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Photographing Mammals

Lesson 13 from: Innovative Techniques for Outdoor Photography

George Lepp

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Lesson Info

13. Photographing Mammals

George discusses wildlife photography techniques and his experiences shooting mammals, including speedy cheetahs, angry elephants, and hungry hippos.

Lesson Info

Photographing Mammals

Let's go on to mammals this is a cheetah that's not too happy with me it's in a an area in south africa where they're breeding these because they're very much endangered in the wild and they wanted a second population that if somehow in botswana and the syrian getty if we lost the chief is there all this cheetahs are coming from one particulars group small group of cheese at one time, so the diversity of their genes is not good at all, so they're really worried that if something happens so they have a second set so I'm I'm photographing one that's at a cage I'm able to go right up to the edge of the the cage but he wasn't too happy about the fact that I was doing that they would exercise this cheetah's every day and they would have this lure and a wire that would go across about one hundred yards come across it and come back one hundred yards and the cheetah would chase it and would get its exercise. So as it went past there are photographs that as it went past parallel to me and then ...

as just as it came right through me I pre focused on an area and at three thousand of a second I was able to stop it right when it was at that point so there's two things going on here the other thing was when he went past me and here's again that let the motor drive run as is coming across so I saw that and I says well let's go for this action sequence panorama is just one of those things that every second image at ten frames for second I actually think it might have been every third image uh gave me a separation between the two animals and the backgrounds matched the only problem is there on a mowed lawn which doesn't look very natural but it's a really nice way of looking at how the cheetah runs so we come across leopard out there with their vehicles and way start taking pictures the cheetah comes up on the leopard comes up on the on log and we keep taking pictures and quite often your partner or someone else will say how come you took so many pictures I always get criticized for you know you shoot twenty thirty pictures and uh this is a good example of why we do this so here's the first shot of the leopard and it's ok that most I'd be mostly happy with the shot if I had the shot I mean I do have the shot but then he looks over at me and now there's eye contact okay that's a better photograph these are very small things to between a okay photograph a good photograph and then he cocks his head and he looks at me that's the best photograph and that's, why we keep taking pictures and we hope for one little slight change or something that improves the image in some way and just that cocking of the head and then I contact is enough to make that one of my very favorite photographs. I've got a huge print of it in in the house, having that projected flash carrying it with me, the sun has gone down, it's dark, we find the leopard, we don't realize that he's got this food up in the tree and also said he goes climbing up into the tree and because I have this projected flash, I was able to continue to take photographs, whereas if you didn't have a flash with you, you're just watching so sometimes it's good to have bring along your own life and also to be ready. We had three vehicles around this tree and with all of us with our fancy equipment, but if you stop for one moment and took a drink or something or got a snack and you're opening up a candy bar and this leopard comes down the tree, you're going to miss the shot. I think two of us got the photograph and nobody else did, but you hold that lends up there for so long, and you've just got to stay on it until because you never know when that moment comes. That's going to give you the shot that you want a couple of male lions at a drinking home. This is with a long with the one hundred, four hundred about three hundred millimeters that gives the reflection and everything in there. But I put on a longer lands and there's always pictures within pictures. I like this one a lot better because he's staring right through you, you can see the pinpoint in the eyes and he's just looking right at you. We drove right past this lion thiss in the duma plains area, their biggest female lions in the world living here, and they were very strong. We watched one by itself take down a water buffalo and just the other one's just sat around and watched and it took care of it itself. But we went past and I looked back behind me and there's this beautiful backlighting on the on the animal. So you've got to be watching all around you. You've got to be paying attention. This is in tanzania and we sat here watched a couple of young lions up on a little hill next to us for maybe half an hour. We didn't you don't get out and use it. You know, go to the bathroom outside the vehicles and then as we're about ready to leave, I looked and right below us this is not a real long lens was another line had been sitting there looking at us and this is him watching thing I know they got to go to the bathroom so paying attention at one point I wasn't paying a lot of attention and I had my leg dangling over the side of the vehicle and one of the female just started walking right towards the vehicle and the guide looks over and he says, I think you better bring your leg into the vehicle because we went from being an inanimate object to a drum stick or something I'm not sure what it was, but in general we are completely not you know, they don't pay any attention to us whatsoever and that's the best way when you can work around these animals and they don't care about you they vehicle with people in it means nothing to them and they'll go ahead and continue on their hunting or whatever with you being right there, that doesn't always happen. So this is mad mama here's a