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How I got the shot: Arctic Musk Oxen

If you ever wonder what it is like to get up close and personal with a Musk Ox in the arctic, now is your chance. Marcin Dobas, a contributing photogapher to National Geographic in Poland tells us how he faired on a recent trip when things got a little more exciting than he had planned.

Arctic regions are my favourite areas to work. The landscape is little changed by humans, the light is beautiful, there are lots of animals and most of them are very interesting. Sometimes however, there are very dangerous situations and one of them was when I was photographing musk oxen in winter. For the first few days, despite my best efforts, I did not see a single animal. The temperature was below -30 degrees Celsius and at the beginning of my stay in the national park the visibility was almost zero. At times it was hard for me to figure out what was snow and was fog. There was a complete white out during which the horizon completely disappeared and my brain, devoid of any reference points, began to lose orientation. Sometimes in such conditions a person does not know whether he is standing or falling. Each time I tried to go a bit further brought the possibility of getting lost in the haze. Going out without GPS, even in good visibility could have ended badly. Clouds showed up suddenly and a strong wind obliterated the tracks immediately.

E-M10 Mark I • LEICA DG SUMMILUX 25 F1.4  • 1/500sec • F5.0 • ISO200

For a few first days of my work I felt very frustrated. I had no chance to take a good photo. A very short day spent in the haze didn't make me optimistic. Each day was similar to another and consisted of the same activities: lighting a gas stove, melt snow and a very slow cooking. Finally, after a few days the weather was clear enough to head out exploring. You should remember that in the Arctic, even though the day is very short, the light is magical from the sunrise to the sunset.

E-M10 Mark I • LEICA DG SUMMILUX 25 F1.4  • 1/160sec • F5.0 • ISO200

Herds of the musk oxen looked like huge boulders in the fresh snow. Musk oxen are among those animals who are easy to relate to. This feeling grows up when we start knowing their habits. In the Eskimo language a musk ox is 'Oomingmak' means 'hairy fellow', which is much more accurate than a latin name. When you are looking at a musk ox, your first impression is exactly a pile of hair. The fur is amazing. The hair of their fur on the neck and belly grows up to 90 cm long. They have no competitor in this rivalry. The musk ox is not an overly large animal. Its height at the withers is up to 140 cm, and weight up to 400 kg. The body, no more than 2 meters in length, ends with a short, 10 cm long tail. On the other side of the animal, the horns are the one that catches your eye. They are located on the sides of a fairly small head. First they go down and then forward. Their thick roots, like those of buffaloes, almost touch the animal's forehead.

E-M1 Mark I • M.Zuiko ED 40-150 F2.8 IS PRO + MC-14  • 1/640sec • F4.0 • ISO200

Despite their compact and stocky build, the musk oxen run lightly, neatly and quickly. However, they rarely run away. They would attack sooner than decide to flee, and then they can reach speed of up to 60 km per hour. Large herds seeing an approaching human, a polar bear or a wolf, adopt quite an interesting defence strategy. Males face the enemy, forming a circle inside which young individuals and females find hideout. They bow their heads and stomp loudly, splashing chunks of ice and snow.

During this assignment, I decided to camp in the field. I had a tent, sleeping bag, food and a gas stove, which was basically everything I needed. An excellent starting point located in the mountains. I started before dawn, ate breakfast, took my photo backpack, put on my camouflage clothing and headed out to take photos. Thanks to this I didn't need daily packing, everyday transport and looking for a place where a herd of oxen could be. And most of all, this way I got rid of the most important danger: losing a sunrise due to oversleep. No way when you sleep in a tent at a temperature of – 30.

I had three bodies with me the OM-D EM-1, EM-10, EM-5 were all in my backpack.

Lenses are mainly the M.Zuiko Digital ED 300mm F4 IS PRO, the M.Zuiko Digital ED 40‑150mm F2.8 PRO and a 1.4x converter. In addition, wide-angle lenses, filters, cards, batteries. The equipment worked perfectly in the cold, although during the shooting in such conditions it was covered with a layer of frost every day. I did not notice any significant slowdown in the work of the camera or lens. Sometimes, after long shooting, you had to scrape the front element like car windows, but I didn't notice any major problems. Condensation was a big problem and it was actually a problem that you had to watch out for. It was freezing outside and the temperature in the heated tent was positive. If the camera is brought directly from frost, the camera is not packed in a bag, it will immediately become covered with frost and after a short time the frost will start to turn into water. The same thing happens inside the camera, so you shouldn't ignore this problem.

