How Tin Man went from being a couch potato to an award-winning wildlife photographer?
It was another Friday evening. After a long day working at a grad school lab, I drove to the local Barnes and Noble bookstore.
Everything felt so familiar, I walked straight to the magazine section, grabbed a few wildlife photography-related magazines, then headed to the Art and Nature section and glanced for the newest photography books.
Carrying the stack of books and magazines, I waited in line at the Starbucks inside the bookstore, got my coffee and this time, a slice of New York cheesecake...
The background music was "Yellow" by Coldplay and then "By your side" by Sade.
Once I sat down at a table, I started to read, and that's where I could finally dream. It was 2001.
I would do that every day for the next ten years, especially in the days when I was feeling down. I told myself, "if only I had $5000, I would have bought that Canon 300mm 2.8... and maybe I could take some of these photos."
At the time I had a Canon Rebel, a 100-400mm lens, and since the people in forums said one must have a good tripod, I spent a fortune buying a Gitzo 1325 Carbon Fiber tripod. All my photos suck. And nothing worked in life as well...
My first try on SERIOUS BIRD PHOTOGRAPHY
Then one day in 2010, I decided to rent a Canon 500mm f/4 and a Wimberley head.
I drove to the nearby Sepulveda Basin Wildlife Refuge right after work. Facing a egret colony across the LA river, I felt self-conscious as I was carrying the lens from my car to the spot. Everyone were looking at me. I spent half an hour and failed to put the lens onto the Wimberley head. The lens was heavy and the sweat dripping from my forehead was blinding my eyes. Since I never read instruction manual, I never knew that I was supposed to balance the lens on it. It took me another half an hour to find the great egret in my viewfinder. The great egret had been standing there, not moving a bit, at the colony for the whole time. I remember a father and his 5-year old son walked by. His son was looking intensely at the big lens. He looked at me and asked, "can I see?" I held him up to the viewfinder and he said, "wow!" I couldn't get a single sharp shot that evening because the bird kept moving and locking focus through the long lens was impossible. I realized bird photography was a lot harder than I thought... maybe it's not for me.
Then I discovered BIF
I figured that one of the most important factors in getting my shots in wildlife photography is SPEED. And I was fascinated by the birds-in-flight photos in birdphotographers.net and naturescapes.net at the time. I read through all the online resources, ebooks and went to learn from a lot of professional photographers specialized in this area. Being able to handle big camera, lenses, at times big tripod, and get a sharp shot turned out to be quite easy. With a lot of trial and errors, I improved upon the techniques I learned to suit my style, and was able to finally get sharp photos of flying birds!
And I tried it on wildlife
I applied the same BIF techniques onto wildlife, and refused to use a tripod when I saw an animal.
Many photographers who saw me in the field thought I was weird, as the typical routine for them was to grab their tripod, set up the legs, attach the lens onto the Wimberley head, and put the whole setup on their shoulder and then they could finally start to walk to the animal.
By then, I would have taken 100 shots handholding the lens. They said I would never get a sharp picture handholding a supertelephoto lens...
I got my first award-winning picture handholding a 500mm lens in a bright sunny day with harsh light, violating all the "rules"...
Story and Visual Impact. Life after BIF
As I gradually built up my own collections of BIF photos, I found a big problem. Most of my BIF photos look the same as other photographers who were into BIF. And it started to get boring. Yes, it's a huge adrenaline rush when I was able to "nail" the shot when the bird was in mid-air, but I knew something was missing.
Then one day, I saw the photos of Charles Glatzer and I was blown away. I spent a lot of time looking his online portfolio. I realized that's something I've been missing - visual impact. I immediately signed up for 4 back-to-back workshops with him (and almost declared bankruptcy at the same time, but who said I was not crazy). During the workshops, I bugged him nonstop, blasting him with questions, and shadowing him every moves. That experience transformed my photography.
Through him, I met a very good friend Carl, who was as obsessed as me in nature photography and he probably joined 20 workshops each year to learn from different masters. He was very generous to share what he learned.
It opened up a whole new world for me. I learned how to tell stories. I learned about how to achieve simplicity, beauty, mystery in a photo.
I read a lot of books over that period, from photography to all forms of visual art, and biographies of all the artists I admired, trying to understand their thought process. I kept trying new techniques in the field. That year, I won the Grand Prize in Nature's Best Photography.
My Decision To Teach Others
I confess I always wanted to lose weight but failed. I've tried P90x, hired personal trainer, ran half marathon. And I always carried heavy gear and hike. I didn't know that my body had been suffering through these.
