What I Learned From Steve Jobs And Jiro Ono About Photography

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.”

I laughed.

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.

barn_owl_look1

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.”

In order to catch this moment at eye-level, I was crouching down in frigid glacier water for hours.

Very honored that this shot won the 2013 NBP Grand Prize. In order to catch this moment at eye-level, I crouched down in frigid glacier water for hours on the verge of hypothermia.

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.

We kept a good distance from the bear family. I was using a 600mm and 1.4x teleconverter. Hallo Bay, Alaska.

We kept a good distance from the bear family. I was using a 600mm and 1.4x teleconverter. Hallo Bay, Alaska.

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?

Just like any babies, the endangered San Joaquin Kit Fox was very curious and playful. After waiting many hours each day near the den, I caught a moment when this new-born pup was carrying a leave to his den. His expression was like a kid being caught of his mischief. Central Valley, CA.

Just like any babies, the endangered San Joaquin Kit Fox pup was very curious and playful. After waiting many hours each day near the den, I caught a moment when this new-born pup was carrying a leave to his den. His expression was like a kid being caught on his mischief. Central Valley, CA.

The new born mountain goat kids are fearless and playful. They were very curious with their legs and love to test out their jumping capability. At 14,000 feet, I hoped to convert a sense of the height by including the backdrop of Rocky Mountain Range.

The new born mountain goat kids were fearless. They were very sweet too and loved to snuggle with each other. Only a few days old, these little dare-devils loved to test out their jumping capability in a rather dangerous manner. At 14,000 feet, I hoped to convey a sense of height by including the backdrop of Rocky Mountain Range instead of the typical creamy background or just the sky.

For the full story of the mountain goat kid photo, please go to this post.

To me snowy owl is majestic, mysterious and adorable. In order to capture these ingredients, I want to get a shot in really low light so the owl's pupils are dilated, and to add a hint of mystery through the predawn color. I had to use a very low shutter speed to get enough light.

To me snowy owl is majestic, mysterious and adorable. In order to capture these ingredients, I want to get a shot in really low light so the owl's pupils are dilated, and to add a hint of mystery through the predawn color. I had to use a very low shutter speed to get enough light. Wild snowy owl (not baited) during the snowy owl irruption in 2012.

Read the whole story of the snowy owl photo in this blog post.

I love the curl of the horn and I am hypnotized by the eyes of the bighorn sheep for many years. I have dreamed of taking an abstract shot. I kept trying and trying in this recent trip to Yellowstone but none satisfied me with the background color, until I took this one, when the deep blue complemented the golden color of his eye.

I have been hypnotized by the curl of the horns and the color of the eyes of the bighorn sheep since childhood. Loved “Krag: the bighorn sheep” by Ernest Seton when I was a kid and have dreamed of taking an abstract shot of this particular angle. I kept trying and trying in this recent trip to Yellowstone with only this goal whenever I saw a bighorn sheep, but none satisfied me with the background color, until I took this one, when the deep blue complemented the golden color of his eye. Later I found out the sheep was running away from a wolf. I wonder if you can see fear in his eye.

 

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.

It was mid day in Yellowstone when the action was slow. We saw a herd of bisons with their new born calves. Only very few of us decided to get out of the car to shoot. And with those, all of them went to photograph the calves. I saw this adult bison grazing comfortably but there was a cowbird near him who was ignoring his presence. I expected something to happen so I got ready. Lo and behold, the bison sticked his tongue out and almost kissed on the cowbird. The cowbird gave up a chirp and flew away. I turned around and no one except me saw this lovely moment. And the shot won a highly honored award in NBP in 2012.

It was mid day in Yellowstone when the action was slow. We saw a herd of bisons with their new born calves. Only very few of us decided to get out of the car to shoot. And with those, all of them went to photograph the calves. I saw this adult bison grazing comfortably but there was a cowbird near him who was ignoring his presence. I expected something to happen so I got ready. Lo and behold, the bison sticked his tongue out and almost kissed on the cowbird. The cowbird gave out a chirp, fluffed her feather and flew away. I turned around and no one except me saw this lovely moment. And the shot won a highly honored award in NBP in 2012. I titled the shot “Birdie and the Beast”. I am pretty proud of the award and also this title!

The polar bear was far away, it was getting dark, and the light angle was "not correct" as most people thought due to the back lighting. But to me it was a jackpot. I was clicking like a mad man with my 600mm and 2x handheld in a small boat, I knew that when the polar bear breathes out and look into our direction I might have a shot.

