Flash photography and Wildlife – Comments from Frans Lanting

November 10, 2010
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We recently added an article that featured Nick Nichols, a National Geographic photographer.  Within the article there were numerous comments regarding using flash as a tool.  ChobeSafari decided to look into one of Nick’s favorite photographers to learn a little more about the use of flash in wildlife photography.

So you don’t think lighting is pertinent to what you do? Just ask Art Wolfe or Frans Lanting about the importance of understanding lighting. These top professionals, like many other outdoor photographers, understand that augmenting ambient light with flash and reflectors can be the key to make a fine photo into something spectacular. The same principles that apply to lighting a product apply when photographing a flower, just like the same lighting principles that help a subject stand out from a studio background can help you identify, and modify, lighting in the landscape. All photographers, regardless of subject, work with light.

Whether Frans Lanting’s perched precariously in the treetops or half-submerged in a swamp, many regard Lanting as the world’s foremost nature photographer. He has been named the BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year and won the Sierra Club’s prestigious Ansel Adams Award for conservation-oriented photography. He is one of the most published shooters in the esteemed pages of National Geographic, where he is considered by editors to be “a singular extraordinary talent.” He has even been knighted by his native Holland for “his contribution to raise awareness for the beauty of nature and the necessity to protect it.” … and he also uses flash at a tool in wildlife photography.

The following article is reprinted from a long past article on Outdoor Photography.

Carmine Bee Eaters with a little fill lighting - - copyright Frans Lanting

Interview by Rob Sheppard

Flash has become an important tool for the well-rounded nature photographer, as master photographer Frans Lanting explains.

National Geographic photographer and Outdoor Photographer columnist Frans Lanting is world-renowned for his stunning nature photography. He has even received a knighthood from his native Netherlands for his work in world conservation through his photography.

Of course, we know his nature work is unparalleled. I can count on a submission of images from Frans to be both inspirational and frustrating—frustrating because it’s so difficult to narrow down the choices to the pages we have available in an issue!

So what’s a nature guy like Frans doing taking a mini-studio’s worth of flash equipment into the field? And we’re not talking easy-to-reach locations like Yellowstone or other American parks. Frans’ National Geographic assignments take him to some of the most remote places in the world.

Frans has been talking to me about his flash work over the past couple of years. I had noticed that his Geographic work was increasingly using flash in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways for some excellent results. I learned that flash has become an extremely important part of his photography now, for everything from wildlife to landscapes. Realizing that his experiences could be extremely valuable and even inspirational to our readers, we decided we needed to talk.

Outdoor Photographer: Alright, Frans, what’s the deal with this flash business? Sure, wildlife photographers have used it for a long time, but you seem to be using it in all sorts of nature work.

Frans Lanting: Actually, when I started my photographic career in the late ’70s, flash wasn’t commonly used in nature photography. You did see it in some very traditional ways, such as flash only, overpowering all ambient light, or with controlled wildlife situations. In the present day, however, flash is very important for many reasons, including extending our working time in the field, helping to get enough light on subjects that aren’t in good light, improving dull light situations and making our photographs communicate more effectively. I can’t imagine going into the field without strobes today. Modern equipment makes this very easy. It wasn’t always that way.

Outdoor Photographer: One way you use flash is to emphasize elements in a photograph to better control what the viewer sees and how he or she reacts to the image. Can you elaborate on this a bit?

Lanting: For me, it’s important that I can communicate something special about the subject through my photography. With flash, I can literally spotlight a part of the scene so the viewer knows exactly what’s essential to the image. The flash lets me highlight elements of the composition, isolate key subjects or give a special importance to something. I can use different types of flash light to do this, from harsh, dramatic light to soft, gentle and diffused illumination. I can change the color of the flash for effect as well as the direction the flash comes from. I can even make a murky day give me an image that’s quite effective through the use of flash.

Cayman eyes glow with the aid of flash - - copyright Frans Lanting

Outdoor Photographer: You’ve told me that early on you had to do a lot of experimenting with small flash units in order to learn to do these things. The big strobes that wildlife photographers had been using didn’t fit into your way of shooting. What did you do to develop your use of flash in the field?

Lanting: There was consistently a challenge from photographing wildlife in that you couldn’t always get ideal light on the subject. I saw what flash could do and began experimenting with the old Vivitar 283 and 285 flash units. Metz also had some small, but powerful units that could be used in the field. Several of us were doing this at National Geographic, including my colleagues, “Nick” Nichols and Peter Menzel. We all experimented and compared notes, which led us to new applications.
At first, it was difficult to blend flash with ambient light. We had to do quite a bit of testing and use manual exposure. But a real breakthrough for me came when I saw how LIFE photographer Gregory Heisler used strobes in an outdoor setting, photographing souped-up cars in Los Angeles at dusk. It was a real eye-opener to see how one could overcome the limitations of flash outdoors. I’ve also learned a lot from the ways photographers have used flash in everything from studio to sports settings. Then I’ve worked to find a way to use those ideas outdoors.

Outdoor Photographer: Obviously, you’ve come a long way from the manual-flash experiments. Is flash today easy enough that any outdoor photographer can benefit from it?

Lanting: The technology of flash now is amazing. Rear-curtain sync in cameras opened up huge creative possibilities. TTL flash exposure was an enormous step forward. It now frees us of elaborate testing, metering and lots of Polaroids. Auto-flash bracketing increases our opportunities to get perfect exposures. With modern equipment like my Nikon Speedlights, we have a remarkable set of tools in terms of power and control in very compact, easy-to-transport packages.

