Ten Questions with Tim Laman

Photographer Tim Laman stands waist to chest deep in a mangrove lagoon with his big lens on a tripod to photograph birds in the mangroves. Photo by Zafer Kizilkaya.

Tim Laman waist deep in a mangrove lagoon with his Canon 600mm f4 on a tripod to photograph birds in the mangroves.  “Whatever it takes to get the shot….. within reason”    Photo by Zafer Kizilkaya.

Here is a recent interview I did for a Singapore newspaper. Since I get many questions about my background and my photography, I thought I would share it here. Hope you enjoy it!

  1. What is your earliest memory of travelling? How did it inspire you?

My earliest memories of traveling are going by ship across the Pacific Ocean from San Francisco to Japan with my family when I was 4 years old in 1965. My parents lived and worked in Japan when I was growing up, so we traveled a lot back and forth from Asia to the States and to other places my whole childhood. Traveling was just normal to me growing up. I think it inspired me in the sense that I never felt there were any limits to going anywhere in the world. All you have to do is make up your mind, find a way to get that plane (or boat) ticket, and go.

  1. When did you realize you had an interest in photography?

I started playing around with an old camera of my Dad’s when I was in 7th or 8th grade, and I bought my own camera when I was in high school. So my interest started early. I just kept getting more serious about my photography as time went on.

  1. Have you gone completely digital? Are there differences?

Yes, I’ve been completely digital since late 2004. A big advantage to digital is getting immediate feedback in the field. This makes a huge difference since I am often in remote areas where I can’t process film. The other huge advantage has been the improvement in low-light performance of newer digital cameras. This helps me out a lot because I like to shoot animals early and late in the day and am often working in the rain forest where light is very limited.

  1. You like going to wild locations. What draws you to these places?

I love exploring the little known areas of the world. It is exciting to go to places few people have been, and to see things few people get to see. It is the opportunity for real exploration that I find the most rewarding, and scientific research projects and photography are the ways that I get to do these things.

  1. What is challenging about getting to those places? How much do you rely on local guides?

The most extremely remote places can be very expensive to get to because almost by definition, they don’t have good access or transportation available. So raising funding for expensive transportation like helicopters or boat charters can sometimes be the first challenge. With regard to local guides, it varies tremendously by location. Some of the most remote locations, like uninhabited islands, or remote mountains, have no inhabitants and thus no local guides. We go in with a small team and are on our own. In other cases, when local residents are present, I rely on them a lot. I definitely try to take advantage of local knowledge and so I am often hiring local guides to help out when they are available.

  1. Patience is probably a virtue when it comes to shooting wildlife. How long have you had to wait out a shot?

Patience is definitely very important. It’s all a matter of motivation and if you want to be doing it. I can go crazy in a 30-minute traffic jam. But I can sit in a blind all day to try to capture an image of a unique bird-of-paradise display. I’ll say it again, it’s all about your drive and motivation. I’m not sure exactly, but I’m pretty sure I have put in more than eighty hours in a blind over a ten day period for some shots.

  1. When you go to remote locations, how much time do you spend there? What are conditions like usually?

It is really variable and depends on what I am after and how easy it is to go back. But for example, when I got dropped off by helicopter in the remote Foja Mountains of Papua, Indonesia with a team of biologists, we stayed for three weeks before the helicopter came back to this completely road-less area to pick us up. We camped in a very wet rain forest. It rained every day, and was incredibly muddy. It wasn’t exactly a picnic.

  1. What has kept your interest in photography buoyant?

The thing about photography is that you can never take a perfect picture. There is always room for improvement, something to strive for, and to keep trying to get better. With gear improving all the time, there are always new ways to make images that weren’t possible before. And in my field of documenting rare and endangered wildlife, there are so many important stories to tell. I will never run out of subjects or ideas.

  1. What are some things an aspiring photographer should do?

Here are some suggestions:

– Find out what you really love photographing, and put a lot of effort into that. Passion for your subject matter and for photography is so important, that you need to make sure you discover what you have a passion for.

