“Sure, the musk-ox is not exactly the most popular or cute creature to look at,” laughs Floris Smeets, “but once you’ve seen them up close you discover they’re definitely a very special animal.”
So how did he come to be shooting the musk-ox in such challenging conditions?
“I was inspired by images of them in winter by the photographer Vincent Munier, which looked amazing,” Floris explains. “The simplicity of snow, like in this image I took on my trusty Alpha 9” he continues, “can give wildlife shots a certain calmness, freeing them from distracting subjects in the background, as everything is blanketed in white.”
“But in the end,” Floris explains, “it wasn’t those peaceful images which really motivated me. I spent a lot of time out there, from dawn ’til dusk, and one day I got caught off guard in a big snowstorm. And it was in that storm I got to see the musk-ox in a really special way and take this special image – I find it so awe-inspiring.”
It was in this blizzard that Floris was able to gain a better understanding of this species. “This rough and intense situation showed their prehistoric nature, their strength and stamina,” Floris says, “so, I set about trying to capture this feeling and the scenery together with them. But of course, in those conditions, it’s not easy.”
Fortunately, Floris’s Sony Alpha kit was up to the task, both in terms of the sub-zero temperatures and the complexities of exposing and focusing in a blizzard. For this project he used an Alpha 9 and an Alpha 7R III, fitted with an FE 400mm f/2.8 GM OSS and an FE 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 GM OSS. Why? “Because in a snowstorm, you really don’t want to be changing lenses!” he laughs.
Spending every day with the musk-ox, “the camera gear, no matter how well you insulate it, is going to get cold,” he explains, “but I’ve been so pleased by the way my Alpha 9 and Alpha 7R III handle it. I’ve used them at -38ºC, and everything just works!”
“Those extreme conditions,” he continues, “where there’s a lot of snow in the air, or it gets foggy and visibility is poor, can also be a nightmare for autofocus. But the Alpha 9 and Alpha 7R III still kept track of the animals. It amazes me and I genuinely don’t understand how the camera managed to pick up an animal out of a snowstorm!”
“In these shots, I used my cameras’ AF tracking mode, most often with the Flexible Spot, and placed that single point on the eye of the musk-ox, or its head depending on the distance – then it just kept track, no matter how much snow there was,” Floris explains.
“To make things harder,” Floris continues, “you’re photographing a relatively dark animal against a very light backdrop, so you need to nail exposure every time and not overexpose the snow or under expose the musk-ox. I always shoot in Manual and use the Alpha 9 and Alpha 7R III’s EVF as a guide. It’s especially important in those snowstorms when you suddenly have a lot of snow in the air, as it reflects the light and influences the metering. In Manual, and with help from the histogram, I can see the light hasn’t changed, it’s just the amount of snow in the frame which is changing, and get the shot with a perfect exposure.”
Floris’s favourite images from the project clearly show how his own specialism and the special features of his Alpha gear came together to get the striking environmental shots he wanted.
“The musk-ox silhouetted with the mountain plateau behind, the clouds and the snow in the air really sums up for me how intense it was to be there. But maybe you can see what I wanted best in this black and white image of a musk-ox standing firm against the storm. This one, for me, really tells the story; the feeling of being isolated in a snowstorm, and this amazing animal standing firm against it.”
“If I’d pass one thing on from this project,” Floris concludes, “it’s don’t try to photograph everything. Get a better understanding of one subject. And make sure you're there all the time, no matter the weather conditions, so you and your camera are ready when all the elements come together. Specialise, and your pictures will be special, too.”
"The constant change in nature makes nature photography so attractive. You can visit the same location every day and still come back with a different image every single time"