Sani Lodge Pt.4 – The Reptiles

Posted on January 23, 2011 by Tim 4 Comments

I’ve already mentioned the reptile and amphibian diversity of Ecuador. It is an amazing place to be sure. But for the reptile installment of this series I’m going to try something a little different. Instead of getting into the science of my finds I’m going to write about the encounters and the photo sessions. It should be obvious by now that I like to take photos of these animals. That means that I can have a few dozen shots or more of the same animal. If the animal and photo conditions are right then I’ll keep shooting, changing lighting, aperture settings, and compositions and poses. I do this because it’s not until reviewing lots of images that you can see what worked and what didn’t. I’d rather have the luxury of ignoring lesser shots while having a gallery quality keeper than getting home and seeing that the shot I thought was cool really just doesn’t cut it on serious evaluation. Little things like crossed toes, misplaced twigs and leaves, little clumps of dirt on the animal, and other imperfections are easily missed during a live shoot. My attention is usually pulled towards keeping the animal from disappearing off into the forest. In the case of some of these animals it took many years to come across a particular species so it will be tough to get a re-shoot in the future. Some animals just don’t lend themselves to exciting images. Most don’t offer any cooperation. Actually, it seems to take the convergence of a cooperative animal, luck, locating the perfect scene/backdrop, luck, time to experiment, assistance, and an eye to balance composition against the natural world of the animal. Oh, and a little luck.

A fer-de-lance, Bothrops atrox, coiled in a hunting pose at the edge of a trail. In life this image was quite pretty but photographically had problems. Time to try something else.

I arrived at Sani late on a Friday afternoon. I decided against going out that night and instead unpacked and rested. By 7am the next morning I was on my first trail. In less than an hour of walking I saw my first snake. Actually, I reacted to it before I saw, or recognized it. I say reacted because the snake was Bothrops atrox, the fer-de-lance. This can be an exceedingly dangerous snake and is responsible for most of the fatalities and serious snake bites on this half of the planet. Its demand for respect comes from it being generally very common around human habitation, but also its potent venom, and generally volatile demeanor when disturbed. This particular snake was coiled at the edge of the trail and was in a classic hunting posture – that is waiting for some hapless little mammal to cross in front of it. The snake is also very well camouflaged so the fact that I saw it from 3m away while on a good walking speed encouraged me. However, I was on a recon hike, and as such was only carrying one lens mounted on the camera, a 24-70mm zoom, and no flashes. As I first saw it, there was a beam of sunlight coming through the forest striking the animal. To my eye the lighting was very nice. I took a few frames and found the dynamic range of light too much. I couldn’t get the colors to pop and the early morning beam of light was still too harsh. I packed up the camera (need to keep it relatively protected from rain and dives after quick herps) and started to walk away. I then realized that I was carrying my little high power halogen flashlight I use for peering in dark crevices. I also use it to occasionally paint or partially light long exposure shots. I got an idea and pulled everything out again. I turned the light on and clipped it to some thin branches across the trail. I angled and adjusted it to feather and light the subject. By now the angle of the sun had shifted and the beam of light moved on. My entire subject and surrounding area were in shadow. I didn’t have a tripod with me. I had to crank my ISO up, playing around in the 1600-3200 range. Luckily the D3s still produces great results at these values. But my shutter speeds were still in the basement.

Bothrops atrox shot using a flashlight to help define the animal and get the colors to pop.

Another thing working against me was my lens. This snake looked to be a little over 4 feet – a good size. Even at 70mm I was working within a couple feet of the animal. I tried getting low to compose the shots but found muscle strain and shake were hampering my ability to get sharp images at low shutter speeds. I knew if I bellied down on the ground I could get the low angle I wanted. I could also use the ground to stabilize the camera. But I don’t recommend lying down a foot or two in front of a good size snake that can kill you. If it decided to bolt it would come right at me and lying down would mean I couldn’t react or get out of its way fast enough. And I was well aware that what was between me and the snake was not the camera but my nice warm, small mammal size fingers. Not a good situation. So I had to rely on my experience to evaluate the snake and its behavior and walk the line between getting stable enough to shoot a relaxed snake and nimble enough to avoid an agitated one. So I cautiously moved around the snake playing with the aperture. Many of the shots were not sharp enough but I still managed to get what I hoped for. I marked the trail so that guides would see the snake and then moved on. Later that afternoon, the snake had left the area.

Another angle, shot at f/2.8. The shallow depth-of-field isolates the animals head.

Now shot at f/10 more of the snake is sharp but now the background adds clutter. It is a matter of personal preference which is better.

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  • Ross Perry says:

    Muscle strain and shake? What about pounding heart and hyperventilation when you’re eye tot eye with that guy!

  • Brian Roach says:

    A very interesting and enjoyable post, Tim, and some really fine photos!

  • WW says:

    I am really sorry to have to say it, but the “Bothriopsis taeniata” is actually a juvenile Bothrops atrox. Juveniles have a very different and more lichenous-looking pattern that adults, so it’s an easy mistake to make.

    • admin says:

      Wolfgang, I knew it was going to be an atrox. Admittedly I have more experience with B. asper than B. atrox and this is the youngest I’ve caught (I know juvies are not X patterned). I convinced myself it was a bothriopsis based on the speckled venter and the really upturned snout (not just pointed). That and I’ve seen many a Bothrops and no Bothriopsis. I guess I should say thanks for the ‘bad’ news.

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