Surprising power of Less in Wildlife Photography

Ever watched a movie when in the first few minutes you had no idea what was going on? It felt like the movie started from the middle of nowhere. Then as the story unfolded, as the protagonist overcame one danger after another, you gathered more and more information. In the last 20 minutes of the movie, you suddenly had a strike of brilliance, an epiphany, you felt something. You said to yourself “Oh gosh, is this what's gonna happen at last? That must be it.”  Then the movie climaxed, “almost” as what you expected but much more impactful, sometimes even with a twist. You left the theater satisfied, touched, inspired. “Wow, I kind of knew it. I was good.” You thought. But were you really?

It's all in the plot. The movie intentionally hinted you, and along the way intentionally skipped certain parts, to let you use your imagination combined with your life experience to lead you to the final “guess”, so that you became part of the movie, you became involved. When involved, emotions kicked in. You became the protagonist without even knowing.

Once again, Robert Mckee in “Story” analyzed it in details.

Having pledged a certain emotion, it'd be ruinous not to deliver. So we give the audience the experience we've promised, but not in the way it expects. This is what separates artist from amateur. In Aristotle's words, an ending must be both “inevitable and unexpected.”  Given the characters and their world as we've come to understand it, the Climax was inevitable and satisfying. But at the same time it must be unexpected, happening in a way the audience could not have anticipated.

Ah, “Unexpected”, just like what it said in “Made to Stick“, another favorite book of mine. I have recited their SUCCESs method of telling a sticky story, and you should too. These are critical ingredients of a great photograph:

1. Simplicity

2. Unexpectedness

3. Concreteness

4. Credibility

5. Emotions

6. Stories

As my mentor always said, everything happens for a reason. Just that you don't see it doesn't mean it doesn't have a reason behind it.

Photography is not moving pictures. It only has one frame. Instead of trying to fill the frame with everything, one should think in another dimension. One way would be to ignite viewer's imagination and the empathy from their years of life experience by showing less, because imagination can overcome any limit within a frame.

I love Vincent Munier's works.

I have read the book “Masters of Nature Photography” cover to cover over 30 times, jotting down notes that echoed with me (No I am not obsessive).

In it, Vincent Munier said,

There is nothing more magical than suggestion. When you reveal everything, you kill imagination. I live in a world of imagination. And that's where I want to stay.

Over the years, I found myself indulging more and more into this direction, into showing less, into the darkness, into my dreams, showing the elusive, secretive, dreamy, otherworldly side of wild animals.

Darkness reminds me of  those long nights in a boat years ago when I was a kid, traveling back to my native village once a year to see grandma. Looking out from the window of the boat, it's so dark and quiet. The sound of the water was music to the ears. I could see the sparse and weak lights from distant houses in the hills that I would keep counting. I would imagine the lives people led living in the little remote towns. I would wave at the occasional lights from the boats passing by. The lighthouses always gave me hopes, with the thought that I would see grandma again soon. The lighthouses were like the eyes of the wild animals in the darkness, as if they were guiding me.

I love lighthouses.

I miss those nights.

Barn owl from darkness (wild, not baited, not called), San Simeon, CA, 600mm, 1.4x, ISO 1600, f5.6, 1/1600s

Barn owl from darkness (wild, not baited, not called), San Simeon, CA, 600mm, 1.4x, ISO 1600, f5.6, 1/1600s


Black bear and shadow.

Black bear and shadow.

Gray fox in last light, Angeles National Forest, 600mm, f/4, 1/320s, ISO 800

Gray fox in last light, Angeles National Forest, 600mm, f/4, 1/320s, ISO 800


Gray fox from darkness

Gray fox from darkness

Polar bear, Alaska Arctic

Polar bear, Alaska Arctic


Moose look, Alaska Arctic.

Moose look, Alaska Arctic.


Brown Bear cub

Brown Bear cub


I hanged this picture in my bathroom.

I hung this picture in my bathroom.



