Crazy Wildlife Photography: 11 Unorthodox Tips You Should Never Listen To

What is the “Best Camera For The Low Esteem”?

A friend recently sent me an article written by Ken Rockwell:​

For someone lacking in some areas, the best way to make up for it is with a real LEICA, and I don't mean one that says Panasonic on the inside. Get the LEICA M typ 240, the LEICA NOCTILUX-M 50mm f/0.95 ASPH and you're in. It's not very useful as a picture taker, but like a Porsche, people rarely buy it to use it.

I was giggling while looking back at my camera buying history.  I admit I did fancy a Leica from time to time (hey, people once told me that photos taken by a Leica have golden glows), but I have never owned one. So I'm good. I guess I don't have self esteem issue. 

But wait... In my college days, I did save up for a year by eating only instant ramen to purchase a Hasselblad 503CW and two lenses. I quickly came back to my senses and sold it before I was starved to death. And I did also own a Pentax 67, a Nikon N80, then later a Nikon F5, and a Nikon 70-200 f/2.8.  Afterwards, I switched to Canon as the brilliant D30 was released in 2001. Then after countless other Canon models, I moved to Canon 7D, 5D Mark II, 5D Mark III, then Canon 1D Mark IV, then two Canon 1D Mark IVs, the 70-200 f/2.8II, the 85mm 1.2L II, the 500mm f/4. And finally the Canon 1DX and the 600mm f/4 II. Oh no, low esteem all over the place ...

No wildlife photographers want to be the short man. Maybe we all strive to find the holy grail to the secret of creating the sharpest image...

I still remember vividly that the sharpness of the 6x6 slides made by the Hasselblad blew my mind.

But hold on a second. What’s the use of a really sharp image? In “Within The Frame”, David DuChemin said,

“The world doesn’t need another pretty picture. People only want to see something that move them. We should take picture that moves us in the same way it moves others.”

So what moves me?

Elusive animals in low light. Darkness. Love. Fantasy. Something whimsical. Something mysterious.

I'm INFP. I can't stop dreaming and imagining.

At the end, all these 600mm and 1DX are just tools. The key is to push these tools to help realize the vision. Here's 7 tips of how I chase my dreams:​

I love to push the equipment to the extreme to reach something that’s barely out of reach. The out of control feeling frees me. We do wildlife photography not because it is easy but because it is hard.

1. Shoot with side lighting. Most photographers shoot with the sun directly behind them to reduce the shadow on the animals. But when the animals are sidelit, the mood could be much more dramatic if used properly.

A wild grey fox showing up right before sunset at Angeles National Forest. The side lighting makes the fox look more mysterious, which is how I dream of this nocturnal and elusive species. Canon 1DX, Canon 600mm f/4, f/4, 1/320s, ISO 1600, handheld. (print)

Side light can add a more dramatic effect. Common loons in breeding plumage, North Michigan. Canon 1D Mark IV, Canon 500mm f/4, 1.4x teleconverter, f/8, 1/1000s, ISO 800, handheld on a boat.

The bison in frost looks even more menacing with side lighting. Yellowstone, Winter 2012. Canon 1D Mark IV, 70-200mm 2.8II, 1.4x teleconverter, f/5.6, 1/800s, ISO 800, handheld from car. (print)

2. Shoot backlit with haze. Your eyes may be blinded when shooting right into the sun. And the exposure could be a nightmare. But that's also the time when the mood runs wild.

(print)

We were on a boat in the Alaskan Arctic. Our boat was slowly moving. At one point, the setting sun was directly in front of us, creating a dramatic golden scene. Canon 1DX, Canon 200-400 f/4, f/5.6, 1/500s, ISO 1600, handheld. (print)

3. Shoot when the night falls. Silhouette always helps with the mood. 

The mother bear and cubs didn't come out until the night falls, so that their lives would not be endangered by other adult bears. Canon 1D Mark IV, Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 II, f/2.8, 1/160s, ISO 1600, shoot from the window of a car. Alaskan Arctic. (print)

4. Shoot when the animals are looking away. Eye contact is the key for most successful wildlife photos. We always wish for the moment when the animals and birds are walking or flying towards our direction. But in some occasions, the image evokes more imagination when the animals are looking away. So never stop shooting even when the animals are leaving. Don't ever put the camera down, even when all your friends are packing their cameras and walking back to their cars.

