The Number One Secret to Wildlife Photography

Recently I have been enjoying a little book called “Anything you want” by Derek Sivers. He started with a question to the readers: “What's your compass?”

Excerpt:

Most people don't know why they're doing what they're doing. They imitate others, go with the flow, and follow paths without making their own. They spend decades in pursuit of something that someone convinced them they should want, without realizing that it won't make them happy.

You need to know your personal philosophy of what makes you happy and what's worth doing.

If you love wildlife photography, I would think it's because you care about the wild animals. If you care about them, you would not want to trick them or affect their behavior for the sake of a photo.

That's why I love the late Michio Hoshino, my idol in photography. He may not have the most in-your-face super wide-angle larger-than-life close-up wildlife shots like some of the shots you see these days, but you can feel the deep love he had with the animals he photographed. One doesn't need to always think about trying to get as close to the wild animal as possible to get a decent shot.

Indeed, through reading Mr. Hoshino's stories and talking to friends who have met him,  in many situations during a wildlife sighting in national parks, when tens or hundreds of photographers were trying to squeeze into the best spot closest to the animals, Mr. Hoshino would always be the lone one standing away from the crowd and the furthest away from the animal. I have a lot to learn from this great man. I have more to say in this topic in future posts.

Wildlife photography is about capturing the natural behavior of wild animals in an artistic way that you prefer, and be able to tell a story and touch as many people as you can.

Some may say they don't care what others think because it's just for their own enjoyment. I disagree. I like what Robert Mckee said in his book “Story” (my all time favorite which I read repeatedly and at times in tears in the last few months) where he stressed on the need to understand the reactions and anticipations of the audience:

“You must shape your story in a way that both expresses your vision and satisfies the audience's desires. Content and form require, inspire and mutually influence one another. With content in one hand and a mastery of form in the other, a writer sculpts story. As you rework a story's substance, the telling reshapes itself. As you play with a story's shape, its intellectual and emotional spirit evolves.”

That's when we need to learn our craft so that every time we see something, our vision and our technique come together to express what we feel in a way that touches others too. We need to learn the “language” in photography to communicate.

David DuChemin described it perfectly in “Within the Frame” (this and McKee's Story are my two favorites),

“This is our craft. Painting with light, in slivers of time, within the frame of our image.”

“It means we shoot the things that move us in ways that will move others.”

“Passionate stories told passionately: that's the goal of my image-making.”

In Slivers of time. This line is even more important when applied to wildlife photography. Wild animals in nature utilizes their senses to the extreme so that they can survive. Every moment can be life and death for them in the harsh environment. If you want to capture unusual behaviors, you can expect most of the actions happen very fast, usually in a split second.

Now watch this video of Bruce Lee.

“Boards don't fight back.”

It's impossible to not get emotional watching this clip. One thing I need to brag about is that I was from the same ancestral village of Bruce Lee, the Shunde District of China.

What I wanted to say is that SPEED is very important in Kung Fu, so as in Wildlife Photography to capture fleeting moment in splitting second.

But in reality I am famous for being slow. I move like a sloth. 😉

Then how did I tackle that problem? Should I learn from Rocky and chase some chicken?

No. There's a better way.

The answer lies in 3 letters.

B.I.F.

Indeed, chant with me, “BIF, BIF, BIF”.

The best way to train your reaction time to get prepared for any sudden wildlife action and to be able to capture it while painting the subject with the best possible light and the perfect frame with the obsessive purification of any distracting objects in the foreground and background that didn't add to the story of your vision (what a mouthful), is to perfect your skill in:

BIRDS IN FLIGHT Photography. It's the mother of all action wildlife photography.

You need to have the ability to focus on a fast moving animal before you can talk about any vision and expression. BIF is just a technique, a stepping stone towards action wildlife photography. You must master it before you can begin anything else.

I like how James Altucher said that we should focus our life in building up our health in 4 areas: Physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. It can be applied perfectly to wildlife photography.

BIF is the first part in building the fundamental block in the physical part. The goal is that you could lift your super tele lens, (400mm, 500mm, 600mm, 800mm, or 1200mm) at any moment and your subject would be right at the middle of your viewfinder when you aim, without any delay.

If you have read Outliers, you know there isn't much shortcut in mastering a skill. We probably don't need to invest 10,000 hours in BIF, but I did spend 2 hours a day, every day, after work and full day during weekends, running up and down the slopes of a mountain carrying my 500mm or 600mm lens, observing and photographing birds-in-flight for more than a whole year. (Then the whole place got burnt by a mountain fire…)

Here's a list of bird species you can focus on practicing BIF in the order of difficulty:

  1. Swallows and Hummingbird (not when the hummingbird is feeding on the honey because they would not be moving so its not counted)
  2. Puffins
  3. Owls
  4. Northern Harrier
  5. Terns
  6. But first you can practice with Pelicans.

