Pictured: Southern Copperhead, captive.
Focus on Hots:
Tips for Responsible Photography of Venomous Snakes
Originally written June 25, 2008
Disclaimer: Venomous snakes are dangerous, and potentially deadly. Everyone who spends time in the outdoors will most likely encounter a venomous snake at some point unless you are on assignment in Antarctica, where no snake is known to exist due to subzero temperatures. As photographers, we also like to take the opportunity to make a few images of the animal. Safety is the number one concern if you choose to do this, for your serpentine subject as well as yourself and companions. This blog post is simply to keep you better-informed of more responsible ways to enjoy these animals and the way you photograph them. You will notice I encourage the assistance of a person experienced in the handling of venomous snakes, as you may find yourself working in controlled conditions in the field, or a studio setting if you are photographing someone’s reptile collection. I CANNOT be held responsible in any way for any injuries or deaths that may occur while photographing any dangerous subject, as I was not there to assess the situation! SAFETY FIRST!!!
“Here’s one of the older Capes; she’s usually a good hooder,” Carl informed me. He placed the snake on the table as I repositioned myself to try for a good head shot. He was right—the brown Cape cobra (Naja nivea) with yellow speckles raised the upper portion of her body off the ground and flared her hood right on cue, standing her ground against the two of us. I snapped off a few frames, trying to get just the right angles. Being a cobra, as either of us moved, she turned in the direction of the motion, a trait that works both for me and against me. It was early March, and I was at Medtoxin Laboratories in Deland, Florida, getting photos of the staff as they worked and photos of the snakes just being themselves. I had taken many images of Carl Barden, the director of Medtoxin, as he extracted venom from their collection of cottonmouths (Agkistrodon piscivorus), and we were now moving on to the cobras, which was sure to provide additional action. With my first child due to be born in one week, photography was all I was allowed to do at the lab, and I had promised the staff I would compile some images for them to use at their new public facility once it was open. Given my condition, I now had to be especially cautious of the safety procedures that must be followed when photographing venomous snakes; much is unknown regarding fetal health following an envenomation, and I refused to take the risk of finding out. The following tips and techniques should be taken into consideration if you decide to photograph venomous species in order to minimize risk.
If you choose to photograph dangerous animals, including venomous animals, please keep in mind that you are placing yourself in a potentially dangerous situation. Stupid or careless mistakes can still be made, and you still need to be on top of your game in order to avoid them. Much of the following instruction can be used either in a captive setting or a wild encounter. Photography of large constrictors can follow the same guidelines, but I have chosen to focus on venomous species for the purpose of this post. Also, remember that this writing is subjective. Neither the author, the publication, nor any relation to either can be held responsible for the actions of others, as it is based on the author’s personal experience.
If you work with venomous snakes already, the same safety rules apply for your photography that you (hopefully) would use in your husbandry practices. Rule number one: NEVER WORK ALONE. While you may come across a venomous subject while tromping around in the field (also not a good idea alone!), if you are working with a captive venomous snake, it is imperative for safety’s sake that you have an experienced handler working with you AT ALL TIMES. Not only is it safer for both you and the snake, but you will be much more productive with your images since you will be able to concentrate on your photos and not continually repositioning your subject! Also, if you need to make adjustments on your camera for any reason, your assisting handler can keep an eye on the snake. That leads in to another good point: always be sure to check the state and local laws regarding venomous snakes, especially if you are using captive animals. Most states and municipalities have laws that apply to keeping or transporting venomous snakes. Photographing one where you found it is quite different from taking it home and placing it in a studio setup, and the laws will most likely apply to the latter. ALWAYS be sure you know the species of snake you are photographing, and whether or not it is venomous. This sounds like common sense, but it can be easy to misidentify many species of snakes. Juveniles can look diffferent from adult specimens, coloration may change throughout its range, and non-venomous species will mimic venomous species’ coloration and pattern (i.e., many North American kingsnake species mimic color patterns of coral snake species; water snakes look like cottonmouths, etc.). Familiarize yourself with local species if you are going out on location to shoot, and if using captive snakes, you will need to know basic information about their behavior. For example, an eastern diamondback rattlesnake may coil and elevate the upper portion of its body into an S-curve in response to a threat, and can strike up to 2/3 of its body length according to the Florida Museum of Natural History , but a puff adder may launch itself straight backward or fully off the ground during a strike. Little bits of information like that can mean avoiding a bite or taking the hit. What an animal can and will do need to be taken into account. I cannot stress enough that you need to know your subject!
