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Travel & Photography: The Gear of Choice, National Geographic Photographer Ralph Lee Hopkins

Ralph Lee Hopkins is a National Geographic photographer and the Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic director of Expedition Photography. He filed this post, originally on the B&H Photo Video blog, giving us a look at his gear of choice for shooting on expedition.

Every travel photographer has a bucket list of dream destinations. There are a number of wild places in the world that are best visited by ocean-going expeditions on small passenger ships, and you don’t have to go half way around the world to find world-class photo opportunities. Among my favorite destinations that combine spectacular scenery with abundant wildlife are Southeast Alaska, Baja California (Mexico), and the Galápagos Islands (Ecuador).

The best thing about traveling by ship is that you unpack for the duration of the voyage, so there’s no packing and re-packing. It’s a relaxing way to travel, as the ship takes you to new places every day. The ship serves as a platform for photography, and it’s high adventure getting out on the water and photographing wildlife and seascapes from inflatable Zodiacs.

Another great thing about ship-based travel is that you typically can bring the arsenal, unlike traveling in Africa, for example, where weight is critical when flying in small planes between camps. But you will still want to check the travel guidelines for connecting flights, pack efficiently, and bring only what is essential.

For more than 20 years I’ve been traveling the world with Lindblad Expeditions and National Geographic. It’s amazing how the way I travel has changed with the advent of the digital world of photography. Below is a discussion of my gear for ship-based expeditions.

Stellar sea lions, South Marble Islands, Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, Southeast Alaska. Making sharp images from a moving ship requires shooting with a fast shutter speed and being prepared to capture the moment. It had been raining all day in Glacier Bay when the weather finally broke. The soft side light highlighted the steam coming off the animals. (Canon DSLR, 100-400mm, f/5.6 @ 1/1000, ISO 400)

Getting There

If there’s one rule of thumb for travel photographers, it’s to be sure to carry all your essential gear with you on the plane—from cameras bodies, lenses, and battery chargers to laptop computer and back-up hard drives. This way, if your luggage is lost or delayed, you still have the essential gear for making photographs. There are many camera bags on the market and I’ve tried just about all of them. For negotiating airports and getting to the port of embarkation, the best way to go is with wheels. My current favorite is the Tamrac SpeedRoller 5551, which has adjustable interior compartments and fits easily in the overhead of most commercial jets. My second carry-on bag is a Think Tank Urban Disguise 60 V2.0 shoulder bag that slips over the handle of the rolling bag. These two bags carry all my essential gear—a good thing since I spent 3 weeks recently on a Peruvian Upper Amazon voyage without my checked luggage, so don’t forget to also include a change of light-weight travel clothes in your carry-on bags.

Common dolphins in the Sea of Cortez, Baja California, Mexico. Panning with a moving subject at slow shutter speeds captures a sense of motion. In low-light situations it’s possible to create artistic images at speeds of 1/15 to 1/30 second with your camera set to Shutter Priority. For best results, also set your camera to burst mode and continuous focus, firing off a series of short bursts. (Canon DSLR, 70-200mm, f/10 @ 1/15,  ISO 100])

Protecting your Gear

Ship-based travel involves being around water, so it’s also crucial to have a good camera beltpack or backpack, complete with a rain cover. Depending on the destination and the situation, I use two different systems—a GuraGear Kiboko 22L Backpack or a Tamrac 5769 Velocity 9x Sling Pack. The backpack handles two camera bodies and long lenses while the sling pack is for more mobile situations, but can also handle two bodies with shorter zooms attached. Both these bags are packed in my checked luggage, stuffed with clothes and extra equipment. For the more adventure travel destinations, like Antarctica or the high Arctic where wet landings are the norm, I’ll travel with a hard-sided Pelican 1514 Carry-On 1510 Case with padded dividers that is completely waterproof. Once I get to the ship, I reconfigure my gear from the rolling bag to one of these more mobile setups. It’s important to be prepared for shooting in stormy conditions, as there can be some great light and photo opportunities, so each camera bag has a couple of OP/TECH Rainsleeves, which I modify withAquaTech eye pieces on my digital SLRs. For more serious wet destinations, like Southeast Alaska, I’ll also use the AquaTech SS-200 Sport Shield Rain Cover, which is more durable and user friendly.

