Photographing Northern Water Snakes

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.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikon CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810mm, f/5.6, 1/800, ISO-560

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.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikon CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810mm, f/5.6, 1/640, ISO-400

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.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikon CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810mm, f/5.6, 1/2000, ISO-1000

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.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikon CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810mm, f/5.6, 1/1600, ISO-1250

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.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikon CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810mm, f/5.6, 1/2000, ISO-1100

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.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikon CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810mm, f/5.6, 1/1600, ISO-1400

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.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikon CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810mm, f/5.6, 1/1000, ISO-160

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.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikon CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810mm, f/5.6, 1/1000, ISO-2200
Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikon CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810mm, f/5.6, 1/1000, ISO-1800

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.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikon CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810mm, f/5.6, 1/1000, ISO-1800
Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikon CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810mm, f/5.6, 1/1000, ISO-1800
Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikon CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810mm, f/5.6, 1/1000, ISO-2200
Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikon CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810mm, f/5.6, 1/1000, ISO-720

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.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikon CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810mm, f/5.6, 1/1000, ISO-400

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.

Technical Note:
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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6 thoughts on “Photographing Northern Water Snakes”

  1. Hi Tom!

    Love the second image — it’s like a monochromatic capture save for the leaves/branches/shrub. Used to dread snakes but they’re beautiful creatures in their own right.

    Oggie

    1. Thanks Oggie – I’m glad you enjoyed the images! Snakes have never been one of my favourable animals either…but I’ve come to appreciate their unique beauty the more I photograph them.
      Tom

    1. Hi Ed,

      No, not at all! I still love my Nikon 1 J5s! I’ve been using the V3 a lot lately since I’m in the process of doing field work for a planned eBook on bird photography. Since I’m currently focusing on birds-in-flight, I prefer to use a camera with an EVF. The water snake images in this article were taken when I was out primarily shooting birds-in-flight so I only had my V3 fitted with the 1 Nikon CX 70-300mm with me at the time.

      Things will switch around completely once I start doing fieldwork for other subject-related eBooks I have planned on landscape photography and flower/garden photography. For those subjects I will be using the J5 exclusively.

      Tom

  2. Fascinating photos!!!! I saw a large water moccasin while crossing the cheek close to me while hiking along the cheek. Seen a larger on at the side of a small pond on my road.

    I get some snakes visiting my pond and summer tubs each year. And I have a large black snake that visits my garden a lot.

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