Bird of paradise
Tim Laman talks us through one of his vertiginous wildlife images.
Part of a long-term project documenting these spectacular creatures, Tim Laman’s vertiginous image affords us a rare glimpse into this exotic world.
PERCHED HIGH ABOVE A MISTsmothered rainforest on a tiny island in the Arafura Sea southwest of New Guinea, this glorious bird of paradise is enacting a mating ritual that has gone largely unseen by human eyes for millennia. And it’s only thanks to the ingenuity of photographers like Tim Laman that we’re able to witness such events...
Your work is hugely cinematic and much more than ‘just’ wildlife photography... I describe what I do as ‘wildlife photojournalism’ because my goal is not to just create pictures of wildlife, but to tell the stories of wild creatures and the places they inhabit. That is why my favourite type of image is one that shows an animal in its spectacular natural environment, like the one shown here. This speciality grew out of my background as a field biologist and my passion for exploration of the remote places in the world, and a desire to preserve them. What’s the story behind this particular image? This is a male greater bird of paradise perched high in the rainforest canopy on a remote island in Indonesia called Aru. During the breeding season, males come every morning to the same tree where they call, display and try to attract females. This photograph is part of a long-term project sponsored by National Geographic and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, documenting the spectacular group of birds in the bird of paradise family that includes about 40 different species, living in remote areas of Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Australia. How did you achieve such a close-up and spectacular viewpoint? This wide-angle view from close to the bird could not have been made from a hide, like so much of my bird photography. Instead, I executed this shot with a well-camouflaged remote camera mounted in the tree where the birds displayed. To set up the camera, I climbed the tree first during the day when the birds were not around and rigged a camera mount and cable across to an adjacent tree where I had a hide. Then every day for about a week, I climbed this tree in the dark at 4am and mounted the camera and connected cables. Then I returned to the ground and climbed the other tree to my hide carrying a laptop, and I controlled my remote camera from the laptop when it got light and the birds arrived. Talk us through the camera equipment and techniques you used… The camera used as the remote was a Canon 7D with a 10-22mm lens, mounted on a ball head attached to the tree trunk with a lag screw. A 20m-long USB cable system was connected from the camera to my control station in my treetop blind. I used my Mac laptop running Canon remote control software to control the camera. I was able to adjust exposure and focus from the app and take still images and video. How many shots did you take in total? Capturing an image like this often takes a week or more of work, but when I find a situation that offers the potential for me to create a standout image, it’s worth the effort. So it’s not a question of how many images needed to be taken before
“EVERY DAY, FOR ABOUT A WEEK, I CLIMBED THIS TREE IN THE DARK AT 4AM & MOUNTED THE CAMERA”
I got the right frame, but a multi-day process of scouting, starting to photograph the situation from a distance in a more conservative way, then experimenting by placing a GoPro very close and seeing if the bird would tolerate it, and then finally, using the well-hidden DSLR to capture this image. But, of course, all that preparation would have been for naught if the bird hadn’t displayed in the right place, and the sun hadn’t popped out in that amazing way that morning. So, there is an element of what some people call luck, but I’m a firm believer that luck favours the prepared photographer. Is this the exact shot you envisaged and how does it rate in terms of complexity? I definitely plan and prepare a lot for this kind of shot, and this is close to what I initially envisaged. A shot like this starts with an idea in my head and maybe a sketch. Then I have to find the right location, and often solve technical problems along the way. This was a particularly complex shot because I had to do it with a remote camera, and the camera placement was in the top of a tree. I spent a lot of time and energy climbing up and down trees to pull it off. How much time was spent in post-production for this shot? Very little. I believe strongly in representing the real world in my images, so I adjust highlights and shadows (for example, in this shot I mainly tried to bring out more detail in the sky), a little saturation adjustment, and sometimes cropping. What unique challenges does your special brand of wildlife photography present? I really like working with subjects that few people have photographed before, and telling the stories of rare and endangered species. So, this means, almost by definition, that I need to travel to remote parts of the world and that the subjects I’m trying to photograph are not common or easy to find. Also, a lot of my work is in rainforest environments, so I’m constantly dealing with moisture, poor light, and other challenges of working out of remote rainforest camps for weeks at a time. How did it feel to win Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2016? It was an amazing career highlight and brought my career full circle, because the place I took that image, a rainforest in Borneo called Gunung Palung National Park, is where I spent years of my early career doing research and my first few
National Geographic articles. I care deeply about the conservation of that area and, also, the subject of the photograph, a wild orangutan climbing high in the rainforest canopy, is very personal because I’ve been photographing orangutans there for over 20 years, in collaboration with my wife Cheryl Knott. Cheryl is a Boston University professor and primatologist who continues her research on orangutans in Gunung Palung to this day, and so this photograph also represents my collaboration with her on trying to bring more attention to orangutan conservation.
Tim Laman is a field biologist, explorer, photographer and filmmaker. He won Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2016 and was part of the BBC’s Planet Earth 2 filming team. His work regularly features in National Geographic. timlaman.com
Above An adult male greater bird of paradise performs an upright wing pose in the Badigaki Forest, Wokam Island, Aru.
Right A cloud forest near Mount Hagen, Papua New Guinea, and a Bornean orangutan at rest.