While I was photographing bears pouncing for salmon in Katmai National Park, Alaska, I suddenly saw a bear doing something interesting through my peripheral vision. I quickly turned my camera towards this guy. The action only lasted for half a second. And it became one of my favorite photos of the trip! Canon 1D Mark IV, Canon 500mm f/4, f/5.6, 1/1250s, ISO 800, Gitzo tripod. (print)

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Coastal Brown bear cub refused to get back on the ground after the mother bear nursed him. Alaska. (print)

5. Shoot vertically down. Frans Lanting is one of the first photographers who popularized the idea of photographing the animals at eye level -- meaning that we should  try to have our camera at the same height as the eyes of the animals -- so that we could have a glimpse of their world in their perspective. Such a method is really powerful. So powerful that it could make one's photographs many times better all of a sudden. That's why we see countless photographers low crawling in mud or ice or water, laying flat on their belly, to approach the animals or birds. The foreground and background would become pleasing out-of-focus blurs so the viewer's attention would be drawn to the animals.  

American Avocet, San Joaquin Wildlife Refuge, Irvine, CA

At eye level, I can have a glimpse of the world of the American Avocet in breeding plumage. So striving for eye level is great, but...  rules are to be broken.

Sometimes, when we shoot vertically down, and when the animals look up, we could really utilize the background to help the image.

We were in the snowcoach when we saw a red fox walking near a creek down below us. I jumped out with my gear, which was my camera and lens attached to the tripod. I quickly detached my lens from the tripod and throw the tripod aside, because I couldn't point vertically down with the tripod attached. As I focus locked on the fox, I waited for a moment when he looked up a bit and checked on me. Canon 1DX, Canon 600mm f/4, 1.4x, f/5.6, 1/1250s, ISO 1600, handheld.

The wind blew for a second and the red fox closed her eyes, in the -20F Yellowstone winter. Shooting downwards. (print)

The Top Side view of a peregrine falcon. 1/3200s, 600mm, 1.4x, f/5.6, ISO 1600 (print)

There was a special location in Southern California where I could stand on the edge of a cliff and see Peregrine Falcon flying by. Their nest was not visible but we knew it's down there. With the ocean as the backdrop, and the newly fledged falcon kept calling their parents for food, one could capture a picture of the top side of a peregrine falcon, as if we were flying above them. Canon 1DX, 600mm f/4, 1.4x, f/5.6, 1/3200s, handheld.

Gliding osprey top side, 600mm, f/7.1, 1/1600s, ISO 800. Shooting downwards at a cliff in San Diego.

We were photographing a herd of bisons walking towards us on the icy road, when they suddenly ran down the road towards a river below. Instead of trying to get eye level, I saw an opportunity when the bison was walking near the river. With the falling snow, the darker water could let the white snow show and add to the atmosphere. Canon 1DX, Canon 600mm f/4, 1.4x III, f/5.6, 1/1250s, ISO 1600, handheld. (PRINT)

6. Shoot up. By the same token, shooting up when the animals are looking down can show their immense power and curiosity.

I hiked for half an hour without seeing any mountain goats but I started to feel the high attitude sickness. So I found a big rock and sat down to take a rest. After a while, a herb of mountain goats showed up while they were grazing. The big brother of the herb saw me and came check me out. I was lucky to have a 16-35mm lens as I was shooting scenery in early morning. Canon 1DX, 16-35mm f/2.8, f/13, 1/320s, ISO 800. (Purchase)

After the big brother checked up on me and realized I was harmless, his younger brothers and sisters, the newly born mountain goat kids, all came to greet me. (Print)


In the book "Masters of Nature Photography" about Pal Hermansen, it said:

He sees photography as a type of scientific activity, in the sense that the camera can reveal things that have never been seen before and record them with accuracy as well as artistry. Photography, especially the technical innovations of digital photography, is 'a way to enter realms that are not seen with the naked eye - motion, macro world, time, night, and so on'. Pal is fascinated by the ability of photography to both 'freeze the split-second action and compress a longer period of time'. But he also is aware of the danger of the technical solution becoming the aim. 'To me, the story - the idea, the depth for interpretation and the emotions it evokes - has to be the most important aspect of an image.'

7. Shoot with a 2X teleconverter. Traditional belief is that 2X teleconverter degrades the image quality significantly. But in recent years, I saw in several online forums where professional photographers and enthusiasts posted their test on the performance of 2X teleconverters. The results blew me away, especially for Canon teleconverters. Essentially, from the naked eyes, the image quality was excellent when a 2X teleconverter is attached to a prime supertele lens. The secret is to "stop down" the f-stop. For example, with a 500mm f/4 lens, when attached to a 2X, it becomes 1000mm f/8. If one shoots wide open at f/8, the quality does degrade a bit. But once you set the f-stop at f/11 or smaller, the image quality is spectacular. And this opens up a whole new world because most of the wild animals are elusive and like to stay far away from us. On the other hand, I am a believer that in order to capture the interaction, a super close up always help tremendously.

