Probably, snakes are one of the most fascinating subjects for nature photographers. Most of the photography of snakes is an organised effort under controlled conditions; with lots of patience and precaution. As getting esthetically pleasing photographs of wild snakes is often exceedingly difficult. The subject fascinates most photographers, but are unable to achieve good photos of snakes for want of knowledge about snakes, thus fear keeps them away from these beautiful creatures. Like most wildlife photography, snake photography also can’t be done without knowing the animal adequately. Unless you’re really dedicated to snakes and have understood them enough, snake photography is not recommended because it is dangerous, may lead to fatal accidents and sometimes can involve personal risk to others. Most snake shots are carefully planned and set up ahead of time, as wild conditions may not provide right set up for good shots i.e. light, background, etc.
1. Never ever compromise with your and other’s safety while dealing with snakes for any purpose.
2. The first and foremost rule, even for expert snake-handlers, while handling snakes and photographing them is: if you are not sure what species the snake is, leave him alone and let go.
3. Never drink liquor on outdoors, especially, while handling snakes, most people get bitten by snakes when they are drunk.
4. Generally, snake’s striking reach is equal to one third of it’s total body length. Its is hard to guess about the striking range when snake is coiled up i.e. saw scaled viper, Russell’s viper, etc.
5. Carry a snake-bite first aid kit.
6. Have a transport with you and mobile phone for emergency.
7. Carry few copies of the list of doctors with phone numbers (printed) who can handle snakebite case for treatment.
8. One must avoid bites even from non-poisonous snakes, as bacteria in their mouth can cause serious infection.
POINTS TO BEAR IN MIND FOR THE PHOTOGRAPHY OF SNAKES:
1. One must have someone who can handle snakes, for you to concentrate on photography only. Many people have been bitten while photographing snakes alone i.e. while you are busy looking through the camera you either get so engrossed that you lose track of safe distance from a snake, misjudge the distance between yourself and snake or while changing equipment/ film sitting closer to snake (you think snake is sitting quiet, but decides to move all of a sudden of which you are not aware. At this, all of a sudden you see him very very close and panic), etc.
2. Must carry proper snake handling equipment i.e. tongs, hooks, etc. To catch even non-poisonous snakes, one should use an L-shaped snake-hook made from a broken golf club or buy one specially sold in the market. Use snake-tongs for poisonous snakes. Lack of experience will be your biggest hurdle to get any images or good one at least.
3. Snake photography often requires some manipulation of the animal, which must be done with great care and utmost concern for safety of snake and your own. An assistant is a must when photographing active snakes.
4. Must know what to do and where to rush in case of a snakebite.
5. Select an area where you expect least on-lookers, I suggest NO onlookers at all, when you take out snakes to photograph. These onlookers often distract you.
6. Like all other wildlife photography, do not make sudden movements in front of the snake you are photographing, snake will get alert, nervous and panic and may bite, if you are within its striking range.
7. Snakes always look their best just after shedding their old skin, and this is the time to photograph them.
8. As the day temperature rises, the warmer a snake becomes, the faster it moves. Keep in mind also that snakes are relatively delicate animals, with thin, fragile ribs and nearly non-existent protective cranial bones, so you must handle them with great care. Most snakes are also quite temperature sensitive, and do not tolerate temperatures above 85-90 degrees F well, so never allow them to sit in direct sun on a warm day for more than a minute or two, especially in summers.
9. Early morning in spring or early summer is the best time to photograph snakes, because of good light and comfortable temperatures. Usually, experts place a snake in a refrigerator for a very short period to make it less active, before photography session, after securing it in a bag. Never try this technique, unless you have learned about it, as you may kill the snake by giving over exposure to cold. One needs to assess how much cooling time a particular snake species or individual may need i.e. body size, health state, species, ambient temperature, etc. Move as slow as possible. Keep looking at the snake being photographed.
10. Above all, treat snakes with respect and be very gentle with them.
11. Setting up a tripod and careful composition are a luxury with most species.
PREPARATION: You need to prepare yourself for a snake photography session, following are a few suggestions and may vary from person to person and depending on the hardware available to you.
1. One should always have a computer printed `check-list’ of items, one needs for such shoots. In case, you miss any important item it may cost you a good shoot or life.
2. Carry a basket, having inner-lining of black cloth, of minimum 2 feet radius to cover the snake during intervals, while you are photographing.
3. Carry a dark piece of cloth measuring 2×2 meters; basically to place it over snake after trying some shots. Snakes like dark place to rest. Also, while your are changing equipment i.e. changing lens, camera battery, memory card, etc., first place the snake under cover for your safety and to give rest to the snake to cool down.
4. Carry enough water to drink and few liters for the snake to cool. Remember, you may drink any kind of water, but you must carry a proper RO filter water or a few bottles of mineral water. The chlorinated water of your government water supply kills snakes often.
5. A hand pressure spray bottle, in case you need to spray on the snake to clean a piece of dust or to add droplets of water for a good photo.