– Realize that you can do a lot with even the simplest photographic equipment. The creative process of conceiving and capturing the photograph is more important than the equipment. So don’t get obsessed with gear or always having the latest. Camera’s and lenses are our tools of the trade, but the photographer makes the pictures. So work with what you can afford and put your energy into developing your craft, not your equipment collection.

10. What is the biggest lesson you have learned through all your travelling and photography?

There is a big world out there! There are still plenty of poorly known places and animals to photograph and make discoveries about. What I am saying is, this idea that the world has been explored, and there is nothing left to discover is just completely wrong. For example, I pursued a project for many years to photograph all 39 species of Birds of Paradise in the wild for the first time. Even in 2011, there were members of this famous group of birds for which the male courtship behavior had never been described, and few if any photographs existed in the wild. There are countless species, especially in the tropical regions of the world, both in the rain forests and underwater, that remain poorly known and poorly photographed. So go out and explore the world. That’s one of the greatest things about being a photographer. Your camera becomes your passport for exploration.

Postcards from Borneo

The Laman/Knott family watching an orangutan in Gunung Palung.  Tim Laman, Cheryl Knott, Jessica Laman and Russell Laman.  Photo by Trevor Frost.

The Laman/Knott family watching an orangutan in Gunung Palung. Tim Laman, Cheryl Knott, Jessica Laman and Russell Laman. Photo by Trevor Frost.

The final installment of our summer “Postcards from Borneo” blog series on the Nataional Geographic PROOF Blog has just gone live.  Check it out HERE.

In this post, my wife, orangutan researcher Cheryl Knott, wraps things up from her perspective.  It has been an amazing summer working in the field with my wife and her team of students and research assistants in Gunung Palung National Park, in Indonesian Borneo.  As we have for many years, we also took our kids Russell and Jessica with us and they had a great time at this unusual summer camp.  This year, National Geographic invited all four of us to contribute stories to their PROOF blog about our adventures.

Here are links to all six of the blog posts our family members published on National Geographic:

Postcards from Borneo:  A Family Adventure Begins Anew (by Tim Laman)

Postcards from Borneo:  The Boat Trip Upriver (by Russell Laman)

Postcards from Borneo:  Chasing Orangutans (by Jessica Laman)

Postcards from Borneo:  The World’s Stinkiest (But Best) Fruit  (by Russell Laman)

Postcards from Borneo:  The Best Swimming Hole in Gunung Palung  (by Jessica Laman)

Postcards form Borneo:  My Rainforest Family  (by Cheryl Knott)

 

To learn more about research and conservation of orangutans in Borneo, visit  www.saveGPorangutans.org.

Fieldwork with the Family

Photo by Trevor Frost of Tim Laman with daughter Jessica, waiting for an orangutan to wake up from a nap at Gunung Palung National Park.

Photo by Trevor Frost of Tim Laman with daughter Jessica, waiting for an orangutan to wake up from a nap at Gunung Palung National Park.

For many months of each year, I am in the field on my own.  But most summers in recent years, I have traveled with my wife Cheryl Knott, who is a Boston University professor and orangutan researcher, to her field site in Gunung Palung National Park in Borneo.  And we have also been taking our children with us.  This year I have been working on a new orangutan project for National Geographic, and NatGeo asked us to also cover the family angle.  So we have been writing a series of blog posts for their PROOF blog.

See the latest post from my daughter Jessica at:  Postcards-from-Borneo-the-best-swimming-hole-in-Gunung-Palung

To learn more about conserving orangutans in the spectacular Gunung Palung National Park area, visit saveGPorangutans.org

 

 

“Lost World” Reveals New Species

Lost World

Pockets of rainforest dot the boulderfields of the Cape Melville Range.

 

In March, Tim went to the Cape Melville Range in Australia with Conrad Hoskin from James Cook University and discovered new species of amphibian and reptiles.  This was part of an expedition traversing the Cape York Peninsula of Northeastern Australia.  As you can see from the picture above, the mountain range is covered with huge boulders that make the area almost impassable.  The only way in was by being dropped off by helicopter onto one of the boulders the size of a house, which didn’t work the first time.  You can read the full story by National Geographic News.

