This article was originally published in the April 2018 Princeton Echo.
A great egret in flight. A forlorn squirrel. A stately bald eagle. An osprey mid-air. A colorful eastern tiger swallowtail atop honeysuckle. These are among Princeton photographer Leigh Faden’s favorite subjects.
Her message is simple and heartfelt: “See what is around you. Put your phones down. Stop, and watch.”
For Faden, living by those words results in the beautiful photographs of Princeton area wildlife. Raptors, egrets, and herons, water birds, little birds, mammals, insects, turtles, frogs and plants are among her subjects. She catches them at pivotal moments — flying, eating, in flight, splashing in water, or sometimes resting, contemplating their next move. Some are reminiscent of drawings by John James Audubon. Some tell a story: a young beaver, caught in discarded fishing line the day after surviving Hurricane Irene, is rescued by a passing fisherman and fed willow branches.
This past winter Faden saw a mink on the shore of the canal, peeking out from foliage. She has come upon beavers, foxes, red-tailed hawks, and small warblers and ducks so colorful “they look like Disney created them.”
On a typical day Faden ventures to Carnegie Lake or the Millstone aqueduct, equipment in tow, and runs across a common merganser (waterfowl). “Suddenly 200 of them fly into the air. I knew a bird of prey was near, and there was a bald eagle just catching fish.”
Along the canal, “you never know what you’ll see. We should appreciate the diversity of the wildlife we have. We are so very lucky,” she says. The area at the Millstone Aqueduct, where the Millstone River is channeled under the Delaware & Raritan canal and into Carnegie Lake, “provides some truly beautiful and seemingly remote vistas,” she says, “but if you look carefully, you can see Route 1 from here.”
She speaks reverently: “The eagle is jaw-dropping with a six-foot wingspan. The goldfinch is drab in winter white, but in spring, the males become highlighter yellow. Swallows are extraordinary, and there is such beauty in a cormorant catching fish. She tends to set up where there is a good food source for birds, such as a bush with berries. “You hope you are facing the right direction, and that the quiet is followed by intense activity.”
A short walk from the parking lot are three pedestrian bridges over the waterways, where according to Faden, there is excellent fishing and therefore, a good chance for wildlife. Plentiful and diverse wildlife hug the pathways, including mulberry and crabapple trees, “another terrific food source in season,” she points out. She picks a spot either on a bridge or path, depending on what she hopes to photograph that day, sets up tripod and stand, and waits quietly, “staying alert to the sights and sounds around me, zeroing in on the slightest movement in the field.
“Often I wait and wait some more. It can take a few hours to capture anything, and even then there are no guarantees. Patience is key. The paths are narrow. There are few places where one can leave the paths here, and I don’t recommend it anyway as it can be disturbing to wildlife.”
Most of her photos — 95 percent — are taken in the Princeton area. Except for some calendars and greeting cards for friends and family, Faden has not yet ventured into commercial projects nor has she had a show.
Although she enjoys teaching young people to respect nature, so far, her avocation has been more of a personal adventure. “You never know what extraordinary things you might see. And you have to be ready. You can’t ask a bird to do another flyby.”
The former computer specialist, now retired, considers Princeton her home, despite moving with her family from London in the 1970s, due to her father’s position with Squibb, as president of the pharmaceutical division, and senior vice president of the Squibb Corp., long before any mergers. She is a graduate of Princeton Day School and studied journalism at the University of Wisconsin. In college, she liked photography, but not necessarily of wildlife.
After college she worked at the Annenberg Research Institute in Philadelphia and the Princeton University Art Museum, and attended an intensive computer training program at a corporation.
That corporation eventually hired her as a technical analyst and sent her to work in Australia. It was there that she discovered wildlife and her two passions converged. “I showed my photographs to a friend, who pointed out that all the photos were mostly all of birds,” she says.
The revelation nearly 20 years ago that she loved wildlife photography paved the way for her current online collection, and informed her appreciation. “We live in a nice suburban area,” she says. “But it is an extraordinary place for wildlife.”
On her outings, she carries her Nikon D500 camera, with a walk-around Nikon 70-300 mm lens and a “serious” wildlife lens, a Nikon 200-500 mm. With this larger lens she uses a sturdy tripod. Although her equipment (tripod, lens, camera) is heavy — about 12 to 15 pounds, and awkward to carry — she says she will “struggle with it if I know there’s a photograph at the other end.”
Photography has changed so fundamentally over the years, she points out. “When I started, I spent many hours in darkrooms, processing film, mixing chemicals, exposing photographic paper. Very fortunately, I became interested in wildlife photography long after photography became digital. Wildlife photography is about waiting patiently for that moment of opportunity, and then hoping your focus, exposure, and framing is on target.”
She quotes renowned photographer Henri Cartier Bresson: ‘Life is once, forever.’ “That is so true of wildlife photography,” says Faden. “In the film days, you would have no idea if you captured that moment successfully until after you processed your film, maybe days later. Now, you can immediately check the screen on the back of your camera, and know fairly certainly whether you’ve succeeded. Also, you can take more photos with digital, which can help you get just the right capture. With digital, you no longer have to worry about conserving limited film.”
Sometimes photos don’t work out. “I have the worst time with kingfishers. I can’t get good photos.” Wildlife photography also carries with it disappointment in missed shots. “If everything aligns beautifully, you go home knowing you can be really proud of your work. Sometimes nothing happens,” she says.
The activity is also weather-dependent. During winter, sometimes the backyard is best. Faden’s home in Montgomery Woods is next to woods, where she feeds goldfinches (the New Jersey state bird, she pointed out), and gets colorful photos.
On the days when the weather is just not conducive to photography, she enjoys classic films, documentaries, art, music, and, a newfound fondness for knitting.
Her tip for budding photographers: “Respect the wildlife and don’t interfere.” And, “shoot at the highest shutter speed you possibly can shoot with, with the sharpest lens you can buy. Give yourself over to nature, the light, the wildlife. It teaches patience.”
She also has some recommendations for photography self- instruction and inspiration. “I really love the DVD series by Art Wolfe called Travels to the Edge,” she says. “He is a general photographer (landscape, wildlife, macro, human interest). In the series, he travels to extraordinary places in the world and shows you generally how he photographs what he sees. I find it very inspiring.”
For a basic bird identification education, she uses the classic “The Sibley Guide to Birds,” by David Allen Sibley.
In the future, Faden sees some expanding view of her work, in a show or display. But she will be sticking to her subject. “I’m tied to wildlife,” she says. “Wildlife doesn’t complain if you don’t get their good side.”
And she will continue to live by her own words. “It’s extraordinary what’s there if you stop and look,” she says.