Some Experiences When
- The Stories Behind The Photos.
by Raymond T. Hoser, 41 Village Avenue, Doncaster, Victoria, 3108, Australia. Fax: +61 3 9857-4664
Originally published in THE HERPTILE - JOURNAL OF THE INTERNATIONAL HERPETOLOGICAL SOCIETY 15 (4) December 1990 pp. 128-136.
Elsewhere, I've documented techniques used when photographing reptiles, including in my book 'Australian Reptiles and Frogs'. If I refer to plate numbers in this paper, these are the plate numbers as listed in the aforementioned book.
I assume that readers are familiar with 'tricks of the trade' in reptile photography, including 'cooling specimens' by refrigeration to make them more placid, coiling specimens by placing them under a container such as a pot, ice-cream container or even cupped hands, and the construction of 'natural backgrounds' when taking photos at a reptile keeper's house, some distance from the natural habitat of the reptile concerned.
In this article I refer to recurring problems and past experiences, all relating to setting that elusive 'perfect shot'.
One of the things that really gets me down is when after spending an enormous amount of time 'constructing' a natural setting or stage on which to photograph a snake, the snake excretes everything it can over the stage, totally ruining all your hard work and causing you to have to spend even more time reconstructing the setting before you can even contemplate trying to photograph the snake again.
Although it is easy to say 'well don't try to photograph a snake three days after feeding it', a reptile photographer rarely has the luxury of being able to dictate the feeding habits of a snake he is about to photograph.
Once I was at Joe Bredl's Reptile Park in South Australia, photographing a number of his snakes, including White-lipped python, Liasis albertisi, hybrid Carpet/Water python, Morelia spilota x Liasis fuscus, hybrid Carpet x Scrub python, M. spilota x M. amethistina, and two female Northern Death Adders, Acanthophis praelongus. The only suitable stage in his whole park to photograph reptiles on was a large red coloured rock outside his celebrated 'Python Cave'.
The first snake I tried to photograph was the hybrid Carpet x Scrub python, and sure enough, as soon as it was placed on the rock, it did the biggest, runniest dropping possible, totally ruining the 'quality' of the stage. It took me almost half an hour to clean the rock properly, so that it was suitable again for me to take photographs. The problem was, that every other snake who sat on the rock felt the same way about it, and for two days it seemed that we spent more time cleaning the red rock of snake excrement then we did taking photos. The red rock in question can be seen as a background in plates 353, 358 - 361 and 380.
Fast moving venomous snakes often get the 'freezer treatment', that is they are cooled down so that they are more sluggish, and in theory aren't inclined to try to run away. Obviously the skill here is to try to get the snake to slow down as much as possible, without adversely affecting their health, and so make them easier to pose and handle. Seems all right in theory, but what actually happens isn't always what one wants.
Once I cooled as much as possible a juvenile Tiger snake, Notechis scutatus, and then marched down the road with the snake in a bag to photograph it on a rock in nearby bushland. However, because the snake was so small and the weather so warm, the snake rapidly re-heated and by the time I placed it on the rock it was red hot and raring to go. As I placed it onto the rock the snake struck at me, I jumped back, and it made it's escape. Needless to say, I got no photos of that snake.
A colleague, who I won't embarrass by naming, captured an adult Tiger snake and then prepared to photograph it. Whilst trying to pose the snake it bit him and he was rushed to hospital. Not only did he not get his photograph, but he nearly died in the process.
When photographing a Taipan, Oxyuranus scutellatus, Neil Charles of Queensland had the unenviable task of trying to get the snake to pose for the pictures. The snake wouldn't sit still for more than a second, and knowing how fast and dangerous this species is, Neil knew he was playing a game of life or death. He wasn't bitten, but during that session Neil's abuse of me and my desire to get those Taipan photos didn't let up. Incidentally, Neil has had a few brushes with death from various venomous snake bites, (including a bite on the HEAD from a Taipan!).
It took over an hour for me to get one barely acceptable photo of the animal, which is pictured in plate 431. For that photo, the snake was restrained underneath an ice-cream container and the photo taken the split second it was lifted, before the snake had a chance to move off. The photo was taken on a 'stage' inside a garage.
