Phew… After sleeping for 12 hours, I survived. Not sure if it was a cold, fever, heat stroke, or if I ate something wrong, I was feeling nauseous, without strength, kept sneezing (if you had back pain before you knew how scary each sneeze was. One wrong pose and it could ruin my back…), wanted to puke and motionless for a whole day.
One Painful Mistake First of all, if you have 5 minutes to spare, please check out one of the most memorable and moving encounters I had in Kenya. A story of a mother and her baby during the big migration in Kenya.
Can money buy time? The answer is yes.
Don't close the page yet…lol
The Best Three Lenses For Wildlife Photography In Kenya
Both of my legs had lost the strength completely as if they were numbed. Sitting in the open-top land cruiser, I was biting the nails of my right hand.
“Is there anything we can do?” I asked Federico. I knew it was a meaningless question, for that we should never interfere when nature took its cause. But it's different this time.
The lioness kept sniffing, and was walking closer and closer to where Luluka, the mother leopard, and her newly-born cub, were hiding, a little hole under the ground, with just a small patch of tall grass covering it. The lioness was just 25 feet away. She stopped, looking forward, so focused.
If she knew Luluka was just such a short distance away, she could easily strike and kill them both. Lions would not allow other animals to compete for food in the same territory. And much worse, it seemed that she was with a male lion, sleeping not too far from here. They were a mating pair. Luluka stood no chance if these two lions saw her.
I couldn't breathe.
A few seconds felt like an eternity.
My palms were all sweaty. I felt helpless.
Just a few minutes ago, I had one of the best animal sightings in my whole life. And now, all the joy was gone. I feared she may not make it.
Our group was originally hoping to find some lions at sunrise that morning. But we stopped by a spot where our leader knew of a female leopard that frequented.
We quickly saw her hiding behind some tall bush. It was still predawn and it was pretty dark. There was no photography opportunity. ISO 8000 and 1/30s kind of crappy photography.
Sensing that a male leopard was also nearby, this female leopard looked a bit tense and skittish.
“She has a very young cub. She's going to hide with the cub and not come out,” our leader said. “Maybe we should move on.”
After watching her for about half an hour, she disappeared into the tall bush for good, and most of the other vehicles left. Some buffalos were nearby in golden light, and rumors were that some lions were not too far away. Golden buffao or lion seemed like a better choice than a hidden leopard…
I almost tempted to leave the spot to take some pics of buffalo, when Luluka reappeared again behind the tall grass.
Then she disappeared again, and it looked like she went into a hole underneath the ground. Didn't see clearly as it was behind tall bush.
“Oh my, she may be moving her cub. Get ready,” our leader whispered.
Lo and behold, in a blur, she came out from the tall bush, and… I had to rub my eyes to be sure… she really had something in her mouth, dangling.
“Holy shit…,” I screamed in my lowest voice to myself, while grabbing my camera even though my arm felt as if its numbed by excitement. That dangling “thing” was her cub. Still so small the eyes were still closed.
Such was my first ever encounter with a leopard in Maasai Mara, Kenya, a place I dreamed to visit since I was a kid.
Quite clearly knowing that it might be the only chance in my life, I kneeled down next to my seat in lightning speed, dialed my settings for the optimal fast action in low light condition, and I tried to lock focus and blast the shutter of my camera. My thumb almost didn't listen to me as my adrenaline was rushing.
Luluka and her cub. Nikon D850, Nikon 180-400 f/4, f/4, 1/1250s, ISO 1000.
I would have never imagined my first trip to Africa would have started like that…
I visited quite a few places in this trip, including Maasai Mara, Samburu, Amboseli and Ol Pejeta. If you haven't been to Kenya, these may all sound completely new to you, but very soon you will know these places very well.
Having started photography 20 years ago, and getting serious in wildlife photography for 10 years, I spent my time mostly in Alaska, Yellowstone National Park, Washington, Florida, and here in California. Due to a lot of reasons, this was only my first time to go to Africa, even though I had been reading books, drawing lions, leopards and cheetahs, and watching African Wildlife documentaries repeatedly all my life.