New Gecko Species

Herpetologist Conrad Hoskin holds a brand new species of Leaf-tailed Gecko (Saltuarius eximius) shortly after his discovery in the pockets of rainforest in the boulder fields of the Cape Melville Range.

 

New Frog Species

A new species of Boulder Frog (Cophixalus petrophilus) found among the boulders of the Cape Melville Range.

 

Testing the new Canon EF 200-400 f4L with 2x extender

I have been waiting for two years for this lens to arrive.  For the kind of wildlife photography and video that I do, I have anticipated that it may replace several lenses I regularly travel with and let me respond more quickly and compose more precisely in the field.  So it was very exciting when yesterday I finally got the call from my local camera gear supplier, Hunts Photo and Video, that my lens was in.   I immediately drove down and picked it up and went out this morning and started shooting some test shots.

I was confident the lens would be sharp and perform well as I had already read early reviews.  However, since I am often temped to push the focal length by adding extenders, one thing I was very curious about was how it would work with not only the internal 1.4x converter enabled, but also when 1.4 or even the 2x converter is added externally.  I went out to one of my local wildlife spots and found a cooperative Great Blue Heron.  Here are some of my first shots with this new lens.  Needless to say, I am extremely pleased with the results!

 

Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias).  Cooperative test subject for new Canon 200-400 mm lens.  Shot with Canon 1DC on 1 June 2013.  This image shot at 520 mm using 1.4x.

Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias). Cooperative test subject for new Canon 200-400 mm lens. Shot with Canon 1DC on 1 June 2013. This image shot at 520 mm using 1.4x.

 

HERE IS THE REAL TEST:  200-400 WITH INTERNAL 1.4X ENABLED, PLUS THE EXTERNAL CANON 2X CONVERTER III = 1120 mm focal length.

See for yourself, but my feeling is that even with this 2x converter added, the quality is there.  In fact, though I haven’t done the side-by side test yet, I think this looks sharper than using my 600 mm f4 with 2x converter at 1200 mm.   Of course I had to manual focus this as at f11, autofocus does not work.  But for extreme situations when I really want the reach, this looks totally usable to me, and has actually exceeded my expectation for this lens, so I am extremely pleased with it.

Canon 200-400 mm f4 1.4 converter with internal converter enabled PLUS Canon 2x converter III.  Great Blue Heron test shots with new Canon 200-400 mm f4 1.4x converter lens on 1 June 2013.  Full frame view.

Canon 200-400 mm f4 1.4 converter with internal converter enabled PLUS Canon 2x converter III. Great Blue Heron test shots with new Canon 200-400 mm f4 1.4x converter lens on 1 June 2013. Full frame view.

 

Crop of image at 100% resolution.  Canon 200-400 mm f4 1.4 converter with internal converter enabled PLUS Canon 2x converter III.  Great Blue Heron test shots with new Canon 200-400 mm f4 1.4x converter lens on 1 June 2013.

Crop of above image at 100% resolution. Canon 200-400 mm f4 1.4 converter with internal converter enabled PLUS Canon 2x converter III shot on Canon 1DC. Great Blue Heron test shots with new Canon 200-400 mm f4 1.4x converter lens on 1 June 2013.  Tripod, f11, 1/1000 sec, ISO 800.

Little Explorers in Borneo

The terrific nature magazine aimed at kids called “Ranger Rick” has recently published a story which is a collaboration between my two kids Russell and Jessica, and me.  Story by the kids, photos by me.  My wife also played a key part, of course.  She is primatologist Cheryl Knott, Professor at Boston University, and she has been doing research on wild orangutans in Borneo for many years.  In recent years our kids have been traveling with us to her research site in Borneo nearly every summer.  Now Ranger Rick has published the story of my kids adventure traveling deep into the rain forest in Borneo with their Mom and Dad to study orangutans, and they have told it in their own words.

