It seemed like a good idea at the time. As I stepped to the center of a murky swamp — in the dry season, it was more like a glorified mud puddle — I could feel the hard, spiky backs of alligators moving beneath my boots. I crouched down and nailed the shot. But then I straightened too quickly and spooked the gators. Suddenly hundreds of muscular tails slapped the water. Imagine a stampede of panicked, prehistoric predators—and you’re just standing there like a chicken nugget. Fortunately for me, they fled in the opposite direction and I lived to tell the tale.

Not all nature shoots need to be this dramatic. In fact, I’ve taken some of my best photos from a back porch, while sipping coffee.

If you see something, say something. People often mistakenly believe you need the latest and greatest equipment to take great photos in nature. Yet the camera is just a tool; your perspective is what really matters. How do you see the world? Can you communicate that world in a fresh and exciting way?

Try this at home. Often your best subjects are the ones you know most intimately, especially from childhood. I grew up in the swamps of Central Florida; that’s where my heart — and frequent focus — is.

Make a scene. I was paddling around a lake when I came across a cypress tree whose twisted, bifurcated branches just called out for a hammock. So I sank my ten-foot tripod deep into the lake sediment, hoping to make it impervious to the rocking of alligators. I hooked my camera to a device I could control with my phone, scrambled up the tree on a moonlit night, and snapped self-portraits from inside the hammock.

Plan your spontaneity. People believe stunning nature photography is about being in the right place at the right time. Serendipity is wonderful — I always appreciate it when it graces me — but it’s not a good business model. I find it more profitable to pay attention to weather conditions, moon phases, migratory patterns.

Have a trigger finger. My parents live near a wilderness preserve where a handful of Sandhill Cranes live year round, often raiding the birdfeeder. So I hooked a wireless trigger up to my camera and lowered both into a hole in the backyard. Then I sat on the porch, sipping my coffee while I took bug’s-eye shots of the cranes tapping my lens with their beaks.

Be a force of nature. Powerful images can transcend borders, seizing people by the heart and inspiring them to care about places, plants, and animals they’ve never encountered. Photography reminds us to protect nature and our planet. 

Mac Stone (Spanish and International Studies ’06) is a National Geographic Explorer and the author of Everglades: America’s Wetland. This feature is part of the Hokie How-To roundup in Illumination 2019–2020.