How I do Wildlife Photography

I did those too.

Circa 1999…

Things weren’t good. Sometimes I wondered if I could just find one thing in life I didn’t suck at.

  1. Every evening, I would stroll to the Photography section at my local Barnes and Nobles to pick out the same two books. (i) The Art of Bird Photography by Arthur Morris and (ii) The Guide to Wildlife Photography by Moose Peterson. The two classics, and the only two books about Nature Photography on the shelve. Before I found a table, I would also grab ALL the current issues of photography magazines, especially the one with Tim Fitzharris’s column.
  2. With a Grande Caramel Macchiato in one hand (at times also a slice of the Cheesecake Factory New York Cheesecake… wondered how I gained all these weight), I flipped through each page in Oohs and Aahs, indulging myself vicariously as if I was in Artie’s and Moose’s magnificent world of wildlife, while listening to the music the bookstore played repeatedly, “Yellow” and “By your side”. I would also read the Exif data (aperture, shutter speed, ISO, camera and lens model) of each photo like gospel, recite them at times like chanting mantras. I never got tired of it.
  3. After 6 months of living purely on instant ramen, I finally sold my Hasselblad 503CW. Fancy cameras and poor graduate student just didn’t go well together. I kept asking myself the biggest question in photography history, “Canon or Nikon?” I would stay up till dawn in consecutive nights reading photography forums trying to find the answer. I would also browse through all the discussions about whether I should shell out an obscene amount of $6,000 for a 500mm F4 lens. I thought only people who were insane would pay that kind of money.

It only took me 10 years to finally take the plunge, to join insanity.

Then something strange happened. It’s really not a decision I made. Nor did anyone tell me to. I had no clue what drove me.

All of a sudden I picked up my camera bag and found myself in the wilderness.

Really in the wilderness:

  1. Bitten by hundreds and hundreds of mosquitoes and other bugs in some nice warm Alaska evenings that took me months to heal.
  2. On the verge of hypothermia deeply submerged in the frigid Glacier water while face to face with some of the biggest brown bears slamming at my direction.
  3. Running too fast in high altitude in the Colorado mountains and almost had a heart attack with my heart felt like jumping out from my throat.
  4. Walking in knee deep mud that I almost got sucked in completely while a bear was walking towards me.
  5. Stuck in a broken-down snow coach for hours in the middle of nowhere as the night falls. -20F.
  6. Charged by a bison to within 5 feet that I was sure I was gonna die.
  7. Approached by brown bear mom and cubs within… 0 feet that I was sure I was gonna die.
  8. Neck injury that immobilized me for weeks.
  9. Back injury that immobilized me for months.

And that was FREAKING AWESOME.

Along the way I have met some incredible teachers and friends for life. I gained experience I never dreamed of. I encountered many of my favorite animals in their natural habitat, no longer vicariously:

  1. Polar bears in the Arctic? Muskox in the Brooks Range? Gray Fox? San Joaquin Kit Fox? Red fox jumping for voles in the snow? Dall sheep in front of a rainbow?
  2. Bull moose in mating season sleeping in front of me? Long-tailed Weasel with gopher? White-tailed kite with gopher? Barn owls with gopher?
  3. A mother bison risking her life to protect her injured calf for 3 days?
  4. Spectacular northern light display that I was so happy I was dancing and hugging with my good friend that we forgot to take picture?

I must be dreaming. I didn’t even know some of those species existed. No words can express my gratefulness for these experience.

 

nanpa_expression

NANPA Expression Magazine Cover and Showcase Top 10 Award

 

NANPA Showcase Judge's Choice Award

NANPA Showcase Judge’s Choice Award

Nature's Best Photography Windland Smith Rice Highly Honored 2012

Nature’s Best Photography Windland Smith Rice Highly Honored 2012

Outdoor Photographer Behind The Shot

Outdoor Photographer Behind The Shot

 

Dall Sheep in Rainbow. NANPA Top 100

Dall Sheep in Rainbow. NANPA Top 100

Then, finally, with this photo– the favorite photo of my life:

bear_800_1

Grand Prize, Nature’s Best Photography Windland Smith Rice International

 

I found myself at the podium giving a speech at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum, just a few days ago.

