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written by
Hailey Wist

Catching Light

photographs by
Hailey Wist

Volume: 31

Zooming in on the Kiawah Island Photo Club, with National Geographic photographer Ralph Lee Hopkins

If the eye’s not sharp, no cookies for you.

So warns veteran nature photographer Ralph Lee Hopkins, who took time away from his adventures to the Arctic and forays to the endless turmeric-tinted folds of the Grand Canyon to headline the April monthly meeting of the Kiawah Island Photo Club (KIPC). The eye in question being that of an immense polar bear, staring directly into his lens—one of his many images that have graced National Geographic covers. 

“It’s intimidating talking to a room full of photographers,” a humble, jovial Hopkins began, addressing fifty-some club members in a Tuesday-morning lecture. But with a big personality and wit (and eye) as sharp as his extraordinary images, the pro is fully in his element. Now based in Charlotte, North Carolina, Hopkins travels the globe as founding director of Photographic Experiences for National Geographic-Lindblad Expeditions, which is how he met Kiawah Island Photography Club member Bill Davis on a trip to the South Georgia Islands. “Bill, remember that one bay we pulled into, where we saw forty thousand pairs of penguins?” 

Hopkins’s photographs indicate he’s plenty right about photography and happy to share tips of his trade. A geologist by training and a naturalist by nature, he’d always been mesmerized by dramatic landforms, and it didn’t take him long (two years, three months, and twelve days, to be exact) to realize that working for a Midlands, Texas, oil company paled in comparison to photography. He published his first image in National Geographic in 1990 and never looked back. His excursions with Lindblad-National Geographic now take him to the Galápagos Islands, Baja, Ecuador, and various other wild, remote places from the Arctic to the Antarctic. 

“My mantra: light, composition, moment. There’s no such thing as bad light; it’s just how you use it,” Hopkins says, as photo after stellar photo glides across the screen. Dazzling crystalline icebergs; grizzlies in their fierce glory; shadow play against the geologic wonders of steep canyon walls; the visual poetry of sunsets, moonrises, and starbursts in the bluest of skies. It’s all there, a not-so-simple matter of point and click, and decades of experience. And, oh yeah…patience. 

“Are you guys patient?” Hopkins asks. “I’m not. Not patient at all, until I think there’ll be an image. Then I can wait for hours. It’s all about waiting for that moment, that fleeting storytelling image. That moment is what sets an image apart.”  

Folks nod heads and jot notes. Some simply shake heads in disbelief as more stunning images flicker by on the screen. Based on audience reactions, Hopkins obviously has the intimidation factor backwards, but his encouragement to the photo club amateurs is generous and authentic. 

“Be mindful.”

“When shooting an animal, you want to capture it in its environment. Make eye contact.” 

“Go for the close, tight shot. Anticipate action. Think like a golfer; ask yourself, ‘What is the shot in this situation?’ Then be ready, in the perfect spot. I think it was Ernst Haas who said, ‘The most important lens is your legs,’ or as I say, if you want better pictures, stand in better places.” 

As is often the case with KIPC programs, the rest of the day is spent exploring Kiawah to find, and stand in, those “better places.” The morning shoot group loads their tripods and long-lensed cameras for a golf-cart photo safari leaving from the Kiawah Island Club, but not before stocking up on granola and energy bars. “Rule number one: never photograph on an empty stomach,” Hopkins says. 

After pausing at an osprey nest (empty) at hole number seven, the carts roll on to a rookery pond between hole numbers four and five, and the club photographers stake out their spots. “The camera is the easy part. It’s getting to the place where things are that’s hard,” Hopkins says as folks crawl through tall grasses and between bushes to frame their views of the pelicans, egrets, and wood storks camped out in the oak on the far shore. 

“A polarizer—when would you use that?” he asks the group after someone inquires about the filters he uses. “Maybe if the birds were on the water, to cut the reflection, or if you were shooting a landscape with puffy clouds. Most of the time it’s just cutting light,” he explains. “I like to shoot naked, because why put an extra piece of glass over my nice expensive lens?” 

Others chime in with more technical questions, as Hopkins roams around the rookery to check on his shutterbug protégé. He’s a font of wisdom and knowledge, offering up equipment suggestions and aperture, shutter speed, and f-stop tips aplenty, but as soon as he spots movement out of thecorner of his eye, he crouches back behind his own lens and fires away. “Incoming! A snowy egret there, with yellow sneakers on, about to land,” he says, then click, click, click.

The photographers will share a few of these images the next day at a critique session—part of the format for the club’s regular photo shoot sessions and workshops. Hopkins’s requirement is that the first picture they choose to share has to be “a mistake.” The whole point is to learn and to be supportive; indeed, KIPC’s mission is simply to offer opportunities for members to learn about and enjoy the art and science of photography, and those of all ability levels and experience are welcome. Founded in 2006 with ten members, several of whom are still active (John Sanders, Sylvia Bacon, Howard Snelling, and Sue Corcoran), the club has grown to over ninety members. 

As the group heads back to the golf carts at the end of the shoot, Becky Lepanto thinks she may have gotten a few good ones, “or at least I hope so. And I know I got my mistake,” says the West Virginian, who plans her trips to her Kiawah home around the monthly KIPC programs. Lepanto especially enjoys the videos shown at each meeting that highlight members’ photographs on a particular theme. “I’ve been shooting off and on since I was in fifth grade,” Lepanto says. “But only recently, through the club, have I been learning. And what I’m learning is that being in the moment is really hard.” Ralph Lee Hopkins laughs and wholeheartedly agrees.

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