10 Things You Can Learn From Stephen Curry On Wildlife Photography

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Every once in a while, a player would come to a sport and change the game forever. Talent is one thing. But may be. Just may be. If they have some special mindset and training techniques, then mere mortals like me without any talent can borrow some onto my wildlife photography.

When Mohammad Ali was asked how many sit-ups he could do, he said, “I don’t count my sit-ups. I only start counting when it starts hurting. That is when I start counting, because then it really counts. That’s what makes you a champion.”

Roger Federer would run on the perimeter of the tennis court for miles and miles until he was completely exhausted. Then he started to practice his tennis. He knew that most of the time, the deciding factor of winning a game was near the end of the game when both players were tired. (From The Roger Federer Story. Quest for Perfection)

As the NBA playoffs has just started, no one else inspired me more than Stephen Curry. He is the reigning MVP, who just broke the record of the most 3-pointers made per season again, and he just led his team to the record of most games won in a season in the history. Each Golden State game has been so much fun to watch. He is even the GQ Men of the Year. Take a quick look at some of his mind-blowing shots in this video:

His mesmerizing cross overs, behind the back pass, lightning-fast quick release, unimaginable accuracy and range of his 3-point shoots defies physics and kept me wondering "Can people actually do that?" He consistently shoots five feet or more away from the 3-point line. It would have been considered reckless and suicidal to the game before but he proved them all wrong. He even shot from half court, or even from the end of the other side of the court. No matter how he was guarded, his shots kept getting in.

One time I went to check my facebook for just one minute when his team was 10 points behind. I looked at the scoreboard again, and his team had already gotten a 10-point lead and he almost single-handedly made it happen.

But wait. Just a few years back, he was so injury prone that, in a geeky "fantasy basketball" term, he was non-draft-able. He would miss half of the season to undergo surgery. As most of us know, knee surgery would easily end the career of a basketball player. And he had several.

So what happened? How did he do that?

I'm intrigued. So I did a little googling. And my jaw dropped. He did have some secrets. Not only was his training brutal, but it was also unorthodox. And most of them relates to shocking his body to improve his sensory responses. Almost like the deliberate training described in the "Outliers" but more extreme.

I could definitely borrow some of those ideas on my wildlife photography. And in life. Are you ready?

Here is a video of him training.​

1) Quick release. Curry's release is so quick that it literally has no lag between him catching the ball from his teammate and him shooting it. It means he's un-guardable because his defender has no time to react. Being quick is equally critical in wildlife photography because you are trying to catch the fleeting moment of elusive wild animals. "Quick release" in wildlife photography is to minimize the time you raise your camera to your eyes, move the focus point in your camera and have it snap right onto the moving subject, and being able to lock the focus and click on the shutter at the peak moment. That's the highest state of skill. So far I've only seen a handful of photographers who could handle their 500mm or 600mm super-telephoto lens like that. When an animal suddenly showed up, be it a raptor flying straight at the camera, a tree swallow banking, two hummingbirds fighting and chasing in mid air, right at the minimum focusing distance, meaning that the action would be the fastest, they nail it effortlessly, while I haven't even had the chance to raise my camera. I have written an article on this.

Being able to "quick draw" is critical for this shot. I waited for several weeks for a moment like this. Incoming shot is the most difficult to track focus. An erratic flight path and a complete silence flight didn't help either. (wild, not baited, not called)

2) The explosive step. In the training video above (at 0:39), Curry would wear a belt with resistance to train his explosive power for a lightning-quick step to get to a spot before his defender had a chance to block him. If you have been to Yellowstone National Park or Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, you would know how important the explosive step is. The key here is to get to the prime spot before any other photographers, so that you can photograph the wild animal with the best background. In addition, sometimes the subject is blocked by something and you could only shoot thru a small opening. The explosive step is even more important in such situation. My friend Steve would probably need to practice this. During our recent polar bear trip, once our tracker spotted the polar bear family, twenty photographers dashed out of the car. Steve jumped out of the snow-coach, lost his footing, and fell flat into the 3 feet deep snow. Big price to pay. By the time he got up, all the prime spots were taken, he had to resort to the top of the snow coach shooting down. It was incredibly windy, shaky and cold up there. Explosive step, Steve!