Now that I just finished my Kenya trip, I looked back and concluded that these 3 lenses are a must-have if you want to get the best images in Kenya, for those who will be going to Africa soon, or plan to do so in your bucket list.
Since I am using a Nikon D850 as the camera body, I will talk only about Nikon lenses. For the reasons why I chose D850, please check out my youtube channel.
“Human eyes see things at f/4. For low light photography, you need f/2.8 to see twice better” –Tin Man Lee
Even though I used the 180-400 f/4 to photograph this leopard, my favorite lens for this trip, SURPRISE, was the 400mm f/2.8.
Lens #1: 400mm f/2.8 FL VR
Just a year ago, I would have never thought about 400 2.8. My go-to lens had always been the 500mm f/4 and 600mm f/4. That's what all the “Pros” used. That's what the gurus taught us to buy.
And it's true, the 500 and 600mm primes produced images with absolutely stunning image quality. One can't think of any way that an image could be sharper than those produced by these lenses.
I thought 400 2.8 was a joke. It's as heavy as the 600mm f/4. And it's so… short. I constantly needed to put a 1.4x teleconverter on my 600mm for most of my photography, giving me an effective focal length of 840mm. How would a 400mm be enough?
And with the Nikon 500mm f/5.6 PF weight like a feather with an extra 100mm reach and $7,000 cheaper, why would anyone ever needed the 400 2.8?
Everything changed from a tiger trip to India when I bought it in the last minute just hoping that it could help blur the messy background of India forest.
Whenever I used the 400mm 2.8, the images all came out MUCH sharper than my 600mm. And the focus speed was AT LEAST twice as fast. I had since used the 400mm almost exclusively in India, Japan, Chile and Alaska.
It didn't dawn on me at first, but turned out the focusing speed and image sharpness was closely related. It's NOT about the glass in this case because both used top-notch glass.
I don't want to go into details, but a f/2.8 lens let in double the light compared to a f/4 lens, so it allows for a much quicker auto-focus.
The biggest difference between photographing in Alaska and Africa is that the sun appears to be rising and dropping much quicker in Africa because it's close to the Equator.
I was in disbelief the first time I saw the sunrise. It was like watching the typical sunrise in fast-forward mode. From breaking thru the horizon to having harsh light literally took less than 30 minutes. And that's it. Being mostly sunny in July to September, that's it. Good light only lasts for 30 minutes at sunrise and 30 minutes at sunset.
In many occasions, the f/4 lenses would stop auto focusing a few mins before sunrise or after sunset, but the 400mm f/2.8 would still auto focus without any issues. That means a few more minutes of photography in relatively low ISO below ISO 1600, and the photos would still be usable.
With wildlife a lot closer to the vehicle than places like Yellowstone National Park, it's no question that the 400mm 2.8 is the best lens for Kenya.
Nikon 400mm f/2.8 FL VR
Here's a photo taken by 400mm 2.8 at 1/800s, f/2.8 and ISO 640:
Next, I will talk more about ISO and the other two must-bring lenses to Kenya.
To be continued… Let me know what you think in the comments.
