A Moment of Reflection, Svalbard, Norway, 2010

It was a magical day with blue sky, no wind, and beautiful patterned ice – a photographer’s dream. The only element missing was for a polar bear – icon of the far north – to come into view.

The National Geographic Explorer was exploring a remote fjord along the coast of Spitsbergen almost 80˚north in the high arctic archipelago of Svalbard, Norway. This was an expedition to the Land of the Ice Bears. It had been foggy for days, difficult conditions for navigating through the ice and spotting wildlife. We had yet to see a polar bear.

Finally, the weather broke. Searching with spotting scopes, binoculars, and long telephoto lenses, at last we spotted a couple of polar bears on the ice in the distance. The ship pushed into the ice, moving slowly forward forward before stopping. Wildlife photography is a waiting game, requiring patience.

Out of range for good photos, we watched and waited as one of the bears slowly and deliberately approach the ship, sometimes jumping between ice floes. By nature, polar bears are curious, driven by there continual search for food under the midnight sun, during the endless days of summer when the sun never sets.

This image was part of a series of frames, a quiet moment when the bear paused before walking slowly and rippling the shallow water between the patterned sea ice. Moments like this are rare and etched into my memory forever. It’s what I live for as a photographer.

Location: Svalbard, Norway
Photograph Date: 2010
Medium: Chromogenic Print
Edition: 200


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Ralph Lee Hopkins has been traveling to the world’s wild places for nearly 30 years. Trained as a geologist, he’s a self-taught photographer who discovered his true passion while exploring the canyon country of Southern Utah with large-format view cameras during the glory days of film. Today, he’s the Director of Expedition Photography for the Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic alliance, traveling from the Arctic to the Antarctic and points in-between on board the National Geographic fleet of expedition ships.

Q & A

How did you make the transition from working as a geologist to being a photographer?

It’s true, I didn’t set out in life to be a photographer. Photography found me, an outgrowth of my love for dramatic landscapes and wild places. After college I moved to Utah to work as a field geologist. As fate would have it, I fell into acquiring a used 4 X 5 camera and taught myself about light and composition in the footsteps of the master photographers who inspired me, including Ansel Adams, Elliott Porter, and Phillip Hyde. I was already a published photographer with Arizona Highways magazine when I began my graduate research on the rimrock of the Grand Canyon. A perfect place for a photographer!

What excites you most about being a photographer?

What captivates me most about being a photographer is when it’s no longer about the camera, but about the magic of the moment when it all comes together in the viewfinder. The modern world slips away waiting for a polar bear to walk across the ice, or a humpback whale to leap from the water, or a penguin to jump from an iceberg. Being in the moment is what it’s all about. For me, photography is more than just passion. To be successful you have to be totally engaged in the experience. It’s a way of life. My hope is that my love for wild places comes through and helps make a difference in protecting the wild places I love.

How has the switch to digital photography helped you in your work?

What an exciting time to be a photographer! Not only is the instant feedback of digital technology a game changer, but also the rapid advance of high ISO capabilities of today’s cameras. You can literally shoot in the dark, making images in low-light conditions that were impossible with film. In addition, there’s no limitation on how many images you can shoot. No stopping to change film and missing the moment. While I loved the deliberate approach to film photography and the surprise of seeing the results on the light table, digital photography allows for complete creative control of the process from capture to print. There’s no going back!

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