Behind The Shot: Sonoran Lyresnake

Photographing a wildlife subject in its habitat beneath the stars

Photo By Scott Trageser

Challenging shoots are what keep me addicted to photography, and capturing nocturnal creatures in their habitats is one of those challenges. The first objective in a shoot like this, as with any wildlife photograph, is to find the beast.

It was an exceptionally dry year in southern Arizona, which reduced the activity of many species, including our target, a white speckled rattlesnake. We came up empty-handed looking for our intended subject, but that gave me the opportunity to focus on more commonly encountered creatures like this Sonoran lyresnake. It’s a species that few spend the time to photograph, even those who are keen on snake photography.

Though the snake is not rare, it still took many hours hiking through a remote mountain range on the U.S.-Mexico border to finally scare one up. On the way back to our trucks, my colleague stumbled upon this beauty, a lighter color than most, in a wash bottom and fortuitously near this rather perfect ironwood log and Bursera bush. We gently placed the snake in a breathable cotton bag and got to work setting up the camera.

Knowing it was going to take multiple exposures to light the scene properly, I grabbed my smallest tripod and composed the scene with my partner holding the diffused flash above. Once the settings for the foreground and background shots were dialed in, it was time to work with the subject.

Reptile and amphibian photography is a bit different than most forms of wildlife photography in that it requires ethical handling and posing of the subject. These creatures being small, erratic, close to the ground or in dense vegetation means that beautiful unposed shots are extremely rare. The goal is then to minimize subject stress (and your own) as much as possible, which is why I emphasize having everything ready for the shot before introducing the subject. This way, only a couple shots are needed, and the snake is allowed to continue its nightly jaunt.

Three shots were needed here, all of which were taken in the exact same spot, with a Nikon D850 and an AF-S NIKKOR 24mm f/1.4G ED lens. For the two foreground exposures, my exposure was 1/250 sec., ƒ/10, ISO 64 with a Nikon SB-5000 speedlight diffused through a large softbox. For the night sky, I used a 20-second exposure (ƒ/1.4, ISO 400) to give a slight trail to the stars, making them ever-so-slightly larger. The three exposures were adjusted in Lightroom and combined in Photoshop. It was quite the meticulous task to mask the entire Bursera bush so stars could show behind it, but it was certainly worth the time. OP

Scott Trageser is a conservation biologist and a member of the International League of Conservation Photographers’ Emerging League mentorship program. See more of his work at naturestills.com.