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Hi, 7 things in this newsletter:1. Updates2. A photography test for you3. Quotes that made me ponder…4. Da Vinci5. Photo contest deadline6. More wolf photos7. Answer to the test 1. UpdatesIt felt like yesterday when I had to immediately fly back from LA to Hong Kong back in September because my mom’s hand surgery got complicated… Now Chinese New Year is coming, I have lots of things to be thankful for. My mom’s hand is gradually healing. I’m back to 30 pounds less than my weight in Oct, and my injured back felt a lot better. Still no heavy lifting but the severe hip pain and numbness on my right foot is gone. I no longer need to rush back to lie on my inversion table in an upside down pose in agony every day after work. Can’t even look back at those days. I’m finally working on something related to deep learning that I truly love. And the two online photography classes are going well with over 300 students. Seeing them having great success (mostly because of their talent. I am just helping them a little bit) is a special feeling I still don’t know how to describe. 2. A photography test for you (answer at the bottom)So I have been testing some different compositions and B&W lately, trying to understand more about visual confusion. Can you tell me from this photo:What animal is this?Is this the left or right eye of the animal?Is he/she looking to the left or right?3. Two Quotes I enjoyedMy thesis advisor recently sent me a link about a 30 year old entrepreneur whose company is valued at $1 billion. Turned out I’m a user of the service of that company, called Canva. Below is an old banner I created with Canva in 30 seconds, for free, and I loved it.I read some interviews of the founder Melanie Perkins. Very inspiring. I like a quote she mentioned in her interview about how she dealt with being rejected over 100 times by potential investors while starting the company in her mom's living room: “The reason we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel.” – Steven Furtick While walking towards the gate to board my flight from HK to LA two weeks ago, I stopped by a convenience store at the airport and bought a ton of Chinese books that caught my eye. It’s just so hard to find Chinese books in LA and I love the nostalgic feeling of reading paper books in Chinese. One of those books was by author Daisy Wong. Yup I confess I love her books. I ended up buying all of her books online from her website few days later after finishing that one. Here’s a quote she mentioned in her book that made me pondered. “Whether it's the best of times or the worst of times, it's the only time we've got.” – Art Buchwald 4. Leonardo Da VinciSome of you may know that my recent online course (DTS: Dynamic Tension Stacking) is based on a method that I “believe” is the vision and approach of how Da Vinci painted his masterpieces. Yes. Call me crazy. But the results can’t be denied. I have seen many of my clients who took this course almost instantly dominated Instagram and Facebook after incorporating this workflow on their photos. Anyways, yesterday my good friend Tom recommended me a book called Leonardo Da Vinci by Walter Issacson, the same author who wrote a favorite of mine, the biography of Steve Jobs. I immediately purchased the Kindle book, physical book and the Audible version (who said I am not obsessed) and have been immensely enjoying the book this morning, while sipping coffee and enjoying a toasted chocolate Croissant at Starbucks (shhhh..). It was a good escape for me, especially after some roller-coaster emotionally in life the last few days. In one chapter, the author mentioned that Da Vinci came upon a whale fossil in a cave. Da Vinci wrote in his famous notebook (just a part of this notebook costs $30 million) “You lashed with swift, branching fins and forked tail, creating in the sea sudden tempests that buffeted and submerged ships.” Then he wrote, “Oh time, swift despoiler of all things, how many kinds, how many nations hast thou undone, and how many changes of states and of circumstances have happened since this wondrous fish perished.” Such great imagination. I think it’s beautiful. And it reminded me of the most famous poem in Chinese by my favorite Su Dong Po. “大江東去，浪淘盡，千古風流人物。亂石穿空，驚濤拍岸，捲起千堆雪。江山如畫，一時多少豪傑。” For those who want to read the English translation of this poem, I just googled a website. Scroll down on that page to see the English. 5. Photo contest deadline reminderFeb 20 for Nature’s Best Photography Windland Smith Rice International: A journey from the wild to the walls of the Smithsonian’s. 6. Some more wolvesIn my last newsletter I showed you links to some beautiful wolf photos by my friends. Here’s a new blog post with high-res photos by photographer Scott Dere. He talked about how it took him 10 years to have this once-a-lifetime opportunity. 7. Answer to the photoDrum roll… That’s a bison, left eye, facing to the left. Did I trick you? By subtle adjustment of the composition it can confuse our brain, don’t you think? I will talk more about creativity in wildlife photography in the next newsletter. Until next time!Tin Man
Download my free eBook “Mastering Metering”: 7 Simple and Powerful Techniques That I use To Nail My Exposure in Wildlife Photography.
