Snakes…it had to be snakes…I hate snakes!

Just to steal a line from one of my favorite movies “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom”, I don’t hate snakes. Since I’ve been living in the Southwest part of the United States I’ve tramped through the deserts and haven’t come across any of our twelve species of rattlesnake.

Sure I’ve seen King snakes, Corn snakes, Hognose snakes, but not a single Rattlesnake.

So… a photographer friend of mine called me one evening and asked if I’d like to shoot some rattlesnakes. Well, living in a state where we can open-carry guns I wondered if he’d come across one and wanted it eliminated. No…actually I know he doesn’t kill them but of course he meant shoot them with a camera. I jumped at the offer.

So to set the stage a little. It seems Albert has photographed all sorts of animals and insects for various publications including National Geographic and often gets the critters sent to him to photograph. This time it was a farmer in Benson, AZ that knew he took pictures of animals had caught two large (to me anyway) diamondback rattlers and gave them to Albert. They were really excited (angry?) and to calm them down he put them in a cooler with a little ice overnight. It makes them think it is winter and they calm down and stop rattling.

The next morning he put the cooler in the back of the Range Rover and we headed out into the desert away from habitation to find a likely spot for photography and then release them. When we stopped after a ride down a washboard road I thought we had a puncture in the left rear tire, at least it sounded like that; sort of a hissing air-leaking sound. Of course it was the snakes but I’d only heard the starting and stopping of their rattling. A continual rattle of two snakes did sound like an air leak. Amazing! I would not have known that sound in the wild unless I’d heard the beginning or ending of the rattle. Hmmm. Know I know.

Perfect release location

Perfect release location – Sony A77 shot on full automatic for establishing shot

It was just about 6 AM and the sun was just coming over the Rincon mountains to the east of Tucson when we located the best spot. Easy to lug our photo gear out to and clear enough so we would be safe from underbrush that might hide our snakes upon release. Or…worst case…hide unknown snakes along with our snakes just waiting to get us 🙂

It was a great location, little patches of flowers, sand, and prickly pear cactus all around for the desert look. The plan was to:

  1. Find a good location…done
  2. Prepare the site for the shoot. Drop the hat. Grab the reflectors
  3. Step back and release the snakes.
  4. Let them go where they wanted without to much nudging on our part.
  5. Watch each others backs and stay safely out of their way and get our shots.
  6. Quietly leave them and head back to town.

So step one was accomplished and we hauled out gear out to the site and then went back for our slithery friends who weren’t all that happy about being moved. Step 2 was to prepare the site. I’d been thinking the evening before about what I’d like to see as a photographer imaging a “western cowboy look”. I’m doing a western theme series of photos, i.e. a stallion, saquaro cactus, and now maybe a snake.

I thought I’d bring a prop that was appropriate to cowboys – a cowboy hat. I had this leather one I was going to use but how would I get the snake to get near it? I had an idea. I remembered hearing that snakes when they were cool would seek out heated areas so I leaned my dark hat against a tree stump in the sun to heat up. Once it seemed warm we released the snakes about 15 feet away.

Free at last

Free at last – Sony A77 full automatic

Having thought this out we decided on a fill-flash and silver and/or gold reflectors to cool or warm the scene.

Albert and the Reflector

Albert and the Reflector – Sony A77 full automatic

Without reflector light

Without reflector light

With reflector light

With reflector light

As you can see from above the reflector gives us a much more natural light than a strobe. By mixing a strobe light with the gold reflector you can get a nice warm morning light on the scene.

It was amazing! Slowly one of the critters slithered out and appeared to look around. The one on the left stayed in the cooler till we finished shooting the first one. This was all the snakes idea. Must have been the Snake Actors Guild, a new name for SAG, so each one had their own time. Of course it made our job easier too since we only had one snake to deal with on the loose at a time.

After a  few minutes of rattling, slithering, and rattling the first one seemed to see or sense the heat near the stump and my leather cowboy hat. I kid you not he just headed towards the hat and moved under, over, and around it like a kitten making a nest. We began our shoot. How close did we get? What kind of glass did we use? What speed? What aperture? Anti-shake on…you betcha’ baby!

How close were we?

How close were we? About 8-10 feet away.

We at times were on our bellies and other times just kneeled down. We exchanged jobs. One shoots and the other holds the reflector and was on snake patrol. Then I shot and Albert watched my six and held the reflector.

So how did my hat trick work?  Check this shot out!

Diamondback Rattler

Diamondback Rattler – Sony A77, 85mm prime, ISO 400, f/11, 1/125 sec., 0 ev

Not bad huh? Can you imagine reaching for your hat only to find this fella sitting nearby? So did the snakes strike at us? Well duh! Of course but we stayed out of range. I remembered hearing that most snake bites happen to young macho men showing off.

The last words out of their mouth before being struck was, “Hear. Hold my beer. Watch this.”

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