Bear with salmon

All photos: Tin Man Lee

Tin Man Lee is a wildlife photographer who has racked up the awards in recent years, including the North American Nature Photography Association Top 10, and NANPA Expression magazine cover, as well as winning this year's grand prize in the highly prestigious Nature's Best Photography Windland Smith Rice International. Looking at his images, it's no wonder 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 that he pours his passion into this pastime. He has been at seriously for it only about three years, yet the portfolio he has produced is amazing.

Here's how Lee makes his images, from the preparation and gear to the vision he puts into each image, to the goals he has for his wildlife photo work.

bear kiss

MNN: How do you prepare for a trip to hang out with and photograph wildlife?

Tin Man Lee: 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.

barn owl dives

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" or "Wow, you are so good in Photoshop." Or you want people to say, “Your photo touches my heart. You really captured the emotion here.”

dall sheep with a rainbow behind it

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.


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.

polar bear family

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 experiences, our expression in photography became unique in a way.

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.

polar bear breath

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 begin to use creativity and imagination freely. That’s the time when you no longer need to follow the rules and can experiment with things.

owl with big eyes

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.

red fox yawns

For example, it was late afternoon when the light began to get harsh when I saw a herd of bison. Most of the photographers were focusing on the newly born bison calves. But I was attracted by a cowbird feeding 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.

bison antics

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 had one second or less to capture the shot, sometimes in a rocking boat in subzero temperature.

grizzly bear

What are some great stories from photographing wildlife, that show some of the danger and excitement of trips like this?

I was charged by a bison one time when I was too focused in photographing a wolf on the opposite side. The story is on my blog.

Another story was when I was in Katmai National Park. I was crouching down in ice-cold water for four hours and I was wearing a summer wader, which was so wrong for that weather. But we really didn’t expect to go to such high altitude with the low temperature for this trip. We were surrounded by more than 30 bears within 200 feet.

I remember there was a game trail right behind me, so the bear may show up anytime behind. Chas Glatzer, our tour leader, was on my left, who kept clapping at the bears that tried to approach us from our left. Charlie, our lodge owner who has a gun, was walking behind me, telling me “Don’t worry, Tin Man, I will make sure you are safe. But if anything happens to me, tell my wife I love her.” On my right, there’s a photographer and good friend whom I knew I could outrun.

black bear reflection

Do you have a favorite photo?

One of my favorite photo was the mountain goat kids jumping.

mountain goats on a mountain

I was joking with my friend, I said I wanted to take a photo with more than one mountain goat kid at a rock, being shined by the beautiful morning light. My friend laughed and thought I was too ambitious.

Then the first morning, I saw the mountain goat kids. I took tons of photos. But one photo caught my attention and I took it by accident, which had the snow-capped Rocky Mountain range as the background. It looked so much better. However, I wasn’t paying attention when I took the picture. There was a road that’s visible and it was distracting.

This is one thing that’s critical, which is to carefully review my pictures after I have downloaded them to my computer. I will look at all the details, and think about how to improve upon it, think of new ideas, and go to the same spot again and again and again to try to get what I want.

Anyway, the second day, I got there early, found a spot where the road was not visible but still has the Rocky Mountain background. As the first ray of light shined on a rock, I saw a mountain goat kid climbed up, and then the second, and then the third. And they started to jump. It was a magical moment, especially because while I was taking the shot, I was surrounded by some other mountain goat kids within 10 feet of me. They were chasing each other and completely ignored my presence.

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