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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.
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Four Mile Beach, Santa Cruz, California


UCSC Arboretum

“I’m going to teach you how you can tell stories with pictures, and that’s quite different from taking pictures just by looking at the surface of things.” That goal-setting statement opens a five-day workshop led by Frans Lanting, one of the greatest living photographers of the natural world. For more than two decades, he has documented wildlife and examined our relationship with nature in environments from the Amazon to Antarctica. On the opening night of the advanced workshop I’ve joined, we go over the course outline and look at each other’s work by projecting five representative images embellished by our oral introductions. The quality and diversity of the photographs are surprising and inspiring. The common thread of my 14 classmates—doctors, lawyers, engineers, scientists and journalists—is a love of photography and nature, and a high bar for personal growth.

We’re introduced to Lanting’s wife, Christine Eckstrom, a former staff writer at National Geographic who collaborates with him on fieldwork and publishing projects; gallery manager Jessica Staley; two assistants, Jason Bradley and Paul Zaretsky, both professional photographers; and digital asset manager Yann Nicolas. “Our three musketeers [Bradley, Zaretsky and Nicolas] provide a safety net for the workshop participants if they run into technical issues. I’m here to give them wings to fly,” says Lanting.

Before we call it a night, we’re handed the tidal, solar and lunar schedules so we can better understand why our alarm clocks need to be set for such early wake-up times over the next four days.

Nisene Marks State Park

It’s 5:30 a.m., and the studio begins to fill with my photo mates now dressed in appropriate garb and toting some pretty impressive tools of the trade.

A 30-degree drop in temperature has given Lanting an opportunity to teach an important lesson to the students without having to leave the studio. This morning’s drizzly, heavy overcast is better suited for the redwoods of Nisene Marks State Park rather than the planned morning field trip to the UCSC Arboretum. So much of what makes professional photographers “professional” is their ability to adapt to ever-changing circumstances, and on day one, we’re getting a great lesson—flexibility.

“Don’t struggle against the conditions,” says Lanting. Like Darwin’s finches, photographers have to be able to adapt.

By 6:15 a.m., the students, Lanting and the support staff depart the studio in car pools. Lanting demonstrates some creative techniques, such as doing a camera tilt down the redwoods during the exposure, then holding the last moments of the exposure on a fixed position. He then adds a hiker and an off-camera flash into the equation. I break off with another group led by Jason Bradley to do plant details with 60mm and 105mm Nikkor macros, a reflector and the occasional addition of an off-camera flash. Another group led by Paul Zaretsky heads to the river to work with water motion. Around 9 a.m., we head back to the studio to process our RAW images, followed by a basic edit.

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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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UCSC Arboretum

At 4:45 a.m., the studio opens with pastries and much-needed coffee waiting for us.

By 5:30 a.m., we’re in our respective car pools and headed south to Moss Landing, located at the mouth of an estuary loaded with marine wildlife, including sea otters, seabirds and sea lions. Lanting points out that this location is particularly fertile with opportunities to document the human interface with the wild and suggests that we seek out photo opportunities to illustrate this.

By 10:30 a.m., we’re back in the studio to process our files and to pick five images for our first formal image review. Lanting critiques the work aesthetically, technically and conceptually. After the critique, we’re given individual and informal group lectures on using Apple Aperture by Yann Nicolas and Lightroom by Jason Bradley. Fine-tuning of our RAW images projected on the big screen seems particularly helpful to the group.

In the afternoon, we break up into small groups and head to various locations in the area and then rendezvous after the sun sets for our first group dinner and a chance to catch our collective breaths.

By now, the alarm clock doesn’t come as a shock. In fact, it’s something to look forward to. The early-morning field trips to visually stunning destinations throughout the Santa Cruz area have been a treasure trove of photographic opportunities. By 5:30 a.m., we assemble in small groups. Some opt for more work among the redwoods; others, the beach and tide pools; others, back to Moss Landing to photograph native mammals. It’s time to start focusing on images that will best illustrate our individual photo essays.

By midday, we’re back in the studio. We’re treated to an intimate presentation by Lanting of his LIFE project. In 2006, he launched this epic interpretation of the history of life on earth as a book, an exhibition, an interactive website and a multimedia orchestral performance with music by Philip Glass. Lanting explains, “Ernst Haas was pivotal in my own growth as a photographer, and his seminal book, The Creation, was one of the sources of inspiration for my LIFE project, which culminates in the celebration of our living planet, a place we all share as our home.” The evening turns into another celebration of photography, this time over pizza and beer.

We head together to a nearby beach with tide pools, sea life and dramatic rock formations. Lanting demonstrates the use of both hard and soft circular, warm graduated neutral-density filters made by Singh-Ray, as well as a polarizer. Lanting feels that these two are the only “mandatory filters” to have in your camera bag in the digital era.

About The Frans Lanting Monterey Bay Photographic Workshops

Lanting’s photographic workshops are conducted at his Santa Cruz, Calif., studio, giving attendees the opportunity to tap into this award-winning photographer’s vast knowledge and talent, and put their newly acquired knowledge and techniques to the test in this beautiful coastal area.

