Safety First: Photographing Dangerous Subjects

Handling dangerous creatures for any purpose is a practice to be taken seriously. Throughout my six decades of rummaging around on this earth I have observed and been a participant in working with wild or untamed creatures that can hurt you. From breaking horses as a youngster on the ranch where I was raised, trapping predators and ear tagging for research purposes and even handling venomous reptiles and arachnids, some care must be taken to minimize the danger of being a victim to careless behavior in the process.

Perhaps the most dangerous and aggressive rattler that I have ever photographed. Safety was essential in handling this big boy and as a result both of us was none the worse for wear. I sold this photo twice to National Geographic Television.


One aspect of human behavior that I will never understand is the “macho” syndrome that seems to possess some people when handling or being in the presence of venomous snakes, ie. rattlesnakes, moccasins, copper heads, coral snakes, etc. I once photographed a popular snake roundup and was appalled at the casual behavior of individuals around a creature that can either kill you or at least render a person immobile for some time. The bravado that I have seen through the years sometimes disgusts me.

When I start getting sloppy around these creatures I recall the weaponry that they possess. It is then that I rethink my actions.


Another dangerous trait that I cannot understand is the extreme fear that some people possess for some critters, either crawlers, walkers or flyers. It is my opinion that a healthy respect is in order for most questionable species but to have a deathly fear is most unhealthy if not preposterous.

This big diamondback is not happy about being the subject of a photo shoot but the handler is using good judgement in keeping the snake at a safe distance.


I was reared in strong snake country and dealt with rattlers all of my life. We kiddos were taught to always watch for snakes and steer clear of them if encountered. Growing up with this attitude was a good thing and has been an asset in my professional field of work.


A rule that I have in handling poisonous species is one that I totally adhere to and that is to NEVER handle one of these snakes with my bare hands. Using a set of specially designed tongs will basically remove essentially all of the chances of being bitten in the process of the handling process. These devices are great in moving the snake to good photo locations and then to prepare the reptile for some compositional alterations. Safety is first and foremost and then possessing a healthy respect, but not fear, for your dangerous subjects should be a criterion for all photographers dealing with critters who can fight back…and win in some instances.

Big snakes are strong so total concentration is advised during the handling process.

A big rattler disappears beneath an old barn where the shade will protect it from the mid day heat.

Here a rattler is shown in the skin shedding process. One of my favorite lenses for snake work is the Canon 70-200mm f2.8L. It pulls the snake in for detail shots and then pulled back to a shorter focal length for depth of field and field of view.

A western diamondback tests his options via temperature check with his tongue. Canon F1N and Canon 80-200mm f4.0 lens. Kodachrome 64 film.

10 thoughts on “Safety First: Photographing Dangerous Subjects

  1. Mel

    Rattlesnakes make me extremely nervous but with a good pair of snake boots and the chance to own a photo similar to one of yours would inspire bravery.

  2. Morgan

    Snakeboots don’t help much when you’re lying on the ground. Be sure to have a handler if you trust. Carry a pistol, if he/she breaks that trust and lets you get bit it’s advisable to shoot him/her in leg, preferably the calf, hurts like hell but it’ll heal fine.

  3. Jim Arnold

    I once photographed a rattlesnake in strike position while I was on a thesis field work week in eastern Big Bend NP. I did not get within striking distance but I did stomp on the ground to get the snake into striking position. I just wish I had had a longer lens at the time but alas it was too heavy to carry.

  4. RHDamerau

    As a generalization, how far can a rattlesnake strike from its coiled position? Thank you. Luckily, I’ve never encourntered a rattlesnake
    in the field.

    1. wymanmeinzer

      Generally speaking, A rattler can strike out about half their length. However, some of the more athletic one could surprise you, so give them a little more room just to be safe.

  5. Joe Baker

    @Morgan, Not speaking from personal experience here, but have thought shooting anyone who isn’t looking to shoot you is generally a bad idea. These things tend to end badly. Would rather spend my money on lenses than lawyers. Like ones allowing a good amount of separation from critters with fangs.

  6. Jim Miller

    Mr. Meinzer: i want you to know that your West Texas work is the best i have ever seen. the photos and music really stirs my soul. I have a Tv Show (TEX MEX OUTDOORS) on The Sportsman Channel. I’m an independent Producer and i would really like to visit with you when you have the opportunity. 830-370-5110. I wish you and your family the very best of Thanksgivings. Good Hunting: Jim Miller


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