Eagle Eyes

George Lepp shows how to use extra-long focal lengths to empower natural history photography
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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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14,336mm! Interesting close-up of a 9-week eaglet, but usable only as an example of exceeding the limits. Canon EOS 7D (1.6X crop factor) with EF 800mm ƒ/5.6L and three EF 2X tele-extenders plus one EF 1.4X tele-extender.

Ridiculous Millimeters
Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. But it’s always fun to experiment. Just to see how far I could go, I put all my tele-extenders on an 800mm lens and attached them to a Canon EOS 7D camera body. It took two tripods to support the whole rig, and at 14,336mm, it’s very difficult to focus on the subject, if you can find the subject at all. So I used a Hoodman loupe on the LCD to find this 9-week eaglet in the nest and a CamRanger for the final capture. The result isn’t really usable, but it’s interesting.

It Takes A Village
Within two weeks, it was apparent the adults were brooding eggs; two youngsters hatched in the second week of April. I spent the interval doing my research on eagle biology and nesting behavior and laying the groundwork with officials responsible for the area. As the eaglets grew and the project advanced, I built productive new relationships with park rangers and state biologists, and began a lasting friendship with the great ladies who open the local Starbucks before sunrise every morning. A loose network of local photographers got involved in the project, sharing information, celebrating milestones and acting as “docents” at the viewing area to inform visitors. Canon USA gave support by loaning an 800mm ƒ/5.6L lens for the duration of the project.

Spring turned to summer. The chicks grew from tiny, innocent lumps of fuzz to big, fluffy bundles of attitude. I worked to achieve different perspectives on the story—long-lens approaches, video sequences, feeding, grooming, interactions, hunting forays by the adults, inquisitive predators, sunrise time-lapses—all while enjoying the early-morning beauty and peace of the area. The eagles’ neighbors—marmots, squirrels, deer, river otters and many other birds—revealed themselves. The youngsters fledged at the end of June, and by that time, I had made 32 trips (1,700 miles) to the site and spent some 120 hours observing the nest. The eagles endured it all with grace, and the local newspaper celebrated the fledging with a good news article on the front page, using some of my images.

The Happy Ending
So, here it is, mid-winter again, and I’m looking back at another successful life-history project. I appreciate everyone who helped to bring it all together: Wildlife officials open to responsible photographers, a community that treasures nature, colleagues who share information and expertise, sponsors who support my work and, best of all, a magazine that cares enough to publish it. Thanks, OP!

Ridiculous. Here I am with the ultimate setup, at least for now.

See the video: George Lepp captured both stills and video concurrently throughout this project. For a different perspective, see the video on the OPTV section of the outdoorphotographer.com website.

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800mm Canon EOS 5D Mark III with EF 800mm ƒ/5.6L

1120mm Canon EOS 5D Mark III with EF 800mm ƒ/5.6L and EF 1.4X tele-extender

1600mm Canon EOS 5D Mark III with EF 800mm ƒ/5.6L and EF 2X tele-extender

2240mm Canon EOS 5D Mark III with EF 800mm ƒ/5.6L and EF 2X and EF 1.4X tele-extenders

3200mm Canon EOS 5D Mark III with EF 800mm ƒ/5.6L and two EF 2X tele-extenders

4800mm Canon EOS 5D Mark III with EF 800mm ƒ/5.6L, two EF 2X and one 1.4X tele-extenders

Extending Your Lens: How Far Can You Go?
I have to admit that I’m always testing the limits of my technique and equipment, sometimes to solve specific problems and sometimes just to see how far I can go! Here are six images that employ long-lens techniques I regularly used during my work with the bald eagle nest. You can extend your photographic reach to nearly ridiculous lengths while achieving reasonable quality if you follow a few rules to minimize movement and establish precise focus.

1 Quality Equipment. Start with an excellent telephoto optic and use tele-extenders that are recommended for that lens.

2 Stable Base. Employ a sturdy tripod and tripod head. Most professionals prefer a ballhead.

3 Lock It Up. Set your camera to Mirror Lock-up or Live View mode to minimize internal camera vibration. If your camera has a Silent LV Shoot option, set it to Mode 1. This will eliminate the last possible source of vibration within the camera mechanism when in Live View.

4 Hands Off! Use an electronic cable release or a Wi-Fi smartphone/tablet app to fire the camera without touching it. A delayed shutter timer in the camera can be used if remote releases aren’t available.

5 Look Sharp! Precise focus is critical because depth of field is very limited at higher focal lengths. On camera, use Live View mode, enlarge the image on the LCD, and use a Hoodman loupe (www.hoodmanusa.com) to confirm the placement of the focus. Or you can use the CamRanger (www.camranger.com), which wirelessly transfers all controls to an off-camera smartphone or tablet (I use an iPad 3). It offers a larger focusing image at higher resolution for precise focus and fires without touching the camera.

6 Compensate For Light Loss. With each tele-extender added to the lens, you’ll lose from one to two ƒ-stops of light. At the same time, you’ll need faster shutter speeds to stop movement at increased magnification. A camera with excellent high-ISO capabilities allowing use of ISO 800 to 3200 will compensate for the light loss and still deliver excellent image quality.

7 Be aware of atmospheric degradation of the image due to heat waves, moisture and dust in the air. Generally, conditions are better in the morning.