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

An adult male Bornean orangutan eats ginger stems while keeping an eye on the female he has been following. Laman’s experience and patience were rewarded in this expressive image.


A rhinoceros hornbill male carrying a mouse to the nest.

New England-based photographer Tim Laman has climbed to the top of his field both figuratively and literally. His pioneering research in the rain-forest canopy in Borneo led to a Ph.D. from Harvard and, in 1997, his first of many articles for National Geographic. His training as a field biologist has allowed him to go deeper into his subjects’ lives. He believes that awareness through photography can have a positive impact on the conservation movement. In recognition of his efforts, in 2009, NANPA presented Laman with the prestigious Outstanding Nature Photographer Award.

Outdoor Photographer: What’s a “day in the life” like on an assignment?

To get the shot, one needs to know the habits of the animal. Here, a tarsier enjoys a meal of a cockroach at night.

Tim Laman: Let’s assume I’ve already made the four- to five-day journey from home in the U.S. to my field location in a rain-forest camp in New Guinea somewhere. This might have involved two days of international travel and another day of domestic flights. Then after a day of buying food and repacking, a Cessna flight to a remote airstrip is followed by a hike in with local porters to a field campsite. Let’s also assume we’ve already spent several days scouting, and my biologist colleague or local guides have helped me find the display site of the bird I want to photograph. I also spent a day shooting a fishing line over a tree near the display site with a bow and arrow, pulling up climbing ropes and working for several hours in the canopy, building a blind. When it came time for shooting, this would typically involve waking up at around 4:00 a.m., having a quick bite to eat and hiking a half hour in the dark with perhaps a couple of porters helping carry gear to my blind tree. Then after climbing my rope with ascenders in the dark, hauling a bag of camera gear below me, I would get in my blind and get set up before it gets light and the birds start arriving around 6:00 a.m. Now let’s say this is a species that just displays in the mornings. I’d spend three or four hours in the blind, which is really nothing more than a frame of short poles or a couple of boards lashed between branches that I can sit on with a pad, surrounded by camouflaged cloth and netting. I get lucky, and the males actually come and display that day and I get some shots, but unfortunately, no females come. I really want to get a female visit, so I’ll be back for several more days. Since this is a morning displaying bird, I head down the tree in the late morning after the activity dies down. Then in the midday and afternoon, I usually have other plans.

A cormorant flies near a cliff at sunrise. Not all wildlife photos need to be tight portraits. This dramatic silhouette shows the cormorant in its environment.

Once an expedition is in full swing, I usually have three or more blinds for different species going. I have local scouts working with me and I check on their scouting reports from the morning. During the midday, I hike around to look at the photographic potential at different locations and decide where to construct blinds. One of the bird species I’m trying to photograph is also usually active in the afternoon, so on my typical day, after lunch and perhaps a short nap at camp, I’d hike out to another blind and spend several more hours photographing. Heading back to camp at dark, I’d have a wash in the river, eat some dinner and download the day’s take on my laptop. I usually hit the sack by 9:00 p.m. An example of an image shot like this is the Red Bird of Paradise doing its inverted display.

A school of silverside fish swim over a sea star and beneath the canopy of red mangrove trees on a Belize cay.

Outdoor Photographer: What are some of the difficulties you encounter in these places, and how do you deal with them?

Tim Laman: Light is usually lousy in the rain forest, where I often work, and expeditions are never long enough. But one thing that motivates me is the opportunity I have on these expeditions to share the stories of species and places with a wide audience. For example, I shot with a team of fellow photographers from the International League of Conservation Photographers for National Geographic in 2008. We went to Bioko Island, off the coast of Equatorial Guinea in West Africa. There are seven species of monkeys on the island, several of them found nowhere else on earth, and they’re all under serious threat of being hunted for bush meat.

Here, my job was to try to get shots of monkeys in the wild. It was extremely challenging trying to stalk skittish monkeys through the forest. We had to hike into one of the most remote parts of the island, an ancient caldera covered in forest, and try to find the remaining monkeys. After days and days of effort, it came down to a few brief encounters when the critical images were made.

What made it worthwhile is that the conservation groups working there were able to use our images and the National Geographic article that came out of the trip to help promote protection of the monkeys. It’s an ongoing struggle, but we know that our images are helping the cause. These kinds of expeditions allow me to tell stories about not only the places and wildlife, but also the researchers and conservationists involved in preserving them.

A snow monkey, also known as the Japanese macaque, soaks in a hot spring pool while a companion grooms her.

Outdoor Photographer: Your work ranges from exotic locations to places much closer to home such as Walden Pond. How do you achieve the same intensity in a photograph of things that are much more familiar?

Tim Laman: My Walden Pond photography is a work in progress toward a personal book project. I spend four or five months of the year going off to places like Borneo, Papua New Guinea, the Amazon or West Africa. But like any professional making a living in photography, I also spend a lot of time behind a computer writing proposals, planning expeditions and working on pictures. I started shooting at Walden Pond because of its iconic status in the environmental movement, but mostly because it’s five miles from my house, and if I see some holes opening up in the clouds after a snowstorm, I can be over there in 15 minutes. It became a kind of personal-challenge project for me. It doesn’t have the exotic quality of Borneo or the flashy wildlife I often photograph. Could I still make compelling images at a simple pond in the woods in Massachusetts? My goal became to try to create a visual essay that evoked the spirit of Thoreau’s writing in Walden, where he expressed so well the importance of nature in our lives. It gives me a good excuse to get out from behind the computer and exercise my photographic vision in between major assignments.

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

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