The beginning course focuses on developing photographic techniques and awareness. “[It’s] the process of making people aware of their own thinking process,” explains Lanting. “We show them the importance of their own point of view, which is something people don’t often reflect on before they start taking pictures.” The advanced course concentrates on the telling of a story through pictures.

Workshop enrollment is limited to 15 participants. The workshop fee includes the services of Lanting and his teaching assistants; morning tea/coffee and pastries each day; afternoon snacks and refreshments each day; lunch each day and dinner on Saturday.

One qualifies for the advanced workshop by completing an introductory workshop or a portfolio review.

Each participant needs to bring a digital camera (D-SLR preferred) and related equipment for field sessions. A laptop with digital-workflow software is required to take advantage of the group-review sessions.

You can find out about the 2010 workshop schedule at

Frans Lanting Studio
207 McPherson Street, Suite D
Santa Cruz, CA 95060
Tel: (831) 429-1331 Fax: (831) 423-8324
[email protected]

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By 9:30 a.m., the sun is high in the sky—time to return to the studio to process our images and do our final edits for the presentation of our photo essays. One after another, the students project photo essays that demonstrate what a success these past few days of intense photographic immersion have been.

As the workshop participants say their good-byes, Lanting shares with me some thoughts about the previous four days. “These workshops are about a lot more than photography. Participants open themselves up creatively, but ultimately, it’s about who they are themselves. People make themselves vulnerable, and sometimes I get really choked up emotionally by what I see. I want to come up with a response that is nurturing, that is critical, that is positive.

“I like to teach people how to think visually, to take people away from a preoccupation with the hardware and software of photography and focus their minds and their hearts on what’s in front of them and how they’re connecting with that. We don’t ignore technical instruction. You have to know how to expose and how to deal with the picture after the initial digital capture. These things are essential, but it’s not what motivates people to get into photography. It’s a means to an end. They want to connect with the world in some way. Photography is a hybrid activity. It requires analytical and technical skills, but it also requires creativity, being able to think visually and metaphorically. They connect the two different halves of our brains. It requires the ability to go back and forth to make photographs that work creatively as well as technically. People come out of our workshop feeling empowered, refreshed, stimulated and with a full bag of new techniques and creative shortcuts. It’s very rewarding to see people grow.”

The workshop ended Sunday, but the lessons learned will last a lifetime, and some of the photographs taken during this inspiring five-day period, for eternity.

Workshops Closer To Home
By Rob SheppardA mind-blowing, weeklong workshop can be exactly what you need to boost your photography, but the cost might also be beyond your budget. Don’t despair! There are shorter, less expensive options that also can take your work to new levels.One- or two-day, local or regional workshops have become popular all across the country. You can learn everything from working with a particular camera to using software and more.Benefits to a short workshop or seminar go beyond lower cost. For example, they require less of a time commitment and they’re typically scheduled on weekends so you don’t lose work time. Because they’re designed for local areas, you often can attend with friends, and you don’t have travel or overnight expenses.

You’ll get excellent information that’s also usually locally applied. Plus, you’ll meet people from the area who have similar photographic interests to your own, and you can expand on the workshop by sharing favorite shooting locations, for example.
These are very real options that I know because I’ve participated in such classes and events. I can’t tell you all the places to look for such workshops, but based on my actual experience, I can give you an idea of what you can find. For example, this past year, I was involved with the NANPA Road Shows (from the North American Nature Photography Association) that featured three speakers over a weekend. These will continue with a whole new set of photographers in 2010, in locations across the country (

In addition, many regional travel groups now offer photography classes at their special events, such as the Nature and Birding FotoFest in St. Augustine, Fla., each April ( Check with your local travel and area promotion bureau to learn more. Larger camera stores offer many programs to help support their customers. I’ve done classes for Paul’s Photo in Torrance, Calif., for example, because it’s close to my home. Many pros will do similar programs in their local areas. Check with your local camera stores to find out what they might be offering, and if they aren’t offering anything, challenge them to come up with weekend programs like Paul’s Photo (

Camera clubs can be another resource. For example, the Georgia and Carolinas’ Nature Photographers Associations ( and both offer local and regional events of one to two days and bring in nationally known speakers to their yearly conferences. Many camera clubs also will work with local pros to create unique daylong programs on specific topics. You’ll often find that their workshops are posted at local camera clubs.

Finally, check out camera-equipment manufacturers for sponsored workshops in your area. Nikon has a long tradition of weekend instruction seminars with its Nikon School, which travels around the country, for example. Canon doesn’t have a specific school, but it sponsors top photographers at special events in many locations. Tamron offers a Road Series of classes in many cities around the U.S. Search the website of your favorite manufacturer and see what they may be offering.

To find the best workshop for you, check out the OP Travel and Workshops section on page 102 in this issue or go to the Travel and Workshops section of the OP website: