Photo insight Frans Lanting

Frans Lanting explores a very different point of view when photographing zebras in the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya. He explains why he photographed this scene in the way he did


One of the most accomplished wildlife photographers of our time. Frans has won numerous awards for his immersive style of working. He will discuss his favourite pictures and share his techniques for capturing dynamic nature images

SOMETIMES an image can present itself when you least expect it. I was photographing in Kenyas Masai Mara National Reserve one day and had parked my vehicle under a shady tree to take a break from the harsh noon sun. I had noticed a group of zebras grazing at a nearby waterhole, and although I was resting I kept a keen eye on them.

To bide my time I had been reading an essay in my mammals field guide about the co - evolution of grasses and grazers on the African savannas. My image was inspired by the story about how the first grasslands emerged millions of years ago. The book explained how grazing animals adapted to make use of the defensive strategies of grasses when global climates became cooler and drier around 35 million years ago.

During this time forests gave way to new open habitats worldwide and African savannas came into their own. Grasses spread and grazing mammals proliferated. In response to the pressures caused by intensive grazing, grasses formed more abrasive silica inside their leaves. This in turn led to grazing animals developing high - crowned teeth and strong digestive systems to digest the coarse grass. Often these grass - eating animals will develop large bellies and backsides! Buffalos, antelope and zebras are good examples of this.

Reading this book made me think about zebras differently. When I looked again at the nearby herd I began to focus on their body forms and their connection to grass. I decided to make tins, the subject of the photograph, rather than the zebras heads and faces. In other words, I was looking for interesting rear - end compositions! Zebras are very common in the Masai Mara, so the challenge is how to make a zebra look different and come up with a new point of view.

I read a lot of science publicaUons and frequently talk to scientists, and quite often ideas will emerge from these sources - things that arent immediately obvious, but that I feel might make an imaginative photograph. The idea for this image came from a desire to explore the relationship between the grass - eating animals and the environment in which they evolved. Once I had the idea, I manoeuvred my vehicle into a position where I could create an image that showed multiple zebras. I attached my Nikon film camera with a 400mm lens to a mount on the car door and kept the aperture wide open to dissolve the foreground and background. The process of composing this shot was very fluid. Because I was driving a vehicle I had control over where to position myself for the shot. I could easily adjust my shooting position a couple of metres this way or that.

I waited for a cloud to pass in front of the sun, which softened the bright midday light and tempered the harsh shadows. I didnt want any shadows to interfere with the black and white stripes of the zebras. There is a wonderful balance between the three subjects in the foreground and the single tree in the distance. I wanted to incorporate the out - of - focus but still recognisable shape of a lone acacia tree in the distance, which told another story about co - evolution: only a very tall animal could have pruned its classic umbrella form. No giraffe came along to nibble on it, however, but the tree alone was enough. It was the finishing touch to an image that shows how changing your point of view can add surprise to a familiar subject, and how zebras can look different without changing their stripes.

The image functions on several levels. First, there is the immediate connection with the subject - everybody knows what a zebra looks like. Then there is a humorous element, as the zebras arent portrayed in a conventional way. The image is also very graphic, so it is easy for viewers to connect with whats being presented. Finally, the history of the evolution of zebras and their habitat is implicit in the image.

Sometimes simple is best. I like to let the subject speak, so Ill sometimes look for simple, bold colours that work well together - blue, yellow and green, in this case, with the stand - out black and white stripes.

I took several frames to ensure that I had the image I envisaged. It was only while looking at the various frames afterwards that I knew this image was the one. Once you see something you think is an interesting subject, its a case of staying with it and exploring it until you have the image you are after. Ill stay with a subject as long as I feel there is something I can capture from the situation. Africas big cats are impressive, but in a purely visual sense zebras are hard to beat.

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