The Cobra danced in front of my lens, swaying its porcelain white scales and flaring its hood. This was one of the most alluring and flat-out beautiful animals I’d ever seen. Not the least bit camera shy, the cobra flicked out its pink tongue to sniff the air then suddenly lunged at the camera. Luckily there was a pane of glass keeping me safe from the snake. I was at the Reptile Zoo in Slade, Kentucky partaking in something I generally frown upon, which is taking photos of captive animals, not ones in the wild. As I discovered, however, there are situations when shooting captive animals won’t throw your soul on the barbecue. Identifying these situations and how to present captive animal photos ethically is what I want to discuss today. Lastly I’ll give some tips on how the shots illustrating this article were done.
The Face that Launched a Thousand Clicks. The Suphan-phase Monocled Cobra that changed my mind about shooting captive animals. The venom from this snake is a neurotoxin used for antivenin. Snake neurotoxins also have applications in pain control and anti-viral research. Captive venom donor.
The Kentucky Reptile Zoo is a non-profit organization maintaining one of the largest collections of venomous snakes in the world – close to 2000 individuals and over 100 species. The snakes and other reptiles are kept as education animals and venom donors. Hundreds of snakes have venom extracted there each day. The venom is used to make antivenin and other pharmaceuticals as well as for research in treating various cancers, heart disease, arthritis, Parkinson’s Disease and Alzheimer’s disease to name a few. These snakes save human lives and that’s a cause we can all get behind.
The Egyptian Saw-scaled Viper doesn’t have the most potent venom in the world, but it does lay claim to the most fatal bites per annum. If you’re running around barefoot in the Egyptian desert far from medical help you have good cause to fear this snake. However, if you suffer a heart attack or stroke, the powerful anti-clotting agents in the Saw-scaled Viper’s hemotoxic venom might save your life. Ironic that the snake that kills the most people in the world saves far more human lives than it takes. Captive venom donor.
Viewing the Reptile Zoo’s website I got an idea how I could use my photography to help the zoo with its mission. One of the ways the zoo raises funds is by putting the animals up for “adoption”. For example, a donation of 25 dollars pays for a year’s feeding and maintenance of an Egyptian Saw-scaled Viper. A hundred bucks will keep a King Cobra fat and sassy for a year. Either donation will get you a certificate of adoption, your name on the animal’s enclosure and a picture of your adopted reptile. In my mind the pictures on the zoo’s website didn’t do justice to how enchanting and gorgeous these reptiles were. I offered the zoo portraits of their snakes for use on their Facebook page, website and in their adoption program. In return they allowed to me to come in and shoot on days when they were closed to the public and provided an employee or intern to answer my questions and give other assistance. A classic win-win.
For a tax-deductible donation of 50 bucks this East African Green Mamba will be your BFF for an entire year. Captive venom donor.
Now some readers might be thinking there could be a sweet tax write-off in this situation. Let’s say my day rate for hire is $2500 and I spend three days shooting then donate the photos to a not-for-profit. Can I write off $7500 in charitable contributions? The answer is no. All you can write off is material expenses (in this case about one dollar for the DVD disk I burned the photos on for the zoo) and perhaps your travel and meal expenses for the shoot. In other words you’re doing this out of the kindness of your heart and scoring big karma points.
Even if you aren’t getting paid, keep it professional. I gave the zoo a letter outlining the photo rights I was giving them; in this case non-exclusive rights to use my photos on their website and for their adoption program without time limit. I got a property release signed in case I found other uses for the shots in the future.
When deciding if you want to shoot a captive animal the first things to consider are why is the animal captive and how is it being treated? Is the animal a rescue – perhaps injured when found, then raised back to health, but unable to care for itself in wild? Is the animal used for education? Is it healthy and well cared for? Are the owners/caretakers in it for the entire natural life of the animal? A yes to any of the above would assuage my reservations about photographing a captive animal. On the other hand a yes to any of the following would dissuade me. Is the animal kept and displayed for profit? Was it raised on a game farm? Is it part of the exotic pet trade? Is it mistreated? Is it Mike Tyson’s pet tiger?
Finally ask yourself why it is you want to shoot the animal and what do you plan to do with the photos? Will the photo use benefit the animal, the environment, society in general or just your pocketbook?
If you shoot captive animals it is imperative that the word “captive” appear in both the file name and caption of the photos. Scrupulous editors will look for this and will caption such photos as captive. If you think you can sneak a game farm animal past the editors, think twice. They can tell a tame bobcat from a mile away (the fur just looks too perfect) and they can look at a inbred whitetail’s gargantuan rack and tell you which game farm it was shot at.
