Photographing a Rattlesnake: How I Did It and Why I Won’t Do It Again
Whenever I talk to another photographer the topic of “personal work” always comes up. Usually in the casual form of, “hey, have you shot any personal work lately?” This standard artistic rendition of the workplace, “how’s the weather” is usually brushed off and more enjoyable conversations quickly replace it. However, for me, it is probably better that my “personal work” remains limited, for doing it usually leeds to bodily harm (or in this case recurring nightmares).
You see, I’ve always had a fascination with dangerous animals, be it sharks, snakes, heck if a bird could kill you, I’d probably think it’s cool…. but they can’t and that’s why birds are boring. Anyways, one day I got the grand idea that I would love to photograph the poisonous snakes of the world. (even writing this has made me realize how bad of an idea this was, but trust me, it gets worse). Somehow in my obsessive compulsive quest for sharpness, many… let’s says safety precautions… were skipped. Actually now that I think of it, I don’t know of any safety precautions we even had other than “don’t get bit.”
The lighting for this one took on more dynamics than a regular shoot in that we wanted it to be bright enough to light the snake but not make huge pops that might piss it off. It was a simple 2 light setup with a Profoto Acute 2, two heads, and two small stands. We he a Profoto silver umbrella in front of the snake (along side the camera), and a bare head with reflector dialed narrow on the backdrop. Looking back on it, if I shot it again I would use some SB900′s, a D4, and an iPad to focus it.
This is where it gets dumb….
My first request for sharpness was that we not have anything between the camera and the snake. Every layer of glass that is not needed is only a source of flare (hence, why I don’t use filters on my lenses) and must be done away with. Now you’re probably saying, “oh, that’s fine, you can just use a cable release and stay the hell away from the snake.”
This is where it gets real dumb…
In wanting to be able to see what I was getting and autofocus when the snake was over my preferred AF point, I decided I would lay behind the camera. My logic was that snakes only see heat and movement, so if I laid still I would look like nothing more than a rock to them.
The final bit of stupidity…
Snakes, when cold, are very lethargic. So we decided to keep them cold when we brought them to the set and therefor prevent any snake shenanigans. What we failed to account for was how fast two Profoto heads at full power can heat them suckers up. And so, on snake number 3 (a Diamondback Rattlesnake) we found out why I shouldn’t shoot personal work.
Let me just say that I was kind of correct in that the snake didn’t see me as a threat, as I was looking it eye to eye (notice it has PASSED the camera). It proceeded over me and into the Tenba case that I transported my lights in, which was laying on it’s side. The wrangler then shut the case and we cleared the set, everyone was safe….. the wrangler, the assistant and the crying little girl that was a photographer only minutes before.
Since then I have decided to move on and never return to photographing snakes, especially pissed off poisonous ones. Instead I am pursuing a different avenue of personal work…. sharks… more specifically Great White sharks. So in September we depart for the Guadalupe islands to shoot a portrait of great white, safety precautions and life insurance policies are currently being evaluated.