little story that would tell you that you still have to pay attention and I'd say that for my driver I'm right behind the driver and in this land rover and of course the hood is about that that far so the driver and then there's the front of the vehicle and I'm right behind him and oh, when you have elephants with babies, it's a breeding herd and you give it a lot more space. One of the things that we tried it bring across is that we really don't want to be upsetting these animals when we're out there. But she all of a sudden for some reason we have no idea. She and the rest of the herd turned and came towards us, and my guide is taking pictures and he's turned the engine off and she it comes and she gives us a false charge. They do that quite often so he's still not doing anything. And then she starts coming towards the vehicle and running towards the vehicle. He finally he starts the engine and we have to back up. We can't go forward to turn around, so we're going full speed backwards, trying not to hit termite mounds and all the other stuff she catches us. This is the front of the vehicle right here in the end, she's hitting the front of the vehicle with her tusks as we're going backwards, he reaches over to the other seat takes a bottle of water, which is full fortunately. And throws it with his left hand as hard as you can, chris, you can't miss the elephant, the elephants this big and it's this far away and hits her between the eyes and she stops and goes down your knees for a second. And then we flipped it around and we continued on, and now we could outrun her because we were going forward with the rest of the herd coming behind something had bothered her from some point she did not like vehicles, you know, maybe she didn't like land rovers. I don't know what it was, but, uh, they will turn over the so those with as one of the few times that I've ever been out with the animals where we've been in somewhat of ah predicament in that kind of thing, and this is the last image my buffer filled. This was the new fight, the mark three and shooting raws so that I could only get so many pictures and then the buffers gotten that I need to sit down at that point, she's that at that point she starts hitting the front of the vehicle. I wish I would have had a bigger buffer, but but that was it was an interesting, and everything went black. The most dangerous animal pretty much in africa is the hippo and people don't pay much attention to them they don't think that they can move very fast, but no, you cannot outrun a hippo and they're making all kinds of a cz we get close to the water there either showing another hippo the fact that they don't want him that close or they're making their threat display towards us. It's it's hard to say what we get some nice shots as they make these threats another thing too if you end up and it doesn't just mean in africa but don't put your camera's way just because it's ok the day is over you're starting to drive back the sunset is happening and you're not actually shooting a sunset well, we've all they've all put their cameras away in my vehicle and up comes the antelope put themselves up on the ridge like that we've got the color behind it I still have my camera out, I get the shot, they go right off over the other side everybody's trying to get their cameras out it's not over until it's over and with the cameras that we have today we can shoot until very dark we go the higher isos we also do some aerials twice when I've been in botswana, we've gotten a helicopter and we've done some aerial photographs and big cape buffalo appear you don't want to be on the ground, especially in this kind of an area, but we can get some really nice aerials, and one of things I want to point out is that try to have some control over the people that do this for you. The first time we did it, I had, I'm an old vietnam pilot was flying the helicopter, and man, he had come zooming down, you could hear the music in the background as you were going through the canyons and whatever, and the animals would just take off, and to me, it was ariel harassment. I mean, I couldn't I can't use these photographs that these air not the way it's supposed to be in every time I see an aerial photograph of an animal and it's running, I mean, maybe very spectacular, but you're harassing the animals the second time we had a young lady, a beautiful young lady, that was the helicopter pilot, you say, well, ok, and she would get close, but she would never scare the animals. She could stay back, and or she would come in slowly, or I'm not sure exactly what her secret was, but the animals didn't run, so try not to, and that goes for drones that goes for all the other things that we use out there, tio to photograph these wild animals, including ourselves, way approach them so close that they also run and we get rear and pictures of the animals and that's something we really don't want to be doing. I have another concept that I bring out here is called optical extraction. We have these long telephoto lenses four hundred five hundred eight hundred millimeter lenses, and they see a certain area out there and we're looking at the overall scene. This is the sarin getty, and we look all the way out there, and I see that way out there there's a single tree and under the single tree. You can just start to see that there is a giraffe underneath there. And if you look even closer, you can see that there's a baby draft with it. So I get out my five hundred put it to exxon it, and with the ratio the size of the sensor in the camera, we had sixteen hundred millimeters. So we extract just one little part of it out. If we're using a regular lands or something like that, it disappears. This gives us the chance to eliminate all the chap that's around it, and we could move in tightly onto our subjects and get these kinds of shots, but you have to sort of know what think of your lenses will give you and you look out there and say that's about a five hundred or that's about a three hundred so you have to know what your lenses are and that's why I called optical extraction the higher iess owes it opens up many more