Hello my dear friend, Hope you are enjoying a nice weekend! 5 things in this newsletter with lots of info. 1. An Unexpected Message Which Took 6 Years To Happen2. Quotes I Like And Some Must-watch Movies3. Wolves…4. Three Recent Pics5. A Quick Reminder 1. An unexpected message which took 6 years to happen6 years ago I took up wildlife photography seriously. I spent 10 years before that on the passive side, only appreciating wildlife photos by others. Then one day I woke up and realized maybe I could do it too. I forgot how, but I had two past issues of Nature's Best Photography magazines on my coffee table at that time. Prior to that, I didn't know there were wildlife photo contests. I was so fascinated by the photos in these two magazines that I almost torn the pages by accident after looking at them for hours day after day. I remember they featured the 2011 grand prize winner Federico Veronesi, a grand master of African wildlife and an expert in backlit emotional photos, receiving the top award in the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC, my favorite museum. They also featured CS Ling, the grand prize winner of 2012, with a stunning shot of an endangered Southern Pig-tailed Macque sipping water in an upside-down pose showing the reflection in the water. One particular photographer who won awards in both years caught my attention, with a winning photo of a cheetah family in the rain. The mother cheetah shook off the rain when all the droplets of that shake fell onto her 6 cubs right next to her. The photographer was able to use a creative slow shutter speed to capture the drastic splash against a darker background, while catching the moment when each cub had a different facial expression: one with eyes closed to avoid the water, one with tongue out to taste it, two looked away, and two didn't even care. I was blown away by the talent and creativity of that photographer, and highly admired him since then. Fast forward to 2015, we finally met for the first time and we had a wonderful chat in a nice Thai restaurant in Hong Kong while I was preparing for my solo exhibit at HKUST. Later he would give me some fantastic tips on photographing Falkland Islands. Then few days ago, he told me he had purchased (!) my digital workflow and thought it's really good, that he liked and agreed with my new “tension” idea, and that the best thing was he hasn't seen any other videos/books that took that new and easy-to-follow approach. We talked a lot more in details afterwards. Actually I would not hesitate to give the workflow to him for free to thank him for all the support and inspiration over the years, but I also know that people don't tend to watch a 6-hour tutorial video if it's offered free, so I didn't say anything when he bought it, and just waited for his feedback, of course anxiously. And I was so thrilled to hear what he said. His name is Paul McKenzie. (Instagram, Facebook) Check out his award-winning cheetah photo (that I talked about) on the cover page of his website, and his numerous outstanding blogposts with brilliant images and his thought process in depth. Definitely check out his blogs on Africa, midway Atoll and Japan. He's now a multiple-time Nature's Best Photography Windland Smith Rice International and Wildlife Photographer of the Year award winner. 2. Quotes and movies that I like I was listening to a podcast recently which peaked my interest to watch an old movie The Legend of Bagger Vance. The story was written by my favorite author Steven Pressfield. (my fav book The War of Art) Some of the words are so beautiful and can be applied to wildlife photography: (About life:) What I'm talking about is a game… A game that can't be won, only played… Inside each and every one of us is one true authentic swing… Something we were born with… Something that's ours and ours alone… Something that can't be taught to you or learned… Something that got to be remembered… Over time the world can rob us of that swing… It gets buried inside us under all our wouldas and couldas and shouldas… Some folk even forget what their swing was like… Put your eyes on Bobby Jones… Look at his practice swing, almost like he's searching for something… Then he finds it… Watch how he settle himself right into the middle of it, feel that focus… He got a lot of shots he could choose from… Duffs and tops and skulls, there's only ONE shot that's in perfect harmony with the field… One shot that's his, authentic shot, and that shot is gonna choose him… There's a perfect shot out there trying to find each and every one of us… All we got to do is get ourselves out of its way, to let it choose us… Can't see that flag as some dragon you got to slay… You got to look with soft eyes… See the place where the tides and the seasons and the turning of the Earth, all come together… where everything that is, becomes one… You got to seek that place with your soul Junuh… Seek it with your hands don't think about it… Feel it… Your hands is wiser than your head ever gonna be… Now I can't take you there Junuh… Just hopes I can help you find a way… Just you… that ball… that flag… and all you are… Two other movies I have been enjoying are