Last month during my regular visits to the Hendrie Valley Sanctuary I had a number of opportunities to capture some images of northern water snakes. This article shares some of the considerations that come into play when photographing water snakes.
NOTE: Click on images to enlarge.
In Southern Ontario we have about 17 species of snakes with only one, the Eastern Massasauga rattlesnake, being venomous. Like in many other parts of the world, many snakes in Ontario blend in with their surroundings and shy away from people, making them difficult to find and photograph. Water snakes are commonly found around almost any permanent body of water and seldom stray far from the shoreline. They can be found basking on rocks and logs as seen in the image above.
Since water snakes can be skittish once you get close to them you’ll need to use the longest focal length lens you have to get some decent images. While you would expect water snakes to be out basking on bright, sunny days, you will sometimes find them out in overcast conditions. This type of diffused lighting can give photographs a smoother, less harsh look. As with other nature photography subjects it is critical that you get the eye of the snake in focus. As you can see in the photograph above, when using a longer focal length lens, depth-of-field can drop away very quickly. If you compare the first two images you can see how the shooting angle has affected depth-of-field in terms of the amount of the snakes’ bodies that are in focus.
Choice of auto-focusing mode also comes into play when photographing water snakes. When capturing images of a water snake swimming it is best to use a continuous auto-focus mode so your camera can adjust to the snakes movements. Be sure to keep your AF-C point on the snake’s head. I use Single Point AF when capturing images of stationary snakes, as it allows me to position my focus point precisely on the snake’s eye without having to use ‘focus and recompose’ technique.
As long as the snake’s eye is visible in your photograph don’t worry about getting the top of the snake’s head prominently displayed. The scale pattern and colours can make for an interesting image. To help accentuate the skin colours of the snake images in this article I added a touch of vibrance in post.
Photographing some kind of action, even if it just the flicking of the reptile’s tongue, can add some drama to images of water snakes. I shot at 10 frames-per-second in continuous auto-focus (AF-C), timing my AF-C burst with the snake tasting the air with its tongue, to capture the above photograph.
Making it a habit to do some quick checking along the shoreline to look for water snakes can sometimes lead to unusual photographs like the one above of a water snake swallowing a small fish. If you see a water snake swimming towards the shoreline it can also be helpful to anticipate where it may be headed. This can often lead to front-quarter view photographs of the snake’s head.
While images of rotting fish along the shoreline are not the most becoming of photographs, looking for dead fish can sometimes lead to interesting photographic opportunities when it comes to water snakes. The next two images show a young water snake checking out a dead fish partially submerged in the water.
I was amazed to see this young water snake bite the dead fish and tug on it with some gusto as you’ll see in the next four images. It ended up tearing off small chunks of flesh and swallowing them, behaviour I had never witnessed in the past.
After the young water snake had its fill of fish, it moved into the vegetation. I followed its movements and was able to capture an image of it flexing its jaws back into position as you’ll see in the photograph below. I shot in continuous auto-focus at 10 frames per second in order to ensure I’d get a few image options documenting this behaviour.
When working with images of snakes in post it is important to concentrate some effort to bring out skin details. As noted earlier, adding a touch of vibrance can help bring out subtle colour variations. It can also be helpful to adjust highlights, shadows and often add a bit of black to get more skin details visible. Applying some adjustments like sharpening, contrast, micro-contrast and clarity can also help with edge acuity of the snake’s scales, making them appear ‘sharper’ in your photographs.
Obviously if you live in a part of the world where venomous snakes inhabit shorelines, extreme caution should be taken when approaching or photographing snakes.
All photographs were captured hand-held using Nikon 1 gear as noted in the article. Images were produced from RAW files using my standard process of DxO PhotoLab, CS6, and the Nik Collection.
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