They might not be the sexiest subjects for a wildlife photographer to shoot, but photographing snails is genuinely good fun. They can’t run away very quickly (although they can be surprisingly uncooperative) and they’re certainly not hard to find during summer, so there’s plenty of time to get creative.
This was the photo that first got me hooked on shooting snails, and I still think it’s one of my best wildlife images. It was unashamedly set up, with the key equipment being a single off-camera flash and a spray bottle. However, I’d never used a flash before, and I didn’t have any way of connecting it to the camera. The solution? Keep pressing the shutter, firing the flash and squirting water as rapidly as possible until you manage all three at the same time.
A slightly inauspicious start perhaps, but once you see snails (and spiders etc.) as potential wildlife photography subjects, you begin seeing opportunities everywhere.
I took this photo while waiting for this friendly fox to make an appearance as she had (for some unknown reason) deviated from her usual routine. As I was getting quite bored and probably looking fairly suspicious, the snail was a welcome distraction.
As it turns out, if you don’t want to look odd, lying on the ground at night and taking photos of something that can’t be seen from a distance isn’t the best thing to do. Judging from the comments of the women who crossed the road to avoid me, I looked weird instead of suspicious, and quite possibly mentally deficient too. Ah well…
The technical challenges of nighttime snail photography are surprisingly numerous. First off, you generally need some sort of artificial light source. This is fine once you’ve mastered the basics of a flash, but the best flash-lit photos still generally involve wires or remote triggers to move the flash off camera.
You’ve also got to balance the flash output with whatever ambient light there is. In the case of the photo above, everything also had to be timed just right for a car to drive all the way across the frame without the snail moving too much.
Believe it or not, snail movement really is a problem. With an average speed of just 1mm per second, they may be some of the slowest terrestrial creatures in existence, but their antennae-tentacle things move around quite a lot. Plus focusing in the dark is tricky at any time, but it’s much worse when you’re working with a small, moving subject.
Snails are actually fascinating creatures. Most people know that the big stalks on their heads have eyes at the ends, but did you know that the lower, smaller stalks contain a snail’s olfactory organs, giving them a sense of smell? Snails are, however, completely deaf.
As is the case for so many other creatures, reproduction is probably the most interesting part of a snail’s life. For a start, snails are hermaphrodites and so they produce both eggs and sperm. They can’t self-fertilise, but both snails will lay eggs after successfully mating with each other.
The lengthy snail courtship ritual is the most curious part of all. During many hours of slowly dancing around each other, both amorous snails will attempt to penetrate the other with a ‘love dart’. This isn’t what you think – a love dart is a relatively large calcium harpoon that’s fired directly into the flesh of the other snail. When it’s firmly embedded, the love dart releases a hormone. It’s thought that this makes it easier for the aggressor’s sperm to survive when the actual mating takes place a few hours later.
In one of his many excellent books, Gerald Durrell describes a snail’s lovestruck antics in detail and with great excitement. He then goes on to lament the lack of snail appreciation generally found in farmers and gardeners, claiming that he’d much rather have a few snails than “any number of dull and sexless cabbages”.
His older brother Larry had a slightly different response upon learning of the liberal and hermaphroditic sex life of the humble garden snail: “Good God, I think it’s unfair. All those damned slimy things wandering about seducing each other like mad all over the bushes, and having the pleasures of both sensations. Why couldn’t such a gift be given to the human race? That’s what I want to know.”