He’s one of the best nature shooters around, but he’s more than happy to give away his secrets to the next generation. For that, PhotoMedia salute Lepp with our Photography Person of the Year award.
Even as a little boy, George Lepp got into photography in a big way. As a sixth-grader, he lugged a 4x5 Crown Graphic around, making photos, line negatives and halftones for the school newspaper. "Why they had such a sophisticated paper in a middle school, I have no idea," he said in a recent phone interview. "But it was fun, and it got me out of doing other things."
In the 47 years since, cameras have led Lepp to much bigger things. "Throughout my life, photography has been a window unto the world," Lepp says. "It has opened doors, given me access to some very important people, taken me to the ends of the earth, allowed me to play with toys I could never in a hundred years afford and enriched my life beyond my wildest dreams."
Today Lepp is a renowned wildlife and nature photographer, lecturer, writer and teacher. He writes a monthly "Tech Tips" column for Outdoor Photographer magazine, in which he answers photographers' questions, and is field editor for PC Photo magazine. For 19 years he wrote and published The Natural Image, a 24-page black-and-white publication in which he gave away all his best tips. The final issue of that journal is due out this year. He also edits and publishes The Digital Image, which recently grew to 32 pages in full color. Lepp travels the country conducting lectures and seminars, many as a Canon Explorer of Light, and founded the Lepp Institute of Digital Imaging, where he and his staff teach a wide range of sold-out digital photography courses. Lepp estimates that, with all these endeavors, he reaches 500,000 people a month.
This spring he released his self-published book, "Golden Poppies of California," which was 15 years in the making. Currently, he is working on a similar book about tulips, which he hopes to publish in 2006.When he's not writing, shooting or teaching, Lepp also works to increase funding for, and awareness of, conservation of the natural world he loves so dearly. Recently, he helped raise $9,000 for the Morro Bay, Calif., Museum of Natural History with an event called An Evening with George Lepp, in which he lectured and showed some of his photos. During his limited free time, he also participates in fundraisers to support the North American Nature Photography Association.
Because of the scope, impact and influence of his work, PhotoMedia is proud to add Lepp's name to the list of western U.S. professionals we've honored for their outstanding contributions to photography, including Phil Borges, Gary Braasch, Reid Callanan, Natalie Fobes,PhotoMedia's Photography Person of the Year
"George is an incredibly gracious mentor to thousands upon thousands," says Jack Davis, photographer and author of The Photoshop Wow! Book. "Whether he's sharing about how to capture the light within a flower's petals, freeze the action of horses running through the surf or set up color profiles in your computer to actually get these beautiful visions output as museum-quality prints, he both inspires and informs with equal mastery and enthusiasm."
Rob Sheppard, editor of Outdoor Photographer and PC Photo, notes that Lepp's column is consistently one of the most-read parts of Outdoor Photographer. "George has had a huge effect on photographers because of his openness and willingness to share the secrets of nature photography with everyone," Sheppard says. "He teaches with very high standards and with extremely valuable material for anyone interested in photography. He has been a pioneer in working with digital technologies in the nature photography arena and has freely shared his knowledge about it."
Arizona nature photographer Jack Dykinga adds to Lepp's accolades: "Photography is one of those professions that's schizophrenic, very artistic and extremely technical. George has a gift as a translator for people who are overtly artistic but don't grasp the technical aspects, which are getting more complex every year."
An uncommon journey
Lepp's path from sixth-grade camera jock to nationally recognized photographer and digital expert was not a straight shot. Looking back, however, it seems to Lepp as though pieces were falling into place all along the way.
After being introduced to photography, Lepp dabbled in taking and selling pictures and portraits for his church and friends up into his high-school years. He had planned a different career, however, majoring in wildlife biology with a minor in illustration, first at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Ore., and then Humboldt State University in Arcata, Calif.
Being a young man of determination but not much wealth, he worked his way through college for three years. In 1965, while on a work break to earn money for school, he was drafted into the Marine Corps. He signed on for a four-year stint as a graphic designer, serving in San Diego for a year, Hawaii for two years and a year in Vietnam, producing briefings, maps and drawings. Lepp made the most of his service time, learning about layout and putting publications together, as well as getting some management experience.
