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Gray seals on the island of Heligoland

OM-D E-M1 Mark II • M.Zuiko Digital ED 12-40mm F2.8 PRO • F5.6 • 1/250 • ISO 200

During the first week of December, I went together with six workshop participants to the island of Heligoland, where we could observe a really impressive natural spectacle for five days and capture it with our Olympus cameras.

The island Heligoland is located about 70 km northwest of Cuxhaven in the German Bay, and is hard to see on a map at first sight because its area is only four square kilometers. The island is very popular among animal photographers and biologists because it has the best conditions to observe, investigate and photograph gray seals, seals and many species of birds. A special highlight for photographers is between December and January when the gray seals give birth to their young on the island of Heligoland. It is a pleasure to tolerate a stormy crossing, wind, wetness, and cold in order to get spectacular and also very intimate animal photos and videos.

OM-D E-M1 Mark II • M.Zuiko Digital ED 300mm F4.0 IS PRO + M.Zuiko Digital 1.4x teleconverter MC‑14 • F5.6 • 1/400 • ISO 800

Wind and wetness can be very bothersome for your camera equipment and even for you when taking pictures at this time of the year. So, you should therefore prepare yourself properly in order to photograph gray seals while you are lying on your belly for several days undamaged and in complete happiness for hours.

With the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II and the M.Zuiko PRO lenses, you are well-equipped, because splash water protection, dust protection, frost resistance, a robust construction and mobility are the ingredients for successful shots and functioning equipment. My Olympus equipment has never let me down even under the most adverse conditions, and that is one of the reasons why I have remained loyal to Olympus for more than 15 years!

As far as mobility is concerned, it makes a huge difference whether you have to photograph from knee height with a bulky tripod and large, and above all, heavy full-format equipment, or whether you can photograph at eye level with the gray seals and light equipment using just your hand. The belly perspective allows for more impressive and exciting animal shots, which look completely different from a slightly higher position.

OM-D E-M1 Mark II • M.Zuiko Digital ED 300mm F4.0 IS • F4.0 • 1/160 • ISO 1600

The M.Zuiko Digital ED 300mm F4.0 IS PRO is the bread-and-butter lens par excellence on Heligoland, because you can only get about 30 m close to the gray seals. Sometimes even the MC14 teleconverter can be used to fill the viewfinder with the animals. Therefore, you can photograph with 420 mm from your hand, which corresponds to a 35 mm focal length of no less than 840 mm. The Sync-IS brings substantial advantages here, and the strengths of the Micro-Four-Thirds system in comparison to systems with larger sensors are clearly evident. This is because apart from the weight, the immensely higher, mostly 5-digit price for such focal lengths is truly exorbitant and therefore you see very few photographers on Heligoland, who take their photos with comparable equipment. Most of them photograph with zoom focal lengths between 100 and 400 mm, which are still reasonably affordable, but cannot capture the animals from the possible distance of 30 m with format-filling. An alternative is to take a larger image section and then crop the images during image processing, but this again nullifies the supposed advantage of larger sensors. A 300mm Pro by Olympus is comparatively cheap with at least the same performance, and so many more photographers find an affordable route to the increasingly popular genre of animal photography.

You should know that the animals are “watched” by rangers to protect them. If you get closer than 30 m, either the ranger will hold you back or the gray seals themselves will make it clear that you are too close. In rare cases, it can even happen that you have to get on your feet quickly to get away, because although the animals seem a bit clumsy, they can move quite fast on land. A bull of about 300 kg can reach up to 20 km/h on land!

OM-D E-M1 Mark II • M.Zuiko Digital ED 300mm F4.0 IS PRO • F4.0 • 1/200 • ISO 1600

Equipment and shooting tips

1.) On Heligoland you need in any case a splash, water and dust-resistant camera! When the wind really blows, not only the spray of the sea blows around your ears, but also the sand that is whipped over the ground. An OM-D E-M1 Mark II and the M.Zuiko PRO lenses can withstand this in the twinkling of an eye, where other equipment is thickly packed in plastic bags. Now and then, under such conditions, Olympus photographers harvest envious glances from other photographers.

2.) Be sure to use a protective filter for the front lens of your lenses. In my opinion, the original protective filter from Olympus is recommendable, as it has the same coating as the lenses themselves and thus the image quality of the lenses is maintained even with the filter. On Heligoland you cannot avoid cleaning lenses more often, because they are constantly "dirty" and have to be kept clean.

OM-D E-M1 Mark II • M.Zuiko Digital ED 300mm F4.0 IS PRO + M.Zuiko Digital 1.4x teleconverter MC‑14 • F5.6 • 1/800 • ISO 1600

3.) Get waterproof and warm clothes and boots. In my case, I bought a thermal suit used normally in the fishing industry and Canadian boots, which keep me warm and dry even on cold and wet days. The fun ends quickly when you get cold while taking pictures.

4.) Take pictures in manual mode and set the Live View Boost for manual shooting to "OFF", so that you can judge the brightness of your pictures in the viewfinder or on the monitor before taking them. (Menu D2 - Live View Boost - manual shooting - OFF).
As long as the light does not change, you can often shoot with the same settings and you do not have to correct each image individually in post-production. If the exposure is slightly off, you can correct one image from a series and easily transfer the settings to the other images. This saves a great deal of work, and from experience I can tell you that a lot of pictures come together on Heligoland.

OM-D E-M1 Mark II • M.Zuiko Digital ED 300mm F4.0 IS PRO • F4.0 • 1/250 • ISO 800

5.) Take your time while taking pictures. Observe the animals first for a while and study their behavior. Let the impressions affect you before you press the shutter button. Do not shoot straight away. You will see that your shots will be even better if you approach the matter calmly and really enjoy taking pictures. Slow Photography is the name of the game.

6.) Take enough memory cards with you.

7.) From a power supply point of view, I can only report good things about the E-M1 Mark II. We managed without any problems with a maximum of two batteries per day. Perhaps you could take a third battery with you as a reserve. If you photograph with larger lenses like the M.Zuiko Digital ED 300mm F4.0 IS PRO, I recommend the HLD-9 battery grip for a better grip.

Featured Products:

OM-D E-M1 Mark II
M.Zuiko Digital ED 300mm F4.0 IS PRO
M.Zuiko Digital 1.4x teleconverter MC‑14
M.Zuiko Digital ED 12-40mm F2.8 PRO

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