Photo story: the cottonmouth
In the summer of 2008, I was hired as a research technician for a long-term forestry study in North Carolina. My role there was to help document biodiversity in experimentally managed pine forests to determine which methods produced the highest forest yield. As an avid lover of the outdoors and a student of biology in college, this was a great opportunity for me. As a photographer, this job provided copious amounts of time and the opportunity to shoot some genuinely amazing landscapes.
When you’re working on these pine plantations in the South, one thing you have to be aware of are venomous snakes. They’re everywhere, and they are very easy to miss if you’re not careful. For me, this fact of life in the South turned out to be extremely fortuitous. After all, it helped contribute to my shooting my favorite and most profitable photo to date: the Ditch Cottonmouth.
How it happened
I had just finished the transects on the plantation plots I had been assigned for the study, and I was tired. We had to get up insanely early to get to our research posts before the birds started singing, and I’ve never been one to go to sleep early. That morning had been particularly wet, so I left my camera in the truck to keep it safe. When I got back, I grabbed the camera to walk around, looking for interesting things to capture.
As I walked past one ditch, I heard a low rattle off to my right. It was wetter than a rattlesnake rattle, but it was definitely something moving. When I looked closer, I could see that the movement was actually down in the ditch, so I jumped down to investigate. When I did, there he was—an enormous cottonmouth lying defiantly in the leaf litter of the ditch.
At first, I was too excited to think much. I just kept staring at this beautiful snake as it stared right back at me. Almost immediately, it threw its mouth open and showed off the pristinely white interior of its mouth. This is something normal that the cottonmouth does, and it’s meant to warn potential predators that it is not to be trifled with. In fact, it’s the reason people call it a cottonmouth. The actual scientific name is Agkistrodon piscivorus, but that brilliant white mouth makes “cottonmouth” an excellent common name.
The rustling started up again, and I noticed that this was the sound of the snake rattling its tail around in the wet leaves of the ditch. Cottonmouths use the rattle in their tail for a number of different purposes, but they often use it as a way to lure fish toward their gaping mouths.
The cottonmouth can lay in wait for a very long time underwater with its mouth wide open. The mixture of the white mouth and fluttering tail positioned right in front of the fangs make a deadly combination for any unsuspecting fish. For me, I guessed it was just the snake’s way of saying, “go away.”
My colleagues began to filter out of the woods at this time, and they watched from the edge of the bank as I readied my camera, checked underneath me and behind me for more snakes, then knelt down. I put the camera to my eye, snapped a few photos, and the result is a picture that I’m told scared the film developer half to death.
The settings used
For this photo, I’ll have to approach the settings introduction a bit differently than with other photos. This is due mostly to the fact that this snake was captured on film using an SLR, before I ever had a chance to afford a DSLR. While the approach is slightly different, the basic requirements and results are approached the same with both film and digital photography. After all, the triangle of exposure is still the triangle of exposure, whether you’re shooting on large format film, 35 mm film, or digital APS-C sensors.
The camera I was using for this photo was a Canon Rebel K2 with a 28–90 mm f/4–5.6 lens. I was shooting on 400 speed film, which is the analog equivalent to the 400 ISO in your digital camera. Since I stumbled upon this snake in a ditch and was almost right on top of it, I was able to shoot at the low focal length and keep my aperture at f/4. This was absolutely key, because the brush in this area was so thick that the sunlight didn’t filter through to the ground very well. It was dim in there, I wasn’t using very fast film, and even at f/4, it’s still pretty dark.
In terms of shutter speed, the truth is that I would be lying if I said I knew exactly what shutter speed I used. At the time, I was trying to take full advantage of the opportunity presented to me, so I took shots at different shutter speeds to make positively sure that I got the image I was looking for. You have to remember that this was shot on film, not digital. If I had gone to get the film developed only to see that it was ruined by the exposure, I would have been crestfallen. The young nature hotographer in me couldn’t handle that, so I snapped away.
To me, this photo is a perfect example of how there is no such thing as a 100% definite “perfect exposure” in artistic terms. In a mathematical sense, this photo is severely underexposed, and there is some loss in the shadow detail. However, the underexposed nature of it really lends itself to the dark, foreboding emotions this image evokes. While these snakes are amazing, beautiful creatures, this picture is scary. It’s an in-your-face introduction to the amazing world of venomous reptiles, and it would not have accomplished this nearly as well were it properly exposed.
You will also notice that the eyes are in focus on this snake, which is really what you want to get when you photograph wildlife. The eyes of a wild animal are what makes them jump off the page. It gives the animal a sense of realism, a sense of place, and a sense of connection with the viewer. This snake is staring right at you while it’s opening its gaping maw, waiting for you to move forward into its grasp. If the eyes had not been in focus, this image would have just been a dark tube of meat in some dirty water. With the eyes in focus, it becomes a living, breathing creature that has a genuine sense of place.
I am by no means a famous wildlife or landscape photographer. There are men like Joel Sartore and my other idols who put me to absolute shame with their amazing work. However, this is perhaps the most famous photo I’ve ever taken. In fact, it’s probably the most famous thing I’ve ever done. If I search Google for my name today, even after a bunch of new adventures, this photo is what is most likely to show up.
Most of this is due to the fact that I was finally talked into submitting it to National Geographic as a reader submission. For the month of April 2011, it was at the front of the “Best Of” collection for that month. After it was selected by the National Geographic editors as a “Best Of,” I got a lot of shares on every social media outlet you can imagine. I also got a lot of emails after that from people looking to get prints of the photo, and it’s currently my best-selling piece. Of course, this has all died down since, and now the photo is nothing but a loving favorite in my portfolio.
Most importantly, this photo gave me confidence. It helped me believe in myself as a photographer, and it helped me understand the impact a photo can have. People are either terrified by this or they love it, and there’s rarely any middle-ground.