale throughout the world.
Chameleons are generally regarded as easily upset. The Malagasy Giant Chameleon is, however, a comparatively calm and peaceful member of the chameleon tribe. They also exhibit this laid-back attitude towards humans. They don’t get excessively upset even when they are picked up carefully; and the threatening mouth-opening known from many other chameleons is seen in Malagasy Giant Chameleons only if they are seriously provoked. At least that is what researchers in the field say about this species of chameleon.
Wildlife first, perfect picture second
In my opinion wild animals need to stay as wild as possible. Of course I also want a perfect picture of a chameleon, but not without putting these wild animals first and my perfect picture second. That is another reason why I was happy with that moment and experience on the street. The chameleon chose to cross the street by itself and was not put there by a human to create this scene. Since I didn’t want this beautiful reptile being run over by car, we did help the chameleon to climb on a thick branche to get safely to the other side of the road.
The final result
I’m very happy with the final result of my crossing chameleon, but there is always room for improvement. Maybe this photo was even more better when a tiny piece of the end of the tail would be visible in this photo. Next time when I travel to Madagascar I would like to have enough time to observe chameleons and for example capture chameleons catching an insect with their tongue. For these kind of images you need enough time to spend around these reptiles and be patient for those unique moments. For now I’m happy with my image and I feel blessed that my photo is nominated by National Geographic in the category ‘animal’ to win the National Geographic Photo Contest 2019. When I win this contest my photo will be published in National Geographic Magazine; that would be a dream come true! The winner(s) will be announced on November 17.
Want to read more about my trip through Madagascar?
For Traveltomtom I wrote different blogs about my Madagascar experience, go check them out if you are interested to read more about my Madagascar trip.