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Photographing The Strike of a Snake

Frank Thomas , Feb 18, 1997; 07:37 p.m.

I have a home in the Ocala forest (Florida) and have no trouble locating large eastern diamond back rattlers ( usually when not looking for them ). I thought a photo of the snake taken from the side ( with the motor drive ) and directly in front ( tele lens ) would be exceptional. Assuming daylight conditions, what slide film should I use and what shutter do you think I will need to "freeze" the motion of the snake with it's mouth wide open?

Thanks for the help.

Responses

Glen Johnson , Feb 18, 1997; 08:51 p.m.

I would use Sensia RD 100, Kodak E100S, or E100SW Ektachrome. The Kodak Elite II 100 ought to be OK too. I might even go as fast as ISO 200 to pick up the extra stop for the reasons given below.

You will be able to freeze the motion of the snake acceptably well if you can get your shutter speed up to 1/250th of a second, although faster speeds will be even better. You will be trading off action stopping speed against loss in depth of field, so you will have to decide the best compromise. Depth of field will be less important in the side shot, at least if you can make an accurate prediction of the plane of the snake's strike and set the focus up manually for this plane. The wider angle of the lens you will use for this shot will work in your favor as far as depth of field is concerned too.

From the front, with the tele lens, depth of field will be a problem. This is a place where the modern focus tracking feature could pay off. If you use it, try to lock onto the snake's eyes. The motor drive will provide an interesting sequence here too. An alternative is to prefocus manually on a particular plane and when the snake is just ready to break that plane, fire the shutter.

What are you going to use as the target/bait?

Don Baccus , Feb 20, 1997; 09:41 p.m.

I pretty much agree with Glen's response, but would add that this might be a good situation to use flash. Many newer cameras synch at 1/250th. Flash will allow you to stop down to f11 or f16, which will help with depth-of-field. No matter what your target, the snake's not likely to strike predictably enough to nail a sharp eye at, say, f2.8!

While flash gives a somewhat artificial look to macro shots, this kind of photo depends on freezing the action at exactly the instant of the strike for its impact. I generally avoid flash for static macro subjects when I can use a tripod or other support, but use flash for macro shots involving action.

Bob Atkins , Feb 24, 1997; 01:19 p.m.

A couple of comments:

(1) Unless you are experienced with snakes, you might want to think about starting out and experimenting with photography of some slightly less deadly species than diamondbacks!

(2) If the snake is moving, then flash is probably the way to do this as Don suggests. If the snake is actually striking, you will certainly need flash to freeze the motion (but see (1) above and (3) below!). If the snake isn't striking, then any reasonable shutter speed will be OK and you won't need flash. The usual ISO 100 film will be fine for normal daylight conditions

(3) I would guess that the snake will have a reaction time a lot faster than you or your camera, so if you see a strike, by the time you make the exposure, it will be over. You would need some special equipment and controlled conditions to photograph a strike. I wouldn't even attempt it myself.

I've taken snake images in the field (non-venomous species!) using a 100-300 zoom, sometimes with a 2 element close up lens. I've generally used available light, sometimes with a fill flash. I haven't found any special problems.

Glen Johnson , Feb 25, 1997; 08:45 a.m.

The observation that flash will allow you to freeze the action and control depth of field is good advice. I didn't mention this because of the fact that the questioner indicated an interest in a motor drive sequence. In hind sight, one good shot would be better than a motor drive sequence of bad shots. Flash can also add a catchlight, which will significantly improve the image. A strobe sequence could also be very interesting.

Like Bob, I think that the hardest part of this project is setting it up. That's why I asked the question about target/bait. Off line it was pointed out that this would be a good job for the photographer's assistant. :-)

The more I've wrestled with this project, the more I've come to think that you can probably only get this shot with a captive snake. When they photograph alligator strikes, they stick the camera in a plexiglass box and waive it in front of the alligator who instinctively strikes at it. This would probably work with any territorial animal in a captive setting. I don't think snakes are that territorial.

You might be able to get this shot by hanging bait after setting up the right background and waiting for the snake to get hungry. As Bob points out, it will be over as quickly as it starts. If you were really serious about this shot, you could set up an optical trigger to fire the camera just as the snake breaks the plane of focus. You could leave the camera unattended with this kind of rig. A modest wide angle lens, with print film, would increase your reliability. You would have to control the image size by cropping, but you could end up with some nice results.

When you stop and think about it, there aren't many good pictures of snake strikes in books, so a picture like this would seem to present a significant challenge.

Grover Larkins , Sep 25, 1997; 07:48 p.m.

Some thoughts based on experience:

1) Eastern Diamondbacks are about the most dangerous snake found in N. America.

2) They are pit vipers and will generally NOT STRIKE at anything not above te ambient temperature -- use a balloon filled with warm water as *bait*.

3) The entire strike can cover almost 1/2 a meter foreward and 1/2 a meter back -- time from start to bite is no more than 1/5 of a second. this translates to 3.5 m/sec average -- peak speed will be about 7m per sec.

4) You want (I presume) about the entire snake in the frame horizontally -- say about a 1.5 meter object field. At 7 m/sec this is about 5 frame widths per sec or, more precisely 168mm/sec. You want sharpness in the range of a blur of less than 1/30 mm which implies an exposure time of 1/5040 sec.

5) With a larger magnification (smaller object field) say of just the head of the snake, 0.15m or less in the object space, this becomes 1/50,000 sec.

6) Flash is quite obviously a necessity!

Finally; unless you are EXTREMELY capable of and practiced in the handling of large venomous reptiles I urge you to do your photography from a safe distance and not mess with the critter, a 2 meter long Eastern Diamondback can deliver a lethal bite with venom several times more potent than a water moccasin and it has several times as much venom to deliver (up to 1.5 grams or even 2 grams vs a measly 0.3 grams to 0.5 grams for a moccasin).

In fact the originator of this line is clearly NOT EXPERIENCED ENOUGH FOR THIS TASK!!!!

For what its worth this could well be your funeral!!!!

Grover Larkins

Some photos of venomous reptiles are available on my gallery:

http://www.fiu.edu/~larkinsg/nature_gallery_index.htm

try the Everglades Reptiles or the South West Florida sections....

Chris Harrison , Feb 25, 1998; 08:31 p.m.

1. I can't say that I am a great nature photographer, but I have photographed a lot of snakes. You will have a great deal of trouble freezing a E. Diamondback's strike at any normal sync speeds. Viperid snakes strike very fast. As to the actual dealing with the snake, I suggest you leave this to a professional (not some local redneck who claims to have some expertise in snake handling). You can tell a professional from an amateur by watching how eager they are to pin the snake down. Professionals can manipulate venomous snakes without ever laying a hand on them. Be aware it can be really difficult to judge distances (strike distance) through a lens! Always have another person looking at your subject to camera distance from above, after all, the subject will!

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