Baobab trees in Madegascar are emphasized via lighting which was hidden behind other tree trunks and fired via radio control - - copyright Frans Lanting

Flash can now be used to both fix technical limitations of photography, such as too-low light levels, as well as to offer extremely creative possibilities from subtle to “hot” flash effects. This technology has strongly contributed to stylistic changes in studio, sports and fashion photography. This then trickled into photojournalism and now into outdoor photography.

Now I literally can take a “studio in a box” with me into the field. I’m able to pack a half-dozen Speedlights, battery packs and accessories (such as softboxes) into a Pelican case. I’ll take along some lightweight stands, but you can always use tripods or even get someone to hold a light. I try to keep it compact.

Outdoor Photographer: With all that flash power and even some softboxes, you’ve got a pretty sophisticated system.

Lanting: You can actually see the increasing sophistication in the development of field use of flash over the years that span my own career. Back in the ’70s, very little flash was used at all in field conditions. Next came the on-camera flash for fill and just getting enough illumination on dark subjects. Long cords and slaves allowed flash to be taken off-camera for new effects.

Then softboxes got smaller and left the studio for the field in the early ’80s. Commercial photographers have long known the value of these light modifiers, but they were cumbersome for field use. When small softboxes came out, we were able to gain whole new levels of control.

At the other extreme, Fresnel lens attachments increased the intensity of flash light and concentrated it for use at a distance. Metz was the first to offer this with its portable flash units, but then Tory Lepp came out with the Project-A-Flash that could be used on most small flash units. This helped telephoto wildlife photography tremendously.

Now we have complete systems of multiple flash that work together in a TTL network. This is an incredible sophistication for small, portable strobes.

Outdoor Photographer: This certainly gives you a lot of options.

Lanting: I believe that the more options I have in which to render my subject, the more effective I can be as a photographer. I especially like being able to mix artificial and ambient light, and having many options allows me to do this better. Modern flash systems allow me so much control in this area.

For example, I can underexpose ambient light and keep the flash “hot” or bright for a very dramatic effect. For something completely different in its impact, I can overexpose background ambient light with a standard or underexposed flash for a brighter feel to the image. All of this will affect the cognitive impression anyone gets from a photo.

Outdoor Photographer: Let’s look at some specific ways you’d apply all of your flash options to the outdoor subject. Landscapes often aren’t thought of when considering flash, yet you use flash quite well there. Give us an idea of how you work.

Lanting: Stylistically, flash gives some remarkable creative possibilities for landscape work. Frequently, the landscape doesn’t have quite the right light to make an interesting photo using all the elements of the landscape that I might find important to a composition. Sometimes, flash can be used to brighten a dark foreground at sunrise or sunset. But often, it can be used to enliven a landscape on a murky day and create some contrast that isn’t possible any other way. With flash, I can make an interesting image that, without flash, would be nothing. I’ve used everything from softboxes over nearby objects in a big landscape to a Project-A-Flash to highlight a specific part of a scene that’s away from the camera.

Outdoor Photographer: Obviously, you do a lot of wildlife work with flash. That was one place you started experimenting with flash outdoors. What are some key elements of wildlife and flash that are important for you?

Lanting: First, flash can allow us to freeze action that might not be seen otherwise. I’ve set up flash to stop flying birds or bats so that you can see every feather. On the other hand, you can also mix ambient light and flash together, especially when using rear-curtain sync, to create a strong feeling of movement. The flash stops the action, but a slow shutter speed captures some blur from the ambient light movement. Rear-curtain sync then makes that movement appear behind the subject, which is a real contrast to the old days of standard sync, where the movement actually appeared in front of the subject in
the photograph.

Black Rhino - copyright Frans Lanting

Of course, flash is also important to throw light into dark areas, or even to fill the dark shadows of a backlit animal, so you can see the animal at all. In addition, I enjoy photographing when the light is low and the flash reflects from the back of the wildlife’s eyes. At one time, photographers only thought of this eyeshine as a mistake, yet it has tremendous creative possibilities.

Sometimes, flash just gives some creative options from the way you mix flash and ambient light. For example, think of photographing an animal at sunset. The sky is dramatic in color, but the animal, a mere silhouette. With flash, both the subject and the background color can be varied, depending on how the two lights, flash and ambient, are balanced. Auto-flash exposure bracketing can be very helpful in these conditions.

Outdoor Photographer: You do a lot of portraits of wildlife as well as people, from scientists to native folk. What are you trying to do with flash in those situations?

Lioness and Cub - copyright Frans Lanting

Lanting: Portraiture, whether of people or animals, is really quite a lot like studio work. I try to light subjects in a way to emphasize their personalities. I want to create an environment of light, using both flash and ambient light, that can give you a feeling of who this creature is, plus sometimes a bit of the setting. I like the stylistic options possible from the choices of direct to soft light, as well as how the flash is mixed with the ambient light.

Outdoor Photographer: I have to tell you that I’m impressed with the work. It brings a new drama and edge to all sorts of subjects, plus I can see how you can create some strong images that communicate quite powerfully. Where do you see this going?

Lanting: I think there’s still much potential cross-pollination from the flash work in sports and fashion, for example. There’s some wonderful stylistic work being done that will find its way into nature photography as outdoor photographers push the limits of their own work with flash.
It used to be hard, for example, to use multiple lights in the field, yet that’s very common in a studio environment. Now, the possibilities are great, especially with the latest flash systems. Flash does take a little more work, and it does require taking along more equipment, but the creative and communicative potential is huge for the photographer willing to make the effort.

Reprinted courtesy of Outdoor Photographer.

View Frans’ fine prints at his web site at this link.

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