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Into the Woods With CHOP Nature Photographers

Published on May 31, 2024 in Cornerstone Blog · Last updated 1 month 2 weeks ago


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An eagle swoops mid-flight with a fish clutched in its talons over the Conowingo Dam in Maryland (Photo courtesy of David Stokes)

An eagle swoops mid-flight with a fish clutched in its talons over the Conowingo Dam in Maryland. (Photo courtesy of David Stokes.)

Editor's Note: Our seasonal Off Campus blog series is back! In this Cornerstone series, Children's Hospital of Philadelphia Research Institute scientists and staff share their hobbies and interests when not working toward pediatric breakthroughs. In the first installment, it's out of the laboratory and into the woods for David Stokes, PhD, technical director of the Biorepository Resource Center, and Arthur Lee, MD, a postdoctoral fellow in the Division of Nephrology.

By Kate Knab

Deep in the wilderness, stars crowd the early morning sky, and the temperature dips into the negatives, turning every puff of breath into smoke. For a precious handful of moments, the world is quiet, waiting. For nature photographers David Stokes, PhD, and Arthur Lee, MD, patience is just as important as the camera equipment.

David Stokes, PhD

David Stokes, PhD

On campus, Dr. Stokes, director of the Biorepository Resource Center, assists investigators with the collection, storage, and processing of bio-banked specimens. He is also the technical director of the Translational Core Laboratory, which provides lab testing and specimen processing services to support research. His journey toward his current roles at CHOP began with an undergraduate degree in biology and a lifelong fascination with the diversity of nature.

Dr. Stokes' passion for photography began in 2022 when he and his wife took a trip to Montana to visit Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons. Once there, they joined a professional wildlife photographer for a multiday tour of the national parks that included hikes into the backcountry and workshop-style critiques to enhance his shots.

"The best advice is if you have a great lens on a cheap camera, that's better than a really good camera with a cheap lens," Dr. Stokes said. "After that trip, I bought the type of lens I had rented from the photographer because I had gotten great pictures, and now I knew how to use it."

A bull moose grazes in Yellowstone National Park in Montana (Photo courtesy of David Stokes)

A bull moose grazes in Yellowstone National Park in Montana. (Photo courtesy of David Stokes.)

On the weekends, Dr. Stokes can be found in state parks and wildlife refuges— home to many species of birds, particularly hawks, eagles, herons, and egrets. Recently he and his wife started visiting the Conowingo Dam in Maryland, where a run of hickory and American shad work their way upstream toward the Susquehanna River and draws an impressive number of eagles every spring. Camera-clad people come from all over the country to snap the birds mid-flight, mid-fight, or mid-meal. And if you stand around long enough, you may even have a fish or two dropped on you as a little treat.

But such is the beauty of nature photography. Some days nature may cooperate, and some days not.

Despite taking the time to set up for a landscape shot in the Grand Tetons, Dr. Stokes revealed he never actually got the picture. Instead, after a flurry of phone calls between tour members, the hasty collection of camera equipment, and a quick run through the forest, he ended up with one of his favorite pictures of all time: a fully grown, 1,500-pound bull moose, antlers and all.

"You never know what you're going to see," Dr. Stokes said. "At some point, I'd like to go as far north as I can into the Canadian wilderness, or down south toward the Antarctic region near Patagonia because there are species down there you'll never see anywhere else."

Patience (and Luck) Makes Perfect

Mountain Lake in Glacier National Park in Montana (Photo courtesy of Arthur Lee)

Mountain Lake in Glacier National Park in Montana. (Photo courtesy of Arthur Lee.)

Before Dr. Lee joined CHOP as a postdoctoral fellow in the Division of Nephrology, he received a brand-new camera as a college graduation gift — exactly what one might expect from a family of photography hobbyists. While the camera served as a great way for Dr. Lee to keep in touch with family after moving away for medical school, eventually it blossomed into his personal means of appreciating nature and the surrounding geography.

Good shot or not, Dr. Lee saves every photo. He refers to the scientist in himself when refusing to delete a raw file, even if the picture didn't turn out. Each one serves as an example of how the shot could be improved the next time around. He'll analyze everything from the light conditions to the camera settings used to determine how best to compose the photograph.

Arthur Lee, MD

Arthur Lee, MD

"I approach photography with a similar mindset to my research," Dr. Lee said. "I'm constantly turning the subject over in my head to figure out the best way to capture it."

You can likely find him hiking the early morning hours in some of the most scenic locales lugging 30 to 50 pounds of camera equipment, including one camera outfitted with a zoom lens for any wildlife he encounters, and a second camera geared for landscapes. Although his family members prefer to photograph birds, Dr. Lee seeks out larger animals in the backdrops of Alaska and Costa Rica.

"I do everything myself in terms of building an itinerary and scoping out where I want to be and what I want to see," Dr. Lee said. "If I'm looking for a specific animal, I research local patterns to see where it might be, and then I just cross my fingers."

You can have the best equipment and all the patience in the world, but the secret to success also involves a little luck, and Dr. Lee has had an overabundance of luck with moose. He prefers photographing forested destinations near bodies of water in the hours around dawn, resulting in unintentional close encounters with the antlered animals.

A moose pauses in January snow in Yellowstone National Park (Photo courtesy of Arthur Lee)

A moose pauses in January snow in Yellowstone National Park. (Photo courtesy of Arthur Lee.)

However, during a trip to Yellowstone to photograph a pack of wolves, Dr. Lee experienced the opposite problem. Despite meticulous plans and dutifully sitting out in freezing temperatures, he was stuck listening to their howls just across the ridge. The wolves never got any closer, and he never got the picture.

"Part of it is persistence, and part of it is having fun with it," Dr. Lee said. "If you're not having a good time, you probably won't get a good shot either."