Ralph Lee Hopkins
When the term "wildlife photography" is mentioned, images of prancing deer, soaring birds, or attacking tigers instantly come to mind. The inherent fascination of photographing things beyond man's domestication and control will forever be captivating; however, the challenge of separating simple photographs of wildlife from photographs that convey a story of that wildlife is what separates the successful images from the rest of the pack. Photographing wildlife extends beyond tracking and photographing different species. It must encompass a sense of place and reveal different characteristics of the subjects and their environment.
A practitioner of these ideals who is held in the highest regard is photographer Ralph Lee Hopkins, whose background in geology fuels his interest in both wild landscapes and with wild creatures. Despite growing up in New York City, Hopkins found his calling while completing his Master's Degree at Northern Arizona University, where he gained hands-on experience studying on the rim of the Grand Canyon. This transition from urban jungle to great western expanse eventually grew to include many other dramatic locations about the globe.
"Because I'm a geologist, my first love in photography was definitely landscapes, and since I discovered photography while living and working in the Southwest, the canyon country of Utah and Arizona is my photographic home turf. With the opportunity to travel with Lindblad Expeditions and National Geographic, my focus shifted to capturing images in far-flung destinations like Alaska, Baja California, Galapagos, the Arctic, and Antarctic. My work in these destinations went beyond pure landscapes and scenic images to capturing animals in their natural habitats, especially exhibiting behavior."
Coming from a background more relevant to landscape, this proves to be an essential factor regarding the way Hopkins works with animals in his photography. While they serve to be the main subject in many of his images, it is their placement and interaction with the background that provides a sense of character in his imagery that is unmistakable. Hopkins spends much of his time leading photographic junkets with Lindblad Expeditions, where he visits some of the most remote regions on Earth, ranging from both of the poles to Southeast Asia to Baja, California. Because Hopkins encounters so many different regions and types of terrain during his expeditions, he still maintains a certain consistency between places by treating the wildlife with the same sensibilities.
"Since I'm often on the move and traveling on ships, I'm very accustomed to using zoom lenses and working quickly. Zooms are helpful when it's difficult to change positions. And the compressed perspective of longer zooms can help make scenery look more dramatic, especially when framed against an interesting foreground."
Well known for his landscape photography, which is typically seen as a wide-angle lens game, Hopkins remarks on his frequent use of the 70-300mm, "I know my students are surprised at how often I use my 70-300 for scenic shots, but my wide-angle is also always by my side... I still use wide-angle zooms in the canyon country to emphasize foreground and the height of the canyon walls."
In light of equipment choices, it should also be pointed out that Hopkins honed his skills in Arizona, working primarily with a 4 x 5" large format film camera, and gradually transitioned throughout the formats—from medium format to 35mm film to digital-as technology began to improve and imagery was needed at a faster pace. However, Hopkins fondly recalls working with his old film equipment and still employs a similar methodology to his work today.
"I owe my sense for making careful compositions from the more measured approach when shooting with 4 x 5 and medium-format cameras during the film era. And the way I work definitely carries over from the film days, paying careful attention to focus point and depth-of-field. In fact, I love my 17mm tilt-shift lens for landscapes with amazing foregrounds, or shooting in slot canyons. Working with swings and tilts is old school but very familiar to me. Sure, I miss the old days of making fewer frames a day. But with digital, I'm so much more creative and productive. What digital has changed is the way I shoot with respect to working a subject. I'm not limited by the number of frames in a roll, and I don't have to ever stop shooting to change film. That's huge when working with quickly changing light, or with wildlife subjects, where the action happens fast and may never be repeated. In a way, I'm still methodical to a point, but much more free to explore and experiment. And that has been very liberating. And fun!"
Also harking back to his foundation years in the west, Hopkins is quick to point out his personal bias for continuously working in the Southwest. Despite his globetrotting schedule throughout most of the year, he still makes time each year to take a raft trip down the Colorado River, through the Grand Canyon, to revisit locations upon which he built his entire practice.
There are few places anywhere on earth as spectacular as the American Southwest and the Grand Canyon, and it's because of the colorful rock formations and unique geological history that has exposed the rock layers in such dramatic fashion. And a raft trip down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon is one of life's greatest experiences.
Beyond the comfort found in returning to the Southwest, Hopkins also lists Baja, California, as another location to frequent whenever possible.
"As for Baja, it's the best place in the world to see and photograph whales and dolphins. Baja, beyond Cabo that is, remains one of North America's best-kept secrets for marine life, sea birds, and desert scenery, and it's only a short flight from LA, Phoenix, or Dallas. The desert landscapes on the islands in the Gulf of California and along the Baja Peninsula put it over the top, and the best way to see and experience all that Baja has to offer is on a ship, and I return year after year on the National Geographic Sea Bird."
While serving as an expedition leader, as well as a workshop leader and lecturer, Hopkins is continually faced with the unique challenge of being surrounded by inspiring environments filled with the fauna that populate many of his images, yet having to focus much of his energy on helping others with their own photography. Even while still allotting himself some time to photograph during the expeditions he leads, Hopkins spends much of his time away from the Lindblad trips doing just the same thing he is helping others to understand: making photographs. Beyond just personal projects, Hopkins has been involved with conservation projects concerning areas of protection. Asked if he takes a different approach when working for socially motivated projects versus his guided expeditions, Hopkins is cognizant of the fact that two different working styles are required, but his own sensibilities reinforce a consistent personal voice, regardless of the differing attitudes toward working.
"Every photographer dreams of working on their own projects. I've been very lucky to work on some important conservation photography projects, helping organizations in Baja, California, and Galapagos, including an aerial expedition in Baja last year with LightHawk, WildCoast, and the International League of Conservation Photographers. Although the equipment I carry varies by destination, my approach is always the same—to capture the best images possible in the moment. That said, I look for more storytelling images in the conservation photography work. And I'm not afraid to shoot disturbing images that show impacts. For travel photography, and my work with Lindblad Expeditions and National Geographic, I'm looking for the perfect image in great light that makes you want to be there. It is a dichotomy, and the resulting portfolios of images are very different."
Whether photographing under the auspices of commissioned or hired work, or challenging his personally set agendas, Hopkins's commitment to detail and storytelling remains the same. Coupled with an educational background in the settings in which he spends most of his time, he brings a trained eye to his subjects and has the experience and knowledge to relay the wild's true sense of character.
RALPH HOPKINS'S FAVORITE LENS
The EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM brings the EF 70-300mm zoom range to the esteemed L series. On a full-frame camera, this lens displays a 34º-8º angle of view; focal length equivalency on APS-C cameras is approximately 113-484mm. It includes a built-in Image Stabilizer that compensates for camera shake, effectively increasing usability by up to four stops. A special function prevents erroneous operation while the lens is mounted on a tripod or monopod. An Ultrasonic Motor with floating focusing system ensures fast, quiet autofocusing as close as 3.9'.