Reptile owners often have no idea as to what their own reptile's capabilities are and aren't. The owner of the Oenpelli python, Morelia oenpelliensis, pictured in plates 334 and 335, sincerely thought that the snake would run off at high speed the moment the drum covering it was lifted off. The four and a half metre snake was photographed in the middle of a car track in the centre of a large open picnic area. The snake would have had to travel at least 100 metres to find any ground cover. Hardly 'escape material' by any means. The funniest part was when the drum was lifted off the snake, the owner of the snake (not an experienced herpetologist) started to scream at me to take my photos before the snake ran off.
Not only didn't the snake try to run off, but it sat dead still for at least half an hour, after which we picked it up and took it back to its cage. For the entire duration of my photographic session of this snake, the owner was jumping up and down telling me to hurry up before the snake ran off. He'd made a real idiot of himself by spending the half hour before photographing the snake by telling me how I'd never get it to sit still. He was wrong on every count, and in quite a big way.
An Inspection of plate 334 will reveal the Oenpelli python in almost square coils. This is because it had been restrained by a square drum, and didn't move a bit after the drum was lifted.
My own skills in predicting snake behavior haven't always been perfect either. When photographing a number of Scrub pythons, M. amethistina, at Hartley's Creek in North Queensland, I was astounded by what I thought was unusually docile behavior by a two and a half metre Scrub python. 'Scrubbies' are usually of 'snappy' temperament. I was boasting to my friends how docile this one was, and how if I was to have another Scrubbie, this would be the one. My first Scrub python was stolen in 1981, and was later recorded as dying in the 'care' of NPWS officials shortly after.
Just after I'd finished one of my repeated exhaltations to a colleague as to how nice this Scrubbie was, it leapt at me without provocation and bit the top of my hand. Being a large snake, its numerous teeth sunk into the top of my hand and caught in the flesh, turning it up, and giving me one of the worst reptile bite wounds that I'd ever had.
Reptiles that are overheated to the extent that they won't sit still are often a problem in hotter areas. Typically, when on field trips to hotter areas, I take my photos at first light in the morning, before it gets too hot. Unfortunately, this isn't always feasible, due to the large numbers of reptiles needed to be photographed and my constant battle to get my flashgun batteries recharged.
Once, at Shay Gap, Western Australia, it was about 42 degrees Celsius and I was photographing reptiles on a large red rock adjacent to a miner's hut. It was late in the afternoon. We parked our vehicle in a position so that its shadow covered the rock so as to keep it out of direct sunlight, and we cooled our reptiles before photographing them by giving them a spell in the refrigerator. These reptiles included the Black-headed python, Aspidites melanocephalus pictured in plate 311.
The problem facing us was that the rock temperature was also excessively high, so we cooled the rock by placing crushed ice blocks on its surface. The ice rapidly melted and the water tended to evaporate. It was the only thing I could think of to get the rock surface to an acceptably low temperature for the snake and other reptiles in question. It is because of this that the rock appears wet in plate 311. For many of my 'outback' photographic sessions, an esky full of ice is an essential adjunct.
Cooling geckos has never been a feasible proposition however, as they tend to place their heads on the ground surface when cool and give a 'dead look'. Dragon lizards are at their best colours when hot, and I have been known to place specimens in an oven at low heat to bring out their best attributes.
Just recently I was photographing a Dugite, Pseudonaja affinis, and I had my first reptile casualty. I asked the snake's owner to put the snake in the fridge for a spell, as it would be necessary to slow down this fast moving, deadly snake. Jokingly I said to him, 'leave it in there until it's as stiff as a board'. He took me seriously though. Every couple of minutes I would ask him, 'Is the snake ready yet? Is it O.K.?', to which held reply, 'It's still too fast, I'll leave it in there for a bit longer'. I was getting worried after a while, as the snake was not very big, say 100 grams and 70 cms in length, and I knew that if it was in the freezer it must be suffering by the stage I began querying its health. As the minutes ticked by the snake's owner assured me that it was well and still far too warm. What was reassuring was that the snake was being looked at every couple of minutes, so I thought it must be O.K.. I thought it was being monitored very closely.