hours of photography than we may be used tohave we were talking at lunch a little bit about fifty s o ve elvia and these films we used to use and we would push our films to one hundred or we had one hundred films we pushed two hundred we didn't push the two hundred film that code across two hundred because it was even bad at two hundred but now we can she we have cameras and go up to three, four hundred thousand eyes so that's not really that usable but isaie esos up to sixty four hundred without too much concern and sixteen hundred quite often thiss was a few years ago with that one d mark four this's twenty five hundred dies so the son has just gone down. I just did that elephant and the cloud picture that you saw earlier and all of a sudden the wild dogs walk into the middle and we go over to them and we're now following them and they don't care and it's getting darker and darker because the sun has gone down so now I'm a twenty five hundred s o and even at sixty four hundred s, so we've published this photograph in the magazine and outdoor photographer magazine and it's just fine now to make a really big print of it, it would start to fall apart because of the is some noise in there, and I've done some noise work on the image which is taken out the the there's two kinds of noise with his color noise and then there's also the noise within the makes up the image itself. But I mitigated that and we lose just a little bit of sharpness when we do that, but for showing you here and for the magazine not too large, it works just beautiful and this is two generations ago, so we've come a long way since then because we have the preview on the back of the cameras, we could try for different angles, we can try to get something different. You've got the photographs you go to do foot polar bears, europe in the in these big tonder buggies and you shooting down on him all the time. I wanted to be down with him, but at the same time I really didn't want to be down with him, so I took my mona pod, which I had to work from in the in the vehicles I put the camera on and I put the ten second timer on and with the stroll going and I set it down there and at ten seconds it fired the camera but you don't know if you're aimed right or not, so you bring it back up, you look at the back of the camera and said, no, I gotta give it I'm not getting the whole thing and about the third time I got what I wanted not so much with the polar bear wanted, but it worked, but because of the preview capability, we have these these air just all things that have happened in the last ten, fifteen years with with digital cameras you know, the digital photography that we're doing is about fifteen years old right now from being you know, the first six make six megapixel eight megapixel cameras are about fifteen years old. This is film, this is the beautiful color of light at the very moment that the light comes up over the over the edge and that's it's not a red filter that is the color at that one moment, but film was pushed this was a one hundred push the four hundred and if you blow this up, you'll see right away that it falls apart, but I would love to go back and get these same shots, you know, with the latest equipment, you know, now that I have fifty megapixels, I got to go back and reshoot everything on the same thing happened when velva and the fuji films came out. We have to go back and shoot everything because the color was better and then we had to come back because the digital was better and now we have to come back because the digital has more, we have to keep re shooting everything. This is just off the edge of the tundra buggy and that's a mother with the second year cub, the one looking at me is the second year cub kind of wondering like, what the heck am I doing? But they're playing right next to the vehicle, it's just so wonderful in areas where there really hasn't been any hunting and there's no perception that mankind is a bad thing. The animals ignore us. Of course, if you go down there, they won't ignore you. They will beat you where you place your subject in your composition. We have always way haven't talked here about composition or anything, but the whole idea here is to tell a story of this vastness that the's mother and this young polar bear at, and by placing him down in this corner and showing the storm and showing everything you know, hear the positioning tells part of the story. The story here is that you're not I'm not really down there on the ground with him I'm shooting there on a hillside and I'm shooting across with a long lens but we can shoot a lot of these still shots this isn't it denali national park and and twice I've been able to bring my own van into the park and drive the road back and forth in the old days we could do that it's not really allowed anymore, but I got a lot of single shots but I lived in a town in california coal most also pse and that means the bears. So I put together a poster and all the pictures that I took that one summer of these bears all went together we had you know you could blow them to different sizes, but to me this is what photo shop is all about confidence a composite and photoshopped doesn't have to be to emphasize something it can be to tell a story and that's my emphasis here this was kind of pg rated because I had a bear but in it but I've taken a number of tours with people out into the san ignacio lagoon down in baja california where the gray whales go in to have their calves and they spent they spend a couple of months there were january february is a good time to be there if you there in january the males are still mating with the females, and what you have here is two males and presumably there's a female down below, and they're buying in order to mate with her, and then as we get into february and into march, the males leave and the females come out from the back end of a lagoon with their babies, and you can then get close to them. Uh, we can't get close to them, but they can get close to us. The ruling is on this that you cannot approach the gray whales, but they can approach you. So you place yourself out there, and the beauty of it