Jim Brandenburg recounts the dramatic tale of photographing a diamondback rattlesnake in the South Dakota badlands

Photo Insight with Jim Brandenburg

Jim Brandenburg travelled the world as a photographer with National Geographic magazine for more than 30 years. His work has been published in The New York Times, Life and Time, among others, and he has won numerous awards, including Kodak Wildlife Photographer of the Year by the Natural History Museum and BBC Wildlife Magazine. He is the chair of this year’s competition. Every month Jim will share the story behind one of his nature images

This shot has a strange sense of nostalgia for me. It isn’t the subject as such – it’s the location. The image was taken close to where I grew up. I’ve talked before about how I grew up surrounded by prairie lands. That’s where I spent my early years and it’s a place that occupies a large part of my heart. The actual location here was the badlands of South Dakota, which is very close to my birthplace. It’s the real beginning of the American West – cowboys, coyotes, antelopes and all. You’ll find a lot of Native American history there, such as Sitting Bull, the Wounded Knee Massacre and the Sioux people. It’s a national park and it figures heavily in my career. My first National Geographic assignment actually took place in this location. That was huge for me.

When I came across the snake – and this was way back in the film era – it was stretched out on a remote gravel road that was between two ranches. Unfortunately, local ranchers absolutely hate rattlesnakes because, of course, they’re venomous. There are several types in America, but this is one of the more aggressive ones. I knew that if I didn’t move the snake then the next rancher who came down the road was going to kill it. Ranchers have a habit of driving over snakes to kill them. It’s something that happens a lot.

Rattlesnakes are cold blooded and if the mornings are cool they’ll go out onto the highways and roads to stay warm. The sun warms up the highway and the snakes will stretch themselves across the road. The snake you see in the image wasn’t quite six feet long, but it was still pretty huge.

I stopped my camper van, stretched out my tripod legs and picked up the snake. I carried it around 100 yards into the prairie thinking that would save its life. However, as soon as I set it down it coiled up and got quite angry – that snake wanted to bite me. What happened then was an application of logic that found me thinking, ‘Well, Mr Snake, I’ve done you a favour, now it’s time for you to do one for me.’

As I was in this situation I decided to get some shots of it. I tried a few things and the picture you see here was taken with a 200mm lens – I like the idea of a long lens for shallow depth of field. I used a smallish aperture, somewhere around f/2.8.

There’s a sense of intimacy in the image, but not in a good way – it’s threatening. People have an almost universal fear of snakes, so they do tend to react to this image. I was lying on my belly and shooting the snake from a low angle, so the snake appears larger and more intimidating than it actually was. I’ve also been able to use the grass to frame the snake. It gave a great vignetting effect around the edges, too.

It was a relatively easy shot to get, although the creature kept striking at me, thankfully without connecting. After a few shots I decided to get closer and use a wideangle lens, a Nikon 14mm if I recall. The problem with a wideangle lens is that it can be deceptive. You sometimes don’t realise how close you are to your subject.

Before I knew it, the snake had struck me and splattered venom on the glass of the lens. As I’m sure we all know, lenses aren’t exactly cheap, and rattlesnake venom is caustic. I ran back to the van and set about wiping down the glass. Once it was clean, I jumped out of the vehicle. Unfortunately, the snake had come back onto the road and up to my van. As soon as I hit the ground, the snake struck and bit me on the leg. Luckily, because I was out west, I was wearing cowboy boots. I wear them partly because of snakes and, obviously, it means that I fit in better with the locals. Wearing those boots didn’t save my life necessarily, but it saved me a great deal of grief.

Strangely, I got a little offended that the snake attacked me after I had saved its life. Still, at least I got a good story out of it.

To see more of Jim’s images visit www.jimbrandenburg.com

Jim Brandenburg was talking to Oliver Atwell