Do I Really Need my Tripod? 

This is the number-one question for travel photographers. Even in the digital age of high-ISO shooting, a tripod is essential for shooting with long lenses and at slow shutter speeds. The most important consideration for travel photographers is size and weight. My current tripod of choice is the Oben CT-3510 5-section folding tripod, which weighs slightly less than 3 lb and folds to about 15 inches. For ease of use I’ll pair this with a Really Right Stuff BH-30 Small Ball Head and quick-release plates. For certain situations, like using the big guns shooting bald eagles in Alaska, I’ll use a more heavy-weight Induro Carbon 8X CT314 Tripod paired with an Induro GHB2 Gimbal Head. I also travel with an Induro monopod for shooting from the deck of the ship and a Bucky travel pillow as a beanbag for working from the rail—also great for comfort on the plane.

Courtship dance, blue-footed boobies, Galápagos Islands, Ecuador. The animals of the Galapagos show no fear, making this a dream destination for travel photographers interested in nature and exotic wildlife. But even though you can get close to the animals, it takes extra effort to get the shot. Getting down at eye level, then zooming in to create shallow depth of field will help isolate the animals from distracting backgrounds.
(Canon DSLR, 70-200mm w/1.4x converter, f/8 @ 1/640,  ISO 400)

Camera System

In the digital world, it’s important to keep up with the latest advances in technology. The number-one reason for upgrading is for the low noise at high ISOs, since it’s not uncommon to shoot at 400 ISO and above when working from a moving platform like the ship or a Zodiac. My workhorse camera bodies are the Canon EOS 5D Mark III and the Canon EOS 1D X. Both cameras have full-frame sensors and very low noise. The 5D is primarily for landscapes and situations where I don’t need the 10 frames per second of the 1D X, which is my go-to camera for wildlife and action. I also carry a Canon Powershot G15 for grab shots, its excellent macro capabilities, and for its inexpensive underwater housing for snorkeling and shooting in the surf. Zoom lenses are the way to go for travel photography. My arsenal includes the 16-35mm24-105mm, and 70-300mm. Although I’ve generally switched from the heavier f/2.8 and fixed focal length telephoto lenses, I must say that I’m looking forward to the new Canon 200-400mm zoom with the built in 1.4x teleconverter.

Other Important Stuff

There are a few other items that I don’t leave home without, like knee pads for getting down and dirty, and I find the Black Rapid Camera Shoulder Straps to be a comfortable alternative to standard camera straps. And the Luminair Full-Time Intelli-Charger has saved me when my dedicated chargers have failed.

 

Doors Off Over Baja California

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Aerial Photo Expedition from Land’s End to San Diego
By Ralph Lee Hopkins, Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic Director of Expedition Photography

Although we landed in San Diego a week ago, I still have not come down from the adventure of flying over Baja California during the first photo expedition of the
Baja Aerial Archive Project with LightHawk, WiLDCOAST, and iLCP.

This was not your normal flight-seeing operation, but an adventure full of uncertainty, military checkpoints, dirt airstrips, and, fortunately, an awful lot of good luck.

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LightHawk’s battle-tested Cessna 206 is the perfect high-wing aircraft for aerial photography, especially flying with both cargo doors off. With nothing between me and the earth 1500′ below, I had the best seat in the house. For safety, I was strapped in a harness designed by the US CoastGuard, and also a seatbelt.

The most difficult part was avoiding sensory overload. Every takeoff and landing was an adrenaline rush for sure, but once in the air at our exploring altitude, it was total bliss being in the moment with camera in hand as one incredible scene merged into another.

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And we didn’t fly in straight lines either — covering over 3,500 nautical miles or 3.5 times the length of the Baja Peninsula in just 9 days.

