Tim was on assignment for the BBC filming birds of paradise for Planet Earth II and he shot mostly with the RED Epic. RED Digital Cinema interviewed Tim about the RED Epic video camera which you can read via the link below. The camera has such a large sensor he was able to get some amazing stills pulled from the video. Read the interview to see how this amazing camera helped in filming the Red Bird of Paradise.
Ten Questions with Tim Laman
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!
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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!
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.
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.
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:
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.
The Story Behind a Dream Shot
This is one of my true “dream shots”. I had imagined a shot like this with a bird-of-paradise in the foreground and a view out over the rain forest for years, but never found a place where I might be able to make it. Finally in the Aru Islands in 2010, I saw my opportunity. But the problem was getting the camera in the right place. I solved the problem by developing what I called the “leaf-cam”, a camera well hidden in leaves, and controlled remotely.
Here is a short video that tells the story of how I set this up, and finally got the shot.
Field gear for a Birds-of-Paradise trip
In my work, every wildlife picture usually has a lot of gear and a lot of planning and preparation behind it. In this shot I am in a hotel room in Lae, Papua New Guinea, getting organized to make an expedition into the Huon Peninsula to photograph the Huon Astrapia, a very poorly known member of the Birds-of-Paradise family, back in 2006. After the international and domestic flights to get to Lae, I had to repack for a bush plane flight into a remote airstrip called Yawan. From there, I would hire villagers to help carry my gear, and make a strenuous all day hike up to a research camp. That’s why here in this hotel room, I needed to repack from the large duffels used for international air travel, into reasonable porter loads consisting of small pelican cases and dry-bag backpacks. Sometimes I feel like I spend more time packing and repacking than shooting.