Red Fox, Alaska Arctic

Red Fox, Alaska Arctic

Brown bear sunrise

Brown bear sunrise


Polar bear mom protecting the cubs and only came out after night falls.

Polar bear mom protecting the cubs and only coming out after night falls.


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.

  • Rick Derevan says:

    Oh, man, so good–the writing and the photos.

  • Ratna Narayan says:

    wowwwwwwwwww. I missed 3 & 4

  • Rick Derevan says:

    I thought I was signed up, but i’m not getting the e-mails.

  • Kathi Derevan says:

    I just told Rick that within 10 years, your reputation will surpass any of the now-famous wildlife photographers. I don’t know how you do what you do!

    • Tin Man Lee says:

      Kathi, coming from you who write so incredibly well and are so involved in book conferences and with experience with so many great authors, I must say this means a LOT! Thank you so much for your kind words!

  • Kathi Derevan says:

    And really, I think your work is best even now, but it may take a few years for everyone to find you.

  • diane says:

    Please send these to my e-mail, for some reason I haven’t gotten any blogs, updates or anything else. I’ve signed up several times lately and also in the past. Thank you

    • Tin Man Lee says:

      Diane thanks for your support. I am still trying to get it figured out how to automatically send updates. Will keep you posted.

  • jay hessey says:

    You asked for some suggestions for this blog: would talk some about editing vs shooting? How much you are willing to do on a shot that is not quite what you want but close?

    I thought your talking about practicing was great as it made me go google the topic and I realized how many ways I could preactice! thanks


    • Tin Man Lee says:

      Thanks a lot Jay for the suggestion. Definitely a great question about the threshold when I decide to still work on a pic even if its not technically perfect. Let me think about it and see what I can write, also about editing workflow. Let me know if you have any other suggestions.

  • Sherrie Gadreault says:

    Love all your blogs and all your photos!!!!

  • Ruth Haynes Fullam says:

    Most wonderful

  • Joanne Leung says:

    I love the darkness and the suggestion. It does play awesome tricks on my mind. I love that the photo of the bear is in your bathroom! (And you’re not obsessive, sure.)

    • Tin Man Lee says:

      Thanks for stopping by, Joanne. So glad you echoed with me on darkness and suggestion. I am just in the beginning of this area and it is a lot of fun. We should discuss more on this. And I always want to try it in people photography too. My goal is to have all hotels and restaurants with this bear pic in the bathrooms. I didn’t know I am so obsessive until I wrote this blog.

  • Melissa Jacobs Schlenker says:

    This is why your work stands apart from others – and why I love it!

  • Marsha Holt says:

    I signed up previously and have not yet received blogs. I enjoy your photos and your writing. You are so gifted.

  • Carl Finkbeiner says:


  • Suzanne Dormsjo says:

    Spectacular photographs – as an animal lover, I just love the way you connect with nature – thank you for sharing your special gift!

  • Mellisa Donaldson says:

    Beautiful. should send this to Ron Howard at his site Imagin8tion. Worthy of a documentary

  • Mary says:

    I think you should write about your childhood and how you were influenced to risk your life capturing some of the most mesmerizing images I have ever seen. Love your passion and the gift you have of letting the world live vicariously through your adventures.

  • Thanks so much for the blog post.Really thank you! Will read on…

  • don hamilton says:

    Tin, huge congrats on the awards and so good to hear from ya!!

  • Allyson says:

    Tin Man,
    You are a gifted photographer! Most of all what I love is the emotion displayed in every photograph. So much depth and feeling. I am always in awe of the beauty shown in your shots. Wildlife is so spectacular and you capture it so well!!! You are truly gifted!! Thank you for sharing with us!!

  • Siew Werner says:

    Tin Man,
    A hiking buddy shared the story of your award. So glad he did. Your work is so inspiring. Your blogs remind me of my memories when I was young. Keep writing and thanks for sharing these breathing taking photographs

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