The polar bear was far away, it was getting dark, and the light angle was “not correct” as most people thought due to the back lighting. But to me it was a jackpot. The whole place turned golden with the ice reflecting the sunset. I was clicking like a mad man with my 600mm and 2x handheld in a small boat, I knew that when the polar bear breathes out and looks into our direction I might have a shot.

The sun was setting and we didn't see a single polar bear on our first boat outing into the Arctic Ocean. Most of us where still setting up their camera parameters when suddenly around the corner we saw this polar bear, in this blessed light, in a split second, before the bear turned away and lied down. The whole encounter lasted less than 0.2 second because I only got two shots out of it.

The sun was setting and we didn't see a single polar bear on our first boat outing into the Arctic Ocean. Most of us were still setting up their camera parameters when suddenly around the corner we saw this polar bear, in this blessed light, with the frozen sea ice reflecting the last ray of light, in a split second, before the bear turned away and lay down. The whole encounter lasted less than 0.2 second. I got two shots out of it. One with the body of the polar bear cropped because the boat was rocking.

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.

My heart was pounding at a dangerous rate in the high altitude in Yellowstone, I was panting for air and couldn't hold my camera tight, the light was tricky and fleeting, my whole body was shaking, yet I could feel that its a moment I longed for so I clicked on the shutter.

My heart was pounding at a dangerous rate in the high altitude in Yellowstone after sprinting in the 3 feet deep crusty snow with my camera gear for half a mile. I was panting for air and couldn't hold my camera steady. The light was tricky and fleeting. My whole body was shaking. But the light was also once-a-life-time. Yet the elusive bobcat was walking away from the sun the whole time with her body lit up but her face in darkness. No shot could be taken that way. Following her was physically challenging. Suddenly, she emerged from darkness, with her hind leg still behind the tall grass, her face finally turned towards the sun for one split second … I could feel that its a moment I longed for so I clicked on the shutter. A 4-year dream, finally realized.

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.

 

Great Horned Owls are nocturnal. They sometimes are active and would come down to the ground right after sunset when it was almost all dark to look for insects and voles. With the advance of low light photography, I was able to get a clear shot at ISO 12800 and freeze the motion.

Great Horned Owls are nocturnal. They sometimes are active and would come down to the ground right after sunset when it was almost all dark to look for insects and voles. With the advance of low light photography, I was able to get a clear shot at ISO 12800 and freeze the motion. This kind of image quality was not even possible in just the previous version of the camera. (Wild, not baited, not called.)

The auto focus had stopped working because its almost completely dark. I had to handhold my 600mm because the habitat was full of tall grass and broken branches so setting up a tripod would be impossible. I manually focused on the owl, and made the best use of the image stabilization technology, and got a sharp shot with 1/30s, with ISO 16,000. This gives me a glimpse of the secret world of great horned owl after dark.

The auto focus had stopped working because it's almost completely dark. I had to handhold my 600mm because the habitat was full of tall grass and broken branches so setting up a tripod or even a monopod would be impossible. I manually focused on the owl (try it next time, to manual focus on a handheld 600mm lens in near darkness, it's fun. I almost laughed at myself at the absurdity because I could almost see nothing but darkness in the viewfinder, and that all the people had long left the scene as there was no light anymore, but then we just have to improvise all the time and not be embarrassed by our beliefs, right?), and made the best use of the image stabilization technology, and also made use of the unlimited digital media and shot a blast of 50 shots all at once knowing that most would be blurry due to vibration with the slow shutter speed. I got only one sharp shot with 1/30s, with ISO 16,000 but that's all I needed. This gives me a glimpse of the secret world of great horned owl after dark.

 

I took this shot with a 600mm and a 2x. Incoming flight shot required high shutter speed so I bumped up the ISO to 3200 to get 1/2000s to freeze the motion. One just have to make the best use of the current technology, with a bit of faith, to trust that the auto focus tracking is working.

I took this shot with a 600mm and a 2x. Incoming flight shot required high shutter speed so I bumped up the ISO to 3200 to get 1/2000s to freeze the motion. One just have to make the best use of the current technology, with a bit of faith, to trust that the auto focus tracking is working. Wild, not baited, not called.

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.

The spring cub practicing running. Katmai, Alaska.

The spring cub practicing running. Katmai, Alaska.

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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1 Comment

  1. Irving Mortensen on March 16, 2015 at 5:09 pm

    I felt that you speak to any photographer in any style really… it’s about so much more than animals… just change the word animal to your own style landscape, street, portrait, etc. Your thoughtful presentation blew me away and I have shared it with my photographer friends with delight. Thanks Tim Man Lee.

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