Tips for snakes and pit vipers

Tips for snakes and vipers

I abhor zoos/aquariums and can’t abide by supporting them directly or indirectly through my photography, hence, all these shots were taken in their natural environment.

Getting close

Golden eyelash pit viper (Bothriechis schlegelii)                                                                                            Taken from about 1 cm away with the mpe-65mm. Photo taken in La Selva biological station adjoining Braulio Carillo national park, Costa Rica.

Amazonian palm pit viper (Bothriopsis bilineata)                                                                                           Photo taken from a couple centimeters away with the mpe-65mm. Taken during a day hike at Pantiacolla lodge, Manu national park, Peru.

Sumatran pit viper (Trimeresurus sumatranus)                                                                                              Photo taken from about 1 foot away using a pentax 100mm macro lens. Taken during a day hike in Bako national park, Sarawak province, Malaysian Borneo.

Some people might be tempted to say yeah, just use a longer lens. A valid point. But this is inadequate in several regards. First it may give too much working distance. In the jungle, there is often not a lot of space between overlapping foliage and so the more distance between you and your subject the more likely you will get some interference. Secondly, this limits your viewing angles and compositional perspectives. With a 100mm macro, if I wanted, I could get on top, or from the side or below, a 200mm and beyond, if I get on the ground there will inevitably be a log obscuring my view, and I don’t want to climb several meters into a tree if there even is one for a shot. Thirdly I can get a sense for the snake itself increased distance between you and your subject physically will probably show up in the photo as an unintimate portrait. However, getting close enough to feel the flick of the tongue on your cheek, you get a real feel and respect for the creature you are photographing which can’t help but show in your shots. Also less flash power is used and in my opinion, the animal actually grows less stressed over a long shooting period.

1) Be careful! wear long rubber boots and approach slowly and with care. Snakes can strike from 1/2 their body length away. This isn’t taking into account their movement either. So to be safe, as soon as you get within one body length, treat it as a potentially hazardous situation.

2) Read the signs of the body language. A snake that is constantly flicking its tongue is generally aggravated. It is wanting to update its chemosensory information second by second to be ready for anything. It is thus extremely alert and in a high state of tension. You might be tempted to grab a shot of it with its tongue darting out during this time, but you should probably wait until it calms down or else avoid it completely. Though this is species dependent I have noticed this especially with the fer-de-lance (Bothrops atrox). Other species might seem exceptionally calm and this too can be a danger signal. Basically read the signs.

3) Try and keep something in between you and the snake. I generally use an umbrella with a hole cut in it for the lens. If the snake pounces, the hope is that it will go for the umbrella. The tension from the metal hinges is enough to repel the force of the strike. It is also compact and multi purpose. If the snake is on the ground I might approach it very slowly with my boot out, heel forwards to gauge the temperament of the snake. So that if it lunges, it will (hopefully) hit the boot and not my leg.

For non-venomous snakes

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