Eventually he brought me the snake to photograph. The problem was however, he'd literally frozen it solid. It was quite simply 'as stiff as a board'. I nearly died of shock after I saw this, and needless to say the snake didn't survive the ordeal. However, after it had thawed out somewhat, it was very easy to pose. It certainly didn't attempt to run away!
Some skinks may be frozen solid, later thawed out and survive the ordeal. At Sydney University a number of experiments in this regard have been conducted. A colleague froze solid a gravid female Southern Water skink, Eulamprus heatwolei, and then thawed out the lizard slightly to photograph it. Apparently, it posed beautifully and all the young were born live, without any complications.
Most reptile books published in Australia have photos of dead reptiles. These are usually quite obviously so, and are typically preserved museum specimens. Occasionally one may obtain a freshly killed road victim, DOR (dead on road), and from its photo it may be impossible to tell that it is dead. From the head shot of the Slatey-grey snake, Stegonotus cucullatus, in plate 373, it would be very difficult to tell that this was a DOR snake.
One author who wrote a book on Australian reptiles some years ago (whom I won't name here) apparently tied lizards to their spot with fishing wire. This cruel practice was used to hold the reptiles in their place. An even worse practice allegedly used by some was to nail living specimens to the spot.
The use of 'stuffed' reptiles in photographs is common in non-herpetological publications. The most commonly seen 'stuffed' photos are those of the familiar snake/mongoose routine.
Once I was using two very hot 2000 watt light bulbs to take photos of a pair of copulating Death Adders, A. antarcticus, in their cage. The lights were being held directly over the snakes, and the heat being radiated seemed to increase the immediate sexual activity of both snakes. I slipped and knocked the bulbs into the cage where they landed and smashed on top of the snakes. It didn't stop them from continuing to copulate, they were apparently oblivious to what had happened.
Sea turtles have always been difficult for me to photograph. The Hawksbill turtle, Eretmochelys imbricata, that I photographed was sourced at a fun park some distance inland from the coast. After fishing the turtle out of a large tank, we decided that the sand in the kiddies' sand pit was going to be the most natural looking background. However, it was full of bottle tops, cigarette butts and similar trash. After feebly trying to remove the offending matter and attempting to remove human hand and foot prints, the turtle was placed on the sand surface. That was when the trouble really began - almost immediately the turtle started using its flippers to throw sand at me and my camera. Sand went all through my equipment.
The turtle was a belligerent subject, but after persevering for about half an hour I got my photos, plates 103-4. It took about another hour or so to clean the sand off the camera, flash and tripod.
At Mon Repos beach, Bundaberg, Queensland, I had a very hard time photographing the hatchling turtles. Hatchlings are like 'wind-up toys', and nothing seems to stop them from moving. Even when picked up. their legs keep moving as if to walk or swim. The only way I was able to photograph specimens was to restrain them, and then photograph them immediately after releasing them and before they could run away, Typically the hatchling turtles were placed under a human hand, and then the picture was taken when the hand was lifted. Difficult enough you might say, but at Mon Repos it was even worse.
Some idiot tourists thought that I was being supremely cruel in taking photos of these 'poor defenceless turtles' at night as they made their way to the sea. A group of about ten people followed myself and my colleague along the beach and tried to prevent us from taking photos of the turtles by waving their hands in front of the camera, and grabbing moving turtles as I was about to photograph them. Interestingly though, when questioned about the turtles the tourists displayed total ignorance of the turtles in question and were even unable to tell the difference between Flatback, Chelonia depressa, and Loggerhead, Caretta caretta, hatchlings, the difference being substantial, as seen in plates 98 - 100.
My photography on Mon Repos beach was terminated when one of the band who were preventing me from taking pictures threw handfuls of wet sand at me and my camera. These people who were so busily harassing me ignored a group who were having a 'turtle-fight'; that is when people pick up hatchlings and throw them through the air at one another (could this only happen in Australia?).
I was allowed to photograph a large Green turtle, Chelonia mydas, at Neptune's Coral Cave, Hervey Bay, Queensland, but the owners of the establishment told me that I'd have to fish the turtle out of the large tank myself. The turtle in question probably weighed about 70 kilos, the most photogenic of about three similar sized specimens in the tank. It was obviously going to be hard for me to swim after the turtle and catch it. I was then to drag it to the surface of the tank where about three staff members would assist me in lifting it out of the water and onto an adjacent walkway. From there we would carry the turtle onto a nearby beach where I would take my photos (plates 101-2).
