Photographing Snakes of Costa Rica
First a warning, without snake handling experience it is not advisable to handle snakes, especially the poisonous ones. Remember to ALWAYS STAY OUT OF STRIKING DISTANCE! Never touch the snake, they are not intelligent creatures. Their behavior is instinct driven, consequently your hand can look like or be the same temperature as a tasty rat to a snake. Be respectful of its space and its inherent qualities. If you’re reading this you are probably a human, therefore please use tools such as a snake stick to wrangle a snake. Some advice, start with non-poisonous snakes as models. You will be able to observe movement patterns and basic snake characteristics which will better prepare you for future shoots.
If I am lucky enough to have a snake find me I use my snake stick to get the snake in a bucket, which has a lid with air-holes. (Actually, the whole farm comes alive with my shouting “SNAKE!” Wherever Kim is she stops what she is doing, puts the dogs on their chains and then brings me the aforementioned bucket.) I add water and food and let the snake rest overnight. I need time to research the animal before photographing it. I need to know when the animal is active, where it can be found, what it eats, its toxicity level and any other bit of information I can find that will help me to photograph it in it’s natural environment without endangering myself or the snake. We take great care to make certain not to stress out the animal, so that it remains calm and behaves as naturally as possible. We use a combination of the Internet and the book, A Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles of Costa Rica by Leenders, for Zona Tropical Publications.
The Snake Photography Setup
Snakes are challenging to photograph. Their first instinct is to flee, which means they don’t always stay still long enough for me to get the shot set up. I generally make a standing arrangement and/or a chicken wire box with a lens hole. For the vertical stand, I make a round fence to keep the snakes contained during the photography process. If I didn’t they would hit the grass and be gone in a second. In the image below I used metal roofing held together with clamps and re-enforced at the bottom with sand to eliminate gaps.
I put some kind of tall natural perch in the middle, usually a part of a tree that I find at the rivers edge after a heavy rain. This is close to what you might find a snake on in the wild. I also want a nice uniform out-of-focus background. If you don’t have a naturally occurring one make one yourself by hanging up some large leaves on a clothesline. I try different background colors to see what they do the subject and composition. As an example, for the Neotropical Bird Eater Snake I used fallen yellow banana leaves to extract more of the warm colors from the scene.
Lenses & Lighting
A long macro lens somewhere in the range of 100-200mm is what I have found to work best because it keeps you out of striking distance of the snakes!
My favorite way to photograph snakes is on an overcast day or in the shade using one pocket strobe off-camera with a Soft Box attached for just a “kiss’ of light to fill in shadows, brighten the colors and add a little contrast to the image.
Here is an example image taken at F4 1/125th of a second, the “kiss” of light is created by my flash on a tripod beside me using the manual setting on the flash to 1/64th to 1/128th power. If you’re not one to use manual settings on your flash you can use TTL (meaning the flash exposure is read Through The Lens) and set your flash to about -11/2 to -2 EV.
The blues of this Satiny Parrot Snake’s scales might not be visible without the addition of the soft lighting.
Before your animal is on the perch it is a good idea to experiment with the exposure, lighting, background and placement of objects in a scene so everything is in place, looks good and your only concern is the animal. You will spend as much time re-positioning the snake as you do behind the camera. Most snakes move fast so it is helpful to have an assistant at your side.
Composition, Making the Entire Shot Beautiful
It is very easy to focus your attention to only the snake (subject) with this type of photography. Do not forget about the other elements in your photograph. Make sure you have a clean background (often helped out by a long lens with a small aperture). Make sure the perch has enough distance from the background to render the background out of focus. Remember you are trying to create a natural looking environment and a good composition at the same time. Diagonals, curves, swirls and patterns make much more interesting compositions than straight vertical or horizontal lines in a shot. When you look through the view finder make sure your composition is free of distracting elements such as branches or bugs “peeking” in your frame.
You can use water to enhance colors or make it appear to be raining as shown in this image of a False Coral Snake.
Pit Vipers and other snakes, reptiles and amphibians found on our farm in Limon, Costa Rica
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