Photographing a Rattlesnake: How I Did It and Why I Won't Do It Again

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.”

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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.

Western Diamondback Rattlesnake


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.”

Black Tailed Rattlesnake


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.

Arizona Black Rattler


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.

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Underwater no one can hear you cry... 

Well guess what?  Those are badass shots so it was worth it huh?  =)

I want to cry like a girl just looking at these. 

Okay, that's one for the Darwin Awards (although no one died)....I figure you're not the kind of guy that has to do every project on the tightest of budgets . Why not simply get a plate of plexi, cut a hole in it for the lens and lay behind the glass???? You would have eliminated a lot of risks that way!

Björn, you are completely correct on this. My mistake came in underestimating the speed of a snake. If I ever do shoot anymore (ie mamba, Taipans, etc.) I will have plexi and most likely many handlers.

This is absolutely the way to go.

Noway, shooting through plexi glass will degrade the image, I like that he had a pair big enough to get the highest quality image.  That's what it's all about!  =)

If you read the comment carefully I didn't say "shoot through plexi". I said get a big plate of plexi, cut a whole in it, as wide as the lens and stick the lens through. That way you won't get any degrading at all, but you are pretty save.
Also, if you found out that the Profoto lights will get hot as hell, maybe small flash is the way to go. A big ass softbox, a quadflash bracket and 4 small flashes. It's not like the snake is 6 feet tall. It's one thing for next time ;)
Never underestimate the speed of a snake ;). They are FAST!! I have a a Garter Snake at home. They aren't poisones, but no one told her that. She is aggressive as hell! If she were poisones, I would have been in serious trouble, more than once.     

Dude, love your writing style. Awesome story. Giggled more than once. Take me next time, i wanna play with snakes :D

Why not use a long lens? Like a 70-200? Either way... cool pictures! 

Hmm birds can't kill you? Perhaps you should put Cassowaries and Ostriches on that personal projects list. Nice shots.

David, there is nothing wrong with long lensing it, but I wanted a wide shot (35mm for this one) to make the snakes feel closer.

AHHH. Ok, big difference in view, I see your point. Still, you're crazy; I'll give you that much. Good job. 

Living in the Mojave Desert most of my life, Rattlesnakes were never an issue... even kissed one on the nose at Valley of Fire when I was 25, but three years ago when I was 55, while walking my son's German Shepherd/Coyote Mix toward a picnic table just outside of Amarillo, TX, a very large snake bit my son's dog on the snout, a fatal blow, full envenomation, she died. No rattle, no sound at all, hid in four inch grass and struck before the dog knew what hit her. Had she not been bitten, I was on the other end of the four foot leash, I would have taken the hit, my next step was to be where she was standing. Today, I don't walk in high grass and by high, I mean any grass, by abandoned cars, trucks, crags in rocks or porches which have crawl spaces without doing a thorough investigation. 

That event changed me, there are things I cannot do now that I always did. Logic, statistics, sensibilities do not matter, I came face to face with that one in a million and when you are the one or holding on to the one when it happens, the other 999,999k don't matter.

Be careful when playing with snakes... they can strike faster than you can possibly evade, 3/4 the length of their body in 1/12th of a second, you won't even see it when it happens. 

Great shots though!

No, you do not want to play with these snakes, they aren't the friendly type.... then again what kind of snakes are the "friendly type"? I digress

I used to have a Western Diamondback as a pet (I rescued it from a murderous farmer). Never once did I EVER think about photographing it outside of the terrarium. You are a braver person than I. I shot many of my Boas and Pythons while loose, but never the rattler. Glad you still have all your body parts. I've seen what rattlesnake bites can do. Hemotoxins are nasty. 

I have corn snakes that are awesome! 

Blair, being a reptile photographer myself, I am very impressed with your shots here. Working with hots (venomous) is challenging and very rewarding. Way to go!

Thanks guys, I really appreciate it.  I just hope that if anyone tries to do something like this, they will learn what not to do and know that I was lucky not to have gotten hurt. Learn lighting, learn lenses or cameras or anything you want from my work or blogs, but please don't learn my stupidity. 

Great shot!

I love to shoot animals. Snakes to:
For safety I allways let me assist by a profsional animal handler and the animal owners.

Shark cages are known to cause flare, especially when using strobes (shiny metal things as they are). I recommend avoiding the use of shark cages. 

Still great work Blair. I too have a thing for dangerous animals. I'm all about Alligators. I've done a few pretty intense shoots with them and I'm going to do some more around April.

Shooting in the field is equally challenging. While concentrating on one rattler I've had another slither behind me.

ummmm - 1 large (4'x8' ?) sheet of foamcore / cardboard / plywood / whatever, cut hole in the middle, insert lens = snakey no bitey and sharpness OCD satisfied.

Great shots, greater story!  Now you get to say, "Here, hold my beer, I've done this before!"  Thanks for the share.

I happen to know a few people that shoot sharks, some great work!

I happen to know some people that shoot sharks all the time, some great captures by the way.

I too giggled once or twice.. but was also in awe of the "pair of you know whats" it would take to lay face to face ..eye to eye and push that button.. I would be fearful just that movement would cause issues.. these are amazing shots; and you need to take that as a huge compliment that i was drawn to even look at em.. as snakes are my biggest fear and cause of many sleepless nights!!!

Wow. Well, good thing Megalodon's are extinct...

Bro.... You are a rockstar for this one.  there are some people that I don't pull out my 35mm for.  Great stuff.

Well the water will hide your tears from the fear that you will be facing under water... LOL  Great shots!!! 

Thanks again guys.  The sharks will be intimidating, but what I will get out of facing those fears will be much greater than any images that will come of it.  I grew up wanting to be a marine biologist because of my love of sharks, however in the same heartbeat the idea of being in the water at night with a Great White terrifies me. This whole photography thing aside, the experience will make me stronger as a person.

This is possibly the most funny ànd informative blog I've ever read!! Hilarious
Great shots man!!
Good luck with the white ones, they get awfully large and potentially dangerous….what the heck, you probably come to that conclusion yourself after the shoot. (and we just enjoy the beautiful shots!)

My understanding is anitvenom is also in short supply or hospitals are just not stocking it these days.  If ture that makes it even more dangerous.  Cool shots.

Great Shots

I laughed a bit

I work with rattlesnakes professionally and photograph quite a few of them. It looks like you had an experienced handler with you. If they are good at what they do, you are not in as much danger as this sort of thing may look. Great shots, and I love those snakes. Is this individual in Arizona?

haha, good stuff! Thanks for sharing :)