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Since tracking the location of the images was of critical concern, B&H Photo outfitted me with a Canon 1DX and GPS receiver, so that all of the 13,000+ images shot on the expedition are properly geo-tagged with lat/long co-ordinates. My workhorse lens was the Canon 24-105mm zoom, paired with the Canon 70-300mm zoom. Singhray ND grads and a polarizing filter helped narrow the exposure values between the bright landscapes and dark water. The camera was mounted on a Ken-Lab gyro-stabilizer to help minimize vibration, permitting me to work at shutter-speeds down to 1/500 sec. at ISO 800-1600 between f/4-f/8.

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We had the best pilot for the mission Colonel Will Worthigton, a volunteer pilot and board member with LightHawk, and also a retired civil engineer with the US Army Corps. We also had the best operations manager, spotter and chief negotiator/diplomat, Armando Ubeda, Program Director for LighHawk. And teaming with me for video is filmmaker/photographer, Jeff Litton, a virtual energizer bunny always shooting while being squeezed into the tightest seat.

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It was a photographer’s dream working with “the Colonel.” His plane-handling skills, together with his great appreciation for desert landscapes and understanding of coastal processes, helped us be in the right spot at the right time, flying not only for the best light, but also for the best composition. We worked well together, sometimes circling 2 or 3 times to get the best angle. At one point, we circled 700 feet above two humpback whales that breached repeatedly for 18 minutes.

Connecting the dots from our zig-zag itinerary, we flew from the over-developed tourist sector of Cabo San Lucas, to the noisy, motorized playground of San Felipe, then across to the Pacific Coast at San Quintin, skirting Picacho del Diablo, Baja’s highest point rising 10,000 feet above the sea in Sierra San Pedro Martir National Park. We flew almost the entire length of the mountainous coastline along the Sea of Cortez, the entire length of Magdalena Bay and the Sierra de la Giganta, circled over 500,000 nesting seabirds on Isla Rasa, and along the west side of Isla Ángel de la Guarda.

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The Colonel was right when he remarked, after landing in San Diego, “If I hadn’t insisted we get back on course, we’d still be circling the blue whales off Punta Colonet.”

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In between photo opportunities, there was plenty of time to ponder the amazing world we were flying over.

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What impressed me the most was how much of Baja remains wild, with its vast expanses of desert wilderness, jagged mountain ranges, and endless coastlines. The Baja peninsula is where the desert meets the sea, a young landscape pulling away from mainland Mexico by the same plate tectonic forces that creates earthquakes in California, USA. In between the madness of Southern California and Cabo San Lucas remains one of the world’s last great treasures, not unlike the Galapagos Islands, with many endemic species unique to Baja and the islands along its shores.

On the flip side, what also impressed me is the huge impact large-scale, mega-developments has on Baja’s coastline, with marinas being carved into wetlands, golf courses being watered in the desert, and high-rise hotels blocking the waterfront and limiting public access to the best beaches.

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From the air I also learned how dynamic the coastline is with the barrier islands and beaches shifting with the seasons, and when breached, how coastal processes cause severe erosion, significantly altering the beach profile, while destroying nesting habitat for endangered sea turtles that come ashore to lay their eggs.

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And I could also see from the air how fragile the coastal wetlands, estuaries, and lagoons are, not only the obvious impacts along the coastal zone, but also disturbances in the headwaters of the watershed, often hidden out of view from the ground.

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But what I will remember most is what an honor it was to ask, “Colonel, Sir, any chance you can raise the wing just one more time? Thank you, Sir.”

Explore Baja California yourself on a Lindblad-National Geographic expedition.

Polar Bear Catches Beluga Whale

Guests aboard National Geographic Explorer in Arctic Svalbard enjoyed a rare sighting yesterday: a polar bear feasting on a beluga whale. How did this bear manage to catch a whale nearly twice its weight? Perhaps the whale was killed by ice calving off the glacier, though the bear would still have to drag the dead beluga onto the ice—no small task. In any case, it is impossible to know since we arrived just in time to see the bear over its kill. It is indeed a rare sighting; in our 30+ years exploring Svalbard only one of our naturalists has ever seen a polar bear feasting on a beluga whale.

