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Behind the Lens: Photograph or Painting?

All Photographs by Frans LantingWhile on assignment in Namibia for National Geographic magazine, Frans Lanting captured this surreal landscape image in a location called Dead Vlei. Due to the nature of the lighting in the frame, the photograph appears almost like a painting. We asked Lanting to take a few moments away from his current assignment in Africa to answer readers’ questions about the photograph. Due to limited internet connectivity in the field, he was only able to provide brief responses to. questions, so we asked Elizabeth Krist—Lanting’s photo editor for this story—to offer additional detail where appropriate. 

(If you are interested in acquiring this image as a fine art print, please e-mail gallery@lanting.com.)

From Shay Mordo: Absolutely amazing composition! Did it require prior planning or it was just being in the right place at the right time?

Lanting: Here’s a short summary about the making of the photo. It was made at dawn when the warm light of the morning sun was illuminating a huge red sand dune dotted with white grasses while the white floor of the clay pan was still in shade. It looks blue because it reflects the color of the sky above. Because of the contrast between the shady foreground and the sunlit background I used a two-stop graduated filter which reduced the contrast. The perfect moment came when the sun reached all the way down to the bottom of the sand dune just before it reached the desert floor. I used a long telephoto lens and stopped it all the way down to compress the perspective.

Camel thorn tree in the shade, Namib-Naukluft Park

Krist: Our photographers do extensive planning, often selecting specific locations before they even set foot in the field, and in this case Frans was fortunate to have his wife, Chris Eckstrom, helping with research and logistics. A key factor in all our stories is giving the photographer enough time to scout situations so they know where the light will hit, when people might arrive, what the problems will be, etc., and can return at the best times.

From Ana Paula: What is it that appears white in the orange background?

Lanting: The sand dune is dotted with white grasses.

From Cathy Cory: What editing did you do to this image and what software did you use? I’m an art student working toward my B.F.A. and this image does look to be heavily edited. Some explanation would be helpful. Thank you.

Lanting: The colors in the final printed image were true to the scene as I saw it—the only technical adjustment I made was the use of the graduated filter, which only reduces contrast but does not affect the colors of the scene.

Krist: We never touch anything that will affect composition or the action that happens in a frame, but we do crop images to fit the layout, and our pre-press staff are masters at helping to adjust color or exposure so that the photograph will print well.

Visitors descend upon Dead Vlei, Namib-Naukluft Park

Can you describe what it is that makes this photo look like a painting to so many people?

Krist: I think it’s the intensity of the sunlight falling only on the dune in the distance, while the foreground is still in early morning shadow, so the trees are almost in silhouette. The dune, called Big Daddy, is almost 1,200 feet tall, and is an intense reddish-orange color, so it creates a mysterious backdrop.

Are there techniques people can use to capture similar images?

Krist: One reason people respond so strongly to this image is just how surreal and otherworldly it looks. My advice to both students and professionals is to always, always, always use the drama of light (and composition, too, of course) to go beyond simply recording the scene in front of you. If you’re standing with a group of photographers, why would you want to shoot the same picture everyone else is shooting? You have to master the equipment, but you also want to find your own distinctive approach. A lot of that is sheer effort—trying different angles and distances (lying on the ground, climbing a hill), or investing the time to wait for just the right moment or weather and coming back the next day for a second chance. But there’s always that elusive imaginative element, too.

Cracked desert ground, Namib-Naukluft Park

Did you have any expectation that this particular photo would be so popular?

Krist: I can’t speak for Frans at the moment he shot the image, but it was fascinating to see the reactions here at the magazine. People were polarized. Most of the editors loved it, but it left a few people cold. This scene, with the dead trees, stood out for us immediately while we were editing, but Frans shot a lot of variations, and we did have to do a lot of close comparisons before we finally settled on this one frame.

Why did you choose to shoot the five different frames that appear on this page, and what were you trying to tease out of the landscape in each frame?

Krist: Frans shot almost 16,000 frames for this story, and when I went back to look, I found that he had shot 321 images of the dead trees in Sossusvlei and Dead Vlei. (That’s actually relatively few frames for such an iconic scene, but Frans had a shorter time than usual in the field for this assignment, and he was trying to cover a lot of ground.) He was simply trying to give us the greatest visual variety from that unusual location in the brief time he had there.

Camel thorn trees in the shade, Namib-Naukluft Park

Could you talk about the quality of light at different times of the day in the locale and what’s better for achieving the perfect photo?

Krist: The early morning light and the light at dusk usually yield the most romantic and beautiful feeling for most locations. But it all depends on the kind of effect you’re going for, and if you want the harsh light of midday, that can also give a certain kind of drama. There is no such thing as the one perfect photo!