On the first day of fine weather, I spotted a herd of sixteen in the mountains, and another herd of just five on the other side of the valley. At such air temperature, it is difficult to register the activity of these animals. They just lie in the snow and look like big boulders from a distance. In camouflage outfit and all the down jackets I'd taken with me, I was waiting for something to start happening. I used the best "lost wallet" technique in this situation, which I often use when photographing wild and not too skittish animals. It consists in the fact that instead of approaching the animal directly and disturbing it and sending a clear signal that I am interested in it, I get it used to my presence for several hours. I act as if I am not interested at all; as if it didn't matter to me whether the animal was just walking away or approaching. I am interested in a wallet that got lost somewhere in the area and which I am looking for, seemingly wandering without any purpose. So I walk once in the direction of the herd, then sideways, then I move away from it, then I move closer. Eye contact, when I make it, is completely random and short-lived.

E-M10 • M.Zuiko ED 40-150 F2.8 IS PRO + MC-14  • 1/500sec • F4.5 • ISO500

Sometimes I crouch, sometimes I kneel, sometimes I bury with my foot. It is also a good idea to pretend that we are grazing and looking for food, here we nibble a leaf, there we nibble the bark of a tree. I think the oxen believed that I had lost something because they ignored my presence to such an extent that some of them even approached me, realizing that I was not a threat. The moment when all the bulls said they would lie down, I took as a sure sign that they were disregarding me and my presence. So I sat next to them and waited for some activity. As part of the warm-up, the animals would sometimes kick each other with their heads, and then calmly walked away from each other and lay down again.

Unfortunately, I made a mistake. Now I know that most wild animals do not tolerate eye contact. Looking into their eyes is asking for trouble. At one point, when I aimed my telephoto lens at one of the bulls, it said it would attack me. I did not know then that this is only a show of strength, not an attack. Although the distance between us remained long and constant for quite some time, at one point the bull was furious with a long eye contact from above the lens. As long as I watched another male and took pictures of him, he ignored me, but when I changed my focus, a few hundred kilograms of body first lined up in front of me, then the musk ox snorted (which was a signal that it was time to back off) then waved its head (another sign to withdraw) and slowly began to walk towards me. It didn't bother me either, because as I mentioned before the bulls had already walked in my direction many times, though usually with their eyes fixed on the ground. He was walking with his head held high and his eyes fixed on me. After a few steps he went into a gallop….

E-M10 • M.Zuiko ED 40-150 F2.8 IS PRO + MC-14  • 1/800sec • F4.5 • ISO500

I had no chance of escaping. The speed of a man walking in the snow up to the middle of his thighs is around the same as a fly in tar and the ox was majestic across the snow with it splashing around him like stardust. Things did not look good. The Ox is much heavier, much faster, has big horns and is famous for killing a human every now and then. So I decided, with all the hopelessness of my situation, to do the only thing that seemed most sensible, that is… close my eyes and press the shutter button. If you ever find yourself in an equally hopeless situation, I encourage you to do exactly the same: set the camera's shooting mode to continuous, so as not to stop at one photo, switch the autofocus to CAF (continuous autofocus), thanks to which the lens will focus while following movement of a moving subject, press the shutter button all the way down, and the camera will take the series of photos.

Closing your eyes is not necessary, but when you see less, you are less afraid and you have a better chance of not getting blurry photos. Everything turned out great. I managed to take the photo, although after a while it turned out that the ox was so close that my lens was too long. As it turned out, he didn't want to kill me, only scare me. Consequently, he was kind enough to stop a few meters in front of me. Despite the species differences and the lack of a common language, I understood perfectly what he had to say to me, and with dignity, though on trembling legs, I backed away from where I stood. I think we communicated through body language.


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