In Photos: Award-winning photographer Tin Man Lee on the ethics and challenges of wildlife photography
Tin Man Lee is a wildlife photographer who has earned acclaim for his images, most recently snagging the North American Nature Photography Association (NANPA) Top 10 and the cover of NANPA's Expression magazine, and this year's Grand Prize in the highly prestigious Nature's Best Photography Windland Smith Rice International. Looking at his images, it is no wonder why they earn such recognition. His talent for capturing emotionally compelling moments of natural beauty is on par with the best professionals. Though wildlife photography is technically Lee's hobby, it is apparent the passion he pours into this pastime. He has been at seriously for it only a mere three years and the portfolio he's produced is amazing. Here is an inside look at the philosophy, ethics and challenges behind his work.
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What does wildlife photography do for you as a person? Does it help connect you more deeply to nature?
I love nature and it’s the place where I can let my imagination run free. I find solitude in there. It’s a place where I can release the steam. It lets me connect deeply because I never knew there are so many beautiful wildlife viewing opportunities around us if we pay more attention. I feel true fulfillment when I can capture the beauty of wild animals, share with my friends and they too feel the same way.
Is there a message you try to communicate with others through your images?
I try to stir the emotion in my viewers so that they fall in love with the wild animals, so that more and more people are touched. If people have a deeper love of the nature and conservation, then I know I have made a difference.
What are your goals for photographing wildlife? When do you know you've got shots you're satisfied with?
There are many good wildlife photographers out there. Getting something different is more and more difficult. First, you have to ask yourself what you want people to say about your photos. Do you want people to say, "Wow your photos are so sharp with no noise", and "Wow you are so good in photoshop"? Or you want people to say, “Your photo touches my heart. You really captured the emotion here.”
I like what David Duchemin said in his book Within the frame. He said, “people only want to see photos that move them.”
But that doesn't mean that technical details are not important. Rather, it's the opposite. You have to master all the techniques first, and refine it to a state that the photo, without any distractions, leads the viewers to a story that stirs their emotion.
© Tin Man Lee
Emotion is about empathy. As we live through life, we all have ups and downs. We are shaped by the decisions we made and the actions we took when things happened. Along the way, our experience also shaped our empathy about life. Our emotion is stirred when we see something that triggered our memory.
In photography, we click the shutter when we see something that touches our heart. Even at the same scene, we can see totally different things based on our interpretation. Our interpretation triggered by our empathy. So in a way, our photos represent our inner self.
If we can learn to see the beauty in nature, and understand how to speak the language of an image, our image can stir other people’s emotion and empathy. And because we all have different life experience, our expression in photography became unique in a way.
How do you make sure to have the smallest impact on the environment you're shooting, and the wildlife life that are your subjects?
The more I go out and see the wildlife, seeing how they survive in the harsh environment, seeing the mother’s love of the young, the more I respect and love them, want to minimize my impact to them, and want to do something to conserve these few remaining wilderness areas for them. I just keep learning from biologists and experienced tour leaders.
I strive to keep a good distance from the animals so they are not uncomfortable, and I also leave quietly after I am done photographing. I just feel that my photo is not worth anything compared to the wellness of the animal. It's just my hobby, and I feel good just to be out there in the nature.
© Tin Man Lee
What are some of the ethical concerns you have for photographing wildlife (things like baiting or calling, pushing wildlife to the point of being uncomfortable, etc)?
I don’t like the idea of baiting or calling, or photographing captive animals. Though I do understand some captive animal centers are for animal rescue and rehabilitation and those are for good cause. As I mentioned, the more I see wildlife in their natural habitat doing their things, the more I respect them and love them. I just feel that when I respect and love the wild animal, I wouldn't want to bait them just for a photo. I also tend to think that if I were them, I wouldn’t want to be caged or baited or called. My only interest is to capture their natural behavior in their own habitat without any of my intervention, leaving the least footprint.
© Tin Man Lee
I have heard that some photographers take a lot of safety measures when baiting the animal. But at the end if it’s just for a beautiful photo, I don’t like this idea. As a photographer getting close to the wildlife, I am already creating a certain stress to the animals, so I wouldn't want to add more. And I enjoy it the most when the wild animals ignore my presence.
I also imagine, what if kids from future generations asked me how I got the shot? If I feel a little discomfort to disclose the truth, or like I have something to hide, then I wouldn’t want to take the photos.
© Tin Man Lee
How do you prepare for a trip to hang out with and photograph wildlife?
Wildlife photography is mostly unpredictable. My motto is "Expect the worst while always prepare for the best," because quite a lot of the time I don't get any shots. But good shots always happen when one is least expecting it.
I usually do some extensive research of what photos people have taken before from Google search, online photo forums, magazines and books, and see which one inspired me. I analyze the light, angle, focal length, etc carefully, and ask myself if I have any new ideas. Then I prepare lenses from ultra wide angle to 600mm. I ask people who have been to the locations before to get an idea. But most of the time, it’s learning from my own mistakes and hoping to do better next time. Most important is to have fun. Since I love nature and wildlife, I always have a lot of fun even if the photo opportunity isn’t the best.
© Tin Man Lee
How do you improve as a photographer?
Technical expertise is a must, as you cannot be constrained by technical issues of your camera and lens when you are in the field. One should master the fundamental techniques of seeing quality and direction of the light; having a very clear understanding of exposure and histogram; and being good at image adjustment like curves, shadow and highlight, and unsharp masking during the post-processing phase.
© Tin Man Lee
You have to read a lot of photo books and magazines, participate in online critique forums, and learn from photographers who inspire you. For example, I was blown away by Chas Glatzer’s photos so I tried my best to learn from him. You also need to know some friends who have the same passion and goals, so you can keep each other company and improve together. Many social media sites are free and when we are learning, we can post our photos there and see how people respond. And learn from it. Only after one understands these basics can one begins to use creativity and imagination freely. That’s the time when you no longer need to follow the rules and can experiment with things.
Finally, to stir the emotion, the photos should have some unexpectedness, through the use of light from bright to dark, or size difference between two animals, or smooth versus rough. For example, a bear sow and cub’s interaction could melt people’s heart, an owl walking like human can make people laugh, an animal peeking through occlusion creates mystery, the big bison “kissing” a small bird creates tension and size contrast.
© Tin Man Lee
For example, it was late afternoon when the light began to get harsh when I saw a herb of bison. Most of the photographers were focusing on the newly born bison calves. But I was attracted by a cowbird feeing on insects right next to a bison. The bison was grazing on grass and got closer and closer to the cowbird until the last moment his tongue almost touched the cowbird. And that’s how I captured the award winning shot.
In my experience, the best moments were mostly the fleeting moments in nature, when you least expected it and usually lasted only a few seconds, so quick action and the ability to handhold in critical moment are very important. Pre-visualization sometimes works, but a lot of the time I could never even begin to imagine some scenarios -- such as seeing a bear killing a beaver and being chased by other bears right in front of me, sprinting at over 30 miles per hour, or a dall sheep showing up in front of a rainbow, or a polar bear cub sitting up like a human with his mouth open backlit in beautiful sunset -- while you only have one second or less to capture the shot, sometimes in a rocking boat in subzero temperature.