Monday, 14 October 2013

How to Photograph Snakes

Article by Capt. Suresh Sharma

snake photography
Photo by/: Capt Suresh shrma

Snakes are a fascinating subject for photography. 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  rat-snake-cut.jpg often exceedingly difficult. The subject fascinates most photographers, but are unable to achieve good photos of snakes for want of correct technique and 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 adequately, snake photography is not recommended because it is dangerous and sometimes can involve personal risk. 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.


Never ever compromise with your safety and of others, while dealing with snakes for any purpose. The first and foremost rule, even for expert snake-handlers, for handling snakes and photographing them is: if you are not sure what species the snake is, leave him alone and let go. Never drink liquor on outdoors while handling snakes, most people get bitten by snakes when they are drunk. Generally, snake’s striking reach is equal to one third of it’s total body length. Be careful, it is hard to guess about the striking range when snake is coiled up i.e. saw scaled viper, Russell’s viper, etc. Carry a snake-bite first aid kit. Have a transport with you and mobile phone for emergency. Carry few copies of the list of doctors with phone numbers (printed), who can handle snakebite case for treatment. One must avoid bites even from non-venomous snakes, as bacteria in their mouth can cause serious infection.


One must have someone who can handle snakes, for you to concentrate on photography. Many people have been bitten while photographing snakes being alone i.e. while you are busy looking through the camera, you either get so engrossed that you lose track of safe distance between and the snake. Its very easy to misjudge the distance between yourself and snake while viewing through your camera or while changing equipment (memory card, lens, film, etc.) 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 sudden you see him very very close and panic), etc. Must carry proper snake handling equipment .i.e. tongs, hooks, etc. To catch even non-venomous 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 venomous snakes. Lack of experience will be your biggest hurdle to get any images or good one at least.

snake photography tips
Photo by/: Capt Suresh shrma

  • 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.
  • Must know in advance, about what to do and where to rush, in case of a snakebite emergency.
  • Select an area where you expect least on-lookers, when you take out snakes to photograph. These onlookers often distract you, which can be risky.
  • 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. At least, will not get good photos.
  • Snakes always look their best just after shedding their old skin, and this is the time to photograph them.
  • 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. Best is to shoot under artificial light.
  • Early morning in spring or early summer is the best time to photograph snakes, because of good light and cold temperatures. Usually, experts place a snake in a refrigerator for 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 may need i.e. body size, health state, species, ambient temperature, etc.
  • Must give rest to a snake, after you have done few shots.
  • Move as slow as possible. Keep looking at the snake being photographed.
  • Above all, treat snakes with respect and be very gentle with them.
  • 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.

snake photography tips
Photo by/: Capt Suresh shrma

  • One should always have a computer printed `check-list’ of items, which one may need for such shoots. In case, you miss any important item, it may cost you a good shoot or life.
  • Carry a basket, having a inner-lining of black cloth, of minimum 2 feet radius to cover the snake during intervals, while you are photographing.
  • Carry a dark piece of cloth measuring 2×2 meters; basically to place it over snake, after have done some shots. Snakes like dark places to rest. Also, while your are changing equipment i.e. changing lens, memory card, etc.  First, place the snake under cover for your safety and to give rest and to the snake to cool down.
  • Carry enough water to drink and few liters for the snake, it may need to be cooled and washed.
  • Carry one 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. Remember, you may drink any kind of water, but you must carry enough water from an RO filter or a few bottles of mineral water. The chlorinated water of your government water supply kills snakes, often.
  • Wear trousers with anklets, like army soldiers have or leather ankle shoes, for safety.

Snake Photography Technique: 

A stretched out snake like a long rope or while moving, 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 attractive photos. But there will be few  shots, where one has to put in effort to get good  results and you need to do preparation for a well planned snake photography session.

In terms of equipment and techniques used by me, I have evolved few 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) 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 slowly place it over snake, very gently. If the snake is stretched out, just cover part of the head side 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 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, allowing it a few minutes to calm down under 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, how well you know 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 photographs. 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.


snake photography tutorial
Photo by/: Capt Suresh shrma

Based on my own experience, ideal camera equipment for snake photography, in modern times, is as follows:

  • Digital SLR camera body, having good writing speed and capable of clicking more than 5 frames per second and of about 10 mega pixels, so you can crop your images.
  • 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 your camera and lens, will be well within the striking range of the snake being photographed. Macro lenses of 180mm or 200mm will allow a safe working distance. You may use extenders, if your lens and camera permit.
  • Macro/ ring flash. But be careful about its own reflection in the eyes of snakes, render most photos as trash for the photo-stock market.
  • Have one 28-120mm lens for wide shots.
  • Tripod with ball head, which can be lowered quite low.
  • Monopod with ball head.
  • 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. Different 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 professionals. 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. It is to be used to close in on your snake for those eye level close-up portraits. Note: One must check the diopter settings of angle finder before you start your photo session.
  • 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.
  • As for film choice, I prefer to use mostly Fuji Provia 100, or Fuji Velvia whenever possible, during the summer months and on bright sunny days. As this is a very slow film.
  • Carry enough `flash card memory’, as separate cards with fast writing speed. Carry these cards in Pelican card cases.
  • Also, you may consider carrying a `stand alone hard drive’, with many brands in the market. I recommend it to be your one of the most wanted equipment.
  • These days, there numerous Netbooks, which can work as good eqpt for downloading images. Carry, one pocket HDD for making a `back up’ copy.

snake photography technique
Photo by/: Capt Suresh shrma

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 the decline in India. So, deal with them with great care and respect.

Remember, snakes are shy creatures and only bite if you trouble them, beyond a certain point. Keep a safe distance and enjoy photography sessions with them!