AlphaGo (free in Netflix) and Loving Vincent (which I watched on my flight from HK to LA). If you haven't read this book “The letters of Vincent Van Gogh“, you must. It's one of the most important books you can learn about art and nature.3. Wolves…Getting close up photos of wild wolf is the dream of most wildlife photographers. Usually it takes 10 years of visiting Yellowstone National Park to get one such encounter because wolves are very smart and elusive. You may only be able to see a tiny dot of them miles away. I heard that one time some famous photography crew set up numerous trail cameras in the park, hoping these wolves would trigger the infrared beam at night to get some photos. Turned out the wolves destroyed all the cameras (from behind the cameras) and the crew got zero pic. (info not confirmed) But, about 20 years ago, the famous Druid wolf pack conquered the Lamar Valley of Yellowstone, with 37 members strong, rumored to be the biggest pack in history. They would take down bison once every few days. Photographers could get once-a-lifetime shots without waiting for 10 years. But that was the film day. Well, finally, it happened again. Druid pack is no longer here. But now the Wapiti pack of Hayden Valley has over 20 wolves, and are taking down elk very frequently near the road. If you are planning a trip to take wildlife photos, go to Yellowstone and hire a snowcoach NOW. Winter in Yellowstone is ending in 60 days, meaning you may not get snow or see the winter coats of the wolves. For me, I have a day job, so I may have to wait for another 20 years. Yay! Here are a few lucky souls (friends) who had some close encounters these past two weeks in Yellowstone. Now let's all get envious together… Loi's pic Trent's pic (I always love black wolf) Sam's pic (the white alpha female) Tom's pic Just 4 words I want to say to them. “I hate you guys!”4. Three recent pics I have revisited some of my old photos and applied my new digital workflow (DTS) to them and got some good results. As one of the members of the class told me “Tin Man Lee has given new life to my old images.” Thank you!
I took this bear photo in 2011! It's not easy at all to get good light in the Alaska summer. Why? Because it has almost 24 hours of day light and we were not allowed to go out from the lodge after 10:30pm and before5:30am or something like that, while sunset is at what, 2am…! And most of the time it's cloudy and rainy there. Ever since my good friend Carl told me about Andy Rouse's “Red5” concept I have been loving this kind of light. How about you? 500mm, f/4, 1/500s, ISO 1600, tripod on mudflat.
Took this in 2013. A family of endangered San Joaquin Kit Fox. Besides Red5, I also love backlighting. 600mm, 1.4x TC, f/5.6, 1/1600s, ISO 1600, handheld.
The “Birdie and the Beast” was taken in 2011 but recently got shared a lot by different groups in Instagram. It was a nice sunny day when the bison and calves were hanging out but I was attracted by a cowbird which was picking up insects close to a bison. Way too close. The bison was grazing into her direction and not stopping. How come the bird didn't fly away? I wondered. I quickly focused on the bird and within a second, the tongue of the bison almost touched the cowbird. The bird fluffed the feather, gave out a chirp and flew away in the last moment, barely escaping the tongue bath. 500mm, 1.4x TC, f/6.3, 1/1600s, ISO 800, handheld. The shot later won a highly honored award in the Animal Antics Category in Nature's Best Photography Windland Smith Rice International. To see these photos in high resolution, please go to the Portfolio album on my homepage.5. ReminderFinally, just a friendly reminder that the special offer of my digital workflow online class is ending in just a few hours. Hundreds have taken the class and loved it, and I want to control the total number of students a little bit because I am managing a private facebook group to answer/critique on member's photos, and the number has been growing really fast and it's getting harder to manage. I have created a mini tutorial on the basic concept behind this brand new method on my webpage. Check it out if you are interested. It's going to save you years of learning if you are ever planning to submit your photos to contests, publication and printing, and not wanting to make deadly mistakes. Here are a few new testimonials from some award-winning photographers taking this class which I am super honored and humbled to hear: “It is certainly worth more than what you have it priced now! It is totally a unique approach. I just love it!” “Your revelations are fantastic! You are going to change the face of wildlife photography.” “You’re offering to teach folks things they won’t learn anywhere else.” “You have made me re-think my post processing so much. I owe you one. Thanks.” Talk to you next time! Please kindly forward to any of your photography friends who may benefit from the info about the wolves, or learning from the digital workflow class. Much appreciated! Tin ManHomepage: https://tinmanlee.comIf you have problem purchasing, please go to: https://gum.co/BuBK
Facebook and Instagram are full of nice wildlife photos.