As a Marine he continued to work on his photography and bought a Bronica 2 1/4-format camera. When his tour of duty was up, he decided to change directions. With the help of the G.I. Bill, he enrolled in the Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, Calif., intending to blend his favorite subjects, biology and photography. "It was wonderful and exactly what I wanted to do," he says.
While stationed in Hawaii, Lepp had married Arlie, his partner in life and business. "It's not been a single endeavor at any stage of the game," Lepp says. "She helped put me through school. I wouldn't have gotten my degree without her help." During the phone interview, Lepp frequently called upon Arlie to check his memory and verify his facts.
From cars to caribou
Nature photography wasn't a popular specialty at the time, and Lepp got little encouragement from his Brooks instructors, who tried to steer him toward portrait and commercial work. After graduating in 1972, he began working for the University of California, Davis, doing medical and biological illustration, and again ended up in a management position.
Three years later, he wanted to get back to photography. He and Arlie moved to Sacramento and set up a commercial studio, where he photographed items such as packages, fried eggs and hearing aids. "Not exactly what I wanted to do," Lepp admits. Fortunately, it was only the beginning of his path.
He began to teach basic courses in nature photography through the UC Extension programs in Davis and Berkeley, while continuing to shoot outdoors whenever he could. Gradually, he moved away from the commercial business. "My way of converting from commercial to nature photography was that I started to sell off the equipment that I needed for commercial — the Hasselblad and the 4x5 view camera — and spent the money on things like 600mm f/4 lenses and other accessories that I needed for 35mm," Lepp says.
Lepp's early forays into the wild were in natural history. His shots of hummingbirds and insects, carefully labeled with their scientific names, were sold to encyclopedias and publications such as Natural History magazine. He laments the subsequent demise of natural history photography as a career option. "It's a sad thing, but now nobody would pay for the information, the knowledge and the hard work it takes," he says. "You can't make a living selling your pictures for $50 or $75 when it takes you a week to get them."
He began to present lectures and seminars locally, gradually expanding around California, adding more projectors and getting more sophisticated in his presentations. After a brief stint with a studio in Los Angeles, he and Arlie discovered their own little bit of heaven, Los Osos, on the coastline halfway between L.A. and San Francisco, and moved there immediately.
Lepp caught the attention of staffers at Car & Driver magazine in 1980. "They liked my techniques because they were based on wildlife and nature, with more macro, panning, etc. So I used those techniques to photograph cars." A publisher who liked his work asked him to do a book on car racing in Utah's Bonneville Salt Flats in 1988. When that turned out well, they offered him his choice of subjects for a second book. Lepp decided on vintage car racing and spent his entire advance traveling around to races.
A car enthusiast himself, Lepp says he and Arlie always have had sports cars in the driveway. After working for nine years on the Car & Driver masthead, though, a new art director changed the look of the magazine, and that was the end of shooting the wild side of cars for Lepp.
To help make ends meet, the Lepps ran a mail-order business selling a macro bracket that George had designed and patented. Then, in 1985, he got a letter from a new magazine called Outdoor Photographer, asking him to buy an ad. "The very next day, I was in the publisher's office in L.A., saying, ‘I'd like to write for and be a part of your magazine,'" Lepp says. "He didn't know a whole lot about who was who in the nature photography area, and he assumed that I knew what I was doing."
The publisher, Steve Werner, agreed to let Lepp write a column, called "Tech Tips," and to do a feature on Baja California in the premiere issue, with no guarantees that the magazine would publish more than one issue or that Lepp had any future there if it did. "We've been doing it ever since," Lepp says. " (We) have been there longer than anyone else on the magazine. It was one of the smartest things I ever did."
Lepp was in awe of fellow columnists Dewitt Jones, Leonard L. Rue and the late Galen Rowell. "These were people I looked up to, people I read. To be linked up with them was the best thing that could have ever happened to me."
A few years later, Canon agreed to Lepp's proposal to present a series of seminars on Canon products, boosting his lecture circuit across the country and overseas.
Dawn of the digital divide
The contacts with Canon and Outdoor Photographer catapulted Lepp into the national spotlight just as photography was beginning to change.