That's what we were fighting the spot for. Wapusk National Park.

3) Weight training. Curry wore a weight for training to help his strength and balance. In wildlife photography, you may be on uneven ground in the snow, rocking boat, moving Jeep, edge of a cliff, steep slope, wading in water with strong current, facing gusty wind. In addition, you are carrying your backpack, camera and tripod on your shoulder, or even camera on your waist. If we don't have a good balance, instead of losing a basketball game, we may lose our life. Growing up in Hong Kong, I had to take subway (we called it the MTR) to school Monday thru Friday. The ride was 40 minutes each way and was always packed. A lot of times I couldn't access the handle bar. With the subway accelerating, decelerating, stopping abruptly, or making tight turns, I somehow managed to keep my balance without the need to hold onto the bar after years of "training" and it was useful when I was in the wilderness. Was that how I trained my balance? I have no idea.

Photographing this mating pair felt both sweet and dangerous as I could fall off the cliff into the ocean any moment. Falkland Islands.

4) Military goggles that flash in your face. Curry wore a special shades that would flash at him to obstruct his vision while he was shooting or passing. Take a look at this video:

Our vision is often obstructed when we photograph. I was at Michias Seal Island in Maine photographing puffins in a small blind. It was early July. The blind heated up quickly once I was inside. Since I had to handhold the telephoto lens to get some in flight shots, which was one of the most challenging things in birds in flight, my eye glasses and the viewfinder fogged up. I wiped it with a cloth and it fogged up again. Couldn't see nothing. At the end, I just clicked the shutter based on my guess. Similar thing happened in the recent polar bear trip. At -55F windchill, my eye glasses was frozen, and the viewfinder was fogged up. I tried to wipe the glasses while wearing my gloves, and the force pushed the lens out of the frame and fell onto the snow. It was a miracle I found the lens. But at the end I gave up wearing my eye glasses, and had to shoot in a blurry state. I wonder if the cold weather would freeze contact lens. If not, I am going to give it a try next time.

But first thing first, where do I order a pair of those goggles?

Looking through the lens inside the blind house, my glasses and the viewfinder were both fogged up. Every second counted as we were only allowed less than an hour there.

5) Become one. Curry would shoot with one hand while dripping with another at the same time. Or dribble two basketball at the same time, with cross overs. Or catching tennis ball while dribbling a basketball like the video above. He said the key is to make it second nature. So that it could free his mind to shoot, to pass, or to evaluate the situation while dribbling the ball. Doing two things at once make people go nuts. In wildlife photography, the shooting condition was rarely ideal. We had to be aware of any distractions in the foreground and background in the viewfinder so our feet had to constantly move to find the perfect spot. But we also need to make sure we were at a safe place-- I was photographing a wolf from afar when someone's car spooked a bison in Yellowstone. The bison was running towards us from our side without me knowing. I barely escaped the impact. 

Not good when a bison ran towards you like that.

6) When life throws you a lemon, make it a lemonade. If Stephen Curry didn't get injured, he wouldn't need surgery. And if he didn't have his second surgery, he wouldn't have met his trainer at the rehab waiting room. 

So when I was going through my second surgery [in 2012], I was in Charlotte and I was rehabbing at a place called Architech Sports & Physical Therapy over in Matthews [North Carolina]. And I was in the waiting room, and this guy came in—his name’s Brandon Payne. And he said, “Hey, while you’re rehabbing your foot and you can’t put any weight on it or do a full court workout, come to my gym and I can put you through some ball-handling stuff to keep you sharp and to allow that transition process back onto the court to be a lot smoother.”​ GQ, Inside Stephen Curry's Secret Ball Handling.