Borneo Adventure story by Russell and Jessica Laman as told to Ellen Lambeth.

Borneo Adventure story by Russell and Jessica Laman as told to Ellen Lambeth.  Published in Ranger Rick magazine, March 2013.

And Russell even made the back cover.  We found this very large stick insect right near our camp, and Russell picked it up and was letting it crawl up his shirt.  When it crawled right up on his face, he didn’t seem to mind at all!

 

Russell Laman with large stick insect on face.  Back cover or March 2013 Ranger Rick.

Russell Laman with large stick insect on face. Back cover or March 2013 Ranger Rick.

 

Return to Cape York Peninsula in the “Wet”

A water saturated landscape  during the wet season at Piccaninny Plains Widlife Sanctuary on the Cape York Peninsula, Australia

A water saturated landscape during the wet season at Piccaninny Plains Widlife Sanctuary on the Cape York Peninsula, Australia

I am on my way home from a three-week trip to Australia’s Cape York Peninsula on assignment for National Geographic magazine.  Believe it or not, there are still places in the world without easy internet access and this was one of them.  Now that I am back in contact, I will share some new images from the trip here and via my Instagram feed over the next week or so.

This ongoing project for Nat Geo has the goal of documenting the landscapes and unique biodiversity of this remote part of Northeastern Queensland.  Last year I made two expeditions here in the dry season, and I now returned to cover what it looks like in the wet season, which looks dramatically different in places.

Above is an example shot from a low flying helicopter:  This is Piccaninny Plains Wildlife Sanctuary, where I photographed the parched dry landscape in September.   Now the same area is dotted with potholes full of water while storm clouds with more water loom above.

You can look back at my Instagram feed to see earlier shots from Cape York in the dry season, and stay tuned for some more new photos over the coming days……

 

 

Galapagos Photo Expedition – Thoughts on Gear

On a photo expedition like this recently completed one in the Galapagos, you have to come up with the right combination of photographic equipment to carry and the best way to carry it.  Unlike a National Geographic Magazine assignment, where I might be working with a lot more equipment, and able to hire porters and perhaps even have a dedicated photo assistant, when I am accompanying a Photo Expedition as one of the photography instructors, I am of course carrying my own equipment around every day just like the guests on the trip.

Most people opt for a pretty lightweight outfit for the on-the-go type shooting that we do on our walks ashore every day.  A good setup would be to have two bodies, and have one mounted with a wide to medium zoom like a 24-105 mm, and the second body with a telephoto zoom like a 100-400 f5.6, or a 70-200 f2.8 plus teleconverters.

I did use that setup on some hikes, but I often chose to carry a bit more.  I am used to lugging around a lot of gear and it doesn’t slow me down much, and I do like to have a bigger lens with more reach.  While it is true that in the Galapagos, you can often get very close to the wildlife, it is also usually not permitted to leave the trail, so longer reach can sometimes really help when you are at lagoons with flamingos, or places like that.

 

Tim Laman photographing on Genovesa Island in the Galapagos.  Photo by Russell Laman.

Tim Laman photographing on Genovesa Island in the Galapagos. Photo by Russell Laman.

 

I came up with a really comfortable setup for carrying around the gear described below.  I don’t like a huge photo backpack that fits everything.  It’s too heavy when you have it on, and if you set it down and step away, then you will invariably need something from it like a teleconverter or a battery.  I like the combination of a belt system for keeping the essentials handy with a slimmer backpack for the big lens and body.  I have found a set of bags from ThinkTank that fit my working style very well.  So what I carried ashore in the Galapagos what you see in this image on some lava rock on Fernandina Island:

 

Photo equipment I carried on my Galapagos shore excursions.

Photo equipment I carried on my Galapagos shore excursions.

 

Belt-Pack system with:

Canon 5D-III, 16-35 mm f2.8, 24-105 mm f4 in large belt pouch (Camera fits in the pouch without lens on with the two lenses.  I take it out and mount a lens on as soon as we are ashore, or even sometimes shoot from the zodiac if conditions permit.)

