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How to Photograph Snakes

Talk to the average person about snakes and their very mention usually conjures up fear and little else. Whether it’s because of the Bible, The Jungle Book, Anaconda, Snakes on a Plane, or a fear that stems from something more innate, it has always been – and remains the case – that snakes rarely receive any positive press. As they are usually portrayed as murderous, one-track-minded beings, it’s easy to understand why fear is the most popular reaction.

However, it is in this one-sided portrayal that huge photographic opportunity is found. Creating images that provoke intrigue and make people question what they think they know about these misunderstood animals is a handy motivation every time you step into the field.

Horned Pit Viper
Horned Pit Viper (Protobothrops cornutus) 100mm – ISO 400 – 1/200 – f/16

In this tutorial, we’ll explore the approach and tools required for photographing snakes and producing quality images. Snakes accurately portrayed in a non-violent and educational capacity will still elicit some fear among some viewers (snakebites are still a major health problem worldwide). But, when snakes are represented fairly and correctly, photography can also show an animal which should be defined as defensive rather than aggressive. After all, snakes are generally happy to go about their business without ever meeting a human face to face.

Alternatively, if you’re simply looking to take a clean and crisp photograph of a snake without changing the worldwide misconceptions about these stunning creatures, that’s just fine, too. So, without further ado, let’s discuss how to photograph snakes.

Find snakes by understanding snake behaviour

As with all outstanding photography involving wildlife, success is achieved through more than just great camera work. As you are dealing with complex and unpredictable subjects that often don’t want to be seen, an equally important step in producing stand-out photographs is to understand (and find) the animal you’re after.

Gaboon Viper
Gaboon Viper (Bitis gabonica) 100mm – ISO 400 – 1/100 – f/10

Contrary to what many people think, encountering snakes can actually be quite a difficult task. Snakes are not interested in the limelight and will more often than not disappear or attempt to escape when people get too close.

One of the most important things to understand about these cold-blooded reptiles is that there is an incredible amount of variation in behaviour between snake species.

Asp Viper
Asp Viper (Vipera aspis) 100mm – ISO 400 – 1/160 – f/7.1

Aside from chance meetings when you’re out and about, the first big obstacle to taking a great snake picture is actually finding the snake – and this takes some species and geographically-specific knowledge.

Read more: How to Photograph Reptiles in the UK

With over 2,900 known species of snakes and a distribution that spans every continent except Antarctica (but does include the Pacific ocean!), it shouldn’t be too surprising to learn that not all snakes behave in exactly the same way. Some species reside on land (terrestrial) while others live off the ground in trees (arboreal).

Some spend a large amount of their time in the ocean and some live nearly exclusively underground. In short, you can find them in tropical rainforests, dry deserts, wetlands, mountains, and almost everywhere in between.

King Cobra
King Cobra (Ophiophagus hannah) 56mm – ISO 800 – 1/80 – f/5.6

Where and when to look for snakes will depend on where you are and what time of day it is. For example, as snakes are cold-blooded, many require the sun’s heat to warm up before they can function, especially outside of the tropical regions.

For this reason, a good bet for finding many snakes is when they are basking (sunbathing). Searching for surfaces which face the sun early on and get the heat first thing in the morning is a great place to start. In more temperate conditions, many snakes may be exclusively active during the night which means they require no basking at all. For such cases, nighttime searching with headlamps is a common approach.

Cave Racer
Cave Racer (Orthriophis taeniurus) 100mm – ISO 400 – 1/160 – f/16

Ultimately, to actively search for snakes, you will need to understand the behaviour and habitat of the snakes in the geographical region you are in. Before heading out into the field, do a search about your target species to learn more about each snake’s behaviour and ecology.

Equipment for snake photography

When it comes to kitting yourself out for snake photography, so much of what’s in your bag will come down to personal preference with regards to composition and your comfort level around the animals themselves.

Lenses

One great thing about shooting snakes is that there’s a compositional style that works for almost every type of lens. This means that no matter what lens is already in your bag, there’s a style of photo for you to try. If you’re looking to invest in a lens specifically for reptile photography, it will be dictated by your desired outcome.

Wall's Bronzeback
Wall’s Bronzeback (Dendrelaphis cyanochloris) 100mm – ISO 800 – 1/100 – f/13

Snake photography is appropriate for a wide-angle lens, a macro, and even a telephoto. The compositional possibilities are endless.

Lighting

The majority of snake photography requires some form of additional lighting. It may be for completely illuminating subjects in the case of nighttime work, or just throwing in a little extra light when natural conditions are failing. Either way, mastering lighting is an important step for producing outstanding images.

Whether you’re using the built-in flash or an off-camera external flash, it’s a good idea to add a diffuser to your kit bag. Diffusers distribute light more evenly over your subject and help to prevent harsh and overexposed spots of light.

Corn Snake
Corn Snake (Pantherophis guttatus) 100mm – ISO 400 – 1/125 – f/14

Diffusers can be bought or made, depending on your preference. Many photographers find lighting to be an incredibly personal choice and so often have a set-up which is personal to them. For beginners to the process, there are plenty of ready-to-go soft boxes available. Alternatively, for a more hands-on answer, try constructing your own from translucent materials, like packaging foam.

Read more: A Guide to Using Flash with Wildlife

Shoot in raw format

As you are photographing live animals, it’s a good idea to shoot in raw. The fact you’re shooting outside with ever-changing lighting, and a subject that often has little interest in staying still, means you may need to correct certain elements in post processing from time to time (e.g. over or under exposing or incorrect white balance).

