Frans Lanting on the art and sport of photographing birds

Red-and-green Macaws in flight, Buraco das Araras, Brazil. © Frans Lanting/lanting.com

Frans Lanting is one of the most highly acclaimed nature photographers in the world. He is a photographer for National Geographic, a Fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers, the author of many books, and the recipient of numerous awards, including the BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year and the Sierra Club’s Ansel Adams Award.

Frans Lanting
Frans Lanting by Paul Schraub

More than 100 solo exhibitions of Lanting’s work have been held at museums and galleries around the world. And three of his images were selected by his peers for a charity auction at Christie’s that featured the 40 most important photographs of nature ever made.

On March 20, beginning at 9 a.m. Pacific time, the website CreativeLive.com will air live (and for free) Lanting’s course The Art of Photographing Birds. The course will be free to watch for 24 hours, and afterward, it will be available for $99.

Recently, bird photographer Brian E. Small interviewed Lanting ahead of the release of the CreativeLive course. Small’s photos appear in every issue of BirdWatching in Kenn Kaufman’s “ID Tips” column, and his work has appeared in many books, magazines, calendars, websites, newspapers, smartphone apps, and the feature film “The Big Year.”

Please enjoy this discussion about bird photography with two of the best in the business. – Matt Mendenhall

Thank you for sharing a little bit of your time with the readers of BirdWatching magazine. We very much appreciate it. You’ve spent a lot of time in Antarctica working on penguins and you’ve done a lot of work on seabirds. Can you tell us why those families in particular sparked your interest?

I love the birds as characters, and I love the places where they come together: islands in the Arctic and the Antarctic, for example. Many of them are island creatures, so they don’t have a lot of fear of humans, and that makes it possible to do real intimate portrayals of their lives. So, you can get much closer. You can use all kinds of lenses and other kinds of adapted lighting that makes it more interesting than just looking at birds from a distance.

So, would you say because you use lots of different lenses and different ways of photographing them, it gives you more creativity in your photography?

The traditional method for bird photography is to capture birds at great distance. You get a long telephoto lens and that leads to a certain perspective on them. And I think that’s great, especially for birds in flight, but I also like to show you more intimate characters and behavior of birds among themselves.

Toco Toucan closeup, Pantanal, Brazil. © Frans Lanting/lanting.com

Would you say that’s kind of your own style — to photograph birds showing them in lots of different ways?

Well, it’s one way to do it, and I also like to mix up styles and perspectives.

Looking at your work, you have a very artistic eye. Is that something you strive for — to sort of go beyond just a standard portrait of a bird?

I always like to go a step further than just to show what kind of bird it is. I like to either show more character or come up with more stylized ways to show birds. And I’m very conscious of design and color and the rhythm in the patterns of how they move.

Along the same lines, birds come in many shapes and sizes, and they have lots of interesting behavior. And of course, they fly, so as a bird photographer, you do need to be proficient at lots of different photographic skills to work with birds. Are there certain techniques that you find that you rely on the most when working with birds as subjects?

I think every situation requires its own approach, but for me, it starts with trying to understand the life of the birds in front of me. The more I know about their behavior, the more I can anticipate what they may do next. To me, there’s not just art to bird photography. There’s a sport to bird photography as well. You need to be able to move and adapt very quickly and physically, especially if you try to be keen on certain moments or poses that don’t last.

This may not apply only to bird photography, but lots of people, when they go into the field, may have something in mind before they actually get to their subject. They have a photograph in their mind’s eye that they are hoping to create. Is that something that you do, or do you just go out in the field and get whatever comes to you?

It’s both. I’m always thinking about certain images ahead of time, especially when it comes to bird behavior. The more you know about the natural history of the birds, the more you can have a pre-visualization of what they may be doing on location. So, I think that really helps me — to think ahead and to see things before they happen, if you know what I mean.

Lesser Flamingos, Lake Nakuru National Park, Kenya. © Frans Lanting/lanting.com

I do. And so, by knowing something about their biology and their natural history, that helps you before you even walk out the front door, I guess.

Exactly. And when it comes to birds in flight, it’s a whole different thing. You know, that’s where bird photography becomes sport. You have to intersect with movement, and so there’s a lot of different ways to practice bird photography is what I’m saying.

