Wildlife Photography Primer

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

When I’m away to teach or photograph elsewhere, I feel that I’ve somehow abandoned my responsibility to witness the progression of the extended animal families at home. I wonder what has happened to that skinny fox that could catch, but never hold onto, a scolding squirrel. Did the doe with the broken foreleg escape the mountain lion? I think of the tiny, wide-eyed, newborn spotted fawn we found hidden under a shrub in the yard early one June. I remember the big red mother bear, gracefully balanced on the deck rail, sipping from the hummingbird feeder while her eager cub bounced about in a nearby tree.

I’ve been seriously pursuing wildlife and wildlife photography for over 40 years now and have developed a pretty large body of work featuring large and small mammals, insects, birds and fish. For decades, others have been using my wildlife photographs to tell their own stories—to illustrate their natural science books, sell their products or convey particular sentiments on a calendar—but the market for stock photography is changing. Images of just about every thing and every place can be purchased for literally pennies over the Internet. So I don’t really need to keep taking more wildlife shots, but I just can’t stop taking those pictures.

I still get a thrill when I come across a colony of tiny pikas and have an afternoon to spend with them as they run about, gathering grasses and wildflowers, calling to each other, sitting up to take my measure. Watching them engage in their busy lives is more compelling to me than trying to capture another ultimate pika shot, but still I put on the 500mm lens and the 2x extender and set it all up on a sturdy tripod. These days, I’m as likely to take video as stills, but either way there’s probably no financial reward for the afternoon’s work with the pikas.

So why bother? I do it because their habitat is so threatened, and because it’s increasingly rare to find them. I do it because I want to see their bright eyes and hear their sharp calls. I want to understand what they do and why they do it. I want to know them, every one of them. And I want you to know them, too.

In this book, Wildlife Photography: Stories From The Field (Lark Books, 2010), Kathy and I have gathered up my favorite wildlife images—my personal trophies—and Kathy has coupled these images with the stories of how they came to be. She writes in three voices: mine, her own and the subject’s. To ignore the greater context of the subject’s story would be disrespectful; to construct that narrative, we drew on our own observations and experiences, as well as the knowledge of others.

When I started my journey to becoming a nature photographer some 40 years ago, there were few competitors. Now, the natural landscape is a very crowded playing field, and it’s harder than ever to capture a unique image. In my more cynical moments, I see us all on the same circuit, moving through parks and mountain passes, along the coasts and through the river valleys, seeking the same subjects. When one photographer stops suddenly, the line behind him or her crashes; I imagine tripods and bodies in photo vests, all piled up like pick-up sticks.

Over the months that Kathy and I worked to put this book together, we had many discussions about what lies in store for young nature photographers in the years ahead. I feel very fortunate to have entered the field of nature photography at a time when subjects, and opportunities to photograph them, were abundant. But am I done now? No way! I want to go back to every place depicted on these pages and do it all over again. With all the technical and creative power offered by today’s digital cameras, image-stabilized lenses, and capture and composite techniques, I have a renewed urgency to document the wildlife I love, and I hope that talented younger photographers will find the impetus, inspiration and resources to do the same. To the next generation of nature photographers, I say please do it better than I did. Please focus on the challenges faced by our environment and shout them to the world. Please seek out the grace, beauty and purpose of each creature that calls to you, and document that life for posterity. Please join the line of nature photographers who have gone before you, put your tripods where theirs stood and contribute your vision to the field of wildlife photography. And, please, as long as I’m standing, save me a place in the queue.

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.

When it comes to photographic effort versus actual results, my success ratios with dolphins are pretty low. Penguins are even harder to capture when they’re in the water. The problem is the same in each case: They disappear beneath the surface, then leap out without warning in a fast arch, then disappear again. How can you be ready?

As with all wildlife photography, it helps to know your subject or to have a guide who knows your subject. An experienced captain will be watching the pressure wave that the bow of the boat makes as it cuts through the water. Dolphins often move into that wave and seem to fly in front of the boat. They look like they’re having fun, but I don’t really know if that’s what it’s all about.

If a large pod of leaping dolphins crosses in front of your boat, you have a brief chance to capture their form, their behavior, their spirit and their beautiful environment, all at once. It’s magical.

Two things keep me coming back for more zebra shots. First, their amazing stripes just say, "Look at me!" And, better yet, no two animals have the same pattern. Second, they tend to line up in a row, juxtaposing those flashy designs in combinations that range from aesthetic to chaotic. And a row of anything shouts “panorama” to me.

The idea of creating a multiple-image composite panorama of moving animals can be a little daunting. Add to that the complexity of the zebra’s patterned pelage, and you might think matching all those seams would be impossible. Although zebras are often very animated, with the youngsters tearing about and the males picking at each other in some kind of conflict, when the group comes to a waterhole or great feeding location, differences are set aside; everyone shares in the bounty and, best of all, they position themselves attractively in a manner designed to protect the entire group from danger.

Before you work on zebras in Africa, you’ll want to practice your panorama capture techniques so you can move quickly. Overlapping each photograph in the sequence by 50% will give you plenty of information for compositing the images, and those complicated stripes are actually an advantage because they provide an abundance of specific details to assist you in matching the seams. Still, a panorama of moving animals will defy most automated compositing software; you’ll most likely need to assemble your panorama manually in Photoshop. And there’s more you can do with zebra images, of course.

Close-up portraits and the interactions of big males, mares and foals, and adolescents all offer the usual appeal, enhanced and energized by those incredible patterns.

Their easy-going personalities make king penguins cooperative subjects for wildlife photographers, and the photographic opportunities of the Salisbury Plain are seemingly endless. Time is limited by the schedule of the ship that brought you, but it’s hard to know where to start. It would be easy to walk among the penguins, but it’s much safer for the birds if you work around the outer edges of the colonies and let them come to you. I’ve spent a lovely afternoon lying in penguin poop, photographing curious king penguins with a 17mm lens. And I’ve used the same lens to take in the entire colony in all its dramatic scale. All the while, brooding, hunting, feeding, nurturing and courtship behaviors are happening all around you. You can’t get it all, but you want to.

George Lepp is an internationally acclaimed nature photographer. In addition to writing the Tech Tips column in each issue of OP, he’s a Canon Explorer of Light. He and his wife Kathryn Vincent Lepp, a writer and an editor, have published two prior books and dozens of articles on outdoor and nature photography. The Lepps live in Colorado. You can see more of George’s work and find out about seminars, books and prints at www.georgelepp.com.

1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Main Menu