6. Wear ankleted trousers like the army soldiers or leather anklet shoes, for safety.
A stretched out snake, while moving is like a long rope; usually makes an uninspiring photograph, as it looks like a long narrow object filling up small area of the total frame. A closeup of head portion with tongue flickering, whole body coiled in a symmetrical shape results in an attractive photo. But there are a few things where one has to put in effort to get good photos and you need to do planned preparation for snake photography session.
In terms of equipment and techniques used, I have resorted to using several methods with varying degrees of success. A commonly used technique by many snake photographers is the plastic “flowerpot” or “dustbin” technique – these should have a loop (made of hard material, not a thread, so it can stay erect) in the center of its bottom, so when upside down it can be lifted with snake-hook and placed over snake from a safe distance gently. Placing a hand-held pot over poisonous snake is quite risky and should be avoided.
Lift the pot with snake-hook inserted in the loop in its bottom, move it in air vertically and place it over snake very gently, no sudden movements. If the snake is stretched out, just cover part of the body length under the pot and snake will move on its own into the pot. In case, it doesn’t move, one could coax the snake with snake hook and will crawl into the pot. Once the snake has entered the shelter (which most do quite readily, given the chance), the photographer waits a few minutes to allow the animal to acclimatise. The shelter is then very slowly removed by lifting straight up in air, and often, the snake remains underneath in a beautiful, symmetrical coil, and will stay coiled for a short while (depending on few factors i,e, ambient temperature, snake’s temperament, species of the snake, etc.), the photographer slowly takes the shots. Avoid any sudden and quick movements, which will usually scare the snake being photographed. Keep in mind that most snakes habitually seek shelter when threatened. Simply leaving the animal alone and foregoing photography for a while, allowing it a few minutes to calm down under a shelter probably reduces the amount of stress on the snake more than anything else you could do. And you may resume your photo session with your `model’ snake. Move your equipment as little as possible, if situation permits, aim and focus your camera in advance. Use a cable release, if possible, so you don’t have to move your hand up to the camera.
In wildlife photography, the difference between success and failure is knowing your subject. Many of the best wildlife photographers have backgrounds as hunters or wildlife biologists. With most wild animals, you cannot approach them directly. A frightened animal will show its abnormal behaviour in your photograph. Don’t be pushy; slow down and relax. Sit down for a while. Be still. Do not make sudden movements to avoid being perceived as a threat. Let snake accept your presence.
CAMERA EQUIPMENT FOR SNAKE PHOTOGRAPHY:
Based on my own experience, ideal camera equipment for Snake Photography, in modern times, is given below:
1. Digital SLR camera body, having good `writing speed’ and capable of clicking more than 5 frames per second and about 10 mega pixels, so you can crop your image.
2. Macro Lens: One needs to be extra careful with snakes at these close distances in order to prevent being bitten. With 100mm macro lens, usually means that your hands on the lens will be within striking range of the snake. Macro lenses of 180mm or 200mm will allow a safe working distance. You may use extenders (modern extenders are of good quality), if your lens and camera permit.
3. Macro/ ring flash. But be careful about its own reflection in the eyes of snakes.
4. Have one 28-120mm lens for variable shots.
5. Tripod with ball head.
6. Monopod with ball head.
7. Angle Finder: For those intimate high impact images of the Russell’s Viper or it’s head and distinctive golden eye with black vertical pupil, I resort to using a beanbag and angle finder. An angle-finder fitted to the viewfinder saves cricking your neck. It is a periscope accessory to be fitted on SLR camera body eyepiece; some camera manufacturers call it `Anglefinder’, `Right Angle Finder’ etc., for very low angle shots. Its an amazing accessory, usually, considered as a waste of money by many, even most pros. I am quite amazed that most have no idea about its existence. Once you discover it’s utility, you will never take your camera out without it. I never go out without my Anglefinder! You must carry a `bean bag’ for this work, to place camera on ground and have it steady, its like having a tripod. Note: One must check the diopter settings of angle finder before you start your photo session.
8. If situation permits me, I use a cable release or remote with modern cameras and engage the `mirror-lock’ function (Canon has `Mirror Lock’ as part of its custom functions) to ensure sharp images when working at what are normally slow shutter speeds and small apertures. If one can afford then this is should be practice, this technique gets you very sharp images.
9. As for film choice, I prefer to use mostly Fuji Provia 100, or Fuji Velvia whenever possible.
10. Carry enough memory cards in one pouch (preferably in waterproof pouch), which have fast writing/ reading speed. Also, you may consider carrying a `stand alone hard drive’, available with many different brands in the market nowadays. Based on my usage of FotoLocket, I recommend it to be your one of the most wanted equipment pieces in your bag/ camera jacket.
I find Russel’s Viper and Cobra as some of India’s most strikingly beautiful snakes and I am never tired of photographing them at any given opportunity.
Snakes have suffered a great deal at the hands of humans and most species are on decline in India. So, deal with them with great care and respect.
Remember: snakes are shy creatures and only bite if you trouble them. Keep a safe distance and enjoy photography sessions with them!
Best of luck! HAPPY SHOOTING !