See more stunning photos of Namibia by Frans Lanting in the June 2011 National Geographic magazine.


  1. Yayan
    Jayapura,Papua, Indonesia
    July 10, 2011, 11:44 pm

    Woww..It’s extraordinary from extraordinary ones…, next time i wish you have the chance to visit papua…, so many view and landscapes good to shoot at there..

  2. Photograph | christophersvensson.org
    July 7, 2011, 7:35 pm

    […] Frans Lanting This entry was posted in nature, photography and tagged Frans Lanting, Namibia, National Geographic. Bookmark the permalink. ← Badware […]

  3. Not a Painting | Alien Skin Software
    June 14, 2011, 9:02 am

    […] not a painting. Frans Lanting created it on an assignment for National Geographic. In an interview Frans explains the project and how this photo came to be. Click the photo to visit the National […]

  4. Fair
    June 1, 2011, 9:22 pm

    Stunning… This is what photography is all about…

  5. ritt45
    May 24, 2011, 12:44 am

    Amazing. I live near the ocean and when I walk the beach, I miss some good scenes because I had left the camera at home.

  6. billygwyn orange
    nc, usa
    May 23, 2011, 4:31 pm

    wonderful, this is why photography is an art form

  7. malik goharayub
    pakistan karachi
    May 23, 2011, 4:30 pm


  8. Marina
    Madrid, Spain
    May 23, 2011, 8:46 am

    Odd atmosfere and very very beautiful.

  9. Sheer Manx
    May 22, 2011, 2:29 pm

    whatever it’s Photograph or Painting……. WOW… Amazing… perfect … donno what else to say!!!

  10. yaowadee maneesub
    May 22, 2011, 8:00 am

    so much amazing!!!

  11. carolina benavides
    May 21, 2011, 9:59 pm

    bello, bello, bello…………la naturaleza sólo nos sabe regalar belleza………………

  12. random
    May 21, 2011, 8:52 pm

    Still looks like it’s been tweeked. The other photos still looked very much like untouched photos to me,

  13. Benjie
    May 21, 2011, 8:33 pm

    mind freak.

  14. Crystal
    usa Washington
    May 21, 2011, 4:20 pm

    This is absolutely amazing… I have taken photographs professionally… And I havent even gotten close to pictures like these ones…. They are stunningly beautiful….

  15. Anna
    Blaine, Wa USA
    May 21, 2011, 3:59 pm

    Isn’t it amazing that when one “captures” what one is seeing, it isn’t what we were seeing after all? Ah, Bliss!!!

  16. sakeena
    May 21, 2011, 3:41 pm

    hey sorry cant understand is it a real place or just a painting??????? and if its real then tell me that where is it???????

  17. Abhishek Patil
    May 21, 2011, 3:20 pm


  18. abaz omeragic
    Bosnia and Herzegovina
    May 21, 2011, 2:10 pm

    These pictures are so amazing and I didn’t see something like that in my life,…

  19. kawsar mostafa
    May 21, 2011, 1:39 pm


  20. mohamed Ifras
    May 21, 2011, 1:20 pm

    It’s amazing.. can’t say anything.. I think It’s a photograph

  21. Mohamed Arayis
    May 21, 2011, 1:09 pm

    thats a Great work
    u choose the right time to SHOT

  22. Mohammed
    May 21, 2011, 12:53 pm

    natural bueaty ,, captured with lots of passion

  23. ft
    May 21, 2011, 12:50 pm


  24. farhan shrek
    May 21, 2011, 12:28 pm

    At what time did you take the photo? is is really great.

  25. pc sharma
    May 21, 2011, 12:24 pm

    seeing is believing, no words can describe it

  26. Joanne
    May 21, 2011, 12:08 pm

    Lanting’s photos are stunning, absolutely. I’d love to know how long he shot in Namibia. Meaning, how many days/weeks to capture 16,000-plus images? Thanks, thanks. Beautiful.

  27. Ari Es
    May 21, 2011, 12:00 pm
  28. Dwaipayan
    May 21, 2011, 11:59 am

    Just amazing…cant say any more…

  29. irene joy
    May 21, 2011, 11:54 am

    i cant believe that i can see a picture like this. the photographer is really a great photographer to capture a scenery like this. it is so cool, that even my imagination can’t create a scenery like this one. he really is an amazing photographer. and how i wish i can see it with my two eyes in reality and not just in pictures. 🙂

  30. cobrasr303
    commerce city,co
    May 21, 2011, 11:54 am

    It”s A PAINTING…

  31. norma
    May 21, 2011, 11:51 am