Interview: Award-Winnng Wildlife Photographer Buddy Eleazer on why he chose the Olympus OM-D E-M1X

09 Dec
Two rhinos at a watering hole, pictured on one of Buddy Eleazer’s trips to southern Africa.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X with M.Zuiko Digital ED 12-40mm F2.8 PRO
ISO 4000 | 1/160sec | F2.8

Recently, we spoke to award-winning photographer and Olympus shooter Buddy Eleazer about his work, what inspires him, and what he needs from his camera gear when shooting wildlife on African safaris.

How long have you been a working photographer?

I was an active hobby photographer in the 70’s, but got back into photography seriously in 2003 with the advent of digital cameras.

What camera equipment do you currently shoot with?

Right now I’m shooting with two OM-D E-M1X bodies, an M.Zuiko Digital ED 300mm F4 IS PRO, both the M.Zuiko MC-20 1.4x and M.Zuiko MC-20 2.0x teleconverters, and my workhorse lens which is the M.Zuiko Digital ED 40-150mm F2.8 PRO, with some other ‘PRO’ series lenses. Especially the M.Zuiko Digital ED 12-40mm F2.8 PRO and the M.Zuiko Digital ED 7-14mm F2.8 PRO.

When I’m close to the wildlife, the 40-150mm is perfect. When I’m further away I use the 300mm.

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What drew you to the OM-D system?

I’m a fairly recent convert to Olympus – I used to be a ‘full frame guy’. I still love that gear, but there are some definite advantages to the OM-D system. Shooting full frame cameras with prime and zoom telephoto lenses created two problems: a) getting my gear onto flights to and within Africa – especially the smaller planes we fly into the lodges such as the Bombardier Dash 8 and Cessna 203 Caravan prop planes, and b) after a few weeks on safari, my right elbow and both shoulders took weeks to lose the soreness from lifting those big lenses.

I’ve been shooting with Olympus since early 2018. That doesn’t sound like a long time, but with nature photography and leading trips to Africa, that’s over 59,000 images ago.

Behind the picture: Leopard attack

A herd of wildebeest stampeding in the midst of a leopard attack.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X with M.Zuiko Digital ED 40-150mm F2.8 PRO
ISO 64 | 1/30sec | F13

This was a special moment. You never know what’s going to happen on safari, and when things do happen, they can happen very quickly. We were looking at Wildebeest walking left to right, near a water crossing. Suddenly, for no reason that was apparent to me they started running – right to left.

I’d been shooting some panning photographs of them walking so I had the E-M1X set perfectly at 1/30sec with the 40-150mm F2.8 and suddenly they turned and started coming almost right for me. I was clicking away, and as the wildebeest cleared and I could see what was happening, right there in the middle of them was a leopard. The attack had happened right in front of my eyes but there were so many wildebeest in the way I didn’t see it.

How would you describe your style of photography?

I describe myself now as a nature photographer. I love both landscape and wildlife, but in recent years have focused primarily on wildlife with emphasis on African wildlife and North American birds.

I came from landscape photography originally, and I still really enjoy including the landscape in my wildlife photography. I also really like tight details of animals, too. What I teach people in the field is get the safe shot first, but don’t shoot 100 versions of that. Let’s get a tight shot, let’s look for details, the trunk, the feet or tail or something. And then let’s get creative – maybe a panning shot, or something high key. There are lot of those kinds of pictures in my portfolio: what you might call ‘sense of place’ shots, tight shots, panning and so on.

What’s your major priority when selecting camera equipment?

As a wildlife photographer, I have a few key requirements. These include:

  • My lenses must be fast to focus
  • The lenses should be tack sharp when in focus
  • I need my camera to be able to track accurately, especially for birds in flight
  • The camera needs to be able to focus and deliver acceptable images in very early morning and very late afternoon light – when wildlife is often on the move.

A closer look at the Olympus OM-D E-M1X

Buddy shoots with the E-M1X, Olympus’ flagship camera, designed for professional and enthusiast photographers in the sports and wildlife fields. Using powerful processors and ‘deep learning’ AF technology, the E-M1X is blazingly fast and offers the most advanced autofocus system of any OM-D camera. It’s also among the toughest cameras of its type, rated for use in extreme conditions with IPX1-certified weather-sealed construction.

