Frans Lanting, pictured at DPReview's offices in Seattle.

Frans Lanting is one of the most recognizable names in photography. With his wife Christine Eckstrom he's created some of the most popular and ambitious photo books of the last 30 years. Known for his distinctive approach to wildlife photography, Lanting has inspired generations of photographers and ecologists with his photography and his environmental advocacy.

Fresh from teaching a Creative Live workshop on bird photography, Frans dropped by the DPReview office recently to talk about his life and career.


Before photography, what was your background?

I'm from the Netherlands and I was an environmental economist before I was a photographer. And then I switched careers after I came to the US to do research. I was focused on ecosystem services, which was a novelty at the time, we're talking about the late 70s. I switched to photography in about 1979-1980.

I'd always had an interest in pictures, and in the United States I connected with a very different tradition in photography - outdoor-oriented, and activism. We didn't really have that tradition in Europe. There's a great tradition of natural history, and a great tradition of photography, but [in Europe] the two things didn't quite come together. Nature photography was pretty stagnant in Europe in the 70s, but it was much more of an art-form in the US at the time. The great west coast photographers led the way.

Who were those photographers?

The greats - Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Philip Hyde was really important, too. And they all - especially Phillip and Ansel - lent their names and their work in the service of supporting changes. In partnership with the Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth and so on. And that really appealed to me.

I found my own way to make a mark in editorial publications. Storytelling in the nature and wildlife field was really underdeveloped at the time.

Frans Lanting in the field, back in the days of film. © Frans Lanting/lanting.com

How did you break into that?

By doing it! I could rattle off names of publications and editors, most of the editors are forgotten now but they were really important gatekeepers - the 'influencers' of their time. Editors were much more important back then than they are now. National Geographic was important - there was a day when there were magazines about more than just celebrities. Especially in Europe, the editorial universe was very rich at that time. The 1970s and 80s were a golden era for editorial photography.

There are fewer 'gatekeepers' now, how has that changed the industry?

Editors are gatekeepers, but they're also curators. Curators of talent. They're really important for nurturing talent. People who come in and they have a passion and a vision but they don't know quite how to cultivate their talent. Editors are indispensable for that. It's more difficult for photographers breaking into the profession now to connect with those kinds of people. In the first place, there are far fewer of them, because most of the publishing houses have been hollowed-out, and the few editors still there are so overworked they don't have time to cultivate relationships with talent anymore. That makes it much more difficult for photographers. That vital connection is under a lot of pressure.

But it's not just photography, the same thing is happening to journalism. The world is very different now. I don't want to come off as nostalgic, because things weren't perfect then either but especially now, when we're getting more concerned about whether or not we can trust media, the role of editors is crucial. And of course the role of the writers and photographers who are out there covering things. And that's under so much pressure. Yes you can publish on social media but there's no much noise, and a lot of it is so self-referential it doesn't give you a clue about what's really happening in the world.

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

So what was it about your approach to photography that made it different, at the time?

My background was different, I came from academia, so I was trained in social sciences. I had an analytical way of appreciating things that were happening in society. I knew a lot about nature and wildlife - I was passionate about it, but I think my point of view was broader than the more traditionally, more narrowly-defined perspective than most wildlife photographers had at the time.

I've never been [interested] in isolating nature, and ignoring the connections with human society and the environment as a bridge in between. In fact that's one of the areas where I cultivated my interest. I came from Europe, and when I started publishing in North America what I was showing editors was different. It was a breath of fresh air. I was not schooled in photography, I didn't know what the rules were, and I broke a lot of them. I think it made my work more intriguing.

And for editors in Europe, I brought something different back from the US. So I was able to navigate those two worlds.

What makes photography unique as a medium, in your opinion?

Pictures are perfect for this time of instant global communications. They transmit very easily and become a global language. So platforms like Instagram are meant for this era, in combination with smartphones where you can capture, share and consume images. Except for a couple of visionaries, I don't think any of us saw that coming until pretty late in the transition.