Red fox close up, Alaskan Arctic. Canon 1DX, Canon 600mm f/4, 2x III, f/11, 1/320s, ISO 800, RRS tripod

The bobcat felt comfortable as we were separated by a river. Once a wild animal feels relaxed, they show their natural behavior. For example, they would go to a high vintage point, such as this tree log, to look for food. Canon 1DX, 600mm f/4, 2x, f/11, 1/800s, ISO 1600, RRS tripod. (print)

While we were on a small boat in the Alaskan Arctic, we saw a lone polar bear far far away. We couldn't get any closer as the sea ice had all frozen in front of us. The light angle to most of us on the boat was not "ideal" as the light source was not behind us. So most of us didn't even put up their camera but just observing. I instantly saw a rare opportunity. The sea ice reflected gold. With the dark profile of the polar bear, I envision that once the polar bear breathed out, the warm air would turn golden, and the dark profile of the polar bear could let the color shows. Too far away? Not when I had the 2X teleconverter! I immediately put on the converter and waited for the moment. 600mm and 2x converter is extremely heavy and hard to balance. My arms felt numb when finally the polar bear faced our direction and breathed out. Not only did the air breathing out turned gold, but also the wet fur. Canon 1DX, 600mm, 2x, f/11, 1/500s, ISO 1600, handheld. (print)

The newly born endangered San Joaquin Kit Fox (wild) was like any other new borns. They love to bite at whatever they got curious with. This pup just popped out from the den, and saw the tail of her sibling. Canon 1DX, 600mm f/4, 2X, f/11, 1/1000s, ISO 800, monopod.

wild barn owl, not baited, not using bird call. San Simeon, CA. (print)

If somebody is crazy enough, they would photography birds in flight using 2X teleconverter. I am one of them. Focus tracking would become very difficult, because it is very difficult to lock focus onto the bird once the 2x converter is on. But, practice makes perfect. 

To me, there are three important Zen states in wildlife photography. ​One of them is the art of focus locking in birds-in-flight while handholding the camera and lens. We all know the techniques mentioned in the camera manual (though I have to admit that I never read manuals), with different modes of focus tracking. But there is something that words can't describe on focus locking. The subtle time difference between your camera locks focus on a bird in which you could press the shutter whole way down to start taking pictures, vs when the camera is still hunting for focus, is an art form. If you really wait for certainty when the focus has definitely locked on the bird before you depress the shutter, it's going to be too late. But if you press it too early, the camera hasn't locked the focus on the birds and all your shots would be blurry. I use index finger to focus, while many use their thumb for back focusing. Either way works. But once the tip of your finger feels that the focus is locked, its something science cannot explain. It's almost like your placement and movement of your finger on the string of a violin. The subtle change of the accuracy makes a world of difference on where you pluck the string and draw the bow across the string. When you have practiced a thousand times of a fast flying birds in varying background, you will start to understand the exhilarating feeling on the art of birds-in-flight. 

8. Don't rely on a tripod. Ah... the dilemma about tripod. Don't get me wrong, I researched the best tripod as gospel. I first owned a heavy aluminum tripod. After upgrading numerous times, I then owned a Gitzo 1325 carbon fiber tripod, and later a Gitzo 3542XLS, which got stolen, and then I bought a Really Right Stuff TVC-33. I also tested extensively on the BH-50 ball head, Wimberley II, RRS leveling head, etc. At first I thought it's a must to have the most stable tripod for my heavy telephoto lenses such as the 500mm f/4 or 600mm f/4. (Soon I should write a blog post about the choice between a 500mm and 600mm, which took me several years to decide). But when I looked back in the last 5 years, the best shots I got were taken within 3 seconds of the first encounter with the wild animals. Assume you have your camera and lens attached to a tripod that you carry on your shoulder. By the time you see the animal, the time you bent your body to put the tripod on the ground, spread the three tripod legs, adjust the height, loosen the knob of the ball head or Wimberley head to aim the lens towards the animal, that at least takes 5 seconds. If I handhold the camera and lens, I have already taken 50 photos if the camera has a frame rate of 10 frames per second. In addition, a lot of the terrain I go to had so many branches and uneven ground (or on a rocking boat) that setting up a tripod is literally not possible. If I really need it, I use the natural tripod -- my knee. I just kneel down and rest my left elbow on my left knee. To me, tripod is only useful for:

  • waiting for 3 hours of a perched bird to take off
  • waiting for a sleeping animal to wake up
  •  taking pics when wading in deep water
  •  long exposure of northern light, milky way, waves, and clouds
  • long exposure for slow blur or pan blur of birds blasting off such as in Bosque Del Apache
  • self defense when a bear is charging at you

