I was chatting to a guy sitting next to me at a dinner party one day.
He said he recently went to a Dungeness crab dinner with a friend. After the first bite, his friend exclaimed, “Wow, the crab is so fresh and tasty!”
“So I tried it myself, and I was shocked,” he said.
“The crab wasn’t even fresh and it tasted terrible.”
He continued, “Don’t you think people are luckier if they don’t have a good tasting palette? They would be always happy with their food.”
Maybe a mediocre tasting palette is the key to happiness.
What about photography? Would I be happier if I couldn’t tell whether a photo is good or bad?
No expectation means no disappointment.
But is this really the case?
In the movie “Jiro Dreams of Sushi“, Jiro Ono, the best sushi chef ever lived, revealed a secret.
“In order to make delicious food you must eat delicious food.”
“The quality of ingredients is important but you need to develop a palette capable of discerning good and bad. Without good palette you can’t make good food.”
“If your sense of taste is lower than that of the customers, how will you impress them?”
“When I think of someone with a highly acute sense of taste and smell, the first person I think of is the great French chef Joel Robuchon.”
“I wish I were as sensitive as he. I have a very good sense of smell. But he’s on another level. His sensitivity is very high.”
“If I had his tongue and nose, I could probably make even better food.”
Even Jiro, the grand-master himself, yearned for a better tasting palette.
To take better wildlife photos, one must develop their taste in discerning good and bad photography.
Here are 7 ideas:
1. You have to look deeply into yourself:
What moves you?
What is your burning desire?
What is your fantasy?
What is your secret?
What is your obsession?
What are you most afraid of?
What are you most curious about?
Try to explore and express these in your photography.
People want to see these in your photos much more than a technically perfect one.
It was by serendipity that I got this shot. To see the whole story please read this post. I am obsessed with darkness…
2. Do you love the animal?
Are you able to capture their spirit? Do you feel any emotion?
Where is the eye contact? Where is the connection?
Animals cannot speak. Their eyes tell the stories.
Michael ‘Nick’ Nichols said, “Photographs can bring about emotional connection more than any other kind of communication. When you’ve frozen it, even without words, it can work. People can get all fired up. You just need to hit that emotional chord at the right time.”
3. Are you respectful to the animal?
Are you trying to alter their behavior for your shot?
If you do not respect the animal, your images will lack empathy.
Here’s a quote by Lynn Schooler in the foreword of Hoshino’s Alaska that we all can learn from, “While many of the photographers I have known seem to pursue full-frame, as-close-as-possible portraits of wildlife as their constant ideal, Michio’s gift was often to place an animal against an immense and powerful background, in such a way as to make the animal seem small, thus instructing us on the animal’s life and environment rather than presenting a demand that we admire him for his daring.”
“The first approach probably tells us as much about a photographer’s willingness to disturb an animal for the sake of a picture as it does the subject, whereas the second strikes me as an example of Michio’s willingness to reduce his own presence in a landscape in order to demonstrate for us how an entire mountain or valley may be brought to life by a single moose or bear.”
In recent years, there is a trend where photographers attach their cameras at the end of a post and stick the post from inside their vehicle towards the animals outside at point-blank range, hoping to get an in-your-face super-wide-angle shot. For sure those shots would “wow” the viewers because of the exaggerated proportion and lens distortion, the so-called big-nose animal shot with the poor animal startled and looked right into the camera.
But at what price?
The photographers are intruding the space of the animals. Ask yourself, would you like some strangers to stick a camera an inch from your face and take a snap?
I am a strong believer that good photos can be obtained with a long lens. If you want to pursue full-frame shot, just use a super-telephoto lens with a 1.4X and 2X teleconverters. We are already intruding the space of the animals from a distance. Let’s not worsen it as to stress the animals.
4. What is your “version” of the animal — How do they look like in your dreams?
Now try your best to capture the exact same moments in reality just like how they appeared in your dreams.
Life is just like a dream. Reality and dream, at the end who really can tell one from the other anyways?
For the full story of the mountain goat kid photo, please go to this post.
Read the whole story of the snowy owl photo in this blog post.
5. Sometimes the best moments are in-between moments or the time when you least expected it.
Are you always ready for these moments and have your camera ready when everybody else have packed up their gear just because they “think” the light is not optimal or the sighting is not good enough?
Always believe in yourself and stick to your goal. Don’t follow others.
6. After each photography outing, you may come back with hundreds or thousands of shots. Now what?
Michael ‘Nick’ Nichols said, “The real art and authorship is in the choice of the shots that transcend, that are quirky and challenging and say something for me.”
Do you look at each and every one of your shots carefully and with brutal honesty and awareness — look carefully at your photo, look at where the light is coming from, what is in the background, does the composition work, are there any distractions, where are the lines and shapes leading to, how do the colors help with your message, is there emotion and connection, does the photo move you, what is the story, and where is the tension and conflict?
You have to learn and remember from the painful lesson why the shot doesn’t work this time and try to do better next time.
7. In the “Lost Interview“, Steve Jobs was asked, “How do you know what’s the right direction?”
He said, “Ultimately it comes down to taste.”
“It comes down to trying to expose yourself to the best things that humans have done, and then try to bring those things into what you are doing.”
“The way that we’re gonna ratchet up our species is to take the best and to spread it around to everybody, so that everybody grows up with better things and starts to understand the subtlety of these better things.”
Ratchet up our species! At the end, don’t we all want to leave something good behind? Something of our own creation. Though it doesn’t really matter because by then we won’t be here to see it, no one can even go to their own funerals, not to mention the time afterwards, so it doesn’t really matter. But still, it’s in our genes. It’s probably in our “selfish gene” that we all secretly want to leave something behind. This also agrees with this article (Chinese) by Professor Steven Cheung when he analyzed Mozart and Su Dongpo.
Some people argue that there’s no point to always get the best camera and lenses to improve one’s photography.
Steve Jobs said, “Humans are tool builders. We build tools that can dramatically amplify our innate human abilities.”
For wildlife photography, we should always try to “expose ourselves to the best things that humans have done”:
- Study the best works out there, learn from the best.
- Buy or rent the best cameras and lenses. Know the weakness and strength of all the most up-to-date camera and lens models. Ask yourself if the new features can increase the chance of you realizing your vision.
- Learn how to maximize the image quality of the camera in the field such as the different exposure modes, expose-to-the-right, focus point selection for composition on-the-fly, histogram, f-stop vs depth-of-field, shutter speed vs speed of the animal, how the blinkies work, and ISO vs noise level so that you know your limit.
- Push the auto focus tracking capability.
- Understand the best image editing softwares to retrieve information from our RAW files.
- Recognize the world’s best sharpening and noise removal techniques.
- Utilize curves, channels, luminosity masks, highlight and shadows, dodge and burn, and all kinds of adjustment layers.
- We have no excuse not to master all these aspects. Whether to use it or not is up to us on different scenarios but we must understand all of these inside out.
At the end, if we can capture a moment that moves ourselves as well as others, and make the viewers wanting to hop onto the next plane to go to see the animals themselves, we have succeeded.
Life is too short to not make use of the best tools around us to realize our dreams and to touch as many people as possible. Ultimately, it is all about happiness.
I am so excited to release my new ebooks on Falkland Islands, where I talked about why it transformed me. Please enter your email and I will send you updates, and also a free ebook “10 reasons why everyone should do wildlife photography”.
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