Photographing Snakes in the Wild

Jumping viper; photo copyright, Jeff Parker

Now that the weather is warming up, as a wildlife photographer you’ll possibly encounter snakes. So why not enjoy photographing snakes in the wild?

Odds are high that most snakes you encounter are not venomous. In fact, the vast majority of snakes in the world are NOT. In Texas, according to Alan Tennant, author of Lone Star Field Guide to Snakes, we have more than 105 different kinds of snakes (that includes subspecies), but — including subspecies again — only about 15 are actually venomous.

It really bothers me to see people killing every snake they encounter — whether it’s venomous or not and usually before they stop to determine that. Not only do snakes play a big role in helping us humans keep disease-carrying rodent populations in check, but they are another important chink in the chain of life. To kill all snakes simply because they frighten you is plain wrong.

That said, before you set out photographing snakes in the wild, take note of these two safety tips:

1) Know your snakes well! I CANNOT stress this enough!
Learn more than just which ones have venom. Even non-venomous snakes bite, while others are endangered or threatened species. Also, familiarizing yourself with “personality” traits helps anticipate behavior worth photographing and helps you strategize how you’ll go about getting that image.
2) Wear proper attire.
Don boots and snake-guards when “bushwacking” for scaly subjects (especially in South Texas, southern New Mexico, Arizona, and southern California where rattlesnakes can be abundant). Wear gloves when handling snakes (like all animal bites, even those that don’t transmit venom can create infection).

And — please! — always treat the snakes you photograph with respect:

1) Let the snake go where you found it.
If you collect a snake you found in the wild with the idea of photographing it, release it exactly where you captured it unless doing so endangers it. Like most wild animals, snakes have territories of their own.
2) Don’t keep the snake too long.
A captured snake doesn’t know you don’t intend it harm. It undergoes physiological stress, which uses some of its vital resources. Retaining a wild snake too long compromises its ability to survive upon release.
3) Don’t cause the snake any additional stress.
As noted, the snake’s already experiencing stress so handle it as little as possible. Minimize loud noises and jerky movements.

Here are a few of my snake images and some tips to accompany them:

The Jumping Viper:

(See lead photo.) Adult Jumping Vipers average a half-meter long (about 2-feet), but this young snake, which I photographed during a tour I led in Honduras, measured only about half that.

Snakes can strike at a distance of about one-half their body length. With this snake measuring 12” (approx. 30-centimeters), that meant I could work really close to it. But, considering its bite imparts a hemotoxic venom that breaks down red blood cells to make prey easier to digest, calm snake or no, I wasn’t keen on working in macro. Instead, I shot from 6-feet (almost 2-meters) away with my Canon 100-400mm lens. I achieved this image with the lens at 370mm.

These slow-moving snakes possess a calm temperament, which is why our handler (a shout-out to Santos at Pico Bonito Lodge near La Ceiba, Honduras) recommended this species as our “model.” In the low light of the rainforest, its mellowness came in handy by allowing us to use slower shutter speeds.

As with all photography, background is important. To make it interesting, I used the lines and shadows of the palm frond to lead the eye to the snake.

The Indigo Snake:

Indigo Snakes are the longest native snakes in North America (the longest on record measured 2.74 meters [9 ½ feet]). But, while the size impresses, a photo of a long, black snake stretched out impresses no one so that left me looking for a way to add pizzazz. Think out of the box in such situations. For example: Does an Indigo climb cactus? No, but does the viewer ask him/herself that question? No. Now, if you photographed the snake out of its habitat -— say on a rosebush -— you’d have a problem.

Texas Indigo Snake; copyright Jeff Parker

Texas classifies its Indigos as a state threatened species so Mary and I worked with this one only a short while before releasing it exactly where we’d found it. The lighting appears less than perfect because I’d found -— and therefore photographed -— the snake at mid-day. Sure, I could’ve held onto it until dusk’s sweet light, but that would’ve meant more time in captivity for the threatened species.

The Western Coachwhip:

Western Coachwhips are the Speedy Gonzales’ of the snake world so when this one unexpectedly poked up its head while I photographed something else, I decided he was my new subject. Because they’re so quick, I knew his re-emergence would provide my only chance for a good photo. After six hours of waiting, he materialized again and I got the shot.

Western Coachwhip; copyright Jeff Parker

Because I know this species well, I didn’t lie on my stomach for an eye-level shot like I often do. These feisty snakes — while not venomous — have been known to suddenly turn around and pursue photographers so I didn’t fancy being on the ground when this one surfaced!

My 600mm lens enabled me to wait far enough from the hole so as not to startle the Coachwhip. In situations like this -— where there’s not much color -— capturing the catch-light in an animal’s eye can save an image. (NOTE: With snakes that’s not always possible. They have eye caps designed to assist with camouflage, which often don’t reflect catch-light.)

The Rat Snake:

This non-venomous juvenile Rat Snake possessed such an aggressive temperament that I couldn’t have photographed him without Mary’s help as my handler. Thankfully, its size didn’t match its attitude; it couldn’t yet open its jaws wide enough to bite.

Juvenile Texas Rat Snake; copyright Jeff Parker

I used a macro lens so I could capture the myriad details of its eye. In this shot I couldn’t have both its nose and eye in focus since they’re on two different planes. In such a situation the choice is always easy: choose the eye!

When working in macro, remember that background! It’s just as important as always. When searching for a suitable background for a subject like this you want something that feels “believable,” is solid enough not to distract, and a color that compliments the animal (brown is made partly from yellow so that worked nicely here).

The Western Diamondback:

I spotted this Western Diamondback crossing a South Texas sendero. When it saw me it turned to leave because, contrary to lore, these venomous pit vipers would much rather leave the scene than make one.

He or she is coiled here because, upon my frantic return from the truck with my camera, I startled the snake into this defensive position.

(By the way — how do you tell the gender of a rattlesnake? It’s not easy since no color or pattern differences provide clues. A visual examination of the tail can provide some idea; females tend to have longer, thinner tails than males. Male tails don’t taper as sharply toward the rattles.)

Western Diamondback; copyright Jeff Parker

Please note—IMPORTANT!—while photographing I kept at least 20-feet away and used my Canon 600mm lens. With such a big lens, the snake entirely fills the frame, giving me no need to draw nearer.

Notice how difficult it is to see its eyes? Like all snakes, the Western Diamondback doesn’t have eyelids. Instead, it has eye caps with colors and patterns similar to its skin, which assist with camouflage. (Check out this fascinating book about animals’ eyes.)

I bring this up because when photographing snakes in the wild focusing on the eye is imperative; however, when they have camouflaged eye caps doing so can really challenge you.