It's harsh, but no one will care if you take similar pics as everybody else.
Instead of whining about it, I see this as a great opportunity to improve your photography.
And the only way to improve, is to be more creative, and take photos that are different, which can evoke emotion in you and the others.
It's very easy to be different, but very difficult to be better.
To be different is easy, you can take some blurry shots or turn the image into blue.
But to be better while being different is difficult.
If you are familiar with the history of visual art, you should know about the evolution of abstraction. From the book “Art fundamentals: Theory and Practice” (expensive book ;), it said the evolution always goes like this:
- Naturalism: Fully representational with specific details (very objective)
- Realism: Representational but emphasizes the emotional essence (more subjective)
- Semi-abstraction: Partly representational but simplified and rearranged
- Full abstraction: Based on a physical object but simplified and rearranged so that it appears nonobjective; to completely nonrepresentational that started without any reference to a physical object.
The more subjective, the more self-expression we have on that photo we create.
For beginners, we always stuck at the naturalism stage, trying to get a sharp shot of an animal. “Nailed it” is the mantra. As long as the background is not too distracting, we consider it a job well done.
But then, the photo would just be documentary.
To express our feeling in a photo, it needs to be less objective and have a higher degree of abstraction. In another word, abstraction is closely related to creativity.
So how do we begin?
I actually have a solution for you—ONE QUESTION to ask yourself that can really help your photography instantly. It definitely helped me.
All you have to do, is to call this phone number within the next five minutes…
Shoot, did I just sound like an infomercial dude?
But really, before I tell you what this question is, I want to share with you two things which I have been pondering about.
1: Don't Do Evil
Instead of investing time to wait for a moment, and be more creative in planning a shot, some turn to the dark side and bait the animal.
Few days ago, Wildlife Photographer of the Year posted a picture of a bear appearing from the forest at the edge of a river with a nice reflection.
The mood of the picture was perfect, with beautiful composition. Yet when you read the description, it said that the photographers have put dog food on the opposite side of the river to attract the bear.
If you think this is not right, you are not alone.
Hundreds of people have shared their views in this thread right here. Definitely take a look and leave your comment there.
Interestingly, I was listening to a podcast by photographer Gerry van der Walt, recommended to me by my friend Trent Sizemore. On episode 60:
Go to the 4-minute mark and listen to it when he talked about how he felt when photographers use robot car and drones to get close to animals to get wide angle shots.
I like what he said: Changing the animal behavior to get a shot is just wrong.
I have written a blog post some time ago that got quite a lot of response. In it, I quoted:
“In my view, the “wow” factor of photography – its power to delight and even astonish – is directly tied to its being perceived an honest record of a real event. Without that, a picture is just an illustration, and truth is irrelevant.”
–Kevin Schafer in Penguin Planet
So, to me, no matter how different you aspire to be, you MUST NEVER try to change the behavior of the animal for the sake of a photo.
2: The One Question That Rules It All
So how do we take a picture that’s different and can evoke emotion?
One time I was on a trip with good friend Henrik. We were photographing the same animal from two different spots, about 30 feet apart.
“Hey, Tin Man, come here. Let me show you something,” he whispered as he waved at me. His eyes filled with excitement.
“Dude, the light is behind me. You are in the wrong angle. The animal is side-lit at your spot, and it ain't gonna look good as the light is not saturated enough to do side-lit shot yet,” I thought. (Sorry, Henrik :D)
But seeing his big grin, and looking at the sequence of photos I was taking at the moment, which was nothing special, I thought, why not?
