December 20, 2014

How to develop your style in wildlife photography

In this post I will point out two photography “styles” that I don't like. Maybe I just don't understand it. Anyways, different strokes for different folks. It's just my observation.

Style is such a sexy term. If your art has its own style, people could immediately tell it from afar.

Oh, that's a Van Gogh.

Wow, that's a Monet.

It makes one unique. It makes one stand out from all the rest. How cool is that.

I remember when I was still a kid practicing Chinese Calligraphy, my dad would say “Keep imitating/modeling/shadowing the masters and keep practicing every day, eventually you will have your style.”

But isn't it contradicting? If I keep practicing for many years to imitate someone, wouldn't I just become really good at … imitating someone? How can I ever have my own style?

Recently I jotted down some notes from “Story” by Robert Mckee, and a Chinese article  by my favorite Professor Steven Cheung Ng Sheung that somehow helped me make sense out of two “styles” of wildlife photography that I couldn't understand before.


Sometimes, breaking the rules is good if it works. But you may have seen photos on the internet these days like these:

They went against the rule of third, clipped the limbs of an animal or the wings of a bird (more like an accident but the photographer claimed that it's intentional so that the animal would “extend” beyond the frame for viewer's imagination), they had some completely random compositions, like putting the subject all the way on the upper left or lower right, using some very strange shutter speed to blur the subject (but not in a pleasing way), bird flying away, animal with the head outside the frame, turning the color temperature way down to bluish. It's “moody”. Not a lot of people can understand or feel any connection.

I am slow. I just don't quite get it.

What Robert McKee said about films, I can relate to photography:

“Never mistake eccentricity for originality. Difference for the sake of difference is as empty as slavishly following commercial imperatives.”

“Just as children break things for fun or throw tantrums to force attention on themselves, too many film-makers use infantile gimmicks on screen to shout, ‘Look what I can do!' A mature artist never calls attention to himself, and a wise artist never does anything merely because it breaks convention.”

Professor Cheung in his article said that there are some artists who claim to be geniuses but actually have no clue. They think that “being different” and “being weird” means creativity and having style. Their works are a disaster. But at the same time, there are also some blind supporters and collectors who have no clue about art, who think that these are wonderful art work so they pay huge amount of money to collect them. Then it creates a phenomena. It encourages more and more artists to just try to be gimmicky and try to be different for the sake of being different. If it can bring them glory and money, why not? Unfortunately, these art work may likely not retain any value in a few years if it's just “different”.


Photography should create meaning.

Wildlife photography should capture natural behavior of animals in an artistic way to show the animals in their natural glory.

By artificaially introducing a change in animal behavior to create certain effect to wow the audience is just like how Mckee said about story writer intentionally creates the “act of god”, for it is “random and meaningless.” What he said about writing can be applied to photography: “Never use coincidence to turn an ending. This is deus ex machine, the writer's greatest sin.”

Deus ex machine is for people who are out of ideas and patience. They resort to intentionally changing animal behavior to fulfill their goal of having a different kind of shot.

McKee gave the example of Jurassic Park, where the T-Rex hops in just in time to devour the velociraptors. I loved Jurrassic Park since I was a kid but never quite get over this “act of god” ending. I felt that it was so unnatural and random to finish the story that way. I am glad McKee felt the same way. He also pointed out some cheap horror movies trying to scare the audience by suddenly having some murderers or ghost jumping out from the corner of a wall or behind a door, instead of building a story that has meaning.

He said Deus ex machine not only erases all meaning and emotion, it's an insult to the audience.

Each of us knows we must choose and act, for better or worse, to determine the meaning of our lives. Our lives are ultimately in our own hands. Deux ex machine is an insult because it is a lie.

For example:

(1) putting a pole with a camera attached to the end of it from a vehicle and stick it out to a polar bear or a lion that's inches from the animal to agitate them so that they roar, or cause stress to them so they come close and check out the camera so the photographers can get a super wide angle shot with all the cool distortion, such as making the nose of the animal really big due to the focal length, so as to get the “Aww” and “wow” of the viewers. (Just imagine if you would like a stranger to stick a camera in your face)

(2) putting the camera in a unmanned miniature vehicle to drive to the wild animal family to grab the attention and hope that they play with the vehicle to get those cute shots showing the paws of the animals flipping the car.

At first glance, these shots definitely have STYLE, DIFFERENT and visually stunning that can wow any viewers. The photographer would probably has an adrenaline rush because it feels so exciting in the first few trials. But in truth the photographer is intruding and altering the animal's natural behavior to gain something for their own ego and it is an insult to the viewers because the viewers without proper knowledge would assume these are once-a-lifetime natural behavior.

(I am okay with remote trigger camera where the camera is stable and hid properly, so that the impact to the animal is minimal.)

Cheung said “Being different for the sake of different is short term. It may provide a wow factor but it cannot last.”

To have your own style, Cheung said there are two ingredients.

#1. The artist himself/herself need to have a “likable” character. What he meant was that people need to look inside themselves and improve their characters physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. Mckee explained perfectly what a true character is: “True character is revealed in the choices a human being makes UNDER PRESSURE – the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character's essential nature.” I think your character also reveals in your choice of how you capture a photo.

#2. Their work needs to show that they have a mastery of their craft. There is no shortcut. One really needs to put in the time to master the fundamentals of a craft by modeling masters and get through the DIP.

When one tries too hard to be different, it wouldn't connect with the viewers. Or at least not with me. Instead, certain aspects of their character are revealed.

I am old school. I still enjoy first learning the craft from the masters and then have fun by just being in the wilderness and try to minimize my impact that could alter their behavior instead of always trying to be different.

Shhhh... Polar bear sow and cub, Alaska Arctic. 600mm, 2x teleconverter, ISO 1600, f/13, 1/500s

Polar bear sow and cub, Alaska Arctic. 600mm, 2x teleconverter, ISO 1600, f/13, 1/500s


Tin Man Lee

Tin Man Lee has a deep love for wildlife and photography. Most recently, he won the Grand Prize of Nature's Best Photography Windland Smith Rice International with the winning photo currently displaying at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Washington DC, while having a full time job in medical imaging. He is the judge for Nature's Best Photography Asia and Viewbug. Through this blog he hopes to share what worked for him and what didn't while learning the craft of wildlife photography.

  • Mary Wiffen says:

    Thank you for your blogs, I am learning so much from you and about what makes a photograph better. I love this polar bear mother with her cub – I am still acquiring equipment but doubt if I will ever get a 600m lens so will have to content myself with the pictures I can manage to get. Wishing you and your family every happiness at this Christmas time and hoping the New Year will see you achieving more lovely photographs

  • Ruth Haynes Fullam says:

    Wishing you a wonderful Christmas and thank you so much for this blog. I am in awe.

  • Jennifer Clark says:

    Thank-you for this blog. Many insightful comments that do not just pertain to photography. I love your pictures too. Merry Christmas

  • Ratna Narayan says:

    Cheung said “Being different for the sake of different is short term. It may provide a wow factor but it cannot last.” This is so true and just not just for pro toggys! It holds good for other professions too especially mine 🙂 Tinny I love the blogs, the pics, the stories, the words of wisdom! I like how well they connect the reader and your experiences. Dont stop writing

  • Daniel Dietrich Photography says:

    Well stated Tinman. Thoughtful and ethical. My hope is that with continued education, anyone buying images from an artist/photographer will ensure the subject was not manipulated or agitated in any way to create the shot.

  • >