By shooting in raw, it’s more likely that you will be able to rescue those incorrect elements and end up with a great image. This is especially helpful for agitated subjects and helps to minimise the time you need to spend with the snake. Therefore, ensure that your camera has these capabilities.

Green Vine Snake
Green Vine Snake (Ahaetulla nasuta) 100mm – ISO 800 – 1/100 – f/6.3

Composition in snake photos

There are several options to choose from when it comes to deciding how best to shoot such an elongated subject. If you’re looking to achieve a completely natural and in-situ (as found) image, you may find that more often than not your options are limited by the angles, position, and lighting available without disturbing your subject.

Otherwise, composition comes down to personal preference and/or what the snake is willing to give during your shoot.

Full body shots

Full body shots are a great way to show the complete snake from head to tail. The style usually features the snake sat coiled around itself and is commonly used in field guides and other records as these shots are handy for identification.

Timber Rattlesnake
Timber Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus) 100mm – ISO 250 – 1/60 – f/8.0

Suggested lens and settings: 30-100mm at around f/11 

Behavioural shots

Like in-situ photography, behavioural photography usually requires a large amount of patience and adaptability. Obviously, defensive behaviour can be achieved by approaching a snake and photographing the response. However, if you’re looking for natural feeding, hunting or mating shots, it’s going to require following the snake without disturbing it or being lucky enough to chance across your subject at the right time.

Green Vine Snake
Green Vine Snake (Ahaetulla nasuta) 100mm – ISO 800 – 1/250 – f/8.0

Suggested lens and settings: 100-300mm at around f/7.1 

Wide-angle shots

One of the most popular composition choices at the moment is the wide-angle shot. These informative images usually include the whole body of the snake in full view surrounded by its natural habitat. These types of photos are a great way to display snakes and where a specific species may be found in a single image.

These informative images can act as educational tools and provide an opportunity to show off your wildlife photography and landscape photography skills in a single shot.

Eastern Garter Snake
Eastern Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis) 15mm – ISO 100 – 1/160 – f/11

Suggested lens and settings: 10-20mm at around f/13 

Portraits and macro close-ups

Focusing on a snake’s head or skin offers a look at something most people never notice if they encounter a snake in the wild. Close-up work reveals colours, textures, and details usually missed during fleeting encounters, which means these detailed captures can fascinate and appeal to even the most staunch snake-hater.

Bornean Keeled Pit Viper
Bornean Keeled Pit Viper (Tropidolaemus subannulatus) 100mm – ISO 400 – 1/160 – f/18

Suggested lens and settings: 50-100mm (macro) at around f/16 

Artsy and creative images

Snakes’ natural rope-like forms mean they often end up in interesting positions that create eye-catching shapes on “film”. This lends itself to photographs which intrigue onlookers and further add to the mystique of these reptilian subjects.

This style of composition is a great opportunity to play around with low apertures, producing plenty of opportunities for personal interpretation.

Read more: How to Take Abstract Macro Photos

Sunbeam Snake
Sunbeam Snake (Xenopeltis unicolor) 100mm – ISO 400 – 1/125 – f/14

Suggested lens and settings: Whatever you like, let your mind run wild!

Ethical and safety considerations

Handling snakes

As snake photography involves photographing animals that more often than not want to escape your presence, capturing images may require preventing the snake from leaving the scene. If you’re after a specific composition, you may also choose to manipulate the snake into an acceptable position.

Please note: The best photographers are able to capture great images with the least amount of disturbance to the animal.

Yellow Rat Snake
Yellow Rat Snake (Pantherophis alleghaniensis) 100mm – ISO 400 – 1/160 – f/14

However, if you do need to manipulate a snake, it’s important that you are capable of identifying and handling the snake in a way which causes the animal minimal stress and never puts you or the animal in danger.

A handy tip is to meet with snake-removal companies in the area. You can use the release of the animal as an opportunity to capture your desired image – not to mention the fact that they get phone calls delivering wild snakes to them.

Read more: Ethics in Wildlife Photography – Code of Conduct

Potential danger

It would be remiss not to mention the potential danger that comes with photographing potentially highly venomous animals in the wild. While the majority of snakes are harmless to humans and require no fear, a bite from the wrong snake is potentially a life-ending incident.

Variable Bush Viper
Variable Bush Viper (Atheris squamigera) 100mm – ISO 200 – 1/250 – f/11

As a general rule, you should always be aware of all the highly-venomous snakes you may encounter in your geographical location. If you wish to photograph them, have an escape plan that includes an emergency contact and a route to the nearest hospital, just in case the worst occurs.

Always maintain more than a safe distance from the venomous species you’re photographing and exercise increased caution if you are unable to positively identify the snake in front of you.

In conclusion

With the right amount of patience, technical know-how and understanding of the animal, capturing compelling images of these much-maligned reptiles is definitely achievable – and great fun.

Like sharks, spiders and many other animal “villains”, photography showing the real beauty and behaviour of snakes offers a whole new perspective for a captive audience.

Visit Elliot's website

Elliot Pelling is a published wildlife photographer and passionate conservationist. Working as he travels, Elliot spends his time seeking out the very best the natural world has to offer. By producing images of animals in their natural environment, he hopes to educate and inspire others to protect the world around them. You can follow his journey on Instagram and Flickr.

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