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.


Facebook Comments


  1. Rick Derevan on December 16, 2014 at 6:39 am

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

  2. Ratna Narayan on December 16, 2014 at 6:42 am

    wowwwwwwwwww. I missed 3 & 4

  3. Rick Derevan on December 16, 2014 at 6:48 am

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

    • Tin Man Lee on December 16, 2014 at 7:43 pm

      Still trying to get this figured out. WordPress is driving me nuts…

  4. Kathi Derevan on December 16, 2014 at 6:51 am

    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 on December 16, 2014 at 7:42 pm

      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!

  5. Kathi Derevan on December 16, 2014 at 6:52 am

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

    • Tin Man Lee on December 16, 2014 at 7:43 pm

      :)))) thank you so much.

  6. diane on December 16, 2014 at 7:17 am

    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 on December 16, 2014 at 7:41 pm

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

  7. jay hessey on December 16, 2014 at 7:29 am

    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 on December 16, 2014 at 7:38 pm

      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.

  8. Sherrie Gadreault on December 16, 2014 at 7:55 am

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

    • Tin Man Lee on December 16, 2014 at 7:37 pm

      Thanks for your kind words Sherrie!

  9. Ruth Haynes Fullam on December 16, 2014 at 8:10 am

    Most wonderful

    • Tin Man Lee on December 16, 2014 at 7:36 pm

      Thank you Ruth!

  10. Joanne Leung on December 16, 2014 at 8:26 am

    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 on December 16, 2014 at 7:36 pm

      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.

  11. Melissa Jacobs Schlenker on December 16, 2014 at 11:03 am

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

    • Tin Man Lee on December 16, 2014 at 7:34 pm

      Thank you so much for your kind words Melissa!

  12. Marsha Holt on December 16, 2014 at 3:24 pm

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

    • Tin Man Lee on December 16, 2014 at 7:33 pm

      Thank you Marsha. I gotta check about how to activate updates after signup. Still new to this. Thanks for your support.

  13. Carl Finkbeiner on December 16, 2014 at 4:52 pm


  14. Suzanne Dormsjo on December 16, 2014 at 7:41 pm

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

  15. Mellisa Donaldson on December 16, 2014 at 10:58 pm

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

  16. Mary on December 17, 2014 at 7:40 am

    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.

  17. fishinglovers on December 18, 2014 at 3:43 pm

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

  18. don hamilton on December 20, 2014 at 9:22 pm

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

  19. Allyson on December 21, 2014 at 4:52 pm

    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!!

  20. Siew Werner on December 25, 2014 at 7:04 am

    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

Leave a Comment