5 Critical Elements of Wildlife Photography You Should Never Miss, Part 2

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What is the most famous painting in the world?

Hint: Every year, millions of people line up at the Louvre Museum​ in Paris hoping to have a glimpse of it.

It's "Mona Lisa" by Leonardo da Vinci.

One of the key reasons why the painting is so famous, according to David Ward's "Landscape Beyond", ​is because of its enigma.

When I was a kid, I had already heard tales about the Mona Lisa painting: wherever you stand from the painting, the lady in the painting would be looking right at you. There are all sorts of controversies in addition to that, such as whether the lady was a real person or that the painter painted a self portrait, and whether there were "codes" hidden in the painting that would lead to a treasure underground. People dreamed to see the painting with their own eyes, to try to solve the mystery of this now estimated $800 million work of art.

And this leads to the second critical element in wildlife photography.

2. Mystery

But first, let me tell you something really crazy. You would have never guessed what I saw today around 5pm at the hiking trail.

Did I get your attention? We humans always want to hear people's secrets.

Now, imagine I am at a first date with a beautiful girl (which happens quite a lot). I started the conversation,

"Hi, I'm Tin Man. I woke up at noon today. Then I went to Home Depot across the street to search for some paint for my garage door. Later, I went to Bed, Bath and Beyond to look for a trash can as the one at home was broken. I drove by McDonald's to get some fries and a Strawberry Sundae on my way here."​

Is it likely that I will ever have a second date with her?

No. Because every word I said spelled "boring". The girl would have figured me all out within a few seconds. There's no mystery.​

Maybe that's why I failed all the time. I swear I didn't order the fries and sundae though.​

We always like to hear secrets.

When I was in college, I audited for a Neuroscience class by a really famous professor. I heard that more than half of the students failed this class before, so I was smart enough not to take it for credit.

In the first lecture, the professor talked about the earliest life forms on earth. He said, whenever that life form moved and encountered another life form on its path, it would always ask 3 questions:

  • Will it eat me?
  • Can I eat it?
  • Can I reproduce with it?

(I guess we never really evolved much after all these years, didn't we?)

The first question is always about survival. Whenever we encountered anything, in the deepest of our mind, even with years of evolution, we still unknowingly want to make sure something won't kill us.

When we see something a bit fuzzy, dark and blurry, we get paranoid. It's in our genes. It triggers our curiosity and alertness. And we start to imagine things. 

In "Made to Stick: Why some ideas survive and others die", the authors looked through history to understand why some stories could last and spread all over the world, such as the story of the guy in Las Vegas waking up in a bathtub with ice, and his kidney removed. The authors also described 5 techniques to make an idea sticks. The one technique that caught my attention is "unexpectedness". ​

Mystery is full of unexpectedness. Without unexpectedness, there is no tension. Without tension, there is no drama, and thus no story.

We have seen a lot of those online. Birds perched on beautiful branches with creamy background. Animals in sharp focus with the perfect pose in a clean habitat. Landscapes with flower foreground, some rocks creating leading lines to the tip of a mountain with amazing colorful clouds. They are all beautiful photos. I usually gave out a loud "Wow" when I saw those. Then after a few minutes, I would have completely forgotten the pics. Why? Because they lack mystery. They don't trigger any imagination. They are just soulless beauties. Without imagination, I can't remember the photo. So next time I see the photo again, I couldn't tell who took it because they all look the same. No one wants to take a photo that's easily being forgotten. A successful photo is one that makes people want to come back to look at it again and again for years to come.

Instead of trying to show as much details as possible in a photo, it's interesting how powerful it becomes when you take away some details and give space to let the viewers to imagine.

"There is nothing more magical than suggestion. When you reveal everything, you kill imagination. I live in a world of imagination. And that's where I want to stay. "
 - Vincent Munier

Photographer Vincent Munier is the ultimate master for "Mystery". He's always waiting for a storm, wind, blinding snow, extreme cold, when everything becomes dreamy. His photos bring viewers to a world of fantasy. Here's his recent video which really showcases "Mystery".

I don't know about you, but the video brings tears to my eyes.

David Ward described several great techniques in-depth to convey mystery in his book, such as using scales, spatial ambiguity, and lighting.

For wildlife photography, a good starting point is to study Vincent Munier's works.

A few ideas to create mystery are to make good use of fog, backlight, occlusion, foreground blur, spotlight  (natural), shadows and silhouette. 

Here are my attempts to be a mysterious man. I really didn't order the fries and the sundae.

Eye of a black-browed albatross. Their eyes, so full of wisdom, really resembles humans, except they are smarter. What was she thinking? Falkland Islands. 1DX, 100-400, f/7.1, 1/800s, ISO 800.

Glance. Coastal Brown Bear at dawn. Alaska. 1D Mark IV, 500mm f/4, f/4, 1/320s, ISO 800, tripod.

Moose in heat. Alaska. 1DX, 500mm f/4, f/5.6, 1/1250s, ISO 800

A glance from the darkness. Barn owl, Central California (not baited, not called, not captive) 1DX, 600mm, 1.4x, f/5.6, 1/2000s, ISO 1600.

For more about my barn owl encounter, click here.

Nature's call. Alaska. What's the bear doing? It's a mystery. 1d mark iv, 500mm, 1.4x, f/5.6, 1/1600ss, iso 800

Aliens landing. Falkland Islands. 1dx, 100-400, f/6.3, 1/1250s, iso 800.

Grey fox, Angeles National Forest. 1dx, 600mm, f/4, 1/640s, iso 1600.

You can't see me. 1dx, 600mm, f/5.6, 1/1250s, iso 800. Alaska.

Angry bird. Falkland Islands. 1dx, 100-400, f/6.3, 1/800s, iso 800.

Bobcat at sunset, Yellowstone. 1dx, 600mm, 2x, f/8, 1/800s, iso 1600.

red fox, Alaska. 1dx, 600mm, 2x, f/11, 1/800s, iso 800.

Gentoo penguin family, Falkland Islands. 1dx, 100-400, f/8, 1/800s, iso 800.

If you have missed part 1 of this blogpost, click HERE.

My ebook on Falkland Islands is underway and should be ready in a few weeks. Get updates for special discount by signing up my email list 🙂

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