is that they do come over and you interact with these animals because they want to see you it's kind of interest, curiosity from the opposite side and it's it's a life experience that everybody should have that, you know, we aren't always the top dog, that sometimes there are animals out there that are bigger than us or more fierceness, and that they want to see what we are. And I was also told that before I started running these tours, that was there quite a few times that the big, the big females would stay between you and the and the baby because to protect them, and it wasn't really what I was seeing, and you can see these people in this in this punk a boat here that they're actually petting this youngster so that I took with me an underwater camera and night conus underwater camera with a wide angle lens and I went with two with two boats and I'm stayed from one boat right next to the other one and a photograph underwater what was going on and mother is pushing up the youngster toe where people can touch it I mean she's actually showing the babies to us and the photography is allowing us to to demonstrate this and to me that was that was pretty amazing that that she was down there and she was just bringing them up to us pretty neat but being a basic biologist is one of the things that I stress whenever I talk about doing wildlife photography and one for one way one reason for for doing good being a good natural naturalised out there in the field is the fact that you'll see more and you'll be able to photograph it you know where to go to find these animals and also possibly you won't do damage. One of the rules in yellowstone is that you could only get so close I can't remember how many feet it is to the animals I didn't read anything about the fact that they couldn't come to me so I would sit back and I would watch the there's two groups of animals wonder that all the males on their there in one heard and then there's the females and the youngsters are in another, and you could sit back, and they're feeding, and they follow us kind of a direction when they feed so I would go way out. And then I would set myself down, knowing that they were going to feed down this ridge, and sure enough, they would come right to me. At one point, one of the rangers actually saw it from a distance with his binoculars, and when I came down to my vehicle, he was concerned about the fact that I had gotten too close to the animals, and I informed him that I hadn't moved, and one inch that they had all come to me. So he let me go on that one. But knowing that natural history you can know what's going on, the males are practicing their butting their heads and whatever this is in october, and as we get a little bit further on, then they would start to mate, and they would go into right panorama. As we talked about those this morning, we can use panorama as for wildlife is well, the top one, of course, is bison in yellowstone, the lower one is in namibia of the whole group of out there in the plains area and they just were strung out in a way it just looked like the perfect reason to shoot a panorama and then I worried about putting it together later. Now when you're doing a panorama like this you want to have this is a nice beginning here with the ones looking at you and you've got some other ones here that's ok and as you're going along sometimes you actually have to stop and wait for people the people, the animals to stop giving you that rear ends on like that wait for them to turn around fortunate have one last one here that's looking back towards me that I would like to have more animals looking towards me this is a two headed six legged uh pronghorn antelope I just thought that was kind of interesting you've seen all these pictures of the elk with their majestic looking up in there, you know got their big amber's and everything and you need to take that photograph and that's a good photograph but looking for something like this where something is actually happening something that's different those air the pictures to me that are important we can all get let's take that same shot we can all go teo yosemite and we can all take the ansel adams photographs from the looking from the tunnel looking down into the valley but it's, when you go down there and you find some different light or something that just gives it something that makes it your own, that makes a little bit better in this case, I think this is a better portrait than the majestic bull elk with his head up. These are all creatures of habit as the creatures of habit. The neat thing here is that if you watch for a while and being a basic, natural basic biologist when you're out there in the field, as you sit back and you watch for a while and what happens is you could start to see a pattern and pikers, they look like little rabbits without the right ears, and they'll run back and forth and they'll be picking up food and bring it into like what's called a haystack and that's their winter food, and they'll just keep going back and forth. They actually make a little trails around the rocks, and so you just position yourself and as they come running past two, you're right there where they're going to be. I found myself the last time I was in the upended rockies photographing these guys. I didn't realize that I was in one of their trails. And he would come up to me and he would just sit there and chew me out because I was in his way but keeping abreast of what's going on around you, khun can give you some of the very best photographs there's a lot of chances to take photographs close to where you live I don't mean maybe in your back, clark but you live in see you live in seattle or you live in bender you live in in this case it was colorado springs and this is my backyard. I'm photographing this from my office and my office was on the bottom floor. I had a sliding glass door and I would keep a one hundred four hundred with a camera body sitting down at my feet and this was christmas morning and I heard a commotion outside. I just pulled back the sliding glass door, picked up the camera and stood up and he looked back at me. It was a great