A Tokara Habu (captive venom donor). For search engine optimization my file naming for this shot goes like this: (photographer)-(Species)-(captive)-(location) Verm-Tokara-Habu-captive-Kentucky-Reptile-Zoo.jpg. Including the scientific name (in this case Protobothrops tokarensis) in the keywording and/or caption can be helpful as well.
Should you think “captive” labeling is just an ethics issue, you’re wrong. It is also a safety issue. In recent years, there’s been a distinct correlation between numbers of snakebite victims admitted to emergency rooms and the increase in “reality” nature TV shows. The vast majority of footage of TV show hosts handling dangerous animals is staged with trained animals, or ones with venom glands removed and/or “put on ice” or malnourished to slow the animal’s metabolism. Because this fact is hidden or glossed over in the shows, there’s no shortage of folks (especially in the 18-34 drunken male demographic – no stats available as to what percent was drinking Busch Light) that try and duplicate what they’ve seen on TV. Unfortunately, they try it with healthy alert wild specimens that in self-defense bite the idiots and drive up all of our insurance premiums.
Now that we’ve discussed the ethics of captive animal photography I’d like to share a few tips about shooting reptiles through glass. First remember the glass is your friend and ally when it comes to safety – having it there allows you and the subject to relax and not fear each other. I say remember that, because more likely than not you’ll be cursing all the reflections you’ll be fighting and might also be dealing with smudges and spots on the glass surface. To deal with the reflections cut the lights outside the enclosure if possible. I had the help of the interns to darken one side or other of the reptile rooms. Still, with the lights out, there will be the enclosure lighting that will spill out into the room. Wear black clothes use a black tripod and shoot Nikon lenses. Ha! – Canon fanboys with their white lens barrels will face a retouching nightmare – get out the gaffer’s tape. A black cloth or card can be held alongside the glass to cut any furt her reflections. Once you’ve done everything you can to cut reflections, scratches and spots on the glass will be the next challenge. Getting close to the glass with your lens hood resting on the glass and shooting relatively wide open to minimize depth of field will make most spots unnoticeable. Also using a longer focal length will help – I mostly shot with a 105mm macro and sometimes a 50mm if I wanted a wider field of view, but never with a wide angle.
Making reflections work for me – a Desert Horned Viper checks out its reflection in the glass wall of its enclosure. A lot of retouching was used to get rid of blemishes on the glass surface. Thank goodness the snake had perfect skin. Captive venom donor.
A common lighting scheme for reptile enclosures is fluorescent on one end and incandescent on the other – this gives the reptile (who is cold-blooded) a choice of warmer and cooler environments depending on it’s needs at the time (for instance, they digest their food better when they are warm). However, this mixed lighting creates tricky white balance issues that are best dealt with by shooting RAW and correcting white balance in post. I found that often I would correct the white balance to look almost right, but then have to add some magenta to my D7000 and D600 files to get accurate skin/scale tones.
Some snakes, such as the mambas, are very active moving about their enclosures and require high ISOs to get acceptable shutter speeds for handheld action tracking. Others, like rattlesnakes and adders, are ambush predators and lie motionless allowing low ISO, tripod-stabilized shots (go ahead and turn off the VR) with slow, sometimes multi-second, shutter speeds.
The Black Mamba gets its name not from its dark body but from the black interior of its mouth. Snakes only yawn occasionally so seeing the interior of their mouths isn’t easy. After snakes finish swallowing prey though, they often adjust their jaws and give an open mouth glimpse. At ISO 2000 I was still shooting at 1/50th sec with VR enabled and f/5 on a 105mm macro to get enough depth of field to get the front and back of the eye in focus. Captive venom donor.
One last aside on the post-processing – these photos were shot to be appealing portraits of the individual snakes and enhance their adoptability, hence I liberally dodged, burned and applied vignettes to the shots to get a classic portrait studio look.
This guest post was submitted by John “Verm” Sherman, who was awarded Flagstaff Photography Center’s 2012 Emerging Artist of the Year award. A portfolio of his Peregrine Falcon images was recently featured in the November 2013 Arizona Highways. Verm currently has work on display both at The Phoenix Airport Museum (Sky Harbor airport) and Flagstaff’s High Country Conference Center. Visit his website and blog at www.vermphoto.com.
All images copyright John Sherman.