The Number Two Secret To Wildlife Photography

#1. “Hey bear, good bear.” Our group kept calling while we were trekking in the tall grass, in pitch dark, at 5am. Well, summer in Alaska never got completely dark, but it’s still so dark that I could barely make my way. Being clumsy I was always the one being left far behind the group. We were calling to let the bears know in case they were nearby and we didn’t startle them and accidentally initiate a deadly attack from them. In this low light situation, we might step on their claws without knowing. The tall grass in early morning was wet, as the place was misty and cold and full of mosquitoes. We came across a two-feet wide stream separating the land. With the 600mm lens and tripod on my left shoulder and a 70-200 on my right shoulder, I was not well balanced. I took a leap to jump thru the stream. As I landed, my right foot slipped. Trying to protect my gear, I landed sideway onto the wet grass with my elbow supporting myself. I felt an instant freezing cold on the whole right side of my right leg. Geez I thought I paid a lot of money for my fancy water-proof rain pants yet it still leaked. It was not a pretty scene. “I am okay” was the first thing I yelled. What was I getting myself into…


#2. After photographing the great-horned owls, I split with my photog friend and walked back alone to my car 300 feet away across the grass field. The sun had well set. I could barely make my way by following the lights from the cars in the distant road, as I parked alongside that road. Out of nowhere, 4 guys jumped out from the bush and walked towards me. From the dim ambient light I could barely see their face and they obviously didn’t look friendly. Immediately I turned around, grabbed my pepper spray in one hand and my phone in another hand and pretended to be calling while walking in a much faster speed. What was I getting myself into…


#3. We were losing light by the second. We couldn’t use the tripod in a small 5-people boat, rocking back and forth in the Arctic Ocean. No way we could still take any pics with the low light as the sun had just set. Yet I held up the 600mm lens, with the rented 200-400mm on my shoulder. I couldn’t put the 200-400mm lens on the floor because the floor was wet. The lactic acid on my arm was kicking in. My body bent in an awkward position so my elbow was resting on my waist bone to give myself one more second of support while my biceps was giving out, and my waist was shaking, struggling to balance another heavy lens on my shoulder. I looked at the reading. ISO 6400, f/4, 1/60s, on a rocking boat, handheld. I had muscle sore for 3 weeks afterwards. My friend next to me got a pinched nerve attempting this. What was I getting myself into…


#4. After trekking for miles in gusty wind and complete darkness, like a maniac I was low crawling all over the beach through drift wood and tall grass, at times scratching my 70-200mm lens on my shoulder, looking for the snowy owls. My knees still hurt from the “deadly” fall the day before and the crawling made it worse. What was I getting myself into…


I didn’t know why I kept doing all these. Until recently.

The other day Donald told me a seminar given by a famous National Geographic photographer. The first assignment of that photographer years ago was to take pictures of a relatively new state park. He took the pictures and sent to the editor. The editor said “why all the photos were taken after 9am? We never take pictures after 9am!” The photographer said it’s because the park opened at 9am. The editor threw all the photos back to him and said “Then make something happen.” The photographer eventually did make it to the park before 9am using all sorts of methods.

We wildlife photographers could all smile about the 9am joke.

A friend once saw my photos and said “Your photos all have good light.”

I would say “Just lucky.”

But we all know, in one way or the other, it’s because we don’t take photos “after 9am”.

What does it mean?

In a nutshell, if sunrise is at 7am, we will only take pictures till 9am. If sunset is at 5pm, we will only start the evening photo session at 3pm. For the time in between, we would still observe the animals, but would not take any pictures because they are not going to look good. The light would cast harsh shadow on the animals unless they are in the shades.

During these “golden hours” before 9am and after 3pm, if we stand in a position with the sun directly (or at a small angle) behind us, it casts little or no shadows on the animals so the photos usually look pleasant.

With two exceptions:

  1. Places like Alaska and Yellowstone, its mostly cloudy. Overcast weather is good because it’s like a giant soft box that diffuse the light. Wildlife seems to look good when overcast.
  2. Even if it’s sunny the whole day, the light in the Arctic and Antarctica are mostly soft so one can photograph the whole day without worrying the time.

More on this by Chas the master:

Light illuminates, shadow defines

Those hours with good light are good. But that’s not enough. I still couldn’t figure out what I was after on the above situations. There must be something interesting that attracted me to try these again and again.

One time I was talking to my very good friend Carl. I told him I admired the famous British photographer Andy Rouse. Turned out Carl knew him.

“Tin Man, read ‘Concepts of Nature: A Wildlife Photographer’s Art’ by Andy Rouse, you must.”

Carl didn’t really speak like that but he is like Yoda who always feed me wisdom in photography, so I bought the book instantly.

Before I got to the book, here I quote Robert McKee in “Story” again:

Some, dreading that awareness of how they do what they do would cripple their spontaneity, never study the craft. Instead, they march along in a lockstep of unconscious habit, thinking it’s instinct. Their dreams of creating unique works of power and wonder are seldom, if ever, realized. They put in long, tough days, for no matter how it’s taken, the writer’s road is never smooth, and because they have a gift, from time to time their efforts draw applause, but in their secret selves they know they’re just taking talent for a walk.

We gotta understand why we are doing what we are doing and why something works. We must be brutally honest with ourselves.

Andy Rouse in his “Concept of Nature” book coined the term “Red5″.