Pictured: Cape cobra, and herpetologist Carl Barden, Medtoxin Laboratories
Always make sure you have an escape-proof container to put the snake in if needed. A large garbage can is ideal in this case, as there may be times when the you, your assistant, or the snake may need a break. A jittery snake is a bite waiting to happen, and any nervous animal must be given the opportunity to calm down. Placing the snake in a secured bucket provides the perfect solution. That being said, be sure that you have a backup plan in case of a bite. Even expert herpetologists get bitten, and you will need to be able to get yourself to the nearest hospital as quickly as possible; this is especially important in the field, because if you are in a rural area, you will need to get yourself back to civilization for medical care. A written plan is best, and you can keep it on an index card in your camera bag.
This leads me to my next tip, which I consider an unbreakable rule and adhere to at all times: never, EVER, under any circumstances, even for a second, sacrifice your subject’s well-being for the sake of your photos. Your subjects are living, breathing, beautiful creatures (which is why you’re photographing them, right?), and should always be shown respect. Manipulating the animal’s position with a hook or tongs is one thing; stressing and agitating the animal to get it to have an impressive response is something else. Use the animal’s normal responses to situations to your advantage. An example: you want an image of a coiled rattlesnake. If you agitate the rattler, it may coil, but then may try to move away from you in that non-photogenic raised and open-sideways posture. That makes you job that much harder. Instead, place a hat, bucket, or similar item over the snake, and allow it to coil naturally. Leave it for about ten minutes (supervised), then remove the item (or have your assisting handler do it while you get into position. You will then have the opportunity to photograph a calm snake in a natural pose, which is more aesthetically pleasing and makes for a better photograph. You also will avoid the Curse of the Irritated Snake, and therefore everyone avoids a trip to the emergency room. It’s a win-win situation for all!
Left: Eyelash viper, captive; Right: White-lipped viper, captive
Let’s talk equipment. You can use film or digital cameras, as either will work for what you are trying to accomplish. The newer point-and-shoot (p & s) models actually take nice photos, if you are willing to invest the money in a better model. Most professionals or those shooting for a paying job use SLRs, or single-lens reflex cameras with interchangeable lenses. Many SLR camera systems these days are sold as a kit, with the camera body and short (35-80mm zoom is average) lens together, as well as other accessories like a camera bag, battery, strap, and software (if it’s a digital system). If you choose to shoot film, the kind you use will depend on what you are shooting the images for. Then you have a choice of print film or slide (transparency) film. Film or digital, p & s or SLR, when you are photographing venomous snakes, it all comes down to your lens. In this case, a SLR is most useful, as you can interchange lenses for changes in your situation. Since you are shooting a relatively small subject (as compared to, say, a person or a big cat), macro lenses will become your new best friend for more calm, selected species, such as Eastern coral snakes (Micrurus fulvius). A macro lens makes small objects appear magnified, so if you are looking to get images of the animal’s eye, skin pattern, or a nice head shot, you would most likely want to opt for a macro lens. However, in using a macro lens, you must be aware of your distance between your body and the snake, including the animals strike range. If you’re using a macro lens, to add some extra snap to your images, you will want to either buy or borrow a ringlight. Ringlights are flashes that fit around the end of your macro lens, so the flash area is two halves of a circle. This type of flash is designed to produce even illumination of your close subject. My advice is to avoid close-up filters and extension tubes with a macro lens for venomous photography—you have to move closer to your subject in order to use these tools properly, which nullifies the whole safety-precaution idea.