Then one year, one of my good friends told me he got attacked at a remote gas station by a drunk guy and almost got killed. It could happen to me! So I immediately enrolled in a Brazilian Jiujitsu class. After the second class, I went home to sleep, and when I woke up the next morning, I had a severe pain in my lower back. It was so intense it took me two hours to get off my bed. I struggled to drive to a clinic. Later I found out I had a bulging disc and a herniated disc back to back in my lower back.
I didn't want to look back to that year because I could barely walk. I was so close to doing the surgery but many friends told me not to. And I didn't want to take the steroid shot.
I remember there were days I drove to the grocery store parking lot and couldn't walk to the store due to the pain. It's like a knife cutting into my right thigh on each step, and my right feet would be numb and cold. I really thought I would never be able to take photos again.
So that year I spent most of my time at home when I wasn't working. And I decided to teach two online courses. One on photo editing, one on how to evoke emotion and tell a story.
Through discussion with my students, I was able to rethink my photography and actually improved even more. Some of these students had been learning from world masters (no idea why they would still take my classes), and they asked some tough questions!
Now, over 400 students later, with many students winning national and international awards and published in prestigious magazines, I'm the happiest guy on earth, as I got to interact with this group of like-minded photographers in a day-to-day basis.
Close Encounters with our Wild brothers and Sisters
I am forever thankful to have a glimpse of the secret world of these amazing birds and animals who share this planet with us. I would never have such a privilege if I didn't discover wildlife photography.
And Then This Happened
After months of physical therapy, I thought my back got better so I decided to join a good friend to photograph foxes. I heard a loud pop on my spine when I was lifting the luggage onto the cart on my way to the check in counter at the airport and knew it's not gonna be good.
By the second day of the trip, I was taking 10 tylenols and it was useless. The pain was excruciating. I couldn't even drive long hours to the airport so I decided to extend my trip for a few more days so that I could rest in the hotel to get better.
But just after one morning of rest, I couldn't resist and went back out into the field. I remembered the extremely painful walk from my car to the foxes. And the problem was that I never knew where they would show up.
At the end, I decided to try a method I taught in my class. So I picked the background, light and angle I liked, and just lied on the field, waiting for a specific moment, with just one lens. The chance that the foxes would show up right there was rare. But it's better than resting at the hotel.
And then this happened. And it won the wildlife category of the 2018 Nature's Best Photography Windland Smith Rice International.
Tin Man LEE
Hello and welcome to my page! Like many of you, I had a full-time job not related to photography. Then one day, all of a sudden, I discovered wildlife photography. Little did I know that my life would never be the same. During my days off from work, instead of sitting on a couch reading a book or watching TV, I found myself wading through chest-deep frigid glacier water, trekking in knee-deep wet mud in deep forests, or running in crusty snow—in other words, "immersing" myself in photography. Wildlife photography rekindled the deep love of wild animals and nature that I had as a kid. Through photography, I found an outlet to express my feelings and reveal my dreams. It's been an incredible journey, and I am so thankful for the new friends I have made along the way, the new places I have gone, and all of the unbelievable encounters with the animals that I have had the privilege of meeting. I hope you'll join me on this amazing journey through my photos and blog posts. Drop me a line at "Contact Me" or reach me at my Facebook page anytime. And most of all, don't forget to sign up for my free newsletter. Thank you so much for your support.
For more info about my photography, here are a few articles about me that I am incredibly grateful for:
#1: The Art of Nature Photography, foreword by Steve Freligh, Co-founder and CEO of Nature's Best Photography, for the "Natural World, Cultural Elegance", a Photography Exhibition by Tin Man Lee, Sept 2015 - Feb 2016, HKUST, Hong Kong.
#2: Google/Nik Photographer Spotlight +Tin Man Lee – Nature and Wildlife Photographer by Amanda Quintenz-Fiedler. Special thanks to Laurie Rubin May 4th, 2013
#3: 13 'How did you get that?' wildlife photos from Tin Man Lee by Jaymi Heimbuch, Mother Nature Network, Dec 30, 2013
And I am very honored to be selected as one of the:
"22 Wildlife Photographers that Work Wonders" by NatureTTL, along with the legendary Mr. Tom Mangelsen and many other master photographers.
"10 Wildlife Photographers You Should Follow Right Now" by 500px.com, one of the most popular photography sites on the web.
7 THINGS YOU MIGHT NOT KNOW ABOUT ME
By Tin Man Lee, Thousand Oaks, CA, USA 11/6/2014
#1: TIN MAN IS MY REAL NAME.
#2: MY FAVORITE CHILDHOOD BOOKS. The Magnificent World of Wildlife by Reader's Digest was a book I hand-picked as my birthday present when I turned six. The book resurfaced recently when mom was looking through storage boxes in Hong Kong for grandma's old photos. Mom said I used to read this book repeatedly, cover to cover, and bring it with me everywhere during my childhood. I faintly remembered the existence of the book, but didn’t remember any of it’s content, so Mom took a few snapshots of the book and sent me. I was surprised to find that the animals I have been so thrilled to photograph were all mentioned in the book, with pictures similar to mine! This book later led me to fall in love with all books written by Ernest Seton especially "Monarch, the big bear of Tallac".