The E-M1X is among the first cameras on the market with AF modes trained to identify specific subjects. Specifically, aircraft, locomotives, and wheeled vehicles (commonly referred to as planes, trains, and automobiles).

The E-M1X features a 121-point all-cross-type on-chip Phase Detection plus Contrast Detection AF system. The on-chip Phase Detection AF allows for high-precision AF even when shooting with high speed lenses.

These modes are smart enough to not only track the outline of say, someone riding a motorcycle, but actually focus on the rider’s helmet, or the cockpit of the plane. For scenes with multiple planes or motorcycles, the camera will settle for the largest in the frame. However, if you’d like the option to toggle between subjects, you can leave the camera in Single Point and manually place your point over the further subject – the camera will then prioritize tracking them instead.

A water buffalo drinking at a pond.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X with M.Zuiko Digital ED 40-150mm F2.8 PRO
ISO 1600 | 1/80sec | F2.8

How does your style of photography inform your gear choices?

I switched to Olympus because the size and weight allowed me to travel easier and hand-hold up to the equivalent of 600mm.

I’ve always loved panning shots but they’re really hard to do with big cameras and lenses. With these light, small lenses, there’s so little effort, comparatively, to stabilize them as you move. There’s in-body stabilization which is good to begin with but with a fast moving animal you need to stay with it in order to get a sharp shot, and the heavier the gear the harder it is to do that. With this OM-D gear it’s literally just like turning your head.

The weight of a system for wildlife photography isn’t in the camera body, it’s in the lenses

I came from full-frame professional DSLRs, and those things are bricks. They wear your body out. The E-M1X is similar in weight to something like a midrange full-frame DSLR, and fits my hand very comfortably.

The weight of a system for wildlife photography isn’t actually in the camera body, it’s in the lenses. The camera is close to your body, but the weight is in the lenses, which extend forward, outwards from you. The weight of the glass in a big full-frame lens is considerable. Shooting the E-M1X with the 300mm F4, which is 600mm equivalent, is like shooting a DSLR with something like a 70-200mm attached. It’s very comfortable.

The PRO Capture mode on the E-M1X has also been a game changer for capturing birds and other animals at the precise moment when the action occurs.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received as a photographer?

Really there are a few key pieces of advice that have guided me. First, find your own voice with your images. It’s okay to shoot iconic locations, but be creative and put your own spin on the subjects. Second, always seek to simplify the composition. Less is more. Third, know the rules of composition. They should only be guidelines, but if you know them, then you know why you give them respect and know exactly what you are trying to achieve when you are breaking those rules.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to make it as a photographer today?

If you want to be a commercial photographer, listen to your client. Make sure you know what they want before you get too carried away with the assignment. And know your gear. To be successful, you have to be looking through the camera at the subject. You must be able to adjust aperture, shutter speed, ISO and exposure compensation while still looking through that viewfinder.

Elephants in Kenya.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X with M.Zuiko Digital ED 40-150mm F2.8 PRO
ISO 125 | 1/800sec | F2.8

What draws you to Africa?

I go about 6-8 times a year. Primarily I focus on Southern Africa, although about once a year I’ll go to Eastern Africa, to Botswana. Every second year I’ll go to Namibia, but mostly I’m focused on South Africa and Botswana. I like the reserves there, and I know the guides.

What I really like about Southern Africa is how close you can get to the animals. The lodges I focus on have off-road tracking, so you can position a vehicle perfectly for the lighting. You can get off-road and into position. Also because the reserves have been there for some time, the animals are habituated, they don’t get stressed if they see people or vehicles.

In Botswana I love shooting near the water. I really love low-angle shots. Obviously if you’re in a vehicle you have to aim for things up on a hill, to really get low, but if you’re in a hide or you’re on the water, you can get really low, down on the gunnels of the boat and shoot right at water level. Bird life, elephants crossing, buffalo drinking or whatever happens to be there. It’s really cool.

Buddy Eleazer is an award winning wildlife and landscape photographer. His images have been featured by Popular Photography, National Geographic and the prestigious Epson Panorama Awards. He runs Magnum Excursions, and organizes multiple photography trips every year.

See more of Buddy Eleazer’s work

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