Sneak Peek Slideshow: South Pacific Adventures

In honor of World Oceans Day, One World, One Ocean is sharing an exclusive sneak peek at their new IMAX film, shot among the islands of the South Pacific. This photo slideshow was shot at Raja Ampat, Indonesia. It is a string of islands home to staggering biodiversity. Over 450 species of reef-building coral live in the gin-clear waters surrounding the islands—by comparison, all of the Caribbean has about 70 species of coral.

See the photos, and if you’re inspired to explore it yourself, join us aboard National Geographic Orion in April 2014 for our expedition, Voyage To The Spice Islands & The Coral Triangle, which includes an exploration of Raja Ampat.

Botswana & South Africa Photo Safari: A Day in the Mala Mala Reserve

By Jack Swenson, Lindblad Expeditions photo instructor. This is a dispatch from one day in the Mala Mala Game Reserve in South Africa during a 2012 Lindblad Expeditions & Bushtracks photo safari by private air.

Leopard & Cub

We began another beautiful morning at MalaMala searching for lions that had been calling at dawn across the river from the Main Camp. Soon we got a radio call that Keith (the Main Camp Manager) had just sighted a leopard and cub from the camp’s deck. We turned and headed to the edge of the river in the vicinity where they had been seen. When we found the mother and cub, they were in the shade behind vegetation near a quiet pool. We waited patiently, and soon the mother got up and began walking south along the shore. Our guide, Sean, moved the vehicle beyond them to an area where he suspected they might come up the bank. As they ascended the embankment, they came right into the morning sunlight and walked straight towards our vehicle. It was a stunning moment, and the view of their faces captured the seriousness of the mother (who had had her kill stolen the night before) and her charmingly innocent looking cub. As we followed them, this inquisitive cub wanted to climb up everything it passed; rocks, trees, and nearly onto the bonnet of our vehicle too.

 

Lions Ambushing an Impala

In classic MalaMala fashion, after spending some quality time watching a leopard mother and cub, we let other vehicles have time with them as we headed off for our morning coffee and snacks. Afterwards, we started heading south to view the hippo pool, but got delayed by elephants clogging the road near the river. As we considered our options, a radio call said that lions were nearby, so we turned back northward. We found members of the Styx Pride, though it was now mid-to-late morning and the lions were alternately drinking at a pool and moving into the shade. As we were watching several adult females and large young, one female headed off into the bush, noticeably in stalking mode. We tried to follow, but lost her in the dense thorn bush. Our guide, Sean, circled back around to the other pride members who were still in the shade of a large tree where we had left them. They began moving, and occasionally looking interested in something farther ahead of them in the bush. We followed and when they paused, Sean slowed and parked us within view of them. As we watched, suddenly several lions jumped up and quickly headed away into the bush. An impala came careening past us, swiftly disappearing into the bush, and at that same moment the lions ambushed a second impala only about ten meters from our vehicle. I swung my camera, aiming at the thrashing impala, and began shooting as the lions swiftly pulled it to the ground. The impala made this last gasp with no chance of escape. I only got a few frames before the antelope was completely surrounded by the hungry pride. Within minutes, the impala was devoured.

 

Jack & Rikki Swenson sail aboard our ships as naturalists and certified photo instructors, and they’ll  lead three Lindblad Expeditions & Bushtracks photo safaris in 2013. Two still have space available. You can see more of Jack & Rikki’s work online at Expedition Gallery

Namibia Photo Safari by Private Air  (pdf) | September 12, 2013 | See full itinerary

Wildlife Paradise Photo Safari: South Africa & Botswana by Private Air (pdf) | September 26, 2013 | See full itinerary

News from the Ocean in Focus Photo Contest Winner in Galápagos

SeaWeb’s Marine Photobank seeks to inspire people to care for and conserve our oceans in a unique way—by getting photographers to share their undersea photos.

