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.