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The Adventurer’s Guide to Wildlife Photography

10 tips from a Pulitzer Prize–winning photojournalist on how to nail the perfect shot

During his 46-year career as a photographer, National Geographic shooter and Olympus Visionary Jay Dickman has photographed nearly every type of animal known to man. From polar bears in the Arctic to exotic birds in Tanzania to wild horses in the American West, he’s built one of the most robust and beautiful wildlife portfolios ever assembled. Which is why we turned to him when we wanted to glean some useful tips for how to make our own captivating photos of animals in their natural habitats. Here’s what he said.

Do Your Research

The best photos start with information. “The internet is an incredible resource. When I shoot for National Geographic, 70 to 80 percent of my contract time is spent doing research so that when I go into the field I’m as prepared as possible. If you’re going to Bosque del Apache, in New Mexico, to shoot sandhill cranes, you need to figure out how they land. Across the wind or with the wind? How do they fly? And make sure you go at the right time of year. Knowing your business is huge.”

(Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II, M.Zuiko 40-150mm F2.8 PRO lens, 1/250 second at F2.8, ISO 1600)

Give It Time

“You’re looking for a one-five-hundredth-of-a-second moment out of a 24-hour day. It takes time to wait for that. But when you get [the photo], there’s nothing else like it on earth. When you miss it, it’s like ‘Okay, I’m going to quit and go flip burgers.’ Patience is huge; give it time. And that might mean you sit out there all day.”

But Be Ready for the Moment

When the action finally takes place, you better be ready. Even if the weather turns south. “Olympus gear, like the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II and M.Zuiko PRO lenses, are great because they're weatherproof. I’ve worked in Antarctica in heavy duty weather and I usually don’t cover up my cameras––they’re often hanging out in drenching snow and rain.” Another feature that helps Jay capture the perfect moment is the Pro Capture feature on his Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II. With the shutter half pressed, Pro Capture kicks in and tells the camera to continuously buffer a running series of shots at speeds up to 60 frames per second. Then, when Jay sees the precise moment he wants to capture, he fully presses the shutter and captures that exact moment, plus the 14 previous frames all at once, for a total of 15 images with a single shutter press. In this way, when Jay is poised to perfectly capture that bird taking flight, he’s guaranteed to capture the peak action.“That epiphany you have when you realize you have what you need, it’s a spiritual moment.”

(Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II, M.Zuiko 300mm F4.0 IS PRO lens with M.Zuiko MC-14 1.4x Teleconverter, 1/1000 second at F5.6, ISO 320)

Don’t Let Your Gear Get in the Way

Jay says that photographers often equate big, bulky DSLR cameras with good photos. If you have the biggest camera and lenses, you should be able to get the shot, right? Jay says that’s not always the case. “What I see all the time… is photographers waiting for a polar bear for two hours while attempting to hold a [DSLR] and 500-millimeter F2.8. And I often see them miss the image because the equipment gets in the way. It’s hard to move a bulky setup if the polar bear suddenly moves. I was just in the Arctic and was able to easily hand hold my mirrorless OM-D E-M1 Mark II with the M.Zuiko 40-150mm F2.8 PRO lens and the M.Zuiko MC-14 1.4x Teleconverter (a 420mm zoom lens equivalent). This compact gear allowed me to get the perfect shot.

Invest in Fast Lenses

And by fast, Jay means lenses that have big apertures and thus allow in a lot of light, such as the lenses in the M.Zuiko PRO lineup. “Wildlife photography demands fast glass. You’re often shooting during golden hour––really early or late––and those are going to be low-light scenarios. You need the speed of the lens to shoot well in those conditions.”

(Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II, M.Zuiko 300mm F4 IS PRO lens with M.Zuiko MC-14 1.4x Teleconverter, 1/640 second at F7.1)

Carry Two Cameras If You Can

With two cameras, you can have access to two different types of lenses at the same time, giving you the ability to rapidly switch between those setups as necessary (instead of trying to fumble with swapping lenses on one camera, a sure way to miss the moment). Jay says that wildlife photographers often bring a wide-angle zoom so they can capture expansive shots with the animals in their environment, plus a long zoom lens so they can capture close-up portraits and details. Jay’s preferred camera strap is the BlackRapid Double Breathe, which holds two cameras at once and allows the user to quickly and comfortably switch.

Invest in Fast Memory Cards

“I see this all the time on National Geographic trips. People spend tens of thousands of dollars on the trip and on equipment, and then decide to save $20 by buying a cheap and slow memory card. With a slow card, the cheetah will take off and the camera will choke and hit a buffer within a second and a half—they’ve missed the picture because the card is not writing fast enough. I use a fast UHS-II card with 300MB/s write speed. With that I’m able to get up to 60 frames at 15 fps before I hit the buffer.”

(Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II, M.Zuiko 12-40 F2.8 PRO lens at 12mm, 1/500 second at F9, ISO 200 )

Use the Back-Button Focus

Photographers often use the feature where a half press of the shutter button focuses the camera. Jay likes to use the focus button on the back of the camera (most have one; you just have to set it up in custom settings) because it ensures a more accurate focusing process, especially when tracking quick-moving animals like birds. It also helps him take advantage of the giant 121-point phase-detection autofocus on his Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II. A warning, however, before you switch: this two-button technique, where you focus with one button and engage the shutter with another, takes time to master. “Practice it! It’s like rubbing your head and patting your stomach at the same time.”

Shoot RAW

Pro cameras can shoot high-speed bursts of RAW images (uncompressed digital files). “RAW gives you two stops’ worth of more dynamic range. For me, I want all of the data info I can get so I can process the image as I see it. JPEGS are lovely, but it’s like buying the cake done from the store instead of making it as you want it.”

(Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II, M.Zuiko 12mm F2.0 lens, 1/500 second at F10, ISO 800)

Stabilization Is Key

The long lenses you use to shoot wildlife can cause blurriness, because they amplify even the slightest shakiness in your hands. That’s why Jay shoots with the OM-D E-M1 Mark II, which has 5-Axis Image Stabilization built into the camera body to counteract all types of hand motion. He also uses the M.Zuiko 12-100mm F4.0 IS PRO and M.Zuiko 300mm F4.0 IS PRO stabilized lenses. When used together, the camera and lenses team up to provide an incredible 6.5 stops of compensation, effectively eliminating motion blur for tack sharp telephoto images. “I was shooting a wildebeest migration in Tanzania last year and I had the M.Zuiko 300mm F4 IS PRO lens with the MC-14 1.4x Teleconverter. I was shooting 840mm all handheld! You’re really able to smooth things out and keep the camera steady, no tripod or monopod needed.”

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