70-200 f 2.8 – in lens pouch

1.4x and 2x converters and spare batteries and cards, polarizing filter in another belt pouch that always sits right on my right hip for quick access.

 

Long lens backpack with:

Canon 1D-IV mounted with 400 mm f2.8

Water bottle and rain hood go in side pockets

Another pouch attached to the outside of this pack has my video viewfinder and mike.

 

With the use of the teleconverters in this outfit, I have coverage from 16 mm to 800 mm with just four lenses, which means I am ready for just about anything.

There was plenty of light to shoot hand-held most of the time, but on some hikes I also carried my tripod especially to do a little video shooting.

Note that all these ThinkTank pouches have built in rain hoods that are perfect for protection from the spray on zodiac rides and the occasional rain shower.

Galapagos Photo Expedition – Day 7

Time for a belated final-day report from the Galapagos trip.  I have been back since March 3rd, but do to several lectures for the Birds of Paradise Project, and preparing to depart for an NatGeo assignment in Australia, I didn’t get a final post done (until now, on the plane to Australia!).

We spent this final day around the island of San Cristobal.  We did a great hike in the morning and then headed for the rock formation know as Kicker Rock, or Leon Dormido just off the San Cristobal coast.  There we snorkeled under what I would have to say were some pretty rad snorkeling conditions.  Large chop and current sweeping us through the gap between the rocks.  Exciting stuff, and many sea turtles and some Galapagos sharks were seen.

We capped off the trip with a circumnavigation of this spectacular rock island right at sunset.

 

Kicker Rock (Leon Dormido) off San Cristobal Island, Galapagos at sunset

Kicker Rock (Leon Dormido) off San Cristobal Island, Galapagos at sunset

 

One of the highlights of this trip for me was to be able to share it with my father, Gordon Laman.  He helped inspire my love of photography by loaning me his cameras when I was a teenager, and took me on my first wilderness trip when I was 12 in Boundary Waters Canoe Area.  That got me hooked on a life of exploring nature, so it was wonderful to be able to take Dad to the Galapagos for his first time.  He loved it, and claimed that he did pick up a few photo tips from me as well.  Thanks for joining me Dad!

Tim Laman with father Gordon on San Cristobal Island, Galapagos

Tim Laman with father Gordon on San Cristobal Island, Galapagos

 

 

Galapagos Photo Expedition – Day 6

28 Feb 2013

This day was spent on the island of Santa Cruz.  The highlight in terms of natural history and photography was a trip up into the uplands to visit a nature reserve where many of the Galapagos Giant Tortoises were roaming freely around the property.  It was overcast, and the light was nice and even for photographing these animals in their lush surroundings.

We fanned out and soon found several individuals, some feeding, some apparently just hanging out.  One male was particularly active, and several photo workshop members and I watched and followed him for some time.

First I got some nice tight shots of him feeding…

Galapagos Giant Tortoise feeding in the uplands of Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos.

Galapagos Giant Tortoise feeding in the uplands of Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos.

 

Then I experimented with a 45 mm Tilt-Shift lens I had brought along, shooting wide open and tilting the plane of the depth of field to throw the background out of focus severely.  Just as I was lying on the ground trying this out, I got a great big yawn from the tortoise which I captured here….

Galapagos Giant Tortoise Yawning.  Uplands of Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos.

Galapagos Giant Tortoise Yawning. Uplands of Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos.

 

Just before we were about to leave, the most active male suddenly started pursuing a nearby female.  It was the most action we had seen all day and it was great to see and capture this behavior…..

Galapagos Giant Tortoise male pursuing a female.

Galapagos Giant Tortoise male pursuing a female.

 

Finally the male attempted to mount and mate with the female.  An amazing sight for such ungainly large animals, and a fitting end to our afternoon of photographing these ancient creatures….

Galapagos Giant Tortoise male mounting a female and attempting to mate.

Galapagos Giant Tortoise male mounting a female and attempting to mate.