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Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Wildlife Photography


In his new book, wildlife photographer and Tech Tips guru George Lepp shares lessons learned in a lifetime of photography




This Article Features Photo Zoom

Macro Butterfly
I’ve been fascinated by high-magnification, or macro, photography for decades. The perspective offers an intimate look at a flower or insect, revealing its secrets to the viewer, and turning a bee’s eye or a flower’s stamen into a finely detailed design element. It’s an interesting way to photograph a butterfly’s wing with its extravagant, complex patterns of tiny, brilliant scales. In years past, I accomplished high-magnification photography of butterfly wings with a complicated low-tech setup of an SLR body, macro lens, extension tubes, bellows mounted on a copy stand and a couple of flashes. That setup yielded minimal depth of field at best; the band of sharpness could be measured in fractions of a millimeter.

Now I photograph butterfly wings at high magnification with a complicated high-tech setup that includes a Canon 21-megapixel full-frame DSLR, an MP-E 65mm ƒ/2.8 macro lens and an MR-14 EX dual flash macro light, all mounted on a copy stand above a movable stage, which holds the subject. I might even add additional small flashes, controlled by TTL metering, to light the subject from the sides or below. My DSLR is connected by a cable to my laptop computer, which displays a live view of the image as I adjust the position of the subject to achieve maximum sharpness. I can even move the area of sharp focus through the subject, from top to bottom, capturing a sequence of images that I later composite into one entirely sharp image.

This process, which I call unlimited depth of field, is especially effective on butterfly wings because they’re never completely flat; they have many different planes and ridges that are huge at high magnification. The resulting images are high-quality, crisp, detailed and brilliantly colored. Printed 60 inches wide (152.4 cm) on my large-format professional printer, they turn a butterfly wing into a wall-sized abstract creation that’s all the more fascinating because it’s actually a photograph of a real creature.

Arctic Fox
Foxes, in general, are difficult to photograph because they’re constantly on the move. Whether it’s the beautiful red foxes that visit our Rocky Mountain Colorado home every day or the amazing Arctic foxes in winter white, they’re just busy, and they rarely stop to pose for a photograph. We got lucky with a pair of Arctic foxes. We spotted them looking for food—or something—within a heap of ice alongside Hudson Bay. After checking the area for polar bears, we left the protection of our tundra buggy and got into position at ground level. The foxes were completely unafraid of us; they moved quickly around the area, jumped up onto chunks of ice the size of boulders and played with one another. The lens had to be on them constantly so that the smallest opportunity for a good composition wasn’t missed.

We watched; they did what foxes do, and we waited for the perfect shot and hoped we wouldn’t miss it. Shooting subjects in snowy scenes can be a challenge, but there’s an advantage to photographing white animals on white ground; you can expose for the bright white tones, and the sunlight bouncing off the snow actually fills the shadows and lights the eyes of the subject like a built-in reflector. Make sure, though, that the white is actually rendered white. If you go with the exposure your meter suggests, you’ll get gray snow.

When calculating exposure for white on white, you have to seek the place where white is truly white, with detail. In the digital realm, consulting the image file’s histogram on the LCD monitor is the answer to this problem. Set your exposure manually to capture the brightest area of snow in the scene (one to two stops underexposed) and check the resulting histogram. If it shows image data up against the right edge, reduce your exposure further until there’s space between the end of the data display curve and the right edge of the graph.

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