Olympus Ambassador, Mike Inkley, shares his experience of switching from photographing sports to seals…

As a full-time professional photographer, there is always real merit in having a number of strings to your bow. While the biggest percentage of my commercial work is sport and action related, I also spend a fair amount of time shooting commercial wildlife imagery. While a few of the skill sets are very different, a large part of what I do is applicable to both genres. That large part is 80% done without a camera in hand – it is the preparation work that gets me into position to potentially take that winning shot. It is, in effect, getting me in the right place at the right time so that if the shot becomes available I can catch it, which is the other 20%. To put that in a nut shell, you can’t take the picture if you aren’t there!

In any commercial shoot I do, I apply something I learned from a senior RAF trainer 35 years ago called TGROW. It can be applied to anything you ever do in life, from making breakfast to a commercial shoot. Let me explain how it works. I start with a blank screen or piece of paper with the letters T,G, R, O, and W written down the left-hand side. This becomes my topic and often saves me days of wasted shooting time as it is a template for any job I do. Starting with T, this stands for Topic. In the case of this shot, it was ‘north of Scotland winter wildlife and landscape shoot 2018’. Simple enough, but you can’t start any task without the original idea. This shoot was planned as I have a number of outlets that run great nature shots, such as The Times newspaper and several magazines. In addition, because of the remote locations and the time of year, these images are likely to be unique and that adds to their commercial and stock value.

Image by Mike Inkley

G stands for Goal. In this case, I wanted to get a combination of very special wildlife and landscape images. Specifically, I wanted Atlantic seals on the remote north west coast of Scotland, well, north of Ullapool. Next is R, which stands for Reality. This is the stage where any ideas that aren’t do-able or have a very low possibility of success get put in the bin. For example, if I want snowy mountains in Glencoe and the webcams show no snow and there is none forecast for when I want to go, the idea is rejected. That could just as easily be wanting to shoot a sports event, but reality tells me I won’t get a media pass because we are past the deadline. Being very honest at this stage saves so much time, effort and money, and helps me concentrate on better options.

When an idea passes the reality test, I then move to the O, which is Options. For a sports event it would include what kit to take, what time to go, what route to take, what outlets are there for the images etc. In the case of this shot, it was mainly timing – when could I get the right weather forecast with a high likelihood of the seals being there, tide times, time of day for sun positioning and, crucially, location. The north and west coast of Scotland is a huge length of coastline with thousands of bays and inlets and is exceedingly remote. All of these factors are options and I map them out for consideration. One interesting option for this trip was what if I get stuck somewhere with a car breakdown, bad weather or a crash?

Finally, we come to the W, which stands for What Next. This is where I narrow down all of the options and come up with a final plan of action. By the time I have completed this TGROW exercise, it ensures I have the highest possibility of success. For this shot, this was my final plan: on Sunday the 18th November, I loaded up the car with a winter sleeping bag, tent, five days of food, camping stove, jumpers, boots, cold weather gear, helmet (for climbing over wet slippery rocks or up mountains), torches, power adapters etc and I drove to Aberdeen as the weather was looking good for the week. I stayed in Aberdeen Sunday night and headed up the east coast at 5am on Monday to a seal colony I know and have shot before. Unfortunately, the east coast was shrouded in cloud with no signs of a break looking likely, but the west coast was clear. On Monday afternoon, I drove through Inverness and Ullapool and on to Kylestrome where I spent the night. I was up before dawn to head north where I spent the day trekking into every little cove I came to. This is where I spotted a group of six Atlantic seals sunbathing. This image was shot at 1.10pm with perfect lighting and the right tide.

My standard gear for this kind of shoot is my full outfit. One of the great benefits of Olympus is that I can fit everything into my standard Think Tank Airport Essentials backpack. That’s two OM-D E-M1 Mark II bodies, and the following M.ZUIKO PRO lenses: the 8mm f/1.8, 7-14mm f/2.8, 12-40mm f/2.8, 40-150mm f/2.8, 300mm f/4, 25mm f/1.2, and 12-100mm f/4 – plus 75mm f/1.8, two flashguns and everything else. When I do seal shots, I take the 40-150mm PRO lens on one body and the 300mm PRO on the other – that covers every eventuality I am likely to encounter in these locations. This image was captured with the 300mm as the seal was about 300 yards away out in the sea loch. This image has ‘amazing’ written all over it for me as it demonstrates the human nature of the seal being all cute and cuddly, and giving the thumbs up. I just looked at it and went wow. Great glass, good planning and a fast frame rate allowed me to get an image that most people immediately fall in love with and that is what sells in the wildlife world.

Okay, I drove in excess of 1,000 miles over four days on this trip, but the results were worth it. Without planning, I might have had four days away but with no tangible results due to no seals or poor weather and that is a very expensive exercise. The TGROW planning meant I had the highest possibility of success and this paid off. Time is money to a commercial photographer and that is why I still do the planning. It regularly makes all the difference in the world. You should give it a go – it does really work!

Article featured in Olympus Magazine Issue 61 – to see the latest copy of this free digital magazine click here.