In his new book, wildlife photographer and Tech Tips guru George Lepp shares lessons learned in a lifetime of photography
By George D. Lepp And Kathryn Vincent Lepp, Photography By George D. Lepp
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.
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.