How Technology Is Revolutionizing Wildlife Photography

How Technology Is Revolutionizing Wildlife Photography

Rob Cottle's remarkable wildlife photographs demonstrate his love for nature. Rob spoke about how new technology for capturing birds can help photographers starting out in the genre and more experienced photographers too.

Advancements in Technology

Cameras are constantly evolving, and there are some amazing features available now. Rob uses Olympus kit, and there is no denying that their latest models are innovative; innovation has always been a feature of the brand. He spoke about the newest changes in the context of other advancements. He said that we think of technology as being the most recent developments, and we now take for granted features that were new to photography a decade or less ago.

Autofocus, frame rates and low-light focusing and shooting have moved on rapidly.

He highlighted his cameras' frame rates of up to 60 fps, their wildlife-friendly silent mode, the focus points going right to the edge of the frame, all being the more accurate and quicker cross-type, customizable focus arrays, and tuning the autofocus. All these features are relatively new, but he said we forget that because of the constant advancement of technology.

There are sometimes discussions whether technologies might deskill the photographer, but Rob sees the recent advancements as a positive thing, especially for encouraging those starting out in photography.

Pro-capture, Bird AI, and to some extent, Live ND are a natural progression to those advancements and are especially super helpful for those just starting out in wildlife photography and indeed seasoned photographers to attain images that may have eluded them or in some cases weren’t even possible before.

If you are unfamiliar with the terminology, with Bird AI Olympus, cameras recognize and focus on birds. Live ND is Olympus' inbuilt digital neutral density filters (up to 5 stops), and Pro-capture stores images to a buffer before the shutter is fully pressed, taking your reaction time out of the equation when shooting action. Rob said that Pro-capture makes it possible to capture images that would otherwise be down to pure luck.

I love the fact that anyone starting out can pick up a camera and capture wildlife instead of feeling the camera is against them and give up too quickly, something I hope will encourage them to carry on enjoying wildlife and as a consequence conserve and love it.

Image from Rob's gallery "Away".

Keep It Simple

Although he recognizes their importance, Rob says he doesn’t use Pro-capture or Bird AI because they aren't necessary for his photography. I suspect this is probably because he is a talented wildlife photographer with years of experience; knowledge and and awareness of subjects' behavior that is essential for his trade. When you get to know an animal or bird, you can anticipate their actions. Consequently, you learn when and where to point the camera.

However, Rob's explanation for not using those features is more modest. He said that he is hopeless at remembering what setting he is using. He likes to keep things as simple as possible and experience the challenge of capturing images on his own terms and in his own way. That notwithstanding, he admits that he couldn’t make a lot of his shots without all the other advancements.

I find it hard enough being in the right position and composing a shot without trying to think what is the best setting/feature to use.

Most of us will agree with Rob that it is not practical to alter lots of settings, all at the same time when events are unfolding quickly in front of you. He sets his camera so all changes can be made from the exterior of the camera body without looking. One of the beauties of the OM-D E-M1 range is how customizable the buttons and dials are.

I use the four custom positions on the Olympus dial with my go-to settings, but even then, I tend to use position one on the dial 99% of the time. Sometimes, less is more, not just in composition, but in my head as well!

Stabilization

Rob emphasized that image stabilization is the big game-changer for wildlife photography. In fact, he believes the stabilization of camera systems may be one of the most important and overlooked advances in technology and that Olympus cameras are at the forefront of this. He said he could achieve astonishingly slow speeds at silly lens ranges.

It allows me to handhold all M.Zuiko telephoto lenses including the 150-400mm, and I know I would not be able to sit in a lake and handhold the equivalent of a 1,200mm lens without it.

(Rob does indeed sit in the lake, and he sometimes jokes about his "Darth Waders" that enable him to keep dry while wading deep into the water.)

He has no doubt his photography would be different if image stabilization wasn’t there. He said that the amazing handhold speeds also allow him, maybe surprisingly, to use Live ND for wildlife. Rob likes showing movement in some of his images, and so, the slower shutter values achievable with the inbuilt neutral density filter allow him to quickly achieve that. The Live ND feature has another advantage too.

I tend to limit the gear I carry (often just the camera and lens), so not having to carry or clean filters, along with lugging a tripod around, is a boon.

Rob has that setting on the dial ready to go if the situation warrants it, and being able to simulate what a final image may look like, he says, is an amazing feature. He also finds the ability to handhold a camera with 600mm equivalence for over a second, and without a tripod, opens up many opportunities.

It’s purely down to movement of subject that limits (or enhances) its use.

Rob's Kit

The Micro Four Thirds equipment clearly meets Rob's minimalist approach. He uses both the OMD E-M1X and E-M1 Mark III  which, he says, are hugely advanced cameras.

The Olympus 150-400mm M.ZUIKO Digital ED F4.5 TC1.25x IS PRO lens has a built-in 1.25x teleconverter, which gives incredible reach, and it only weighs a little over 4 pounds. Its baby brother, the Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 100-400mm f/5-6.3 IS, is lighter still, weighing in at under 2.5 pounds and is probably more affordable for many.

Weight is becoming an ever more important ergonomic factor for photographers, not wanting to suffer sore necks backs from carrying unnecessarily heavy cameras and lenses. Also, carrying heavy equipment on airplanes is becoming increasingly expensive.

Capturing Wildlife

Wildlife photography is an important aspect of conservation, raising awareness of the plight of our natural world. Historically, the genre was considered quaint. But things have changed, and it is appreciated now as an important art form. Rob spoke about how technology has allowed wildlife photography to progress from where it once was.

He feels that photography owes a great debt to the advancement of camera technology. Wildlife photography, especially, is moving on quickly because of it. He said that the 50 Years of Wildlife Photographer of the Year book is an eye-opener. He thought it an amazing feat that photographers captured some of those outstanding images with relatively primitive equipment. But the quality of the images themselves pales compared to even the most basic of modern cameras with even hobbyists' models sporting low-noise, high-ISO capabilities.

ISO was only as fast as your film and wasn’t something you could change on the fly of course, and now, we are into the thousands, which has altered the way we capture wildlife.

Furthermore, Rob says that, ultimately, a good image still comes from a great composition, a great subject, with a great background, and all in great light.

Field craft, local knowledge and positioning are all super important in wildlife photography. All the technology in the world won’t help if you cannot get close enough to your subject or you’re standing in the wrong position.

He finished by saying that all these advanced features are fantastic to have at your fingertips. Nevertheless, the reason the advanced photographer or professional uses more expensive cameras is not because the images are better. All cameras now output amazing quality images; it’s all about control.

All these features help and improve a wildlife photographer's lot.

Follow Rob

You can see more of Rob Cottle’s images at Olympus Image Space; he's an Olympus Mentor. You can also follow him on Instagram.

He is planning workshops and other events with Olympus UK, so please keep an eye open on their Facebook page for further details.

Images used with permission of Rob Cottle.

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