Or if you are like me, you can hang something up from your ceiling, like a string attached to a table tennis ball, swing the ball, and try to lift your long lens from the ground up and instantly focus on the ball.

I am still far from good in BIF, but at least I can be confident I can lock focus on the moving animals without too much delay when I encounter one. Here are a few examples from my running up and down the hills or hiding behind long grass waiting and waiting.

 

Barn owl in flight (not called, not baited), 600mm, 2X, 1/1600s, f/8, handheld

Barn owl in flight (not called, not baited), 600mm, 2X, 1/1600s, f/8, handheld, hiding behind tall grass in a field in Central California

 

Barn owl in flight (wild, not baited, not called), 1DX,  600mm, 1.4x, f5.6, 1/1600s, handheld

Barn owl in flight (wild, not baited, not called), 1DX, 600mm, 1.4x, f5.6, 1/1600s, handheld

 

Tern shaking in mid air. 500mm, 1/2000s, f/5.6

Tern shaking in mid air. 500mm, 1/2000s, f/5.6

 

Tern catching fish in midair, 500mm, f/5.6, 1/2000s, handheld

Tern catching fish in midair, 500mm, f/5.6, 1/2000s, handheld

Gliding osprey top side, 600mm, f/7.1, 1/1600s, ISO 800

Gliding osprey top side, 600mm, f/7.1, 1/1600s, ISO 800, San Diego

 

White-tailed kite with vole, Thousand Oaks, CA. 500mm, f/5.6, 1/1600s, ISO 800

White-tailed kite with vole, Thousand Oaks, CA. 500mm, f/5.6, 1/1600s, ISO 800

 

White-tailed kite, Thousand Oaks, CA

White-tailed kite, Thousand Oaks, CA

Juvi Peregrine Falcon, 600mm, 1.4x, f/5.6, 1/2000s, ISO 800

Juvi Peregrine Falcon, 600mm, 1.4x, f/5.6, 1/2000s, ISO 800, San Pedro, CA

 

Atlantic puffin, Machias Seal Island. 500mm, f/5.6, 1/3200s, ISO 800

Atlantic puffin, Machias Seal Island. 500mm, f/5.6, 1/3200s, ISO 800

Male Northern Harrier, 500mm, 2x, f/11, 1/1600s, handheld

Juvi Male Northern Harrier, 500mm, 2x, f/11, 1/1600s, handheld, Thousand Oaks, CA

 

Snowy owl (wild, not baited, not called), 500mm, f/4, 1/800s, ISO 3200, 1DX

Snowy owl (wild, not baited, not called), 500mm, f/4, 1/800s, ISO 3200, 1DX, Damon Point, WA

Great horned owl (wild, not baited, not called), 600mm, f/4, 1/800s, ISO 10,000, handheld.

Great horned owl (wild, not baited, not called), 600mm, f/4, 1/800s, ISO 10,000, handheld, Los Angeles

 

Note: I have to stress that all the birds particularly the owls above are wild, not baited, and not called. What I mean by “not called” is that the shot was not made by using a speaker to play an owl call to lure them in. In particular for great horned owls, if you see an in flight shot of that species anywhere else, chances are that the photographers may have used “bird call” to call them out or that the great horned owl is captive (not wild). You can check with the photographers. I dislike people calling owls although they have all the justifications. Just imagine, if you suddenly hear a stranger's voice in your home, for sure you would be extremely stressed. You may take your gun or baseball bat out, and ready to fight for your life to protect yourself and your family from the intruder. It's the same mechanism for owl call. Owls are very territorial. If they suddenly hear people playing an owl call, they would think that another owl has intruded their terriroty which may take their partner, eat their chicks or steal their food. That's why the owl would fly out to the open almost every time to check and get ready to fight.

You can imagine the stress it creates for the owls. For just a picture, it's not right to affect the owl's wellness. I see it as cheating, and it totally took the challenge and fun out of wildlife photography.

The shot above (great horned owl) took me weeks of waiting to get, which was completely natural with NO bird calls.

Anyways, enough of venting.

If you can create sharply focused photos of any fast flying birds, it would give you a rather strong base for any land animal actions, especially the ultimate WIF—WILDLIFE IN FLIGHT.

Long-tailed weasel in flight. One of the most difficult "in flight" shots I ever attempted. 600mm, f/8, 1/3200s, ISO 1600.

Long-tailed weasel in flight. One of the most difficult “in flight” shots I ever attempted. 600mm, f/8, 1/3200s, ISO 1600, Central California

 

This shot of long-tailed weasel wouldn't happen if my good friend and excellent photographer Donald Quintana didn't share with me the sighting info. Thanks Donald!!!

