Behind the Frame (Macro Photography): Not so plain Plain Mountain Adder

Shivan Parusnath Macro, Shivan 6 Comments

Happy #macromonday!

The Plain Mountain Adder (Bitis inornata) is an Endangered dwarf adder species, found only in a very, very small area in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa. The species occurs in high-lying, mountainous habitat, in a sparsely populated agricultural region, and as such, has very rarely ever been seen in the wild. Thus far, all that is known about the species (almost nothing), is known from seven wild individuals (and a few of their offspring).


Bill Branch with one of the seven wild Bitis inornata ever found (previous to this trip!)

Bill Branch with one of only seven wild Plain Mountain Adders ever found (previous to this trip!)

A fellow research biologist (Dr. Bryan Maritz – Facebook page) recently initiated a project to study the biology of this elusive species, and so a team of six keen biologists travelled to the region of Graaff-Reinet for a pilot study in November 2015, with the sole aim of finding and studying these rare snakes. On the first day, on the first mountain the team climbed, Bryan serendipitously lifted a rock to find the 8th ever wild-caught Plain Mountain Adder underneath! After finding the target species only several hours into the expedition, hopes were high that we would find several more individuals and start piecing together the story of the life history of this rare species.

Alas, our team of seasoned herpetologists did not find a single other Plain Mountain Adder over the next week, despite exhaustive searches across the known range. Even thorough searches around the vicinity of this individual did not yield any further snakes. For me, this only made the species even more mysterious, since the idea of one of these individuals finding a mate in the wild seemed nearly impossible! Of course, not being a snake, the cues involved in mate-searching might be fairly obvious and simplistic, but these secrets cannot be unlocked until more animals are found, and their movement patterns and habitat requirements are further studied. This pilot research trip certainly gave us insight to the challenges of studying such a rare species.

Regardless, I was given the rare opportunity to photograph this individual, and here are two of my favourite images of this beautiful animal.

*Note 1 : This animal was kept overnight so that it could be measured, weighed, tissue-sampled and tagged. In order to work with this Endangered species, Dr. Maritz obtained a permit from the Eastern Cape’s Department of Economic Development and Environmental Affairs. The rules vary from province to province, but if you plan on handling a wild reptile, particularly a Threatened species, appropriate permits are needed.

*Note 2: Like all adders, Bitis inornata is a venomous snake. Since nobody has been bitten by one before, the effects of the venom are unknown. Therefore, we took caution when working with the snake to stay out of striking distance. In each of the two photos below I describe how I worked with the snake to remain safe throughout the photo sessions. Always have someone with you when photographing a dangerous snake.

1. Portrait

I had envisioned this photo weeks before the trip. Since the snake is very small in size, I wanted to create a moody portrait on the snake’s level, so that it could be seen from the point-of-view of another Plain Mountain Adder, or perhaps a prey item. I wanted to focus on the dragon-like head of this snake, since the detail of the rough, keeled scales on its head could be easily missed when focused on whole body shots. I also wanted to use an interplay of light and shadow to really show off these the scales. I lay on the ground in front of the snake, and used my Canon 100mm f/2.8 IS L lens to frame the tight portrait that I wanted. With this lens, I could get enough reach that I had a safe working distance from the animal, so I was not worried about the snake striking at me. Nevertheless, I had Johan Marais from the African Snakebite Institute guiding me throughout the photo session to ensure I was at a safe working distance. Here is the resulting photo:


Plain Mountain Adder (Bitis inornata) portrait. Photographed with a Canon 100mm f/2.8 IS L lens and diffused MT-24EX macro twin flash at 1/200th sec, f/20, ISO 50.