christmas for the fox not so much for the group for the squirrel but that's in my backyard literally as literally as you can be and this is in a residential area and ben, we have lots of animals running around. There are no fences between the houses where I lived in that kind of thing so you can have the deer will come walking through we have little rabbits in the area I'm sure that I have some other animals at night that I don't see I see their footprints, but I don't see them. I see remnants of squirrels that have been shoot up by what I think is a pine marten that is in my area, but chris, we never see him. These air in colorado, nice little crown of thorns, or are goes down to feed and picks up the seeds on their heads. That's pretty cool. This was a christmas card that we used for one year, and you can't see the houses around me there. If you look closely, you might see some parts of some buildings or something back here, but these air just the houses and we're close to the edge of town so that the animals come through, but you just have to pay attention. You have to keep keep your cameras ready when I go out to shoot with the vehicle and I'm going to go into a sanctuary or someplace, whether it be geese or something like that in the central valley of california is something like that or calamity falls. I have a camera sitting next to me. It has the right exposure on it has probably the lindsay all need and it's sitting there right next to me and I do that before I drive into the area that I'm going to be photographing and so often it happens and it happened so quickly and if you're not ready you miss that great shot of the day, so being ready is really important this is again in the the backyard in the wintertime thiss was this is a black bear on that deck of that house in colorado and but she was really nice she actually went up to these bird feeders and there was this is a hummingbird feeder up here she was so gentle she took the lid off of the hummingbird feeder and licked the the hummingbird sugar water out of there without hurting anything. We have some other young bears that would come through there, we call them teenagers and they actually destroyed some of the railing here trying to get to the bird feeders or whatever, but I actually had to put a medal on all of the posts that went up to this deck and so they couldn't get a grip to go up to the top of the decade for one year that worked and then somebody figured it out and then it was all over again and they're teaching the youngster this is this this is the mother of this character here climbed up the tree to watch what mom was doing the next generation, so this was not local I've been fortunate to work with a few animals trained animals, these air, not animals that are bred and kept for photographers to use. There are places in montana, there are places in wyoming that you can go to, that they have, they have a place and every spring they bring out the babies and the end, the and the the mothers and you take pictures and you pay of a pretty good fee to do that I'm a little bit not too good with that, because I never know where those babies are the next year there they've gone somewhere else. These air trained these air trained animals for the for the movie industry of in the los angeles area, and we would run them from point a to point b they were well taken care of, by the way, and that was one of the reasons I was willing to work with him and I would lay down on the ground and there would be a person next to me with with meat that was fresher than I was, and then another person would release him about seventy five yards away, and then they would just run from point a to point b as quick as possible, and I'd be taking pictures, it was kind of a lot of fun. Cannon use some of the photographs I was there doing this for cannon they were paying for the animals we had three cats we could get six runs per day for two days and that was you had to get your shot out of that many times and sometimes they would run towards you and then decide they really weren't hungry and they would lay down so you didn't get all six runs from each one are three runs from each of the cat's or six runs from each of the cats so bringing this closer to home we have these techniques of combinations of using layer masks the action sequence panoramas so I went I went to the dog trials and they had the weave and as the dog went through and through here I'm on a tripod so the camera stays in the same position I just let the mortars dr run and I'm shooting at ten frames for second as this dog goes through here I then go back and take the pictures where the dog is where I want the dog to be at that time I get rid of the other pictures and I could put this together the sticks hopefully stay in the same position unless they take them out in the process and we could do something like this so you can take these techniques I'm giving you these ideas would you need to do is to make them your own and add them to the kind of photographs that you want to do. It's amazing what comes up on the show you a picture here in a moment of somebody one of the people in my audience watched all of this and then went home and did a little different shot. In fact, this is the picture right here and he sent it to me and all of the things with the dog with the action sequence panorama is all built into this picture hey just kept the camera on a tripod is the kid just kept doing the kid in different places and we like that used layer masks and put it all together later and came up with a pretty cool picture. It's always really wonderful for me to see and I hope you post some of the pictures on the page there because it shows me that you you got it. When I had my school in california the last day we would work from monday through friday on friday we would all put out they would all put out their pictures that they had got that day that week and we would look at it. And when I saw all of the concepts and everything showing up at the end of the week, we know that way knew that we were successful and they knew that they had learned they had learned something so I was pretty cool

