How wildlife photography taught me about life

What's it like then, the road of life?

Just like geese taking off from the muddy snow.

(excerpt from a poem by Su Dongpo)

Who would have thought I had the opportunity to experience what the grandmaster Su Dongpo wrote 900 years ago, here in one of the biggest snow geese takeoffs in the world.

It was an unprecedented cold day in 2011. The freeway from Albuquerque to Bosque Del Apache was closed for a week due to heavy snow storm just a day before we arrived. The whole place turned white and it was rare and magical.

7F at predawn felt more like -20F. Every breath I took in felt so cold it burnt my inside like a knife.

I waited for an hour in front of the frozen pond. First, it's an occasional call here and there, and then, just like the Swan Lake Suite by Tchaikovsky, it got louder and louder as the ambient light of early morning started to brighten the dark sky. As the sound got to an unbearable thunder, hundreds of thousands of snow geese blasted off from the snow into the sky at the same moment.

Snow geese taking off, Bosque Del Apache, 500mm, 1.4x, f/16, 1/500s, ISO 1600

Snow geese taking off, Bosque Del Apache, 500mm, 1.4x, f/16, 1/500s, ISO 1600

10 seconds after the blast off, the frozen pond was completely empty. No one could predict where they flew to and where they would land next.

Just like our life. Just like what Su Dongpo wrote.

Su Dongpo and his brother Su Zhe grew up and studied together with very close bonding. They both became world class scholars early in life, and they both passed the public exam with flying colors and became high government officials. They were assigned jobs in different cities and rarely saw each other and could communicate only through mails.

Ever since the start of their career, they both encountered numerous setbacks and crisis due to power struggle in politics, yet they always tried to help and motivate each other throughout the years.

One time Su Dongpo was sentenced to death penalty with immediate execution. Zhe immediately resigned his job, gave up his career, and begged for help from everywhere trying to save his brother, which he did.

The two brothers, feeling tired of the politics and the ups and downs of life, made a promise that both would retire early and move back to the native village, so that their two families could stay close and they could share their passion in literature and poetry for the rest of their lives.

Yet they always wanted to just try one more time to use their ability to contribute to the country. With more political crisis, sickness and other unavoidable reasons, they were never able to fulfill this promise until Su Dongpo died 10 years later. They never got to say goodbye.

One year, while being demoted to a new location, Su Dongpo saw a hostel in a village that he and his brother had once stayed in when they were young. He looked back at his life, saddened by how unpredictable life could be, and wrote a poem to his brother:

   宋  蘇軾《和子由澠池懷舊》:

What's it like then, the road of life?

Just like geese taking off from the muddy snow.

One may see marks in the mud, but there's no way to tell which direction the geese flew to.

The hostel we once stayed at, the old owner has already died and the place has been rebuilt. The poems we wrote there were long gone.

Still remember the difficult roads in our lives? The road was long, we were stuck, even the donkeys we were riding were braying in desperation.

Life is indeed unpredictable. It's been a year since grandma passed away. There hasn't been a day I didn't miss her dearly. Grandma brought me up single-handedly with love, care and faith until I was 5, when my parents were very busy at work and had to be relocated constantly. Just like the Su brothers, I had made a promise with her. But due to some reasons out of my control, I wasn't able to see her fora long time, and her passing was so sudden I didn't get a chance to say goodbye. It is the biggest regret of my life.

One should never wait until the end to say goodbye. because when it really comes to an end, one may not have the chance to say it properly.

(I learned this from a recent popular korean drama)

Two weeks ago, I brought my parents who were visiting from Hong Kong to Bosque Del Apache. They were still recovering from the loss.

This time we waited at the opposite side from the popular Flight Deck. I wished to take a picture when the early morning light would lit on the snow geese instead of just a silhouette. I wanted to use a wide angle lens to give it more depth. II couldn't control the wind direction so it's all by luck. Too early it would be too dark. Too late the sky would be too bright. We picked a spot where no one was around.

And we witnessed one of the most beautiful moments in our lives.

