Photographing Animals with the Olympus OMD EM-5
Most of the photographers I know, be they professional or hobbyists, enjoy photographing animals if they get the chance. I photograph animals quite often because I have a busy pet and animal portraiture side to my business. But I also enjoy photographing animals if ever I have a few hours off – it’s always fun and it’s always relaxing. Animals are interesting, and very often they’re entertaining and endearing in equal measure. I also have quite a few acquaintances wanting to learn more about both the technical and creative side to animal photography and so it’s quite common that I’ll have an informal trainee with me whenever I visit a favourite wildlife park or animal sanctuary. With a few hours spare today I couldn’t resist calling in at the British Wildlife Centre in Surrey, home to a variety of gorgeous native animals, many of whom are rescued and live permanently at the centre. There are also other inhabitants who are key players in breeding programmes. And they all seem to enjoy interacting with the visitors, most of whom will have a camera of some sort in their hand.
So what sort of kit do you need for this kind of photography? I am constantly asked about my equipment, mostly by hobbyists who are yet to learn that an expensive camera will not make them a better photographer. A camera is merely a recording device, what you provide for it is laid down on film or more commonly on the digital sensor. Whilst there are differences in sensor design, broadly speaking if I were to hand the average member of the public 10 different cameras and if I instructed them to point the camera at any particular scene, the image recorded would be more or less the same, irrespective of how modest or expensive the camera. This is often where “gear acquisition syndrome” takes hold. A person purchases a nice camera and is disappointed when the images are flat looking, blurry, with an unpleasant colour cast, blown highlights, loss of detail …… the list of complaints is endless at times. Then the quest for a “better” camera begins in earnest, often with the purchaser working their way through a number of bodies over time. But the images do not look any better. Unless the photographer has a good understanding of both the technical and creative elements of image making, the photographs will continue to disappoint them. This is the stage at which the vast majority of camera buyers give up. There’s so much to learn after all. You’ll need to delve into exposure, metering, focusing, colour temperature, calibration. Then there are the creative things such as the various points which make up a well composed photograph (framing, viewpoint, use of colour, use of pattern, lead in lines, subject isolation, foreground interest, background, narrative etc). And when all that is dealt with there is yet another monumental task, and that is processing and ultimately developing an understanding of output and printing. Yes, it is a daunting road, but a rewarding one if you stick with it. And it has nothing to do with the camera you buy, so don’t spend more than you have to. But when buying a camera you do need to consider what your main subject matter will be, and if it’s fast moving sport or moving animals then you’ll want a camera capable of a decent burst rate and you’ll need a camera with fast accurate focusing. Far more importantly is your choice of optics, if your subjects are more than a few feet away then you will need a fairly long focal length so that your subject will fill your frame appropriately. And if you’re going to be photographing in fairly dim light then a fast lens (one with a wide maximum aperture) will be useful.
Given that I am almost always asked what equipment I’m using, I was (as is usual these days) toting my Olympus OMD EM-5 with the Panasonic 100 300 zoom lens attached. Given that the OMD’s sensor is Micro 4/3 format, when compared with FX format there is a doubling of the field of view meaning that this lens gives me a magnification factor equivalent to 200 to 600 mm. This is fantastic for animals and wildlife, but remember at high magnifications you’ll need fairly high shutter speeds and good technique in order to avoid camera shake.
As always I had a lovely time interacting with the gorgeous animals at the centre, but it was bitterly cold as has been the case here in the UK over the last few months. By three in the afternoon it started to snow and I could no longer feel my fingers or my toes. I’ll visit again soon, and hopefully I won’t be divested of my hat which is what happened today when I went to see a gorgeous little Stoat – she took one look at the faux fur pom-pom on top of my hat and grabbed it whilst in her overhead wire run as I walked past. She and I were then engaged in a fairly energetic tugging competition and I was eventually able to wrestle the hat out of her jaws. Given that this little animal is only about 8 inches long its strength is quite remarkable, no wonder Stoats are considered to be fearsome predators!