So one never know what life would bring next. If life was smooth, I wouldn't have gone to the wilderness for an escape and discovered wildlife photography. And I would have missed out all the fun. All my great friends I met through this journey. All the wonderful encounters. 

Great friends.

7) Build on your strength, not weakness. When Curry couldn't practice with his legs due to the surgery, he focused on what he could improve through his hands. What's your strength?  Some are good at remote trigger, some in tracking wildlife. Some good at freezing crazy action, some in artistic panning and blur. Some like cheerful high key shot. Some are sad and love the darkness. For me, I couldn't travel all the time and be on location because I have a full time job. But I could utilize the time at home to read and to think. I read nonstop on other people's works, and dream and imagine about what kind of shots I would have done with those opportunities. So when I am out in the field, I have a lot of ideas to try on. In the next blog I will list the several books I keep coming back to get inspirations.

Red fox mon and pup, Los Angeles.

8) Improvise. Stephen Curry is not the tallest or strongest guy in the NBA and he knew it. He didn't even want to get big. He focused on his agility. When asked how he trains now, he said he would observe his game, and determine which area to improve. Then he will perform these deliberate practice during training session. Wildlife exploration trip never turned out to be what we expected. I've been to brown bear trips where I didn't see a single brown bear for 6 days. I've been to polar bear trips where I didn't see a single polar bear for 7 days. Sometimes I took thousands of pics and when I reviewed them at night, every single one had distracting background that I didn't realize while shooting. Then I had to adjust it. If lucky, I would have one more chance the next day.

Took me thousands of shots and many failed attempts the previous few days to finally get this one.

9) Dare to try. Just like how the 4-minute mile record was broken, most never believed one could shoot 3-pointers way behind the three point line and scored in a consistent basis. Curry proved everybody wrong, and it's such a thrill to see him showing his magic each time. Almost everything, his dribbling, his passing, his shots, had never been seen in NBA history. Similarly, lots of rules in wildlife photography hindered our creativity. One should never shoot over ISO 1600. One shouldn't handhold the lens at shutter speed less than whatever. One should never use a 2x teleconverter. One should never shoot in this light angle. With the advance of camera technology, a lot of impossible things are possible now. Only limits are our courage and imagination. Always dare to try new techniques, always strive to go full frame without crop, any shutter speed, different light angles. It's fun.

Barn owl dive-bombing for vole. (wild, not baited, not called)

10) Work ethics. Even with all his success, Curry never got lazy. He would get to the court 90 minutes before any games to practice his dribbling. He challenged himself to shoot until he reached a certain number of 3-pointers made. The video below shows his pre-game workout:

So by now you should know that by just going to a lot of photo trips, it's not going to improve your photography. When I first started wildlife photography, I would hike down along a steep hill alone for an hour or two every day after work, carrying all my equipment to photograph Northern Harriers, white-tailed kite, cooper's hawk and great-horned owls. With the extra weight while hiking up and down, it helped my balance a lot. I would be sweating all over after each training and it felt great. I hesitated when my friend told me that he and his wife got surrounded by 10 coyotes in the trail one evening. But I didn't give up. I continued for a few more months. Then one day another friend told me he was biking down that trail one day and he came face to face with an animal. "At first I thought it's a bobcat, but when my bike got close, I realized he was as big as me, and he didn't have a bobbed tail." I could still see the fear in his eyes when he told me that. Obviously he survived. And that's the end of my training. Well, its an excuse. I was just getting lazy.

What my friend saw on the trail was certainly not a bobcat. This one was taken in Yellowstone.

So what can you do now? Practice your quick release, explosive step, make operating your camera your second nature so that you can focus on what's in your viewfinder and your surroundings. And don't forget to get the goggles!

WHAT? You still haven't watched my most recent video of the Falkland Islands?!

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If you enjoyed this blog, you might find my recent article "Insights into digital SLR telephoto" published in the Outdoor Photographer Magazine useful. 

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