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Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Eagle Eyes

George Lepp shows how to use extra-long focal lengths to empower natural history photography

This Article Features Photo Zoom

With a perfect vantage point, long lenses, teleconverters, tripods and meticulous attention to technique, George Lepp was able to create an extraordinary series of images of an eagle nest near his home in Oregon. This is a story about the intersection of observation, patience and photography skills.

Sometimes, opportunity rings. About a year ago, my friend and colleague Brent McGregor called to ask if I wanted to check out a bald eagle nest in a pine tree, below a canyon rim, that a pair had successfully used the year before. Eagle nests are deliberately designed and located for privacy; we humans usually see them from a grounded perspective, looking up into tree branches and catching only "rear-end shots." I was immediately intrigued by the idea that we actually might be able to see directly into a nest, so we headed out to the observation site that very morning.

And there they were: a splendid pair of adult bald eagles on the nest, near the top of a massive ponderosa pine situated about 200 feet out from the canyon rim where we stood. We had an unobstructed line of sight into the nest. The eagles were clearly aware of our presence, even at that distance, but they appeared undisturbed. I thought about it for a minute. It would have been much easier to photograph if not so far away, but we would have needed to work from blinds, and public access would have been restricted to protect the birds. From this location, along a popular trail, we could easily come and go without causing harm, the light was right, and the main problem to be solved was technical: reaching out to accomplish meaningful photography of the nest's progression. It was late February and the eggs were not yet laid, so this was a project that would take me through the spring and into early summer. I hovered on the brink of commitment.

This photo was taken from Lepp's vantage point above the nesting eagles with a 15mm fisheye lens. It was a perfect spot for him to bring his long lenses to bear on the nest over time without disturbing the raptors in any way.
The Value Of Natural History Photography
While I'm now known as a specialist in outdoor, nature, landscape and/or wildlife photography, I started my career some 40 years ago as a natural history photographer. In that era, professional photographers worked with scientists in the field to document and depict the life cycles of subjects of scientific importance due to their biology, behavior, environment or endangered status. In addition to traditional scientific publication, the work was often featured in popular magazines, which published lavish photographic spreads. For example, I worked assignments from Natural History Magazine to document the life histories of monarch butterflies, least terns, Belding's ground squirrels and Yosemite toads, to name a few. My stock agency in New York was eager to receive and market the results of any of my life-history projects. For me, the work not only was personally and professionally rewarding, it also was profitable. But things have changed. The broad availability and diminishing value of images of every conceivable subject makes it much less feasible to undertake a time-consuming life-cycle study. As I watched those magnificent bald eagles sprucing up their nest, I considered the chance they were offering me to immerse myself once again in a wildlife experience and, not least, to apply some cutting-edge technology to the project! One after the other, the eagles perched on a smooth old limb of the tree, spread their wings and let the winds lift them. They seemed to float on gentle waves as they caught the currents moving along the cliff face, then dropped to skim the icy river at the base of the canyon. I wanted to know them. I wanted to be them! I was ready to work them into my schedule for the next four months if they would let me.


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