As part of the effort to get photographers to donate their work to the Photobank, Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic offers the top prize in SeaWeb’s annual Ocean in Focus Photo Contest: A Galápagos expedition aboard National Geographic Endeavour.

The grand prize winner of last year’s contest was Terry Goss. Last week he sailed aboard Endeavour, and he made the most of it by taking some great shots, including some excellent undersea photos. And it’s certain to be a trip he’ll never forget, especially since he and his fiancée decided to get married at sunset on the ship’s bow by the captain.

This year’s Ocean in Focus Photo Contest is still open. Photographers are asked to donate up to 10 photos by January 31, 2013 for a chance to win this year’s grand prize.

Traveling Creatively: Africa Photo Books

Last spring 148 guests embarked on a sweeping journey up the coast of West Africa, beginning in Cape Town and landing in 16 countries before saying their goodbyes to one another in Marrakesh. Before the trip ended they would each fill an entire passport with visas, be greeted by national press in Liberia, and pass among deserts, tropical islands, and cities that pulse with life. And nearly everywhere they stopped, they would be greeted by the people.

One guest, Paul Pitzer, snapped photos of the people they met along the way, and turned it into a photo book: People 4, West African Odyssey.

He said, “I’ve been taking pictures of people since the ‘60s when I was in the Peace Corps. I consider what I do taking pictures; Grace (his wife) is the photographer. My book is really an addendum to hers, covering a fascinating aspect of an amazing expedition.”

Grace Pitzer’s excellent photo book, West Africa Odyssey, South Africa to Morocco, does an extraordinary job documenting the wonder and scope of the voyage, and we are delighted to be able to share Grace and Paul Pitzer’s work with you.

Ocean Photography Contest: Win a Galápagos Expedition

SeaWeb’s Marine Photobank represents and effort to get photographers to share their shots of the oceans—whether they be inspiring or troubling. If the axiom “out of sight, out of mind” is true, then SeaWeb is doing everything they can to get images of the world’s oceans in front of people and at the top of their minds.

October 1st marked the launch of the fifth annual Ocean in Focus Conservation Photography Contest run by SeaWeb’s Marine Photobank program. The goal of the contest is to inspire photographers, from hobbyists to professionals, to care about the ocean and focus their lens on the true positive and negative human impacts on the marine environment.

Grand prize in this year’s contest is a Lindblad-National Geographic Galápagos expedition. The winner of last year’s contest is on his way to the islands right now, soon to embark National Geographic Endeavour…and we’re expecting to see some great photos being posted on SeaWeb’s Twitter feed!

Learn more about the contest and enter here.

Africa’s Most-Effective Carnivores: A Rare Afternoon with Cape Hunting Dogs

On July 16th I had the privilege of spending a couple hours with cape hunting dogs on the Mala Mala reserve in South Africa. Their den site had been found that morning, and it was a remarkable sighting. I’d seen them before during my six years living in East Africa, but never this close, this calm, this playful. Under the watchful eye of an adult the cubs played relentlessly, probably developing skills that would, in adulthood, make them the most effective carnivores of Africa.

Once they start a hunt in a pack, they rarely fail. According to wildlife filmmakers Dereck and Beverly Joubert, when I asked: “It is correct that they are hugely efficient. Eighty-four percent was recorded by filmmaker Hugo van Lawick’s as the average success rate once they had identified prey.” By comparison, lions are about 30% efficient.

Patience, stamina, and extraordinary collaboration are their hallmarks.

Sven-Olof Lindblad

The Latest Photos of the Week

A hike through the rain forest canopy in the Amazon. A snoozing polar bear in Arctic Svalbard. A hidden waterfall in Alaska. Fearsome looking marine iguanas (Darwin’s “imps of darkness”) in Galápagos.

See it all in the latest Photos of the Week.