"We were involved in digital from the very beginning," he says. Unlike most photographers, however, Lepp used a PC, not a Macintosh, because that's what was used in the magazine's office.
Going to the service bureau was a lesson in humility. "They would harass me unmercifully. They had cartoons on the walls about PCs," he says.
"I couldn't do imaging very much in the beginning, but as Photoshop became available for Windows, we started becoming more enthused with it. We started scanning our slides. The quality wasn't exceptionally good, but as Canon progressed, so did we."
Two years ago, Lepp shelved the last of his film equipment and went completely digital. "There are so many advantages for me in the kind of work that I do, now that the stock agencies accept digital capture," he says.
Lepp outlined a typical transaction: If an overseas client wants a picture of, say, a ground squirrel, he posts thumbnail images over the Internet and the client chooses the shot. Arlie negotiates the price via e-mail, the client pays over the Internet in U.S. funds and she e-mails the file, all in one day. "And no images are put at risk because the slide doesn't have to travel overseas. It works beautifully," he says. "We haven't sent out an original slide in three years."
Printer technology has advanced to the point where Lepp can take total control over his photos, a development he revels in. "If I can take the picture — have control of it, optimize the picture on the computer myself, make the print myself — that photograph is mine, and I take all the credit and responsibility for it," he says. "That was not the case before."
Although he admits that digital is not for everyone, he is a self-professed advocate. "I feel we can do more things and better, and the possibilities in the control of photography are absolutely mind boggling already. And it's just going to keep getting better. I've been doing this [for] 47 years, and it's more exciting today than it ever has been in the past."
ABCs of PCs
Having taught at the Palm Beach Photo Workshops, the Santa Fe Workshops and the Rocky Mountain School of Photography, Lepp had some experience with photography schools and some ideas about how to build one. The Lepp Institute for Digital Photography was set up with 12 stations, all with PCs, which was what most of his target audience used. Every two students shared a printer and a scanner, and the instructor used a digital projector. The institute offered 15 five-day courses based on his seminars, all taught by Lepp. When the school opened in March 2001, the classes filled quickly.
After the first year, the Lepps hired an assistant and teacher, Tim Grey, an expert on color systems, who since has become a well respected photographer and writer. Other instructors were added as the school's reputation grew.
"We brought in people like John Shaw and a few other people who had a good name in Photoshop that were teaching other places. We now have people like Jack Davis, Katrin Eismann and Dewitt Jones teaching classes."
This spring, the Lepp Institute moved into a larger facility with 16 stations and upgraded all the equipment, adding dual monitors for each student. The school now offers 40 courses a year and often has a waiting list.
Students tend to be serious hobbyists with extra income — doctors, dentists, lawyers and other professionals — and people who use digital photography in their work, such as biologists and entomologists. The curriculum ranges from very basic to very advanced. Although they are learning how to use Photoshop, Lepp says, the main subject is close-up nature photography.
Lepp hopes the school will "open people's eyes to what's around them through the use of photography. It has the ramification of saving places, and the people who leave here have a much better understanding of nature, overall."
By chance, 15 years ago, Lepp found himself at the poppy reserve near Lancaster, Calif., taking pictures in April, when the flowers were in bloom. Enchanted, he returned every following spring. The idea of a book on the California state flower started to grow, along with his poppy portfolio.
"I saw a crummy little book in Texas on the bluebonnet, and it sold like hotcakes because it was the state flower," Lepp says. His research found that there had not been a book written on California poppies since 1906. So he started planning his own book several years ago. He was looking for one good season, with enough rain to make the poppies flourish. After several disappointing years, Arlie pushed him to get moving on the book before someone else did it.
The photos in "Golden Poppies of California" reflect Lepp's changes in medium from Kodachrome to Velvia and Ektachrome to digital capture. "I don't think you can pick any picture out of the book and identify how it was taken," Lepp says. The book includes a few quotes, botanical notes and historical passages about the flower, but is primarily photographic. No expense was spared in design or printing. "Our goal was to make a book that was good enough for the governor of California to give as a gift," Lepp says.