I slowly and quietly low-crawled to his spot in the mud.
Ouch, my back.
Finally I laid down on my belly right next to him, taking a breather, and looked through my viewfinder through my partially fogged up eye glasses.
I immediately wiped my glasses to take a closer look.
The color and feel of what I was looking at thru the viewfinder were mind-blowing, and much better than what I got from my original spot.
I totally didn’t see this color and composition before.
What about the light angle? You asked.
Well, what I didn't expect, was that there were some scattered clouds near the direction of the sun. With the strong wind, we got some short windows from time to time when these thin clouds were blocking the sun, creating a diffused softbox effect, and the shots would be perfect in those moments with an out-of-the-world background, even though the light angle was “off”.
Henrik was gambling on that, instead of going to the usual path like some boring dudes (me). And he won big.
I frantically took hundreds of photos, and I thanked him. Almost gave him a hug actually.
After the trip, I reviewed the photos and thought about this particular encounter with Henrik.
True. I really liked the photos I took alongside him. But he’s the first one to see that angle and composition, and I should give him credit for that.
To me, he used his creativity to find this spot. I was a follower who tagged along.
You all remember the iconic wildlife shots like the salmon flying straight to the mouth of a bear in a waterfall.
Many of us strive to repeat those shots.
It’s no doubt a good opportunity to practice by repeating these great shots first. But in the end, there is zero creativity there. There's nothing personal about your inner feeling there. We are merely repeating something these pioneers and grand-masters have done.
Instead, we should try to build on this, and create something more unique and personal.
These days, whenever I looked through my old photos, I would ask myself one simple question:
If 5 people went to this same location and were given this opportunity, will my photo look the same as theirs?
Would they be using the same light angle, composition, crop, color rendition, depth of field, perspective, moment, etc? Was I seeing something they didn't see?
Let me elaborate with the following three photos.
As much as I like these three photos, especially the second one with the bear family all standing with their hind legs, to capture those shots successfully or not, it's all a matter of technical skills. Any photographer who has good action photography skill, basic understanding of light, exposure and composition, given the same sighting, would have nailed the shot.
Capturing the decisive moment? Yes. Creativity? Not so much. (Except the very first photographers who had the courage and idea to take these before everybody else.)
The key of my question is therefore to distinguish how much of a personal touch and creativity you have instilled into your shot, compared to a grab shot like everybody else.
In a more superficial sense, when you create shots with more abstraction, personal touch and creativity, the shots may still not be the most original, but viewers will instantly recognize it's your work when they see the same photo the second time. While on the other hand, when they see the above three photos, they may not be able to tell which photographer took those, because they are dime a dozen.
Well, I don't know about you, but most of my photos didn't pass this test.
In the last two years, however, I was more aware of this, and have been trying to push myself. Here are a few that passed that test.
Instead of trying to get the whole burrowing owl in focus, I wanted to get rid of all the distraction except the head, so that the viewers' eyes would be drawn to the owlet's eyes– the most interesting part of the image, especially during extreme low light when their pupils dilate. So the whole time I was looking for a clean foreground and background, while waiting for the moment when his head tilted, creating a sense of curiosity. Canon 1DX Mark II, Canon 600mm f/4, 1.4x teleconverter, 1/500s, f/5.6, ISO 3200
Being able to recognize the lines and patterns in nature is important. I saw my opportunity when this brown bear spring cub was hiding under the belly of the mother bear, as if he's within a hut. I knew (well not really) the fur would create the white/black contrast if turned into B&W, and the pattern among the mother bear, the cub, and the grass will create an interesting design. I took the picture. But it took me 4 years of revisiting this picture to see the potential of black and white. Canon 1DX, Canon 500mm f/4, 1.4x Teleconverter, f/8, 1/800s, ISO 1600
It only took me 4 years to see a great horned owlet on the ground after my original encounter. This time, the wild flower in California was blooming. To convey the mystery feeling, I waited behind a spot where the wild flowers were blocking my view. All I need was the moment when the wind blew, and created a small window of opening, at the right time when the light was the most saturated to turn the yellow flowers to golden, to compliment the cold blue background and the color of the eyes. The whole time I was thinking about a poem “那人卻在, 燈火闌珊處”
We have seen countless birds in flight photo in direct light. But there's something special about owl in flight in backlight because of their wings, which made them capable of silent flight. I love the abstraction created by backlight because it washed away all the color and turned everything into saturated gold, where my eyes can focus on the texture and translucence. The flight path of owlet was short when they first learned flying, and I was very lucky to get this shot. At first I didn't like the bright spot on the left, but the more I looked at it the more I liked it, it is as if the owl was flying through a light tunnel into this world from another planet.
