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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Inside A High-End Workshop


In April 2009, we sent a photographer to Frans Lanting’s workshop to give OP readers a sense of what a multiday workshop with a top pro is like. There’s much more than just learning how to use your camera.

Labels: How-Toworkshops

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UCSC Arboretum
Midmorning, Lanting presents his work, explaining that he’s a self-taught photographer with a master’s degree as an environmental economist and that his niche is connecting nature with science. He initially came to Santa Cruz to do research in environmental planning, then picked up a camera, altered career directions, and the rest is history.

Lanting delves into his modus operandi and his goals for the class: “I like to analyze nature, I like to make sense of it.” He feels that part of his mission is not just to portray beauty, but also to create compelling images that make people aware of what’s going on in the natural world, and whenever possible, help channel energies in the right direction.

“Yes, the world is a mess,” says Lanting, “but we can make things better by dealing with local issues and making them better, one step at a time.” He often teams up with scientists: “I can document their work and give them a much bigger audience than they would ever have if they published an article in a scientific journal.”

The photographer sees “nothing wrong with taking pictures of the surface of things—you can end up with glorious images—but I like to take you inside your subject. I would also like to help you reflect on what your relationship may be to the subject you’re interested in covering photographically.”

Lanting stresses the importance of being concise on how one shapes images and the stories that go with them. A constant theme in his work and life is being disciplined. “Saying yes is easy; saying no is hard in an era when pixels are free.” For publications such as National Geographic, Lanting learned how to compress complex realities into graphic images. An example is his photograph of a man holding an egg from the extinct elephant bird of Madagascar, which is symbolic of an array of plants and animals that have become endangered or extinct on the island.


Elkhorn Slough Dock
Next, Lanting projects and critiques one of the first photos he did after arriving in Santa Cruz in 1978. It’s of a bird on the beach. “You can see everything is wrong about the photo. It’s in the center. It’s too far away. The bird is overexposed.” He explains that, at the time, “my passion for the birds clearly was much greater than my ability to turn them into interesting photos.” Euphemistically letting down his hair gives the group a valuable perspective. The person before us evolved into a master nature photographer through hard work, study and a maturing great eye.

Lanting takes us through the steps he took to become a professional photographer and through the edit-to-layout process at magazines such as National Geographic. “A picture story needs pacing,” he says. “Every story has a beginning, a middle and an end. It’s a sentence made up of words—every picture is a word. National Geographic is not a magazine that shows a hit parade. It’s a magazine that tells a story in 10 to 15 pages.”

Throughout the presentation, Lanting gives us important technical suggestions, such as shooting with a 200mm macro to not “spook” a creature when he’s working on a close-up, as well as not closing down our apertures too much when doing close-up work to avoid dropping out and losing the background.

In the evening, Lanting and I break noodles at a local Thai restaurant to discuss the workshops, which now are in their sixth year. “My goal is teaching people how to tell stories through photographs,” he explains. “It’s visual storytelling. At the end of the workshop, everyone does a five- to 10-minute presentation of his or her picture story—a personal concept for each photographer’s sequence of pictures. It’s fascinating to see how people find different ways to deal with some of the same subject matter and present it in completely different ways. Some people take their self-assigned projects literally; some really wing off into the ozone conceptually and end up writing poetry to accompany their photographs. Everyone tells us at the end of the workshop that they look at things differently and that they’ve found new ways to interact with their subjects. For those with professional aspirations, the workshop teaches them how to think editorially to marry the beauty on the outside of things with the content on the inside. That’s the essence of editorial photography.”

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