BTS With an Amateur Wildlife Photographer: Rattlesnake Edition
by Josh Ward
Timber Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus), Giles County, Virginia, August 2021
Canon 5D Mark IV with Canon 100-mm f/2.8 macro (f/9, ISO 200, 1/200 sec)
As a wildlife photographer for approaching 6 years now, one of my favorite aspects of this hobby (and hopefully one day, profession) is that there are constantly new situations and challenges that come with trying to capture the natural world through a camera lens. One such experience occurred earlier this summer in the mountains outside Blacksburg, where my friends and I stumbled upon this gorgeous Timber Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus) during an outdoor lab for one of our wildlife conservation courses. Now, as their specific name might contradict, these animals are never out to “get you”; even the most venomous snakes do not deliberately target human beings. Their number one goal when confronted by a threat is to make themselves intimidating, which in theory will give them an opportunity to escape. Different snake species go about this in different ways, but rattlesnakes take their defensiveness to another level, employing the sometimes ear-splitting drone of their specialized tails and loud hissing to intimidate threats into leaving them alone. They will only strike and attempt to bite as a last resort, the a sort of “Chehkov’s gun” that will go off if the perceived threat continually presses the narrative of bothering the snake. What’s more, Timber Rattlesnakes are among the most potentially dangerous snakes in the eastern United States. While their venom is, pound for pound, not exceptionally strong compared to some other snake species in North America (e.g. the highly toxic coral snakes), the amount of venom an adult Timber Rattlesnake can inject is more than twice the required amount to kill a healthy adult human.
Now, whether you read all that or not, the bottomline is that as a wildlife photographer it absolutely pays to be familiar with the wildlife with which you intend to work. In my particular case, I wanted to snag a few good top-down shots of this animal that really captured the beauty of the pattern along its back. At higher elevations these snakes can appear almost totally black, and in the lowlands come in more variable shades and combinations of black, brown, grey, yellow, olive, orange, and white. At these middle elevations, however, you get a blending of those two trends in coloration, which can produce some truly eye-popping animals.
There were some adjustments I needed to make to my camera settings in order to make this work. I was using my 100-mm macro lens, and since there was no way I’d allow myself to be right up close to the animal, I switched its focusing mode to greater than 0.5 m. Secondly, I increased the depth of field, dropping the aperture size down to f/9 to ensure that a thicker “slice” of the distance from the lens to the ground would be in focus, thereby capturing the details of the snake's body and the grasses on which it rested. Thirdly, I attached my flash unit with its diffuser and set the shutter speed to 1/200 and the ISO way down to 200. The flash, even with the diffuser, adds a tremendous amount of crisp lighting, enough that an ISO of 200 would dramatically reduce the sensitivity of the photograph and therefore reduce any excessive glare or over-exposure. This low ISO will also reduce the graininess of the final piece, leaving nothing but clear, smooth detail. The shutter speed is low enough that the illumination will truly bring out all the colors, but high enough that it will also aid the ISO in preventing overexposure.
Now, how was I going to approach actually photographing this animal? It was already rattling - go figure - so my goal was to get the shot I wanted while minimizing any further stress to the animal. Thankfully, a small maple sapling stood a few feet behind from where the snake was resting. Perfect.
Maintaining a radius of around 3 feet, I tiptoed around the already very aggravated creature and grabbed the sapling with one hand. Then, slowly leaning forward, using the sapling as an anchor, I held out my whole camera rig directly over the snake, while maintaining that the closest thing to the animal on the ground were my feet, which were a safe distance away. I had switched on the live-view function on my camera, so on the LCD display on the back I could see what was within the viewfinder and line up my shot as I desired. I gently pressed the shutter button a few times, my arm already screaming under the strain. I let up for a moment and stepped away to see what I had taken already. Several photos had the snake perfectly centered in frame, and a few were in focus to my liking.
Now that I produced the material I wanted, I immediately grabbed my pack and walked a fair distance from the animal, wanting to give it as much personal space so it could safely and quickly calm down and no longer feel under threat.
There is a lot to consider as a wildlife photographer: the animals, the weather, the time of year, the gear you have, your experience level, and all of their many subsets. With enough practice and exposure, however, it becomes easier to analyze and recognize new situations and new ways of exploring the wildlife through a camera. It almost becomes instinctive, which to me is appropriate, for after all, we are just animals having fun looking at other animals.