Photography has influenced appreciation of the environment, and for examples of that you can go way back to the first photographers who started exploring the American west, with their darkroom in an oxcart. There are celebrated examples from Carlton Watkins and the rest of them, with the first glass plates showing what Yosemite looks like, which were hugely influential. They're still iconic images and sources of inspiration.

Toco toucan face, Pantanal, Brazil. © Frans Lanting/lanting.com

I think photography has been there all along, in this process of changing how we think about the world that we're a part of. But photography that is specifically focused on these issues, and their solutions has only come of age in the past 10, 15 maybe 20 years.

Conservation photography as a term didn't exist until 20 years ago. For the longest time, photography that dealt with the earth was kind of a stepchild. It still is - World Press Photo, for example, it took forever to get recognition for 'concern' photography - hardcore photojournalism and pictures of nature. It wasn't considered important. In the world of museums, and fine art, there is finally recognition that this is a legitimate genre, but it's still late in getting recognition.

Can photography make a difference to how people view the world, and their environmental consciousness?

Sure, but only in connection with other activities. The brilliant relationship that I was really inspired by was the one between Ansel Adams and David Brower. David Brower was the chairman of the Sierra Club and the chief of this landmark series of publications, which launched the genre of the coffee table book that celebrated nature. He hand-picked places that were under [environmental] pressure, and he got his friends, Ansel, Phillip Hyde and others to contribute.

The whole idea of coffee table books didn't exist until David Brower decided to use them as a way to communicate. It was hugely influential - and successful. Those books were not intended to sell a lot of copies, they were made to influence the political conversation.

During the course of your career, you must have been able to return to some parts of the world a few times...

Yes, I have been doing that more deliberately over the past couple of years. It's really interesting to see changes, and when they're positive change and negative change, and what makes the difference locally.

The first time I became aware of your work as a young photographer was 'Jungles'. There's less jungle now than there was then - compared to 20, 25 years ago, when you look at the world now, are you worried about the direction we're going in?

Of course. But let me talk a little about that book. The concept behind 'Jungles' was to look at them as a whole, rather than focus on a rainforest here, a rainforest there, which is the more common approach. Now we're realizing, in this era of climate change, that jungles are the green belt around the world which helps do the heavy lifting. They're the lungs of the planet. The book isn't focused on conservation solutions, but that is mentioned. I serve on the advisory council of an organization called Conservation International and we're very concerned, and very focused on providing solutions to climate change. Very smart scientists are calculating that it's unequivocal that the most cost-effective solutions are to conserve nature and let the trees and the jungles do the heavy lifting for us, because they can absorb Co2. Better than any of our human engineered solutions. Which means stemming deforestation, not burning trees, and elevating more forests to protected status.

Is it happening? Yes. Is it happening fast enough? No. Have we lost a lot? Yes. And are we going to get there in time? I don't know. The latest reports indicate that we have maybe 11 years to turn things around, and when you look at how stuck we are politically, I don't know. I don't see how we can get through the bottleneck.

Dead camelthorn trees, Namibia. © Frans Lanting/lanting.com

What do you feel is your particular mission, or responsibility as a photographer?

From the very beginning my mission has been to use my personal sense of wonder and create images that can help other people see what we have and what is at stake. And sometimes the sense of wonder is paramount, and that's definitely the case in 'Jungles' and also our 'LIFE' project, which is an imaginary journey from the big bang to the present. Our books and our exhibitions and the events that we do are really intended to be celebrations. For the cause-oriented activities for many years I've focused on magazines. Those editorial platforms are uniquely suited to getting a focused set of images out there with a strong message. With magazines you can absorb things quickly. But magazines are being replaced by other media, consumed on smartphones. Magazines are now considered long-form content!

