Lions playing, leopards chasing and elephants charging. Daisy Dickinson put the OM-D E-M1X and E-M1 Mark II to the test in Zimbabwe
How did you feel when you found out about this once-in-a-lifetime trip?
When Olympus asked me if I wanted to come and spend some time in Africa getting to grips with the newly released pro camera, the OM-D E-M1X, while on safari in one of the most idyllic spots in Zimbabwe, I couldn’t even have imagined half of the unforgettable memories I would take away with me. An absolute opportunity of a lifetime, it’s been a personal dream of mine to take a safari trip. Being able to combine this with the use of some incredible photographic equipment and expert help from Olympus Ambassador and wildlife photographer, Tesni Ward – I couldn’t pack my khaki quick enough!
What kit did you decide to take with you?
Having tried out the E-M1X earlier in the year at its launch, I had a good grasp of what this new beast was capable of, but to put it to the test in these new, challenging conditions – potentially photographing some of the world’s fastest animals (cheetahs can reach over 60mph!) – I was excited to see how it would hold up. We took a flight from London to Johannesburg, then another on to Victoria Falls, and finally a dinky six-seater propeller plane to our camp in Hwange. Because of our final flight, it was important to pack light, and we were under strict instruction to pack everything we needed into a light bag. In my kitbag I had the OM-D E-M1X, OM-D E-M1 Mark II, M.ZUIKO 300mm f/4 IS PRO, 40-150mm f/2.8 PRO, 12-40mm f/2.8 PRO and MC-14 1.4x teleconverter, a handful of batteries, chargers and memory cards. This all packed neatly into my backpack, which I carried comfortably as hand luggage under 9kg, including some audio kit and personal effects, too.
How did you find the gear performed? Which key features were of particular use?
Speed and quality were at the top of my mind. Both OM-Ds have the same 20.4-megapixel Micro Four Thirds Live MOS sensors beating at their hearts, but the E-M1X is capable of double the speed of its predecessor thanks to not one, but two powerful TruePic VIII processors. It also has a redeveloped gyro sensor for incredible image stabilisation, weathersealing – which now includes protecting microphone and headphone terminals – and redeveloped autofocus system. But the function I was most excited to utilise was Pro Capture. A feature introduced with the OM-D E-M1 Mark II, Pro Capture starts shooting the moment you half-press the shutter release button down, with a buffer that can be set to capture up to 35 frames in full resolution. When you press the shutter, the action begins! Perfect for the types of unpredictable subjects we were shooting, it meant I had the chance to go back in time and pick out the exact moment I wanted without any lag: it really is clever stuff.
What was it like using the lenses while you were out on safari?
I’m used to shooting with compact primes, and so it was a welcome experience getting to grips with Olympus’ topof- the-range glass with bigger reach. The 300mm f/4 IS PRO was a total beast for delivering pristine shots, with its fast aperture and 600mm 35mm equivalent. I was able to focus in on my subject without compromising on the depthof- field, and could also keep a safe distance. This lens also offers one of the world’s fastest five-axis Sync IS systems, which works beautifully coupled with the OM-D cameras. Plus, at a weight of just 1270g, I was pretty happy swinging it around without any aches and pains. Using the OM-D camera bodies made it a lot easier to switch between focal lengths – essential when the nature of what you might come across can be so unpredictable. With the 40-150mm f/2.8 PRO, I could work through the zoom range and grab beautifully sharp portraits of some young lions who had been chowing down on an unsuspecting elephant. The detail with the constant f/2.8 aperture is stunning, with droplets of blood highlighted on the cubs’ chins. Equally, zooming in on my shots of an elephant basking in the sun, the detail on a nearby swarm of flies is impressive.
You were snapping some speedy subjects – how did the kit perform?
The E-M1X is capable of high-speed sequential shooting at max 60fps with AF/AE tracking, and a max of 18fps was possible. This was more than adequate to capture sequences of vultures flying, and the AF tracking reliability locked on to my scavenging subjects each time. The joystick control was an added advantage, so I could quickly select my subject and lock on, allowing the tracking to step up and work on keeping focus on my speedy subjects. I took advantage of the E-M1X’s deep learning programmed subject detection, and while there is not yet a function for birds, using the planes setting was pretty effective for the vultures. I could move through the menu system and select how sensitive I wanted the CA-F.