Sounded easy enough in theory, but the practice was a little different. I asked the owners about the large sharks swimming around in the same tank, seeing that the sharks had jaws large enough to take off my legs if they chose. The owners replied, 'Don't worry about the sharks, but the turtles will probably have you for dinner'. I was surprised and asked them about their comment, to which they said, 'Captive turtles reckon people are the nicest tasting things in the world!'.
I didn't mind that at all, as I thought that if the turtles came after me I'd grab my turtle quickly and be out of the shark-infested tank in a hurry, so reluctantly I jumped into the large circular tank.
As soon as I jumped in the sharks moved faster than I'd ever seen them move before. Fortunately they were swimming away from me, not at me. They were far more scared of me then I was of them. Once I'd realised this, my confidence was boosted, so I started swimming towards the turtle, who was also aiming for me. The sharks always stayed in a group at the furthest possible place away from me in the tank. I lunged at the turtle and he darted off with underwater agility that would be hard to imagine after seeing them on land. They literally fly through the water. Not to be outdone, the other two turtles had swam up to me and started to try and munch on my feet, and believe me, they've got strong beaks, so I was more than worried. In hindsight, it reminded me of when I used to feed my freshwater tortoises of various types with meat held from my fingers, and they tried to take my fingers instead of the meat.
Eventually, after numerous attempts I managed to corner the wanted turtle, grab it, have an aquatic wrestling match with it, and somehow get it out of the tank. Photographing it on the beach wasn't easy of course. The turtle refused to raise its head above the sand, so it gave a 'dead-look'. Besides that, it had this urge to just keep walking away, non-stop. I was on the verge of giving up on the turtle when I just let it walk off, and it walked about a hundred metres towards the water at the low tide line. It eventually tired and it was then that it stopped moving and put its head in t he air in order to look around - it was then that I grabbed my best photos, (the only usable 'body photos'), including plate 101.
Freshwater tortoises haven't been much better to me either. I seem to have a habit of photographing them on rainy days, and when taking the photos of the Northern Long-necked tortoise, Chelodina rugosa, on plates 114-5, the heavens opened and it rained all over my camera equipment, ruining the electronic circuitry of the camera. It cost me a substantial amount of money to fix.
Recently I have been taking a few photos for a planned book about endangered animals of Australia, (since published in 1991) and the majority of species in the book are mammals and birds. The birds in particular have been an unusual type of subject to photograph.
Birds seem to have an inate inability to sit still. They seem to have a compulsive urge to move and fly from perch to perch. As most of my photos have been taken in aviaries, I had to block out the adjacent cage wires by placing walls of vegetation between the perches and the wire, and take my photographs of the birds with the vegetation in the background. The vegetation used is usually branch cuttings from trees growing nearby.
Although birds don't tend to defecate in such a manner as to ruin their photographic stage, they do have a habit of flying overhead and defecating on the photographer and camera instead. I have suffered this fate more than once, particularly from Scarlet-chested Parrots, Neophema sp.
In relation to stories behind photographs, the cover of my book, 'Australian Reptiles and Frogs', is perhaps one of the oddest. The Green python, Chondropython viridis, was photographed in a living room in suburban Sydney. That's not unusual in itself, what was unusual was the source of the snake. The herpetologist who held the snake had smuggled it into Australia as a juvenile, after it had been captive bred from parents in the United States. The snake was in fact an American snake.
Now that is odd. An American snake on the cover of a book called 'Australian Reptiles and Frogs'.
Hoser, R. T., 1989. Australian Reptiles and Frogs. Published by Pierson & Co., Australia. 238 pp.
Photos reproduced with this article. Both by Raymond Hoser.
1/ Little Whip snake, Unechis flagellum (Whittlesea, Victoria, Australia). Snake supplied by Grant Turner, Melbourne-based Herpetologist.
2/ Female Diamond python, Morelia spilota spilota. (St. Ives, New South Wales, Australia). (File number MS-12).
Raymond Hoser has been an active herpetologist for about 30 years and published over 150 papers in journals worldwide and nine books.
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