At the podium

At the podium. Courtesy of Laura Gongos.

 

On the stage

On the stage. Courtesy of Yuying Hwang.

 

At the Smithsonian Exhibit

At the Smithsonian Exhibit. Courtesy of dad.

Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Washington DC

Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Washington DC.

Looking back, I have a shocking discovery:

It’s that the way I do things has been pretty much the same as before.

All my bad habits still remains, unfortunately.

To name just a few: I am too laid back, slow, too sensitive, too obsessive, too emotional, and I linger. I would choose to keep waiting for a long long time and enjoying myself even if there was absolutely no chance, and that one should have moved on long ago. I don’t take things seriously. I like to be alone yet I also like to talk and laugh hysterically about anything including nonsense with friends.

I am pretty bad at a lot of things with this way of handling stuff.

I guess people don’t change.

The only thing that has changed was the task– wildlife photography.

Anyways, in the next 30 days, I am going to do some self reflection, jot down some memorable experience and interesting discoveries, and share my photography techniques, if you are thinking about starting wildlife photography or crazy about it just like me.

You might say, but I am tired, I am super busy, I have a job…

Did I mention that I managed to still have a full time job in Biotech IT that I enjoy?

So, without further ado…

Stay tuned!

 

 

Facebook Comments

34 Comments

  1. Janet Lopez on December 12, 2014 at 4:39 am

    Thank you, Tin Man. A delightful read – I look forward to your daily reflections. Though I live in Alaska and see a variety of wildlife, there is much to learn. Thank you, you are quite the fellow and your photographs are my favorite!

  2. Rick Derevan on December 12, 2014 at 4:49 am

    Looking forward to the next 29 posts, Tinman!

  3. Sherrie Gadreault on December 12, 2014 at 4:57 am

    Loved your blog and will look forward to reading more and of course love love your photos!!!

  4. Beth Brisson Montez on December 12, 2014 at 4:58 am

    I cant wait! You are such an inspiration! 🙂

  5. Paul Ahart on December 12, 2014 at 5:18 am

    We all have to start somewhere, and your start was exceedingly interesting! Can’t wait to read the rest.

  6. Melissa Jacobs Schlenker on December 12, 2014 at 5:44 am

    You are living my dream! I love your approach to wildlife photography and the emotion you capture in your images. You have taught me much in a short time and I thank you. Looking forward to your next post.

  7. Simmie Cassatt Issenberg on December 12, 2014 at 5:53 am

    Thank you for sharing. Your work is magical and most inspirational. I look forward to your daily posts!

  8. Kellie Wakeford on December 12, 2014 at 6:11 am

    Wow, I absolutely love the photos you take. I have a question though, which camera did you buy – Nikon or Canon?

  9. Hillary Younger on December 12, 2014 at 6:59 am

    You not only take photos, Tin Man, but unlike the Wizard of Oz version, you have such a sensitivity, such a connection and a love for the animals you photograph. At the same time, allowing them to be themselves, not what you expect them to be. Your images are always a gift, a glimpse into their world.

  10. Kathi Derevan on December 12, 2014 at 7:29 am

    Hey, lingering has served you well, kid! “Lingering” until you get the great shots.

    • Tin Man Lee on December 13, 2014 at 11:01 am

      You caught me, Kathi. yes never knew that lingering is a good thing. Hope to see you again soon.

  11. Mary Wiffen on December 12, 2014 at 7:44 am

    Thank you for being so honest. Very difficult to analyse yourself and be so open about your faults – which we all have and some of us probably more. Your photographs show your wonderful gift of capturing something of the animal’s essence. The bear photo is amazing and if I ever manage one photo to such calibre, I would die a happy lady.

  12. Judith Conning on December 12, 2014 at 8:46 am

    Cannot wait – your images of the polar bears in Kaktovik inspired me to go there this October. Didn’t have your beautiful light but bears in a blizzard for 4 days gave me some magical images. Thank you so much for sharing!