Olympus Ambassador Tesni Ward was also on the trip. Did you take advantage of her wildlife photography tips?
Having Tesni with us on the trip was gold. As well as seeing how she worked, and piggybacking on her suggestions for the best shots, it was great for picking up some tips. She advised making good use of the golden hours, where early in the morning and late in the evening are best to avoid harsh light. Consider backlit and frontlit images and keep an eye on your backgrounds. Try and shoot at the animal’s eye level; the articulated screens on the OM-Ds are really helpful for this, and if you have the opportunity to do so safely, get down low, even if that means putting your belly in the dirt. She also suggested using the custom menus to set up quick functions. This was a lifesaver when it came to rapidly changing between Pro Capture, as I was able to set up a ‘speedy birds’ setting on the dial closest to manual.
Another thing that came in handy was charging on the go with a USB-C cable. Two BLH-1 batteries fit the E-M1X, and shooting 2580 images is possible before recharge is needed. Both batteries can be charged in around two hours using a portable battery pack – ideal for our remote location.
What advice would you give to anyone looking to book a photo trip like this?
Our experience included a lot of travelling, and anyone looking to book this type of trip should be prepared for that. Lots of waiting around in airports and feeling a bit grubby! I recommend taking a good book, or downloading Olympus Magazine to read, of course!
We were being hosted by ecotourism operator, Wilderness Safaris. Rich in history, Wilderness Safaris was founded in Botswana in 1983 and is truly dedicated to conserving and restoring Africa’s wilderness and wildlife. With around 50 camps through eight countries, they offer private access to over six million acres and also support local communities by creating jobs, giving back and pioneering projects – and now offer another string to their bow since partnering with Olympus. With guides trained in using the equipment, they are able to offer Olympus loan kit to guests, which is pretty awesome, but are also experienced in seeking out photo opportunities, too, and while not marketed as a photography safari experience, can definitely cater for the image-minded.
Our guide, Charles Ndhlovu, had extensive experience, and has been working with Wilderness for many years, having grown up in the country as a game ranger. Dedicated to making sure we had the best opportunities for picturetaking while on game drives in our jeep, I rarely found myself having to ask to move angles, as Charles would give us options for backlighting, or front – so we all got a great variety to our pictures. As well as this, while we were taking in the sights, he was busy tracking various animals prints in the ground, meaning we were lucky enough to catch site of a leopard (being chased by a baboon!) and a cheetah possibly searching for lost cubs. This was an experience that really put our kit to the test as it was just after the sunset and light was disappearing fast. We had just two full days on safari, so it was important to make it count.
How did you find your experience in Zimbabwe? What were your highlights?
While my time in Africa was brief, I came away with long-lasting memories and thousands of pictures of my experience to enjoy forever. On a sunrise shoot, our very early start was rewarded with a pride of playful lions. Such a treat to see these magnificent animals relaxing around the waterhole. While the male was absent, the juvenile cubs enjoyed some time playing together.
On the other hand, there was a pretty hair-raising moment when I was travelling in our open-sided jeep staring down the barrel of a 40-150mm f/2.8 PRO lens at a six-tonne bull elephant standing directly in our path. He was on musth (heat) and feeling a little unpredictable. With only one direction that we could go in, we sat with bated breath, fingers trembling on shutter buttons. Quickly, the elephant approached us, becoming decidedly huge in my viewfinder as he warned us, pushing a tree with his trunk. A trunk with 150,000 muscles binding it, capable of lifting 350kg.
When we finally found an opening to move off, and as the John Williams’ Jurassic Park theme tune started to play in my head, the colossal elephant began to chase us down the track, trumpeting triumphantly, flapping his ears in a cloud of dust – that was something I’ll never forget!
Through the experience, it was also a real privilege to learn about conservation and anti-poaching challenges in the country, the high unemployment rate in Zimbabwe and what initiatives like Wilderness Safaris are doing to support the community. Our camp in Hwange National Park was stunning, and everyone there was so welcoming. As for the kit, I was gutted to pack it up for return. For wildlife and fast-moving subjects as well as stunningly detailed portrait and close-up shots, I could not fault the gear or the glass.
Article featured in Olympus Magazine Issue 64 – to see the latest copy of this free digital magazine click here.