Class Materials

Bonus Materials

George Lepp - Syllabus.pdf
George Lepp - Gear List.pdf

Bonus Materials

George Lepp - Innovative Techniques For Outdoor Photography - Notes.pdf

Ratings and Reviews

R. Hetrick

Amazing class! I particularly loved the macro and how to correctly take panoramic photos sections. George was not only a great teacher but he was super funny too. Would be happy to take any of his future classes.


I watched the entire class, and found it to be a very negative experience - in contrast to all of my other experiences with Creative Live, which had been very good. The problem with this class was the instructor. Mr. Lepp, rather than giving us practical, useful information, and techniques for approaching the subject of Outdoor Photography, instead used his time to show off his seemingly endless array of incredibly expensive and cutting edge gadgetry. For the first half hour or so, Mr. Lepp seemed pleasant and interesting, but it quickly became apparent that this class was NOT about anything relating to the art of outdoor photography. Instead, it was basically a seminar highlighting exotic equipment for the 1%. I have well over $25,000 of photographic equipment, but the arena in which Mr. Lepp plays begins somewhere around the $100,000 mark, and then requires a staggering ongoing budget for chartering helicopters, hiring guides, and constant upgrades to remain on the bleeding edge of gadgetry and accessories. From his gyroscopic mounts to his 40" printer, Mr. Lepp has it ALL and continues to spend, spend, spend. I admire his deep pockets, but I would have appreciated some real insight and technique and useful knowledge on actually getting great shots. (And I must say... Mr. Lepp's work... did not impress me to the degree that other teachers on CreativeLive have.) I believe those giving positive reviews here were more or less wowed by the sheer magnitude of his extensive, well-funded travels and his off-handed way of revealing the endless contraptions and combinations of gear he uses. The passion here is clearly about the gadgetry, and NOT about finding an original and creative voice in the arena of outdoor photography.


George really prepared a lot of information for his class. It is true, he does have a lot of expensive equipment and we may not be able to do some of the things he does with a smaller budget, but it is good incentive for us to plan for the future. He seemed to share new information constantly and stay focused and I was able to take a lot of notes. He talked about many kinds of equipment as well as software and websites he uses. I am pretty impressed that he is so up to date with recent technology. He especially loves macro/micro and stacking hundreds of images for minute focus on really large enlargements (for example, over 600 photos for one butterfly wing). That can get boring if you are not interested in doing that. I can take those tips and apply them to landscape photography though. I think it is more helpful for someone already doing outdoor photography and looking for new inspiration or new techniques as opposed to someone new to photography in general.

Student Work