Not everyone keeps a macro lens in their camera bag, but many do keep a telephoto or zoom telephoto lens. If you are working without a protective barrier, like a glass exhibit, this would actually be my lens of choice for venomous photography. This keeps the photographer well out of striking range. A zoom telephoto offers more flexibility for your photos than a fixed lens if you are working in close quarters. Use at least a 200mm lens, and even play around with 300mm or 400mm, if you have that range in your equipment. This gets you further away from a dangerous animal, allowing you the comfort of working at a safe distance, and you can still zoom in for head details and skin patterns. You may find that your depth-of-field, or the area in the frame that is sharp, is greatly reduced, so you will have to play around with different settings and find what works best with your camera system. A hint about point-and-shoot cameras: many have a macro setting on them, and you can be within inches of your subject. AVOID THIS SETTING FOR VENOMOUS SNAKE PHOTOGRAPHY IF YOU ARE USING THIS TYPE OF CAMERA. It puts you well within strike range, and the possibility of a head or face bite is all too real.
Every nature photographer loves the pretty picture, the one that makes viewers say, “Oooo!” But there are many aspects of venomous snakes that can be captured on film (or a media card) other than just portraits of the animals. Be creative! As mentioned previously, isolate a particular part of the snake’s body, such as the eye or scales, or the inside of the mouth (as a cottonmouth will willingly show you). Arboreal species love to coil around a branch, or extend their body downward, which can make for interesting composition. Another thing to consider is that while you capture all these beautiful images of the herps, don’t be afraid to include the human element of venomous keeping. There are tools to photograph as well, such as a securing bucket, hooks, and tongs, as well as vials of antivenin and venom-extraction equipment (if that is the operation you are photographing). Don’t just take a straight-on, documentary picture of these items–shake it up! Change your perspective. Get down low, and get the equipment in there at an interesting angle. Stand up on a ladder and shoot your setup from above. Also, don’t forget the discarded parts of a snake, like shed skin, broken-off rattles, and shed fangs. These items can be arranged to give implied messages through an image, or can be arranged as an abstract still-life. A few other suggestions: feeding, veterinary care, group demos, and venom extraction. All are topics of interest when it comes to this group of animals.
Left: Extracting venom from a Cape cobra; Right: boxes of unused antivenom kept in case of emergency.
Several photographers I admire are also using wide-angle lenses and incorporating the animal’s habitat. If you choose to do this, please use caution! To keep the snake as the dominant subject in the image, you will find yourself moving a bit closer: take care that it does not put you in that particular animals’ strike range! Depending on the species you are photographing, that could be a few inches to the entire body length, which remember, is probably coiled under the snake! Extreme caution is an absolute MUST. The important thing is to treat EVERY snake with caution, EVERY SINGLE TIME!!!
Remember to play up the color or pattern on your subject, as long as you can do so from a safe distance. Many arboreal snakes are brightly hued in colors such as green or yellow. Both terrestrial and arboreal snakes can be boldly patterned (example, a Gaboon viper in the velvety pattern of the leaf-covered forest floor, and the temple (Wagler’s) viper with bright green, yellow, and blue colors, with black accents mimicking the shadows of the branches).
Pictured: a pair of West African green mambas, captive.
Again, photographing dangerous animals is not for everyone, and photographing venomous snakes even more so! Remember to use your best judgement when in a situation with a venomous snake; the most important thing is to remain calm, and DO NOT BE CARELESS! If you are a careless or lacksidasical person, you will want to pick a different subject for your images. Even passing to closely to a snake, because you were thinking about a task, can put you at risk. Remember, we look like giants to them! They are always on the defensive! A good start to photographing venomous snakes is a day at the zoo, in their herpetarium, or reptile house. There, with a glass safety barrier between you and the fangs, you can get a feel for your equipment, snake behavior, and movement, and shoot to your heart’s content, or until zoo staff ask you to leave, because they are closing. If photographing venomous snakes is not for you, but you would still like to make images of reptiles, there are plenty of non-venomous reptiles out there!
Pictured: a non-venomous ball python in hand
There is more to say on the subject of photographing venomous snakes. They are a subject that has fascinated me since I was a small child, and that fascination has stayed with me, even becoming my motivation on days when I just can’t find anything interesting that moves me.
Stay tuned for Part 2!
(All the snakes pictured in this post were captive animals. Medtoxin Laboratories and the Reptile Discovery Center are located in Deland, Florida.)