“We have a Red5 alert here, buddy.” At first I thought it was related to Stage 5 clinger.

Red5 really means the 5 minutes after sunrise and 5 minutes before sunset when the light was at such an angle that turned everything bright red.

The emotion created by Red5 lighting is stunning. One can photograph the animal in any direction during Red5, and it would look special, and the effects completely different, whatever fancy the photographer’s imagination.

Red5 basically summed up what I had been after in the above 4 examples trekking and crawling in the darkness. But instead of just going for those, I also went for 5 mins BEFORE sunrise and 5 mins AFTER sunset when the color is ever-changing. During those few minutes, Nature does crazy things and produces crazy colors. When things are so crazy good, you got to make use of it to your advantage.

Why Red5?

Mckee said (Did I mention I love his book):

In film, feeling is known as mood. Mood is created in the film’s text: the quality of light and color, tempo of action and editing, casting, style of dialogue, production design, and musical score. The sum of all these textural qualities creates a particular mood.

It’s pretty easy to apply this to the “mood creation” in wildlife photography if one put in some creativity.

So now we know how to create the MOOD.

However, with good light, color and all, it’s still boring if there’s no “emotion” in it. What is emotion? Emotion is the moment captured, the action.

With Red5, we set the stage for the most dramatic mood. But we need to also capture some special action to make it meaningful.

When we capture the action in this mood, we creates a compelling story.

My math is not very good, but anyways:

Mood + Emotion = Story with impact

Mood and emotion have to come together.

After my first secret of wildlife photography here, you may want to chant with me the second secret of wildlife photography:

Red5, Red5, Red5.

5 minutes within sunrise. Lake Clark, Alaska.

5 minutes within sunrise. Lake Clark, Alaska.

 

Brown bear sunrise

Brown bear sunrise

Bear at sunrise.

Bear at sunrise.

This made the trekking in tall, wet grass in darkness worth it.

The last ray of light shinning on the leaves behind the owl and turned them golden. (wild, not baited, not called)

The last ray of light shinning on the leaves behind the owl and turned them golden. (wild, not baited, not called)

Polar bear in Red5

Polar bear in Red5

 

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Peeking from behind. Polar bear family. Alaska Arctic.

Most of us had put the camera down because of the light direction and that it was getting dark. I was the one clicking the shutter like crazy.

Most of us had put the camera down because of the light direction and that it was getting dark. I was the one clicking the shutter like crazy.

The last ray of sunset turned the newly frozen sea ice into golden, as the polar bear cub in the middle suddenly wake up and sat up.

The last ray of sunset turned the newly frozen sea ice into golden, as the polar bear cub in the middle suddenly wake up and sat up.

I am always chasing the pink/purple light.

I am always chasing the pink/purple light.

This made the muscle and back pain worthwhile.

I shouldn't have stayed so late to wait for a sunset snowy owl photo. Or should I?

I shouldn’t have stayed so late to wait for a sunset snowy owl photo. Or should I?

I reviewed in my camera LCD, and I saw an owl with big pupils looking towards my direction, with a hint of ambient light from the horizon just seconds before sunrise. And a purple background of the morning sky.

I reviewed in my camera LCD, and I saw an owl with big pupils looking towards my direction, with a hint of ambient light from the horizon just seconds before sunrise. And a purple background of the morning sky.

The head turn from darkness

The head turn from darkness. If you haven’t noticed, this is a BIF + Red5 with a head turn. 😉

Gray fox from darkness

Gray fox from darkness

Black bear and shadow.

Black bear and reflection

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Red5 is a pain to find. It’s elusive, it’s fleeting, it means lots of trekking in the darkness with lots of failures of finding any animals during those dark hours. But once you encounter those moments, it’s magic.

So chant with me, Red5, Red5, Red5.

 

 

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11 Comments

  1. Ratna Narayan on December 24, 2014 at 6:18 am

    RED5 RED5 RED5!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  2. Ruth Haynes Fullam on December 24, 2014 at 7:52 am

    Just stunning

  3. Ruth Haynes Fullam on December 24, 2014 at 7:52 am

    Just stunning

  4. Inet Car on December 24, 2014 at 7:52 am

    If i could reach out from this screen, i would reach out and hug you. thank you explaining “light” you just explained what i have been tryin to figure out for the past year now and the whole concept has been out of my reach. one workshop i took, she kept talking about the light being your teacher, and for the life of me i could not understand what she was talking about. a very big thank you !!

  5. Inet Car on December 24, 2014 at 7:52 am

    If i could reach out from this screen, i would reach out and hug you. thank you explaining “light” you just explained what i have been tryin to figure out for the past year now and the whole concept has been out of my reach. one workshop i took, she kept talking about the light being your teacher, and for the life of me i could not understand what she was talking about. a very big thank you !!

  6. Dalene Schirge on December 24, 2014 at 11:52 am

    Glorious photos as always

  7. Lorelei Baird Jackson on December 24, 2014 at 12:53 pm

    Thank you for teaching me so much with in this one article.

  8. Carl Finkbeiner on December 24, 2014 at 4:14 pm

    Thanks for doing what you do.

  9. SJ Zito on December 25, 2014 at 12:53 am

    Stunning photographs and wonderful advice. Thank you for sharing your hard earned knowledge so generously!

  10. SJ Zito on December 25, 2014 at 12:54 am

    Stunning photographs and wonderful advice. Thank you for sharing your hard earned knowledge so generously!

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