On a recent Saturday I took part in a snake survey. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources uses survey information about reptile populations and distributions (as well as data about other fauna) to plan future programs and services. Survey participants took the opportunity to photograph the snakes we encountered … whatever species we discovered and wherever we found them.

Watching the other folks photograph the snakes reminded me of a tip I always give my photography students. That is, a key way to enhance your images is to look for the best conditions. For example, going on a trip and want to bring back some stellar photos? Well, city skylines look much better shot during evening twilight than under the glare of the noonday sun.

Now let’s examine how this recommendation pertains to nature photography. It’s a warm day in late spring, and you are hiking along a stream. In the Baltimore region you are likely to see a Northern water snake sunning itself on the streamside rocks. Here follow three possible sightings you may have:

In the first example here on the left, the snake is clearly visible on the rock. However, you recognize that the drab and dull luster of the dry rocks will hamper the quality of any photo you create of this snake under these current conditions. (Admittedly, a photo of this snake would suffice for survey and identification purposes). What do you do? It is always exciting to see critters alive in the wild, so enjoy the moment. Then continue walking along the stream and look for another snake in better conditions.

While the rock is also dry in our second example, it does not appear as drab as the first rock thanks to the shaded light, the greenery on the left side, and the lichen. You have been able to approach this snake more closely than the first one, so its head and eyes are more clearly visible. What do you do? Since conditions are pretty good, take this shot. Choose a fairly wide aperture (say f/5.6) to blur out the background and draw more attention to the snake. You recognize that you can use post processing software to enhance the appearance of the rock. The result will be a pretty good image of a Northern water snake in its natural habitat. Spend a few moments observing the snake, maybe its action will provide the subject for a better image. You soon see this guy is having too much fun soaking up the rays, so continue on your way and look for even better conditions.

Suddenly, you spy a snake gliding through the water. It sees you also and seeks shelter near a boulder in the water. From here it watches to determine if you are a threat. What do you do? Conditions are optimum, so take this shot. Choose a moderate telephoto lens in the 200mm range, select an ISO that will give you a shutter speed fast enough to counterbalance the bobbing action of the stream’s current (say 800), set your aperture to f/4, and focus on the snake’s head and eyes. If the snake stays in place, shot additional images. Reset your aperture to f/5.6, and you may be lucky enough to catch the snake flicking its tongue to test the air. This third example is the image that will knock the visual socks off of your friends.

Whatever type of photography you pursue, seek out the best subjects and wait for the best conditions. This technique will enhance the quality of your photos. Remember it is okay to choose not to photograph when conditions are less than ideal. In short, look for the best and ignore the rest.