I'm very active on social media. My Instagram account reaches more than a million people around the world, and I'm now using Instagram in the way that I used to use magazines. Our stories are really substantive, and it's not just a picture of an animal, I really want to educate people. They may stumble across my Instagram account because they love animals, but it's really incredible how people just start connecting with the stories and the issues behind the pictures. There's a real hunger for it. I have 25,000 followers in Indonesia alone, and that's a crucial country. When I speak there I speak to a lot of younger people, and that's the generation we need to cultivate when it comes to influencing voices locally.

'Jungles' came out in 2000, just on the cusp of the digital revolution - how has digital technology changed the way you work?

It's changed everything. Everything except the subject matter. I did an assignment back in the 90s in the Amazonian part of Peru, where we spent months in an upper tributary of the Amazon - very remote, very tough. I would bury film in canisters in the ground to keep them cool. I would periodically dig up some film, and bury the exposed film. It was cooler below the ground than in a Pelican case above. I don't have to do that anymore!

For me, worrying about whether I had actually captured what I was there to do, and not seeing the results for months at a time, compared to now when I can get instant feedback, that's changed everything. Especially if you're trying to push the boundaries of what's technically possible.

Chinstrap penguins on an iceberg, Antarctica. © Frans Lanting/lanting.com

It's much easier to get in and out of those locations now too, because travel has evolved. Gear has also changed, it's much more compact and more sophisticated, but it's also become much more difficult to fix.

I can't fix a Nikon D5 or any of its Canon or Sony equivalents on location, but I remember in the old days I was in Turkey, and my camera failed. I went into a watch repair shop. There was a guy there with no expertise in working on cameras, but he was able to fix it because it was a mechanical thing. You can't do that these days.

I was talking about this during my recent Creative Live class: the unimaginable revolution when it comes to the sensitivity of our capture medium. Film ISO sensitivity used to be ISO 25 or 64. And you can't do much in the jungle when you're limited to film stock rated at 64. If I could have had modern tools back in those days... you know, ISO 100,000 - the sky is the limit. That alone has completely transformed everything.

I remember you were using slow sync flash for some of the photos in 'Jungles'...

Yeah, fill flash and all kinds of other things. We were taking big risks.It was partly a creative response, but in part it was a response to the technical limitations. but I was trying to push things far out into times of the day when we otherwise couldn't work. I'm using fill flash less and less now because you don't have to anymore, and it almost looks and feels like an intrusion. That's a big change.

I loved that book.

So did I. It's a classic. I'm so proud of all of these books, because we approached books [at the time] very differently to most of my colleagues, and Benedict Taschen was supportive of that. And he validated his instincts and our intuition.

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

You have a long association with National Geographic. What's it like to shoot for Nat Geo?

Things have changed considerably since I first started working there. The number of editors has shrunk, budgets are under pressure, everything has to be turned around faster. It used to be a very closed world, with photographers and writers coming up with stories but things are determined much more now by editors and publishers, and decided by executives.

The editorial world has long been a nursery for talent. A place where you could prove yourself, and you were given creative freedom. You weren't being paid a lot, but you were given opportunities to develop as a photographer, and start communicating with editors and photographers, and then the world at large. It's very different these days. Photographers are hired to do this picture, that picture, and that picture - 'this is what we need'. Editorial photography has become more like commercial photography, but it used to be very different.

How long would you get to work on a particular project?

It would depend, for the Geographic it would be measured in months. For other publications, weeks.

What are you working on right now?

I just did a Creative Live class on bird photography, which is very popular around the world. But many people interested in birds practice bird photography in pretty narrow parameters. It was very gratifying to hear people saying that 'I never thought you could do this' or they didn't know you could think about birds in that way, that you could start looking at birds as metaphors, as symbols for environmental change, or examples of design, and so on and so on. That inspires me. I'm at a stage of my career where I get a lot of gratification from nurturing new talent.

If someone came to you and just wanted to improve their bird photography, do you have any quick tips?

