Ralph Lee Hopkins, founder and director of the Expedition Photography program for Lindblad Expeditions and National Geographic, is a formally trained geologist and nature photographer based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He has written several books on the American Southwest, been featured in countless magazines, and teaches at photography workshops around the world for National Geographic, Santa Fe Workshops, and Arizona Highways. We spoke to Hopkins, just back from the Galapagos Islands, about wildlife and nature photography.
Todd Vorenkamp: Wildlife is not always predictable in its timing and/or location. How do you approach planning a shoot? Is it a combination of good planning and luck that puts you in the right place at the right time?
Ralph Lee Hopkins: Good question, because it’s not about luck but about being there, and spending the time to let things happen. I think it was Louis Pasteur who said, "Chance favors the prepared mind.” In photography, this translates to making your own luck by doing research in advance and knowing your subject. Wildlife can be unpredictable, but in most areas where I travel, the wildlife migrates and is seasonal, so if you know their patterns you have a greater chance at success. For example, the snow geese and sand hill cranes arrive at the Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico in late November, and are gone by the end of February. In Baja, the prime season for gray whales in the Pacific coast lagoons is from late January through early April. The more you know about a destination and the wildlife species that live there, the more you will see to photograph. In the end, a successful shoot may only come down to a few key moments after hours and hours spent in the field. Yes, luck comes into it, but if you’re not there at the right time to click the shutter, the shot never happens.
TV: Speaking of the unpredictability of wildlife, how do you ensure your safety and the safety of those around you, especially the first time you are photographing a new subject in a new locale?
RLH: Again, it comes down to knowing your subject. If I’m heading to a new location I’ll touch base with local experts or colleagues who have experience in the area. And then it comes down to the species you might encounter. You approach photographing brown bears differently than polar bears, for example. If brown bears are fishing for salmon along a stream, you can approach in small groups very closely. In contrast, polar bears on land are hungry and totally unpredictable. Elk or caribou are okay to approach on foot, but you have to be on your guard around moose. It’s a different story when leading photo expeditions with Lindblad Expeditions and National Geographic, because it’s a group situation. Much of the time we are shooting from the ships or inflatable Zodiacs where we can approach wildlife safely. And it’s amazing–you can get very close to wildlife if you stay in your vehicle or boat. If you get out and start walking, it’s a different story.
TV: How do you educate yourself to be “culturally sensitive” to different forms of wildlife and locations?
RLH: Before heading out on a shoot, you can only prepare yourself to a point. Then it comes down to the old adage, “f/8 and be there.” Once on location it's all about your experience and intuition to know where to be, and when and how to approach wildlife. In practice, situational awareness is the most important skill for a wildlife photographer. You need to think like the animal you are studying and photographing. It’s key to recognize behavioral cues so that you can capture the moment. Polar bears, for example, will often test the ice edge, doing shallow pushups, before they make the leap between ice floes. Recognize this cue and you’ll be able to anticipate the action. Birds, on the other hand, will often defecate before they fly, a certain cue to be ready.
TV: In your experience leading workshops, do you find that the participants are just there to “get the shot?” Is there a deeper purpose to your images? And, do you find this purpose helps your imagery?
RLH: One thing I try to instill in all workshop participants is that photography is not only about the final result, or “getting the shot,” but about the experience, telling a story, and being in the moment. Few pursuits in life put one in the moment like photography. Personally, I didn’t set out in life to be a photographer. Photography found me and became an important part of my life. To be a successful photographer, you have to live the life and be totally engaged with what you love to photograph in this wild world. And for your photos to have meaning, they should strive to capture the essence of the moment–whether it’s an animal’s behavior, an interaction between different species, or a strong environmental portrait. When you approach making images in this way, your work has a deeper meaning and will have a strong visual impact on the viewer.
TV: Do you decide beforehand to freeze action or blur it? Or, do you just go with the flow? Do you mix up shooting styles while working to see what looks good on the screen/print later? If you do both, do you have a tried-and-true technique for switching from slow to fast shutter speeds in the same scene? Does depth of field then become a secondary concern depending on your distance from the subject and focal length?
RLH: Although the real answer is that it depends on the situation, typically I first shoot at fast shutter speeds and high ISOs to freeze the action. And you’ve got to know your subject. Leaping dolphins, breaching whales, and flying birds may require shutter speeds of 1/1000-1/2000-second or more to make a sharp image. Once I know I’ve got it, then I start experimenting with slower shutter speeds to show a sense of motion. Most of the time, with wildlife, I’m looking for ideal situations for panning—that is following along with a moving subject at a slow shutter—as opposed to keeping the camera still and letting subjects move through the frame. Experience tells me that 1/30-1/60-second allows for having a part of the subject acceptably sharp while blurring the background. The question you have to ask yourself is: "Is it just blurry? Or is it artistically blurred!” It takes a lot of frames to really nail the motion blur image. As with all action, burst mode and servo (follow) focus is the way to go. I also use back-button focusing, so that when I’m clicking the shutter button the camera is not trying to focus. When going for sharp images, I want to be in control of the depth-of-field, so I’m usually in Aperture Priority and I make sure my ISO is high enough for the desired shutter speeds. This may seem counter-intuitive to shoot Aperture and not Shutter Priority for sharp images, but I like to control the look of the image and how much background is in focus. When going for motion blur, that’s when I change modes to Shutter Priority so that I can control the look of the final image with differing shutter speeds. If there’s too much light, I add a 4-stop neutral-density filter to cut the light. And to make the switch between fast and slow shutter speeds quickly, I program the Custom Mode dial to different aperture/shutter/ISO settings that act as starting points for situations I might encounter.
6. Bucket List
TV: Photographing humpback whales, elephants, or other rare species are on many photographers’ bucket lists. What do you recommend as the best approach for getting the opportunities to do this kind of photography and being successful at it?
RLH: This is the most exciting time in the history of the world to be a photographer, but it’s also the most difficult time to make a living with your images. Digital technology has made it easier than ever to make great images, and modern travel has opened up almost all points on the globe to the adventurous photographer. But that has flooded the market and, unfortunately, too many photographers are willing to give their images away for free so they can say they’ve been published. That said, certainly for the charismatic mega-fauna like whales, elephants, wild cats, and bears, it takes both resources and time to travel to the world’s wild places to find photo opportunities. Many young photographers can afford neither, so to them I recommend partnering with a non-profit doing work in their area of interest or expertise. My hope for the next generation of photographers is that there will always be a demand for creative talent willing to work hard and make images that tell a story, to make a difference in the world. More than ever, photography is a labor of love, and the one thing you can’t teach is passion. You either have it or you don’t. And if you don’t have the passion for the craft, you will not do what it takes to make great images that have impact.
More of Hopkins’s work and tips can also be enjoyed as part of our Canon Lens Experience at this link.