Coyote in Yellowstone, 500mm, 2X, ISO 1600, f/8, 1/1600s

Coyote in Yellowstone, 500mm, 2X, ISO 1600, f/8, 1/1600s

 

Red fox, Yellowstone. 600mm, f/5.6, 1/1250s, ISO 800, handheld

Red fox, Yellowstone. 600mm, f/5.6, 1/1250s, ISO 800, handheld

Coastal Brown Bear, 500mm, f/6.3, 1/1600s, ISO 800, tripod

Coastal Brown Bear, 500mm, f/6.3, 1/1600s, ISO 800, tripod

 

The claw, 500mm, 1/1600s, f/5.6, ISO 800

The claw, 500mm, 1/1600s, f/5.6, ISO 800

 

Here's an example of how the training in BIF saved the day.

Once again, chant with me, BIF, BIF, BIF!

 

 

 

 

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25 Comments

  1. Sally derevan on December 15, 2014 at 2:19 am

    Quite a remarkable post , with many observations as useful in life as they are in photography. And your pictures, as always, are stunning. Thank you.

  2. ralph torres on December 15, 2014 at 2:21 am

    Thank you for sharing your sense of ethics and your wonderful work. I fully agree with your philosophy and admire the way you show so much respect for these amazing creatures.

  3. Bruce Faaned on December 15, 2014 at 2:24 am

    Awesome article as to you’re insights that helped you get stunning photos. Very helpful & well done!

  4. Jennifer Lamkin Vulgamott on December 15, 2014 at 2:37 am

    These are spectacular photos. I’m feeling “lens envy” I admire your work and attitude.

  5. Toni York on December 15, 2014 at 2:52 am

    I am in awe beautiful photos.

  6. Jay Hessey on December 15, 2014 at 2:54 am

    Thanks for sharing real practical info plus your philosophy. Both are important

  7. Alan Schroeder on December 15, 2014 at 4:10 am

    Stunning images.

  8. Suzanne D. Wrenn on December 15, 2014 at 4:35 am

    Missie Wroten Smith you are on the right track!

  9. Mary Wiffen on December 15, 2014 at 7:26 am

    Thank you once again Tin Man for your in depth blog. You have made me realise that at 68 I may never get some of the fabulous shots you get, but I will hone my craft and hope by choosing a subject that moves me, I will move others too.

  10. Kari on December 15, 2014 at 9:57 am

    Well, this is disappointing. I was just shooting ducks landing in a pond this weekend. Every last one is blurry. I stink at B.I.F. 🙂 Guess I have some work to do! Thanks for the tips.

  11. Dalene Schirge on December 15, 2014 at 4:43 pm

    Oh, I loved this blog!

  12. Ricky Taira on December 15, 2014 at 4:50 pm

    Love this post Tin Man. Well gotta go. I gotta lot of training to go!

  13. Jeannie Hannon on December 15, 2014 at 8:19 pm

    Tin Man,
    I enjoyed reading your blog. Your photos are more than amazing and so is your philosophy!!! Thanks for sharing from the heart. I still haven’t conquered BIF.

  14. Judith Schnog on December 15, 2014 at 8:53 pm

    Tinman, thank you so much for BIF, I am definetly going to start training. I thought I was reasonably good with it, but after reading your blog I realise that it should be a lot better.. 😉
    As always, I am steunend by your photos. Never been one to lure, bait, trick or call, I am going to try and convince others to stop doing this…
    Looking forward to your next blog.

  15. Bob Cutrupi on December 16, 2014 at 7:06 am

    Beautiful photos

    • Tin Man Lee on December 16, 2014 at 7:39 pm

      Thanks Bob!

  16. Paula on December 16, 2014 at 7:26 am

    Great shots! Look forward to your future posts

    • Tin Man Lee on December 16, 2014 at 7:38 pm

      I sometimes got zero idea and sometimes I want to write 10 posts a day. 🙂

  17. Sherrie Gadreault on December 16, 2014 at 7:48 am

    Can’t wait until you publish your first book!! Love following your blogs!!! Love the photos!!!

    • Tin Man Lee on December 16, 2014 at 7:40 pm

      Sherrie, thanks, it will try to write as much in the blog so I can come up with a book idea 🙂

  18. […] 1200mm. It’s been 2 years since my quest for snowy owl. I had since practiced BIF for quite some time. The barn owl would still be 75 feet away from us even if they flew close. I […]

  19. […] After my first secret of wildlife photography here, you may want to chant with me the second secret of wildlife photography: […]

  20. delmonico steak on December 28, 2014 at 12:12 pm

    Hello.This post was extremely fascinating, especially because I was looking for thoughts on this subject last Tuesday.

  21. […] “Top Side” is one of the 4 holy grails for BIF photography, according to the unpublished 9 Manifesto of Wildlife Photography written by Tin Man […]

  22. […] My first trip to San Joaquin Wildlife Refuge in Irvine, CA. Ducks, egrets and herons frequented the several ponds near the entrance. I just purchased my 400mm F5.6 lens and was excited to try it out. It was a slow afternoon. I stood next to a pond. From time to time the Mallard Ducks would take off or land on the water which provided good opportunity for me to practice the Number One secret to wildlife photography. […]

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