Outdoor Photographer featured the project on the cover of its April 2004 issue, in which Lepp describes the challenges of photographing a subject that doesn't open until mid-morning, or when it is overcast, or if there is any wind. Despite the flower's shyness, Lepp managed to capture its elusive beauty. "This is a stunning project," says Rob Sheppard, OP's editor. "It shows George's great attention to color and detail, while still showing off the natural history of the plants. I think it is one of the finest compilations of nature photography that anyone could find in a book today."
Lepp already is working on another flower book, this time focusing on tulips. "We can do the same thing as we did with the poppy book, at an international level," he says. It will contain some basic history, including a story about a tulip scandal that once made tulip bulbs worth a king's ransom. The book also will feature photos taken at the Keukenhof demonstration gardens in Holland as well as growers' fields in Washington's Skagit Valley; Holland, Mich.; and Ottawa, Canada.
How to succeed: keep trying
From the beginning of his career, Lepp's business model has had an elastic quality. "We've done a lot of things over the years and we've been successful because we've been able to move in different directions at different times," he says. He owes much to the team effort, Lepp says, crediting Arlie with running the business and a staff with whom he shares a mutual trust.
Tim Grey, who assists Lepp, teaches in the school and writes most of The Digital Image, has worked with him for more than four years.
"George has actually influenced the direction of my career. I've always been a computer geek, and got pretty serious about photography back in high school, but he showed me that color photography could really be artistic and reignited my passion for photography. He opened my eyes to what was possible and encouraged me to pursue my passions. Now I have three books and countless articles under my belt, and George's influence has certainly contributed to my success in these areas."
Grey says that Lepp is insatiable in his enthusiasm, returning from trips with armloads of new ideas. "The first day he's back from an extended trip, my to-do list grows exponentially. George always seems to have a million ideas for projects — whether it's photographic, improvements for the institute or sharing information with other photographers."
When he gets a new photographic tool or discovers a new technique he wants to try, Lepp can't wait to play, Grey says. "He loves pushing the limits of what can be done and finding new ways to explore his creativity," he says. "When he returns from a photo trip, the first order of business is [to make] some large prints of his favorite images. If you need something else from him, you might as well wait until the next day because the images come first."
Having recently celebrated his 60th birthday, Lepp says that he can't see himself ever burning out. He still spends about three months per year on photo trips and seminars, but he admits that his tripod is getting heavier, and he doesn't rough it as much as he used to. Even those CompactFlash cards are starting to weigh him down. He looks forward to turning some of the business aspects over to his "young people" so that he can concentrate more on shooting pictures.
"It's just so interesting and so wonderful in the sense of what's possible," he says. "I'm still having a good time."
IN THE LOUPE: George Lepp
Home & Office: Los Osos, Calif.
Stock agencies: Corbis, Getty, Photo Researchers, AgStock.
Books: Cannibal Soup, 1978; Bonneville Salt Flats: Speed Limit 1,000 mph, 1988; Vintage Automobile Racing, 1990; Beyond the Basics, 1993; Beyond the Basics II, 1997; Golden Poppies of California, 2004. Next project: Tulips, due out in spring 2006.
Awards: Honorary master of science degree in professional photography, Brooks Institute of Photography, 1985; Progress Medal, Photographic Society of America, 1998; NANPA Recognition Award, North American Nature Photography Association, 2002; California Poppy Award, California Department of Parks and Recreation, 2004; Image Award, Native Daughters of the Golden West, 2004.Commercial affiliations: Lepp is part of the Explorer of Light program for Canon USA and a member of the Epson Stylus Pros program. He also is involved in a similar new photographic program at Microsoft called Rich Media. "As far as I know, I am the only photographer involved in all three," he says.
Favorite equipment: The Canon EOS 1Ds camera. Also, Singh Ray's new Vari-X neutral-density filter. "It allows a variable ND filter to 10 stops," Lepp says. "I use it for long exposures on water and where I want a long exposure to make moving people and cars disappear."
Favorite place to shoot: Mono Lake, in the eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains of California.
Inspiration: "I learn from my students, my staff [Tim Grey and Jeff Greene], exchanging information with colleagues like John Shaw and Jack Davis, from books on subjects I'm interested in and from experimenting."
Advice to new photographers: "Know your gear and use a tripod."