Think of birds differently, as a rich subject for photographic expression. Rather than just sitting on a branch doing nothing. Whether you want to challenge yourself technically, by capturing them in flight, or challenge yourself with intricate compositions of birds in flocks, which really becomes a search for patterns. Or whether you look at them as vehicles for visual storytelling about what we're doing to the planet. That's a very different approach to bird photography to what most people practice.

There's nothing wrong with frame-filling portraits of birds, but I want people to think about the character within the bird, so to speak. People should check out the course! And if they really want to learn, they can join me for a workshop.

Green-crowned brilliant hummingbird feeding on ginger torch, Costa Rica. © Frans Lanting/lanting.coms

What's next for Frans Lanting?

Documenting the process of environmental change is something i'm working on, in some specific locations. Environmental change as triggered by economic and cultural changes. I did that in Madagascar last year, I went back to a couple of places I worked 30 years ago, and that was astonishing, to reconnect with individuals and their children and grandchildren and tell stories through their life experience. I also did that recently in the Congo, where I went to go back and worked with bonobos, which I did for the first time 25 years ago.

So that's one thing I'm working on. I'm also working on a longer format publication about my way of practicing photography.

There's a lot of bad news in the world - what gives you hope?

The next generation. People are saying 'No, we're not going to accept incremental change'. This Swedish schoolgirl Greta Thunberg who started lecturing the adults in the room at the Global Economic Forum. Saying 'no we're not going to accept this'. She went on strike, in Sweden. 'I'm going to give up going to school - there are more important things to do'. Hopefully she can rally millions of others around that cause, and the people in their 20s and 30s who are causing huge economic upheaval and technological disruption should rally around the cause of creating a more sustainable planet [too]. Instead of just tinkering with new apps. You know?

You're one half of a creative partnership, with your wife, Christine Eckstrom. How does that influence how you work?

We met at the Geographic. She was a staff writer there. She taught me how to write, how to use words. I've always liked to write, and I started early on because I found that it was a parallel way to express a story. But after we met, we became a unique team. There are other examples of husband and wife symbiotic relationships in the world of photography - Helmut and June Newton, for instance. Very few people realize how important June was for Helmut and vis-versa. Sebastião Salgado, and his wife Lélia - Lélia was hugely important for Sebastião, she gave him a voice and channeled his creativity.

Frans Lanting and editor and filmmaker Christine Eckstrom have worked together since they met at National Geographic after Frans moved to the US in the late 1970s. © Frans Lanting/lanting.com

I think what makes Chris and me unique together is that we developed a vocabulary together that married images and words together in a different way. 'Jungles' is a good example of that. It's very conceptual, and the way we chose the dualities of water and light, order and chaos, form and evolution. It's like poetry. The 'Life' project is another good example. We worked on that for seven years. At the end of it we knew way too much about the evolution of life on earth and we had all these facts and figures, but you bore people to death with that. That's what scientists do.

We found our way back to the essence of it by writing what is essentially an extended poem about life on earth. It was triggered by a Ted Talk I was invited to deliver. I knew I had to describe the project and all the ideas behind it in 18 minutes. I managed to do it, and after we did that - I say 'we' because I was on stage, but Chris and I shaped it together - we knew how to package it for the book.

Now we have a complete toolkit - she taught herself how to use video, so we write, we edit, we produce video, mixed-media and social media. We do all of those things. We have a really good support staff and they help us create things that we believe in.

Looking back over your career, what are you most proud of?

Oh gosh, to distill it to one thing... when I think of all of the photographers, and also scientists who are now active in conservation; that I've been able to inspire other people, and validate for them the idea that there are ways to give expression to things in ways that they might not have thought of previously... that's more important than awards and publications. It's ultimately about making a difference in the lives of other people.


Frans Lanting is a world-renowned photographer and environmentalist. The Collector's edition of his book 'Into Africa' is available now, and for information on Frans' range of online courses, photo workshops and tours, click here. To access Frans' complete collection of Creative Live courses, click here.