Snow geese taking off, 2014

Snow geese taking off, 2014, 24mm. f/4, 1/320s, ISO 800

Sandhill crane, Bosque Del Apache, f/4, 1/800s, ISO 800

Sandhill crane, Bosque Del Apache, f/4, 1/800s, ISO 800

Randomness in takeoff. 1.3 second exposure.

Randomness in takeoff. 1.3 second exposure.

Sometimes I listen to Louis CK to get a good laugh. Here's a quote from him:

Most people are dead. Did you know that? It’s true, out of all the people that ever were, almost all of them are dead. There are way more dead people, and you’re all going to die. And then you’re going to be dead for way longer than you’re alive, like, that’s mostly what you’re ever going to be… You’re just dead people that didn’t die yet.”

which is sad but true. In 100 years, you and me are all gonna be dead.

Then what can we do now?

One idea is to start creating something. Maybe creating some art. Write something. Write a blog. Write about the experience. Go out. Create some pictures. Travel. Experience.

Here's a translation of a quote from my favorite article(in Chinese) by a economist I admired, Professor Cheung Ng Sheung:

When you have build up your foundation, put in enough hard work and got through the dip, absorbed and digested the wisdom of the masters, then you have arrived at the last step. This is the fun part. This is the time when you can dream your dream, have your own ideas, fly through the clouds, do whatever you want, and not do whatever you don't want, nobody can tell you what to do. You are standing on a firm rock above the roaring ocean, from the darkness you could see a bright spark, it's a feeling that's very difficult to describe. When you get to this step, don't be affected by others. In this world, it doesn't really matter whether you exist or not, it wouldn't be really great if you are here, and it wouldn't be a big loss when you are no longer here, so why not give yourself an opportunity to have independent thinking and try to find your own happiness through creating your own art and have some fun?

I am still far from that stage. But I can understand a little bit now.

When I have put in the effort to learn from the master, have thought through the fundamentals, it's the time when I can start to have my own thought and experiment on my own. Nobody tell me what and how I should photograph next.

Here I was drenched in rain, shivering in the cold when temperature suddenly dropped from the 80s to 30s within an hour, I knew I had a small window of maybe 3 seconds when the mama bear stood up on her hind legs to check on an intruding adult male bear in the low tide with the background rock that I liked.  I needed 1/500s to freeze the action. I knew that the cubs would be both nervous and curious and I was waiting for that. The mama bear finally stood up. The cub on her right stood up as well, holding onto mama's leg, looking nervous. The cub on her left looked up and waited for mama's order with calmness. I clicked the shutter, and the moment was frozen forever for this beautiful family in the remote Katmai Alaska.

 Click Here to See the Full Screen Photo

Bear family, Katmai, Alaska, f/8, 1/500s, ISO 800, 600mm, 1.4x

Bear family, Katmai, Alaska, f/8, 1/500s, ISO 800, 600mm, 1.4x





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 yet again Tin Man for your in-depth comments. I look forward to reading your blog each day. I too, read as much as I can about animals and their lives and also life in general. I cannot go to the places you go or see such wonderful animals but I can use what I have learnt to try and capture the essence of the smaller animals and birds that are near my home. You come over as a very sensitive young man and I hope God will bless you as you continue utilising what is a wonderful talent

  • Thinh Bui says:

    Thank you so much for sharing, Tin man….Great blog…

  • Rob Blayden says:

    Another enjoyable read along with wonderful pictures

  • Gale McCullough says:

    ((Tin Man))) I know about the loss of grandmothers…. and the passing of time… hard, sad and full of beauty. thanks for bringing it all together in one place.

  • this website says:

    I truly appreciate this article. Will read on…

  • Joe Crilly says:

    thank you for writing this blog, as an enthusiast of photography it does teach us patience, and not to expect anything. Like life you never know when the perfect moment will come and then go. what will you do, will you be prepared, and if you can’t capture it on “film”, at least smile and absorb it into your memory.

  • I value the blog post.Thanks Again. Awesome.

  • Pat Walter says:

    Thank you for sharing…I really have taken these pictures into my memory and your words into my heart. Keep doing what you are doing, this is your healing journey and it is working for others too.

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