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The Story Behind the Photograph
August 2011

How I photographed this Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake

rattler striking

Each summer we conduct an exciting and unique photo shoot, called the Reptiles of the World Photo Shoot, where I bring in scores of different species of reptiles and amphibians that I borrow from zoos and collections. The subjects range from cute and spacey-looking Budgett's frogs to colorful red-eyed treefrogs, oddly patterned geckos to bulging eyed chameleons, harmless colorful boas to deadly, dangerous vipers.

gaboon viperred-eyed treefrog
While this may seem scary, the shoot is safe, and participants use my flash setups and studio arrangements to photograph the animals at eye-level, free of any glass that might degrade an image. Occasionally, with the reptiles that come in, a particular snake may have an attitude.

This year I had three snakes that were particularly aggressive, a Timber Rattlesnake about 2.5 feet long, an Eastern Diamondback about 4.5 feet long, and a particularly nasty Eastern Cottonmouth Moccasin about 4 feet long. Our group photographed two of the three this year, but not while they were striking. To get those types of shots requires hours of work and attempts, with little guarantee of success. Instead, we worked on neat portraits of these snakes.

After the shoot was over my friends Dave Northcott and Tom Wester and I worked on doing a setup where we'd catch the Timber Rattlesnake, the easiest to work of the three, striking. We had some success in the one afternoon devoted to this.

timber rattlesnake






To get this shot, one of us had to bob and weave in front of the coiled rattlesnake which would eventually entice the snake into striking. Guess who was the decoy? When I commented upon this, I was told that I volunteered, but nobody argued with me!

It is impossible to react quickly enough when a rattlesnake strikes to trip a shutter at the right moment. For that we had to use a triggering device, and we used a PhotoTrap where we placed three sets of sensors (normally one set is used) in a bank, creating a line or pathway where, if the snake 'broke' the beam, our cameras and flashes would fire. The PhotoTrap has several differing tripping options but for this we set the transmitter and receivers side-by-side so that the transmitted, or emitted beam would 'hit' the rattlesnake and reflect back to the receiver, thus triggering our cameras/flash.

This sounds easy but is not, as we had several false triggers from reflections inside the studio and when a coil of the snake, or an outstretched head, broke the beam and fired the system. Focus was difficult as well, as the plane of focus was narrow and the snake could strike in more than one direction. Nonetheless, we achieved some shots, using Dave's recently purchased Einstein Flashes which gave a reasonably fast flash duration and a good f-stop.

Later, when I had some free time I tried working the much larger Diamondback Rattlesnake. Dave had returned to California with his Einstein Flashes so I used my old Olson High Speed Flash Units, which has a very fast flash duration and a very good f-stop. Unfortunately, Olson units were produced by the now deceased Kenneth Olson and units are no longer produced. I still have a few units and value them highly. The flashes were mounted on Manfrotto Variable Friction Magic Arms that I mounted, via SuperClamps, to Manfrotto Auto Poles. This cleared some floor space so that I could more freely move about, which was important when working with these snakes.

For the Diamondback I used the same bank of three sets of transmitters and receivers, placed so that the beam line ran across the set. The Diamondback settled itself against the set props, rattling constantly as its body stayed in a taunt coil. I moved about, safely out of range, hoping that the snake would strike. It did, several times, and although I missed a few when the snake broke the beam when it was long passed the peak point, I was lucky with four shots.

I borrowed this Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake, in addition to several other reptiles, from Reptiland, an accredited zoological park specializing in reptiles, located in Allenwood, near Williamsport, Pa. Clyde Peeling, the owner of the zoological institution, drove down with the diamondback, a huge Cottonmouth Moccasin, and two species of Green Mamba, for our participants to photograph on our Reptiles of the World Photo Shoot.

As you read this, don't think I'm crazy. I've worked with reptiles of all types since I was in grade school and venomous snakes since high school, and I've never been bitten by a venomous snake. Nor will I be. While provoking a snake to strike might seem insane, I'm careful to stay out of the snake's striking range so its strikes are merely scarey-looking feints, perhaps intended to deliver the message to keep me away. Believe me, that works.

rattler striking

Many years ago I was fortunate enough to borrow a particularly aggressive Western Diamondback Rattlesnake. This was in film days and back then I could use a wonderful camera for these purposes, the Canon 1n RS camera, that had a pellicle mirror which transmitted light both to the film and to the eye-piece. Because a moving mirror was not involved the response time for a device like a PhotoTrap was about 1/180th of a second, compared to the very slow response times of digital cameras with 1/50th of a second, or slower. At that fast speed, one could focus right on the beam crossing point and be certain to capture a sharply focused image since the response time was almost instantaneous. Now, when a camera is wired in to a PhotoTrap, one has to consider the camera lag time.

rattlerWhen I asked Canon about this, the company rep at a PSA convention told me that there was virtually no lag time when a camera is put on Live View. Unless I did something wrong, he was sooooooo wrong! While the Live View gives a real-time view with the sensor exposed, at the moment of exposure the shutter has to temporarily block the sensor to take the shot at the correct shutter speed. In my tests I found the Live View even slower than simply wiring the camera to the PT in the normal mode. So much for a Canon expert!

I don't understand why Canon has not introduced a digital camera with a pellicle, two-way mirror as this would be great for this type of work and, more importantly, be a great dust barrier for the sensor since the mirror chamber could be sealed. The pellicle mirror cost 2/3rds of a stop of light, which was rather significant with slow speed films, but is easily addressed with the high ISOs possible with digital cameras. Knowing that the RS camera was the last of its breed, I purchased 5 of them so I'd have these great cameras available in the future, and would have cameras if, and when, Canon would stop servicing those needing repair. Now, I'm so far into the digital age that I'd sell the RS cameras, albeit reluctantly, since I am no longer using film. That said, however, film, via the RS cameras, is the easiest way to achieve results.

The flashes we used for all of these shots were Manual models. Mastering flash, which we introduce with some degree of intensity in our Digital Complete Nature Photography Courses, is essential for this type of work. In that course I teach TTL flash, which is the easiest and most commonly used flash mode, but the principles can easily be transferred to manual flash techniques, which works best for these snake shots as well as for our hummingbird and bat shoots we do in Arizona.

Past Stories Behind the Photograph

The Raccoon

The Pileated Woodpecker