BEHIND THE IMAGE | Fer-de-lance


I often hear photographers say that they shoot only natural light. I love photographs that have pleasing natural light, and I respect a great landscape or wildlife shot where the photographer was in the right place at the right time or persisted until getting that magical light. Indeed, great natural light makes great photos, particularly for landscapes and larger wildlife. When I see interesting natural light for any image -- landscape, bird, snake, frog, monkey, or mushroom -- I'm all over it. But, I don't see how relying only on natural light (often because the photographer doesn't know how to use flash well) is a badge of honor for the nature photographer.

The reality of nature photography, especially for the rainforest photographer, is that nature doesn't often give us what we want, when we want it. I was confronted with this situation recently while shooting for my coffee table book in the Corcovado National Park on Costa Rica's Osa Peninsula. Days were made up of hard hiking with plenty of gear and wearing rubber boots (to cross numerous creeks and muddy spots but also for safety), looking for things to photograph in the dense forest. My task was to photograph beach scenes, forest interiors, plants, bugs, snakes/lizards, mammals, and birds. Basically, the idea was to bring back a portfolio (in one week!) that would give book readers a good sense of what this area of the country was all about. That meant taking my whole kit with me at all times out in the forest, and it made for some long hot days!

While hiking around mid-day near the Rio Claro, my local guide Jorge went looking for a fer-de-lance he had spotted the previous week. It wasn't in the same spot but minutes later, I heard him shout "Terciopelo!" and yep, there it was right off the trail -- a meter long fer-de-lance.

-As always, a little reminder that I work hard on the site. So, if the spirit moves you, consider buying your next gear through the affiliate links on this site; you pay the same, and I make a little something to keep the site going. Below is the gear I used for this shoot (camera was a Canon 5DII which has been discontinued). Gracias!-

Fer-de-lance, Bothrops asper, are very dangerous, but they are nocturnal. When resting during the day, as this one was, they tend to be pretty calm as long as they are not disturbed. I really wanted a shot of a fer-de-lance in real leaf litter (I have plenty from snake zoos), and this was a nice specimen in a nice position. By using a longer lens (my 70-300 mm zoom), I was able to work at a distance comfortable for me and the subject.

The big problem was the light. In rainforests at mid-day, you normally get one of two things -- soft but very dim light with rainy conditions or sunny, very patchy/contrasty light when it's clear. I actually don't mind patchy light, particularly for a subject such as a snake on the rainforest floor as it makes for a nice cue as to the subject's habitat. Furthermore, a rainforest image with light and shadow is usually much more interesting to me than soft overcast light, especially for a snake, where a chiaroscuro effect brings out that sinister character we associate with serpents.

When faced with patchy midday light, however, things have to be just right. The light has to hit the subject's head and then accent only parts of the image that contribute something positive to the final product. That simply doesn't happen very often, and it wasn't happening with my snake this day. Below is how my shot looked with natural light -- ouch!


I needed a strategy to tame or simply rid myself of the natural light. The first thing many macro/closeup photographers would have thought of was to use a diffuser. I had one in my Kiboko pack, but using it would have given me soft light, which would be great for a flower but wouldn't make for an exciting snake picture. I really wanted that light and shadow for the emotional effect and for the texture it would bring out (the species name asper, after all, means "rough") in the snake's scales.

What about using the diffuser and then employing a reflector to bounce light back into the scene? That's a great technique that many photographers use for flowers and mushrooms, and I had a reflector in my pack as well. I didn't use it here for three reasons. First, it wouldn't really have given me the directional effect I wanted. Second, since it was mid-day, finding an angle from which to bounce the light would have been difficult. Third, and most importantly, waving two big bright circles around at close distance to a fer-de-lance seemed like a very bad idea!

The obvious choice, then, was flash, and I needed more than one. Of course, I never head out into the forest without at least two flashes, so I was all set. Using the Phottix Odin radio transmitter system, which I am coming to absolutely love, made the job easy. Once I composed and focused (with my camera on a tripod and using Live View), I needed to decide on my exposure. Since I wanted to eliminate all natural light and let my flashes take over (just as in a studio), I knew I wanted a small aperture, a relatively fast shutter speed, and a low ISO. Settings of f/16, 1/200, and ISO 100 gave me a completely black frame when I pressed the shutter button. Perfect!

Phottix Odin
Phottix Odin

Now I could concentrate on what I wanted to do with my lighting. I took out the Phottix Odin transmitter unit and put it in the camera's hotshoe. Using the LCD panel on the back, I could control the output of the two flashes I would be using off-camera. I chose the new Phottix Mitros + flash, which has Odin capability built-in, meaning it instantly can be controlled wirelessly and via radio frequency. The other flash I used was a Canon 430 EX, which, when fitted with an Odin receiver, also integrated seamlessly into my setup. I used diffusing screens on the flashes to soften the light a bit. I normally would have used small softboxes but I actually didn't want to diffuse the flashes that much for this particular image. Light too soft in quality would have made the snake look too beautiful, and I wanted it to look threatening.

I chose to avail myself of two of the three features that I most like about the Odin system (support for high-speed sync is great but didn't come into play here). First, using radio frequency rather than infrared meant I didn't have to worry about line of sight between transmitter and flashes. Second, using TTL made things easier and allowed me to concentrate on the lighting ratio I wanted rather than distances and guide numbers. I could have done it old school, of course, but going radio and TTL meant much less fooling around, allowing me to get my shots and move on. Efficiency of this sort was a huge boon when working around a snake.

I set one flash to be in group A and the other to group B. Using the LCD panel on the Odin transmitter, I set the flash to come from right front to TTL -.7 and the flash coming from back left to TTL 0. I wanted the backlight to be slightly stronger than the front/side light to give dimension and make the snake stand out from the leaf litter. Setting the camera on timer mode, I walked around to the back left and aimed my flash. Jorge held the other flash at front right. We did about three shots, adjusting the positioning of the flashes a bit before I was happy with the result. Making a baffle with our hand on each flash helped to keep the light focused more on the snake and less on the surrounding leaves.

Could I have gone more dramatic? Certainly, and I actually did a few minutes later, switching to my 300 mm f/2.8 lens for shallow depth of field with more directional light. But, I knew I wanted one shot that was more traditional as it would likely be the one that the book publisher would prefer simply so people could appreciate a bit more of what the snake looks like. So, I shot one this one that I quite liked but was more for the publisher and one that I really liked but knew that it would be more for me. That's a good thing to keep in mind when shooting for a specific project.


I was quite happy with the look and feel of the shot. The lighting, though totally fabricated, looks to me to be a very nice fascimile of what the natural light would have looked like in a perfect world. And of course the image quality and sharpness brought out by the directional lighting is very nice. Below is a crop of the snake's head -- look at all of those ticks going to work!

Where there were some technical challenges to this shot,  the more difficult part of this image was finding the subject (thanks, Jorge!), previsualizing what I wanted, and then doing everything while dripping sweat and getting bitten by mosquitos, all while trying to minimize movement around a dangerous, if calm, subject.

I hope you've enjoyed this post... My thanks to Mike and Jorge of Osa Aventura for your help during my week in the park. If you're going to Osa I definitely recommend hooking up with them. I'm already planning a trip back next year to visit other parts of the Osa for different subjects and will be contacting Mike and Jorge.

I hope you've enjoyed this blog post and that it gives you some ideas for your own photography. If you want to learn more of these techniques, consider joining me for one of my workshops. And please leave a comment below if you're in the mood.

Cheers from Costa Rica!