I’ve always been a big believer in the idea that the best camera is the one you have with you. Sometimes, you encounter something unfathomably beautiful when you least expect it. You’re on the way to complete some mundane chore - you need to renew your driver’s license at the DMV and you’re stopping by the dry cleaners on your way there. Your camera is the furthest thing from your mind as you assemble your paperwork, hang a dirty blazer on your wrist, hop in the car, and head into town. As you’re coming around the corner just past the grocery store you notice the sun is setting and the clouds above the houses on the hill are turning the softest pink. By the time you pull in at the DMV office, the sky is ablaze with color. Your camera is back on its shelf at home. On this particular evening that cell phone camera will have to do.
It's a fact of life that you just can’t predict when something beautiful will happen. But other times, you can. You can spend months – or sometimes years planning your dream trip to a beautiful place with jaw dropping vistas and abundant wildlife. You know exactly where you want to be and when, and you’ve already got an idea of what you’ll probably see. And when you work so hard to be in the right place at the right time to capture the photo you’ve been dreaming of, the best thing you can do for yourself is come as prepared as you can to make it all worthwhile.
I got really lucky. I’d been preparing to leave for just this type of trip. Fall was whispering through the mountains for a few weeks, and on the day the new M.Zuiko 150-400mm F4.5 TC1.25x IS PRO lens arrived she was finally screaming from every corner. Bright yellow leaves blazed across the mountainsides and collided with the warm red brush on the foothills. The first significant snowfall predicted that a few inches would drop on the fulgent trees just in time for my adventure to begin.
I pulled the new lens from its box and was immediately surprised by the weight. Like most Olympus shooters, I’ve been anticipating this lens for what feels like ages. I’ve fantasized about it many times - imagining its weight in my hands and the images I’d get with it. In all of these fantasies I pictured the lens would be big and heavy - like most “big white lenses” I’ve encountered in the field while photographing wildlife. I even planned to run to the camera store on my way out of town to pick up a tripod because I figured I wouldn’t want to freehand shoot with the new big lens. So when I discovered it weighs significantly less than any equivalent lens I’d felt before, I was ecstatic. I stood on my balcony overlooking the neighborhood for a few minutes, looking through the viewfinder at distant pedestrians walking their dogs.
After a few test shots I impulsively decided to skip the tripod, and headed out the door to hit the road.
Day One with the 150-400mm was dark and snowy. I left my camp before sunrise with the intention of meeting the new day along a stretch of trail where black bears make their home this time of year. The day was just beginning to lighten in anticipation of sunrise when I spotted a cow moose just off the side of the road. I live in an area where moose aren’t uncommon, so normally I may have passed right by an encounter like this - especially because the sun still hadn’t actually risen yet. But because I was chomping at the bit to put the new big lens to the test on a wild animal, I stopped to take advantage of the opportunity. I hiked a distance off the road in the opposite direction of the moose so she would be far enough away to compose the shot nicely. I crouched down in the sage brush to get eye level, and began to shoot.
The light was terrible. I was free-handing with no tripod. My expectations were low. The photos absolutely blew my expectations out of the water. Despite the blue hour darkness, the level of detail I was able to capture made this shot one of my favorites and set the tone for what would turn out to be an excellent trip.
The sun never did come out over the next few days. The snow clouds obscured its light and warmth and intermittently dropped big wet snowflakes across the area. The moody weather made for some dramatic scenes, and the wet snow and moisture was never a problem for the 150-400mm lens. While other photographers were wrapping their lenses and camera bodies in waterproof covers, I was free to focus on keeping my own human body warm and dry because I could trust that my gear would perform just fine in the harsh conditions.
It was early afternoon. Soon after the snow began I found myself among the hawthorn bushes while the wind whipped around me. I hiked into the woods for about a mile or so in search of elk, but turned around when I realized that I’d fallen too far behind the herd to stand a chance of catching up with them. As I was approaching my car, I noticed a bush not far from where I’d parked was shaking awfully hard. I almost looked away, but it dawned on me that it wasn’t moving with the wind. The shakes were far too random and jerky. I stared at it for a minute, baffled.
Suddenly I realized what I was looking at - a young male black bear was perched at the top of the tall bush, devouring berries from its branches. Snow from the branches clung to his fur as he gorged, completely unbothered by my presence as I was still many yards away. I held my ground, and began taking photos. Never in all my life have I stood so far from my subject and gotten such sharp, detailed shots. There was magic in knowing I was a safe distance away from the bear - so distant that he hardly noticed me - and still being able to capture intimate shots.
With luck clearly on my side, I decided to spend the next day in search of one of my dream subjects, the elusive Great Gray Owl. Great Gray Owls are the largest species of owl in the world, but their size does not make them any easier to spot. Their camouflage is second to none, it can be almost impossible to spot one of these birds of prey when they’re not in flight. In the interest of not making this blog post one hundred pages long - I’ll save you the details of my five hour search other than to say it was a tremendous advantage that the lens is light enough to not be a burden when hiking long distances. From here, I’ll skip to the part where the owl was finally in view actively hunting - swooping from tree to tree as silent as a ghost.
While the owl hunted, the weather changed quickly from heavy snow, to rain, to almost-sun, and back again. Despite the rapidly changing weather and poor light conditions, the 150-400mm had no issue pulling accurate autofocus. By opting not to bring a tripod I was free to move and change positions quickly while anticipating where I needed to stand to photograph the owl. I relied completely on the combined image stabilization of the lens and my E-M1 Mark III while shooting since I opted to leave the tripod at home. The images came out pin sharp, which made me feel pretty happy about my decision to pass on bringing a tripod along.
I could write forever about my trip, but at this point I think it's time to let the images speak for themselves.
If you’re a professional photographer who loves capturing birds, animals, and all things wild – plan on adding the M.Zuiko 150-400mm PRO lens to your kit before your next big trip. When you put effort and planning into your photography adventures, it is so important to be confident in the gear you bring along. It's a freeing feeling to know that no matter what the trip holds - from bad weather, to low light, constant motion, distant subjects, and relentless moisture - this lens won’t let you down.
Brooke is a wildlife photographer based out of Salt Lake City, Utah. She has always been a lover of animals, and when she first began shooting she was naturally hooked on photographing wildlife right from the start. Her ultimate goal is to photograph all the core species of megafauna found in North America. When Brooke is not actively photographing, tracking, or scouting for wildlife, you can find her snowboarding.