Exploring the breathtaking beauty of Africa’s wildlife Sarina Othman and her Leica SL

Born in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Sarina Othman has spent almost half of her life abroad for studies and work. She studied in the UK majoring in Accounting and Law before qualifying as a Chartered Accountant. Sarina had an international finance career working in London, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and San Francisco. Her work took her to different parts of the world and photography was an extension of these travels. Work was a means to an “end” and Othman resigned from her job to “retire” early in 2015 and returned to her roots in Kuala Lumpur. “I now spend my days implementing and fulfilling those “end” which are life goals that I have set for myself in pursuit of knowledge and executing with excellence in everything that I do.”

How did you first become interested in Leica?

I started out with a Canon film camera with Tamron lenses. I loved the natural look and color of film. When digital camera became mainstream, the conversion to a digital camera was inevitable although I never found them to be as satisfactory as film camera. I gradually upgraded myself with higher grade Canon cameras until Canon Mark II and various lenses. However, I found them to be impractical as I could not carry all of them when I traveled and these were bulky and heavy equipment. Security at the airport was also an issue to be carrying too many equipment. It prompted me to look for an optimum camera i.e. one that can cater to all my needs. It needed to be easy to handle and light to carry and yet high quality pictures.

I was introduced to Leica M9 at a specialist camera store Camera West in Walnut Creek, California. They allowed me to “test drive” a Hasselblad, Leica S and Leica M. The M was the most suitable for me as it was easy to handle and light. It had the feel and look of a film camera and the colors were fantastic. My first Leica was the M9 and I loved it. It was great for landscape, nature, portraits and interiors but however not suitable for wildlife which needed an automatic fast camera and zoom lens. I still maintained my suite of Canon camera and equipment.

However, once I started using Leica, it was very hard to use other cameras as I could see the difference. I started to transition to Leica and added a V-Lux 3 (600 mm for the zoom range capabilities) and Leica C. They were not SLRs and hence the experience of taking photographs was not quite satisfying like using a SLR and its zoom lenses. They were great cameras but they were not what I was looking for. When Leica M Edition 60 was released, I traded in all my Canon cameras and the M9 equipment for the M Edition 60 but kept the V-Lux 3. I took a break from traveling and photography and timing was everything because I decided to go on safari again this year and Leica SL and the zoom 90-280 mm lens became available.

I went on a short safari to “test drive” the SL to see if I like the handling and whether it can handle wildlife photography. It certainly rekindled my passion for wildlife photography. It is sleek and easy to handle but for small hands like mine, I definitely need a tripod. It has everything that I am looking for and more. It is a fantastic camera for dim lighting especially on a safari when there is poor lighting to capture wildlife at sunrise or sunsets. No flash required at all and I love natural lighting. However, what I would love for Leica to tweak on is to capture the orange glow of a sunset or sunrise to be of natural hue when under “auto” setting.

These images are breathtaking, documenting an aspect of nature which we usually see only through television or internet. Wildlife has now become a topic but mainly because it needs to be saved. What encouraged you to photograph these animals? Is there philanthropy involved or a need to raise awareness?

Thank you for the kind words. I didn’t grow up with nature and animals. I was a city girl and wildlife and nature was far removed from me. When I went on my first safari, the magic of being close to nature and being totally cut-off from worldly news (no electricity or internet) was like “medicine”.  I felt my soul was nourished. We take for granted that when we go on safaris, we will see ALL the animals like a zoo but it is not a given.

Having experienced the low probability of seeing certain animals, it made me realize that safaris are not experiences that you can take for granted as you may never go on another safari or even see those animals again. Photography was a means of capturing this privilege and in the process, I discovered the pleasure of wildlife photography. There was no philanthropy involved at the time but I now want to use my photographs for philanthropy and education.

Safaris can be considered almost as a synonym of Africa. Since you’ve traveled several times to the continent, what else have you experienced while doing these photo shoots?

On my recent trip, I visited the Big Life Foundation whose mission is to partner with communities to protect nature for the benefit of all. I had the privilege of meeting with the co-founders Richard Bonham who is an award-winning conservationist and Nick Brandt, a wildlife photographer who photographs only in Africa. It was an education for me to see and learn about the challenges of conservancy.

I also saw how climate change is affecting the environment and wildlife. Rainfall has gone askew and drought is a serious issue. They had to truck water for the animals and human beings too. Finding water is a challenge. The conflict between human and wildlife have escalated with population growth and increasingly animals are being displaced from their habitat. Humans are encroaching the protected areas where the animals are and animals have strayed into populated areas in search of water. They are getting killed because they are a threat to human beings. This is separate from the poaching that takes place. Visited a school where the headmistress was giving me a long list of issues that she is facing at the school.

Met with the team on the Mara Cheetah Project and Mara Lion Project and gained further insights on the cheetah’s plight and why they risk extinction. In summary, there are many, many out there who are struggling and need help including the animals. Not just Africa but the world. Hence, why I feel compelled to do something with my photos even if my contribution is like a needle in the ocean.

Which of these animals have you enjoyed photographing the most?

I enjoy taking photos of all animals but my favorite would be the cheetah. Cheetahs are solitary animals and very independent. Something that I could relate to. They are also very sleek and beautiful and to witness a cheetah kill was one of the most exhilarating experiences.

What do you want your viewers to take away after observing your images?

To realize that these are signs or evidence of the existence of a Creator, a higher power that transcends us.  Look at the beauty and level of detail and uniqueness of every creation and how it all connects together. It cannot just be from a Big Bang.