I have been mesmerized by the eyes of the black-browed albatross for a long time. So I was very excited when I finally got to see them in Falkland Islands– the Saunders Neck. I took thousands of photos but only this one conveyed my feeling towards them, and my respect to them– a bird that lives 70 years and mate for life, and have supreme gliding capability.
Side lighting can create drama and fear. A predator's face in darkness can make it even more powerful. So I looked for the correct light ratio and luminosity of the background vs the owl and knew I got a special shot when this head turn happened.
Not many people know, but I absolutely love bighorn sheep, because of a book written by Ernest Seton about them. I have read the story many times when I was a kid. And I always wanted to convey how majestic they are. I knew the potential was in the curl, yet I was never able to find a background color that complimented the shape and the color of their whimsical and deep looking eyes. That particular day, we were photographing three of them from a distance near our car, and I saw a nice background in the distant snow mountain that looked blu-ish. Yet no matter how I changed the position, I could never get the blue to align behind the horn. Suddenly, after half an hour of being completely stable, this guy suddenly ran towards me and past by me in close distance, his eye full of fear, and in the heat of action, I snapped a pic with this blue in the background. Then all 3 sheep were gone. Ten minutes later, a pack of wolves passed by. The sheep must have sensed the wolves coming.
Gentoo penguins go out to the ocean every morning to catch fish. They would come back in the evening to feed the chicks. To convey the last feeding of the day, I found a spot with very dark background, and waited for the last ray of light. Getting an angle where the 3 penguins aligned was very difficult especially when I was near a penguin colony with lots of them running around. I finally caught this moment, and its especially meaningful because my mom was right next to me when I took this shot.
It's not usual to have a pink/purple background when the owlet was active. A sandstorm was coming, and I knew if I got a super low angle, I could blur the lower part of the image to convey a stronger feeling of the sand blowing, and at the same time the purple sky would be in the frame. So I actually pressed the lens all the way down the sand to get this angle.
I hope by now you know what I meant by asking yourself this question.
Don't just fire away to get some documentary shots when an animal shows up. Think. And feel.
Of course, the “four” other photographers will still get some photos of the animal if they are going with me, but chances are our photos will be quite different, because I would try to walk to a spot that's not typical, or move around so the perspective is more unique.
So let's do it. Why don't you take a look at your ten recent photos, and ask yourself this question,
“If 5 people went to this same location and were given this opportunity, will my photo look the same as theirs?”
Did you pass the test?
My advice: Delete all those photos. Because there are way too many similar pics out there, and no one will care.
Don't get me wrong. It is still very nice to capture a great moment in sweet light with creamy background.
But let's be brutally honest. There ain't much creativity in it.
We can all “nail” a picture in the same situation, but this extra ingredient in the thought process should help you create something more unique.
You'll be amazed, as you just have a new pair of eyes.
In my upcoming free webinar in August 2017, I will go in more details about creativity and other techniques. Make sure you sign up my newsletter below to receive the webinar info. Seats will be very limited this time as I am switching to a new webinar software that's more stable, but they charge me more for the number of seats. You can sign up for my newsletter below by entering your name and email below and click “Subscribe!”.