  13. Judith on December 12, 2014 at 8:48 am

    Love your photography – you are an inspiration!

  14. Judith Schnog on December 12, 2014 at 10:23 am

    Your first blog brings a lot of memories.. Eventhough I don’t live in the US, I found myself in Barnes and Nobles with every trip to whichever city there. I made a beeline to the photography section and to the section that had books on bears. But I had no choice, I had to buy a book each time, as my time to visit was very limited…
    I dreamt of owning a Hasselblad, got a Canon consumer camera instead.. And I never got to go into the wild… In the mean time I have grown to a better camera, and go into “the wild” overhere… Not nearly as exciting as what I read and see in your blog and photos… I enjoy what I do and cherish every moment, but Through your photography, I live my dream… Thank you Tinman, looking forward to more!

  15. Lorelei on December 12, 2014 at 11:47 am

    Just keep being you Tin Man because that is working for you.
    Do not listen to self criticism nor to others criticism.

    Look at that article you just wrote with passion!
    So nice to see passion in today’s world.

    I smiled the whole time reading your blog and by the end had tears of happiness and was so proud of you.

    Look at all you have done! And you are grateful for it!
    That my friend is good, very, very good.

  16. Janis D. on December 12, 2014 at 2:05 pm

    Tin Man: Keep doing exactly what you are doing now. Please do not change, for what you think of as “bad habits” are precisely what makes you “you.” It is the very reason you managed to be awarded that very prestigious award at the Smithsonian — You have a remarkable way of seeing wildlife like no other photographer I’ve ever seen. Oh, there’s those who are very close, but you, my friend, are a master. I think it’s because you can see things from your subjects perspective, but that may sound wacky to you. Keep on keepin’ on, Tin Man.

  17. Eddie Sorez on December 12, 2014 at 2:52 pm

    Tinman, a good friend of mine turned me on to your work. I don’t comment on the images you put forth only because I am amazed and awestruck. Sometimes there are no words….

  18. Carl Finkbeiner on December 12, 2014 at 3:38 pm

    You are very courageous, and that is very encouraging.

  19. Laura Gongos on December 13, 2014 at 4:28 am

    Love you Tin Man! Did Roland tell you we had good news yesterday?

  20. Kelly Bracken on December 13, 2014 at 4:44 pm

    It was an honor to meet you and a pleasure to shoot Kit Foxes beside you. I understand your obsession/passion so well, as I too love wildlife photography. You are one of the great wildlife photographers and I can only hope to hone my craft to a level as you. I hope to shoot with you again some day. Congrats and keep sharing your fantastic work!!

  21. Ratna Narayan on December 13, 2014 at 5:57 pm

    yayyyyyyyyyyyyyyy Thank God you have finally got to it! I have been hooked for a very longtime… ever since I read My quest for snowy owls and am so looking forward to reading more

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  29. Ana Rosa Pereyra on December 16, 2014 at 7:01 pm

    A friend in Agoura Hills (I forgot her name, haha) told me about you and your photography. It’s absolutely stunning! I’m an aspiring photographer. I’m trying to find a good beginner camera (I’ve been using my iPad). Any suggestions? Thanks. 🙂

    • Tin Man Lee on December 16, 2014 at 7:27 pm

      iPad is not bad as a camera. I have seen people taking pics of wild brown bears in Alaska using it. A good beginning camera may be a used Canon 5D Mark II. Let me know if you have any questions. Always love to talk about photography.

  30. Fain Zimmerman on December 19, 2014 at 2:47 am

    Ever since I saw your first photos, I was in love! The images you bring to the world reflect your own beautiful heart and soul! Thank you for showing us the extreme love of all things in nature and the animals. Can’t wait to read all the rest of your posts!

  31. Candy Kwak on December 19, 2014 at 8:41 pm

    Wow.. My dream to go to alaska. So see bears and eagles . That bear pocture was totally awesome. Rocks. Im in the UP of michigan

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