#3: TO BE HAPPY, ONLY DO IT FOR YOURSELF. I take pictures for my own self-satisfaction—to create images for my own enjoyment and viewing, so that I can remember special experiences with my "wild brothers and sisters." I only go looking for the specific species I dream of photographing, and I only take photos of them the way I want—not to please anyone else but me. Nothing else really matters. It's a way of finding myself.
#4: A LOST WORLD WAS FOUND. What started as an escape from stress ultimately took me on various trips into nature. Little did I know that I would rekindled my childhood dream. I found a whole new world through wildlife photography—a world outside of human beings, where wild animals are busy minding their own business and trying to survive. Many species are either struggling with the disappearing sea ice, enduring the loss of their natural habitats from urban planning, or running from hunters, yet most of them strive, adapt, and survive. And they are so beautiful. I am privileged to have the opportunity to record the otherworldly, fleeting moments when my life and theirs briefly intersect—moments that have taken my breath away numerous times. Through photography, I can record and tell myself that these were not dreams, but instead were very real. It's a wonderful world out there, and we humans have a lot to learn from it.
#5: "THE PHOTOS YOU TOOK SUCK," a girl once said to me. It was the summer of 2000, but I still remember it vividly. One doesn't easily forget a moment like that. But my love of photography wasn't based on a desire for validation. For a time, I seriously considered earning an MFA degree in photography, but in the end I chose engineering, focusing on imaging (largely because MFA programs require a portfolio submission, and I didn’t have one). Plus, I always thought imaging and photography were similar. Anyway, one thing leads to another, and I now have a day job in biotechnology, which I do enjoy a lot.
#6: READING IS MY OBSESSION. I was an only child, and my parents used to bring me to their workplace every day, where I would read non-stop. Even now, I can sit in a coffee shop or a book store for hours, just reading, thinking and dreaming. When I let my imagination roam, that’s as good as life gets—especially if there is a latte involved! I feel that if I can come up with one good idea from all the stuff that I read in a day, it's well worth it. I remember I loved the wildlife stories of Ernest Seton when I was a kid. I was so touched by the stories that I would force my parents to sit down in front of me while I gave them a loud stand-up oration—and I would feel depressed if they didn't cry after hearing the stories. I wondered how it was possible that they were not touched, so I would force them to sit still so that I could rephrase the stories, again and again. Now I feel bad that my parents had to sit through all these long speeches! One of my favorite stories was "Monarch, the Big Bear of Tallac." Little did I know that I would one day come face-to-face with a brown bear, and take a photo of him pouncing in my direction at Katmai National Park. The bear looked exactly like the one I imagined in my childhood!
#7: DRAWING, CALLIGRAPHY, AND POEMS. I love animals, and I have loved drawing them since I was a small child. It all started with our yearly boat ride back to my native village to visit grandma, when my parents gave me a sketch book. The ride took a whole day, and I drew nonstop. I also love to practice Chinese calligraphy. I have always been intrigued by the lines, strokes, styles, and patterns of Chinese characters, and have been practicing since I was seven. My parents recently sent me a few pictures that they found while sorting through some boxes. They reminded me that my calligraphy was much more beautiful when I was a kid! These were the awards I got when I was 12, I believe. It's been a downward spiral ever since!
I also love Chinese poems (and Chinese "Ci"), which we had to study and recite when we were kids. But only recently, when I revisited these poems after having had a taste of life—rejections, failures, loss of loved ones, injuries, breakups, etc.), did I start to realize how deep the feelings were that these poems conveyed. The poets’ creativity, emotion, imagination, attention, understanding, and observation of nature are just so incredibly good. Some of the poets were keenly aware of the light, the life cycle of nature, and the behavior of the animals in their poems—things I would have never realized if I had not been to the wilderness myself. I love Su Dongpo (Su-Shi) the most. Who else has the courage to write two poems right before being sent out for a sudden execution after being framed in a political struggle? (Luckily, the execution was stopped at the last moment—otherwise we wouldn't have many of his masterpieces.)
Due to popular demand, here's a quality translation of these Chinese words that I found on the Internet, by Professor Chunshen Zhu. This is an excerpt from "Reflections on the Ancient Red Cliff": “I must laugh at myself, letting sentiments grow into grey hairs too soon. But isn't life a dream, after all？ Let me pledge this cup to the River, to the Moon.”
How beautiful and poignant! Thanks for sticking with me to the end. I hope you have enjoyed learning a bit about my life.