9. Shoot at 1/10s, 1/30s, 1/60s. Not only can slow shutter create stunning blur of the motion, but it also creates a whole new world in terms of exposure. We have been taught that in order to get a sharp photo, the rule of thumb is to have a shutter speed of 1/focal length of the lens. So for  600mm lens, one should have a shutter speed of at least 1/600s. But as long as the animals are not moving quickly, one can obtain a sharp picture with a much lower shutter speed. Traditional way is to put the camera on a tripod and use shutter release. But as I mentioned, tripod slows you down. And its not suitable for a lot of terrain such as on a boat or in tall grass and twigs. We could instead use the two things that the digital world provides: high frame rate and image stabilization. Nowadays, many lens offer 4 stops of stabilization.

The second zen state is to be as calm as possible when using slow shutter speed. Take a deep breath, breath out a bit, hold it, and click the shutter. When we have put all our effort combining all the advanced techniques​, and when there is still a distance between our dream shot, we just have to take a leap of faith. Don't we all want something just out of reach? I will talk about the number three zen state in the next blog post, maybe...

At Brooks Fall, Alaska. This gigantic bear, who had numerous scars on his face, and one ear lost from fighting, had an immense presence. No other bears dared to get close to him as he waited patiently for salmon. I used a 1/10s long exposure to create the slow blur in the background and also the short lines of water splash in front of the bear, which showed how stable the bear stayed to minimize the chance of the fish seeing him. Canon 1D Mark IV, Canon 500mm f/4, 1.4x III, f/22, 1/10s, ISO 100, RRS tripod. (print)

With the info provided by a very good friend, we waited from dawn to dusk for 13 hours straight before we finally met this elusive species. Canon 1DX, 600mm f/4, f/4, 1/10s, ISO 8000, handheld (because I am crazy), taken after sunset. The only shot with this pose and a rare grey background, which I think was a good color to do justice for this beautiful and elusive species. (print)

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. Canon 1D Mark IV, 500mm f/4, f/4, 1/60s, ISO 800, Gitzo tripod. (print)

10. Shoot with Manual Focus. While everyone are talking about how great the new auto focus AI servo tracking is, what am I talking about? There are actually quite many situations one needs to switch to manual focus, e.g. heavy snow fall, foggy, through lots of occlusion and extreme low light situation. So don't hesitate to switch to manual!

Some said it's the emperor's new clothes, some called it "Bearly there bear". I don't know. All I know was that there's a polar bear there. And the camera couldn't auto focus. I had to use manual focus on this extremely foggy day in the Alaskan Arctic. (Buy it if you dare)

A few seconds later, the fog cleared a bit and the polar bear had walked there.  (print)

As the elusive grey fox showed up behind the tree branches, I had to use manual focus to focus on his eye. It only lasted for less than a second before he disappeared. Angeles National Forest. (print)

It was already past sunset. The whole area turned dark as the light was dropping fast. That's the time the great horned owl started to look for food. I spent a whole spring there. This particular evening, this great horned owl landed near me and started to look for food. It's impossible to set up tripod because the whole place was full of dead trees with branches lying everywhere. Even walking there was difficult. I threw away my tripod and kneeled down. From the viewfinder, I could only see darkness. I had to depend on my other senses. I felt that the great horned owl was right in front of me. I barely saw the two big eyes. So I switched to manual focus as the AF had failed, just hunting front and back. As I intentionally over exposed the shots, I was able to see this, which was not possible with our naked eyes. Canon 1DX, Canon 600mm f/4, f/4, 1/30s, ISO 16000, handheld.

11. Shoot at ISO 8000 or above. Always keep stretching the capability of your camera. Nowadays, Canon 5D Mark III and Canon 1DX handles noise so well that one hardly see any noise below ISO 3200. If you expose to the right in the histogram, you can get totally usable shots at ISO 8000 or above. I was originally inspired by the blog post by the famed Andy Rouse when he tested the 1DX and bravely shot with ISO 16000. 

The last ray of light shinning on the leaves behind the owl and turned them golden. (wild, not baited, not called) ISO 8000, 200-400mm f/4, f/5.6, 1/320s, handheld

As the night falls, the great gray owl pounced down from the tree in Grand Teton National Park. Canon 1DX, 600mm f/4,  ISO 16000, f/4, 1/1250s, handheld


​With a combination of 2x teleconverter, high ISO, slow shutter speed, manual focus, and handholding, digital photography provided a lot of opportunities that were not possible before. When these techniques are handled properly with your vision and dream, it lets us have a glimpse into the secret beauty of some of the most elusive animals that our naked eyes are not able to see before. 

But be warned before you plan to try these techniques...

Because you may get a severe back pain afterwards just like me.

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