You’ve had your share of Leica cameras and even other equipment. If you were left with a single camera for life, which one would you choose and why?

Tough one to answer. I can live without a camera but hypothetically though, my answer would be the SL and my wish list is for Leica to come up with the ultimate lens that combines wide-angle and zoom of 17-400 mm J

Reason for choosing the SL:

  • It is an automatic camera and hence suitable for all types of photography.
  • It is FAST. THE camera for wildlife photography. Manual focus is not going to work because every second counts as you may miss crucial shots as you try to fiddle with the dials.
  • The ISO goes up to 50000 and that is jaw dropping awesome!
  • The fact that it has capacity for 2 SD cards and it automatically transitions to the next when full. For wildlife photography, it is a great plus as you can expose thousands of shots in a day.
  • No spare battery required. Battery lasts a good full day with thousands of shots taken.
  • It is compatible with M lens and I have used the Noctilux with great effect for a wedding photo shoot.
  • Dust proof which is what I need for wildlife photography as the camera is exposed to the element i.e. driving in open car and dusty roads.
  • It is “idiot” proof for a non-technical person like myself.
  • Easy to handle and not too heavy to carry and looks beautiful.

Please talk about the transition from using the Leica M to the Leica SL, what happened in between that made you stop doing safaris or wildlife photography?

I have done my bucket list of travels……but there was one bucket list trip that was a priority and a must which I have not done and that was to perform the Hajj which is one of the five pillars of Islam. The waitlist is long and can take years if not decades but I was determined to go sooner and made every effort to make it happen. I sacrificed my holidays to be on standby to go on Hajj should the opportunity present itself.  I waited for 4 years before I finally made it. During that 4 years, I did not travel abroad for holidays and by the time I went for my Hajj, I was already retired and needed to relocate and get settled again in my country.  All in there was a about a 6 years’ gap.

You’ve become accustomed to using available light when photographing wildlife – any tips or suggestions you might want to share with others who might be starting out in nature photography?

It requires a lot of effort and patience to take nature and wildlife photography. Timing is everything because the best light is usually a fleeting moment and then the light changes. You have to be prepared for the unexpected in terms of weather and what you might see. Sometimes you have to wait a long time before you see any activities from wildlife or wait for the wind to blow the cloud cover for the sun to shine through.

The best light for wildlife and nature photography is the first few hours early in the morning after sunrise and last hour in the evening before sunset. It is also the most active time for wildlife. Investing in a good zoom and image stabilizer lens will go a long way for great wildlife photography on a safari. The animals will have to be at a safe distance and at sunrise and sunset the light can be dim. Animals get frightened by flash lights, so avoid using a flash. Flash lights are not going to be of much effect if the animals are at a distance. This is when having a good camera and zoom lens will make a difference in the quality of the shots.

You are not likely to get good shots of wildlife at night because it is too dark. If you have to take photos in the dark, then use the car spotlight as your light or a handheld spotlight (usually yellow light as opposed to white light). The light is more natural and does not spook the animals.

When on a safari, it is also important that you get comfortable with the idea that you are now part of a car. The car needs to work for you and knowing how to position the car will be critical to get the best light and photographs of the animals.  Sometimes a guide/driver may not be photographically inclined and so you must be able to instruct the guide/driver which direction or angle they should park the car to give you the best light and shot of the animal.

A “tripod” is necessary for wildlife photography as there may be a lot of movement by the animals and the zoom lens can be heavy. Having said that on a safari game drive, an actual tripod is not practical because you need the flexibility of movement in the car to position yourself for the shots as the wildlife will be moving too.  Bean bags are often used as support for the camera.

Lastly, is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers? Maybe other projects in the pipeline? 

My wildlife photos were featured on the BBC website in 2007: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/in_pictures/6283508.stm

One of the things that I enjoy doing is creating books and gifting them to the lodges where I stayed. I did a photobook on Rincon del Socorro in the Ibera Wetlands, Argentina and gifted it to the lodge. The lodge was owned by the late Doug Tompkins, co-founder of North Face clothing company. I received a lovely note from the Manager to say that they represented the Ibera Marshes at the Oakham Bird Fair in the UK (2007) and all they took was my photobook and a couple of brochures and to quote “your book was the sensation of the fair” and had “photographers from all over delighted with your work” and “you out did yourself”.

I also did a book on Solio Conservancy in Northern Kenya that plays a major part in conserving black rhinos in Kenya. An American guest who subsequently stayed at the lodge saw the book and contacted me to see if I would print another book and sell it to her. Unfortunately, it was a one-off book that I did on Apple and it would be too expensive to print one. There are a couple of projects in the pipeline that are currently in the development stages that I hope will come to fruition.

I am currently working on a project with a publisher to publish my photos. It will be a small publication in the form of an educational calendar that is evergreen in nature with no specific year. It will focus on my photos of nature.  We are working towards releasing it later this year.

I also plan to go on another safari trip in October this year with the intent of staging a wildlife photography exhibition next year. I am developing the concept and doing research on its feasibility and at the moment. In conjunction with the exhibition, I am also looking at the possibility of publishing a book as part of the fund-raising efforts.

I volunteered as the official photographer for “The Straight Path Convention: Divine Rights” in Kuala Lumpur last weekend which was attended by about 2000 participants including overseas participants that flew in for the convention. The photos will be used by the organizers for their magazines and advertising materials.

Thank you Sarina!

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