I used the maximum shutter speed when an external flash is attached – 1/200th sec. The flash itself freezes the subject’s movements, so I did not need a very high shutter speed for this image. I chose an ISO speed of 50, since at ISO 50, noise will be absolutely minimal. I used a relatively small aperture of f/20 to get as much of the head of the snake in focus without my image being subject to diffraction as a result of too small an aperture. Importantly, the magic created in this image comes from the use of the MT-24EX macro twin flash. For this image, each flash head was mounted separately on flexible arms and positioned on either side of the snakes head. I used softboxes on each flash to diffuse the light coming through them to avoid harsh catchlights on the scales and eyes of the snake. I placed the right flash a bit further away from the head of the snake than the left flash, and slightly reduced the power output from the right head. This created an uneven lighting situation, which for this image worked beautifully, creating an interplay of lighting and shadows that really accentuated the scales on the dragon-like head of the snake. Post-processing, this image required very little extra work, since all the work went into the planning and execution of the shot in the field.

2. Close-up wide-angle

Very very few people will ever get to see one of these snakes in the wild, so I wanted to show the animal in its environment. For this next image, I used a wide-angle lens with brilliant close-up capabilities (Sigma 20mm f/1.8). Again, for this image, I was flat on my stomach in front of the snake, and with this lens, I had to get much closer to the snake to get a decent close-up. Again, I had Johan watching me to ensure I was working at a safe working distance from the snake. Although I would like to have gotten to the snake for this image, I stopped inching closer to the snake when Johan said I was as close as I could get without being in danger of a strike. Here is the resulting photo:

Plain Mountain Adder (Bitis inornata) wide-angle close-up. Photographed with a Sigma 20mm f/1.8 lens and diffused 430EX speedlite flash at 1/200th sec, f/22, ISO 50.

For this image I used almost exactly the same settings as I did for the portrait, but used the minimum aperture of f/22 that the Sigma lens allows, to try and get as much of the environment into the photo as possible. This also helped since I was shooting into the sun, and the closed down aperture helped create a pleasing sun-star in the top right area of the photo. I used a 430EX speedlite flash to light this animal, and used a home-made diffuser to bounce and soften the light to avoid the loss of light from the flash, and harsh catchlights on the animal. In terms of post-processing, the edits needed on this image were also minimal. I picked up the exposure and shadows globally, since the mountains and vegetation surrounding the snake were slightly underexposed. I also used noise reduction on this area, since bringing up the shadows introduced some noise into that area. Otherwise, like the previous photo, this image was almost verbatim from the RAW form.

Although there were many other great images of this snake from that trip, these two stuck out for me, primarily because I had seen each of these shots in my head before the trip, and being able to execute them in the field was greatly rewarding. Of course, we did find many other reptiles and invertebrates on the trip, some photos of which I have already shared on previous Wild-Eye blog posts. In future, I hope to write trip reports for such expeditions with details about the biology of the species photographed and the equipment and techniques used to capture the shots.

The lighting used in these images really made these shots, and without the specific flash units and diffusion materials used, these photos simply would not have worked as well as they do now. Lighting for macro photography will be my next technical article and I hope that it will be really helpful for Wild-Eye macro photographers.

Cheers for now.

About the Author

Shivan Parusnath


I am currently doing my PhD research on the conservation of the Sungazer (Smaug giganteus), a threatened South African lizard species, at Wits University in JHB. Working with reptiles over the past 6 years has fueled my obsession with macro photography. My aim with photography is always to portray a subject on its own level, whether a lion, a lizard or an ant. I am also excited by in-habitat shots, where the subject is shown in the context of its natural habitat. This is great specifically for rare or threatened species, so people who might not readily get an opportunity to see these animals can gain a greater appreciation for where the species fits into the bigger picture.

Comments 6

  1. Pingback: Behind the Frame (Macro Photography): Not so plain Plain Mountain Adder - Africa Freak

  2. DaveT

    Wow Shivan – these are great images.

    Thanks for all the background details of how you set up the lighting, and the equipment used etc, it is very useful and educational.

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      Shivan Parusnath

      Thanks Dave! I hope that you can incorporate these into your own photography. In future photography sessions I will try and get behind the scene shots so that you can see the entire set up of gear and positioning etc when the photo was taken.

  3. Skandy

    Excellent post Shivan. I would also request you to share a shot of you photographing subjects especially snakes to know that how close you are to the subject.

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