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Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Wildlife Photojournalist

With a doctorate in biology and an eye for rich biodiversity, Tim Laman’s extraordinary wildlife photography is captivating and raises awareness about the complex ecosystems he shoots

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A red-crowned crane flies through falling snow.
Outdoor Photographer: How are you able to achieve a soft quality to the light that mutes contrast, but makes details appear super-sharp? It seems contradictory. Do you use flash, and if so, how so?

Tim Laman: The advances in digital low-light performance have been a huge boon for me in what I can do in dim rain-forest settings. I’m making pictures now that were totally impossible a few years ago. While I prefer natural light, my rain-forest work often necessitates using some flash. When I use flash, I try to be as subtle as I can with it. I’ve found that one of the most important things is not to have one formula for flash lighting. Just like natural light has beautiful different effects from different angles, whether it be front-, side- or backlighting, the same is true with flash—though front-lighting rarely is any good. I use Canon flashes with small and medium softboxes a lot, which I warm up with slight amber gels to match warmer daylight. Whether it’s a macro shot or a telephoto shot of a bird, I might have flashes set up from the front, sides or behind—sometimes all of the above. As for lighting to reveal sharp detail, that’s all about getting the angle of the light right, usually from the side.

Outdoor Photographer: Your environmental portraits of animals convey much more than just a portrait of them. This approach seems to tell a much deeper story about the wildlife in front of your lens.

Just before swallowing it, a young rhinoceros hornbill tosses a fig from a strangler fig tree.
Tim Laman: Shooting wild animals in their environment is really important to me. The animal can’t survive without the habitat, and getting the message across in the story of the importance of habitat is critical. For me, the goal is to tell a story. That’s where the journalism part comes in. I want to give viewers a glimpse into the life of the animal in question. Portraits and good behavior shots are useful to the story and to revealing the character of the subject as well, but the shot of the animal in its environment may be the most important.

Outdoor Photographer: Images such as the shot of the cormorant passing a unique cliff in Japan is an example of how you compose a shot and then wait for an additional element to enter the frame. That extra element turned a good shot into an extraordinary shot. Do you plan a composition like that and wait for it to happen?

Tim Laman: Those extra elements make a huge difference in taking an image to a higher level, both artistically and journalistically. My ideal images will have storytelling power and be aesthetically satisfying. The way I approach this is through a form of the classic “previsualization” process, though I believe it’s almost instinctual for me at this stage. When I see the elements of a scene such as wildlife in a landscape and the changing light, I’m always seeing the possibilities for how the elements will come into alignment to make an extraordinary image. I see the images taking shape in my mind, and I try to move my feet and camera to get in the right position, and choose the right lens to get the shot. Often, a lot of waiting is involved for the elements to come together. Maybe I need that bird or other animal to show up to make the image work. Sometimes they never do, but when they do, it’s all worth it.

To see more of Tim Laman’s wildlife photography, visit his website at www.timlaman.com.


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