Right. And one of those ways that a lot of people get started or interested in bird photography is by doing backyard bird photography. They have feeders in their yard and they want to photograph the birds coming to their feeders. Do you do much in the way of setups or feeder photography, or is that not necessarily your style?

Yeah, we’ve got feeders around our house as well, for hummingbirds and other birds, and they come and they go. I think that’s definitely a great way to start, and to come back to as well. I do a lot of bird photography around my house. Any time that you can anticipate a pattern of how birds move or where they congregate, you’re a step ahead in the game of anticipating images before they happen because you can see things time and again.

Great. Can you tell us about some of the equipment you use that you find most useful? Do you have one or two particular lenses or camera bodies that you seem to use the most for bird photography?

It builds up from a very basic kit. If I go out and have to be really compact and am down to one camera choice and one lens choice, currently it’s a Nikon 850 with a 200-500mm f/5.6 lens. And then it builds up from there. I go out with the fixed 500 f/4 as well, which gives me more reach with the teleconverter. Or I can scale it back to the situation with a wide-angle lens, if I’m out on an island in Antarctica.

Nikon – D850 DSLR Camera (Body Only) – Black

Nikon – AF-S NIKKOR 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR Super Telephoto Zoom Lens – Black

Nikon – AF-S NIKKOR 500mm f/4E FL ED VR Super Telephoto Lens – Black 

I imagine having that 200-500 with the versatility of the zoom can really come in handy in multiple situations.

Yes, because it gives you quite a range and it reacts very quickly to changing circumstances.

Snow, Greater White-fronted, and other geese, Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge, California. © Frans Lanting/lanting.com

You’ve been working with CreativeLive now for a few years doing online nature photography workshops. Can you tell us a little bit about the courses you’ve done and how they’re structured? And what you’re trying to teach participants in the workshops?

For sure. I really enjoy going out with a handful of people to practice bird photography and to interpret situations as they happen. And basically, [on CreativeLive] the viewers come with me. They look over my shoulder and they look at a couple of other people who join me in the field and we discover birds — where they are and how they intersect with opportunities, such as light changes and what you can do with all the all the classic scenarios.

You know, bird photography, as I said earlier, it’s part art, and it’s part sport, and it’s also part opportunity. I love going out early in the morning, and that’s what we did in the field course. We went to a wildlife refuge in California called Colusa, where there are tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of migratory waterfowl gathered. The refuge is loaded with birds, but you have to find your way into situations and make sure that the birds don’t get surprised, but it’s a lot of fun. We go through the whole repertoire of what lens to use, what kind of angle to the light is good, and what the birds might do.

We’re showing a mix of situations: We’re going out to photograph Snow Geese in the middle of winter in California; and in the studio, I’m going to talk about other places and opportunities in other ways to photograph birds. One of the things that I find fascinating about bird photography is, it isn’t just one thing. It isn’t just doing portraits, you know. You can make them part of landscapes. You can turn them into abstractions with patterns, or you can make it very intimate, and during this course, we’re going to show all kinds of different images. And I’m going to share all kinds of different avenues of expressing birds with your pictures.

So, will you do creative things, like slow shutter speeds and blurs, as well as portraiture and backlighting and sidelight?

Yes, exactly. I love doing slow-motion photography, and it involves a different way of looking at birds in motion than you do when you capture them at the other end of the range. I must say that new cameras give so much more opportunity as well. You can shoot at faster speeds and at higher ISOs, and things that were impossible 10 years ago are now totally possible on a daily basis.

Yeah and digital has opened up a whole new world of photography since the days of film.

Definitely. I can create images now that I could have never done early in my career.

Keep up with Frans Lanting on social media:
Instagram — @franslanting
Facebook — @FransLantingStudio
Twitter — @LantingFrans

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Brian E. Small

Brian E. Small

Brian Small is a Los Angeles-based bird and nature photographer whose photos appear in the “ID Tips” column in every issue of BirdWatching. His work has been published in Time, The New York Times, Audubon, Nature Conservancy, National Wildlife, Wildlife Conservation, and many other publications. His photos also illustrate many field guides, including Kenn Kaufman’s Birds of North America, a series of state bird identification guides published with the American Birding Association, and his own Eastern and Western photographic field guides to the birds of North America published in 2009 with author Paul Sterry and Princeton University Press.

Brian E. Small on social media