Oli Moorman started taking family vacation photos at the age of 12. But soon after, he realized he had a full vacation album that didn’t actually have his family in it. That’s when he knew he loved capturing places and landscapes. Flash forward to the present, where Oli spends his weekdays as Senior Project Manager at ICF Olson and his weekends as a landscape and wildlife photographer. This month, Oli was part of his first photography show in Toronto. We sat down with Oli to talk about this experience and his creative process.
Q: Let’s talk about your first showing. How did it come to fruition?
Oli Moorman: I’ve been visiting the Riverdale Art Walk for the last 3–4 years. It’s run by a group called the Artists’ Network who organizes art shows around Toronto and has about 150 exhibitors. I’ve been working up the courage the last couple of years to actually enter the show myself. It’s a long process—every entry is judged by their Artists’ Network jury and you’re offered a spot depending on how good you are. This year, I emailed in five shots and a write-up about myself, just to see if I had a chance. The deadline came and went and I never got an email. But, they contacted me two weeks later stating that there was an administrative error, and I was meant to be in the show! It was a little terrifying at that point.
Wildlife and landscapes are kind of my thing. I found out in early March that I was going to be in the show, and then I spent every weekend for 2.5 months out and about with my camera. It was a really good motivator to get out there and take more photos and explore.
Q: Tell us about some locations you’ve shot at where people wouldn’t expect to see wildlife.
OM: I’ve lived in Toronto for about five years now and I’m still exploring the city and its surrounding areas. I’ve been up to Algonquin Park a few times, west to Point Pelee national park, but what I really enjoy is exploring the smaller, more hidden away parks and conservation areas. For example, there’s a wildlife reserve owned by General Motors, tucked away behind their Corporate HQ in Oshawa to the east of Toronto. It turns out they bought the land between their building and the lakeshore in the mid 90s and have ensured it remains protected ever since. I went there for the first time at about 8am one Saturday morning and there was no one else around. White Tailed Deer were hiding in the long grass, birds of prey were swooping over the marshland and huge Coyote tracks covered the shoreline. This is an industrial, suburban area but all this life is right there if you know where to look.
Q: Did you add the location of the photographs when you mounted them? How did people respond when they learned the context of the photos?
OM: I did. I think that was partly why the show was successful. I got to tell people that some photos were taken just down the road and I liked seeing the look of surprise on their faces when they realized that all of these things are here and they’re genuinely wild. That’s one of the hooks of the photos that I tried to take for the show. There’s all this wildlife and amazing landscapes in our urban environment that you don’t think of as urban. People just don’t know it’s there, or they’re complacent about it and take it for granted.
Q: How would you describe your photography style?
OM: With landscapes, I like to find the small detail in a broader space. There’s an image I took in Niagara Falls where half of the falls are frozen, and the focus of the image is a small viewing platform at the bottom of the waterfall. If not about the falls; they literally fade off the image. It’s about the manmade platform, tucked away at the bottom of the one of the natural wonders of the world. So, it’s about capturing that detail of the human presence amongst all of this natural power and awesomeness. People may know there’s a viewing platform down there, they may have even visited it, but they’ve never seen it from this angle before.
With wildlife photography, I enjoy getting close to the animal. I tend not to shoot the animal in a broad expanse. I like to have just enough to give the shot a sense of place, but it’s really about connecting with the animal. Most of my wildlife photography is about the animal’s eyes. There’s one photo of a deer that I took, and one of the deer noticed me as I was trying to get the picture. It was looking straight at me through blades of tall grass. That connection with an animal’s eyes gives it personality.
Q: Was there a turning point where you began to feel like a photographer as opposed to a hobbyist?
OM: Although I often had my camera with me and took photographs when the moment struck me, it’s only in the last year that I’ve started going out specifically to take a photograph. I now have a shot in mind, knowing the light and the scene I want to capture. If you know what you want and go out to create that scene, there’s thought and originality in that. Having that plan and that goal and photographing to a particular theme—that’s how you learn what your style is and what you enjoy doing. And it’s not necessarily about the number of images that you take. It’s the journey towards that one shot you really wanted.
Q: How do you get the object that you’re photographing just the way you want before you capture it?
OM: It’s the preparation. Oddly enough, I think that clicks with the part of my brain that likes being a project manager. Exploring and learning where animals are requires a lot of patience and planning, and you can’t intrude on the animals’ behaviour. That’s something I was guilty of initially. I’ve gotten too close and scared the animal. Now it’s about trying not to influence them. They may know where I am and that I’m watching, but I ensure that I keep my distance and just observe.
It’s that buildup and planning that I enjoy as much as taking the photograph itself. I can spend a weekend out and about with my camera, and be outside for 16 hours and have one photograph that I like, and I’d be over the moon with my weekend.
Q: Can you tell us about a shot that was really worth waiting for?
OM: There’s one shot I have of a coyote that I took out on Leslie Spit, which is 6km of reclaimed land that juts out into Lake Ontario. I worked out where one of their dens was, looked for their tracks and followed game trails. I spent three Saturday nights in a row just squatting on trails and waiting. Eventually one beautiful, healthy coyote popped out onto the track as it was trying to catch a rabbit. It was sniffing around for a scent then turned its head and saw me. We made direct eye contact and just looked at each other for about 20 seconds. It’s possible he wasn’t sure what I was, and I’ll admit I was a little startled by how close he was. Those few seconds he was trying to work out what I was—it was kind of magical. I shot five frames and my hands were shaking, but I got one shot that captures that moment. The coyote’s head is raised and his eyes slightly closed as he sniffs the air. Worth every hour I spent out there.
Q: What kind of gear do you use?
OM: I’m an outlier. Most people shoot with either a Nikon or a Canon, but I shoot with a Pentax K3ii, a brand that used to be huge and now barely has a 5% market share. I really enjoy shooting with kit that other people don’t know or have discounted purely because it’s no longer a popular brand. A few people at the show asked me why I shoot with a Pentax, and I said, because I can take photographs like this with it. I love my camera more than I should. Just ask my wife. It’s particularly good at landscape photography, it has very good capability in low light, it’s weather sealed, and the sensor captures fantastic, life-like colours. It suits my style of photography very well.
To help my wildlife photography, I bought a Sigma 50-500mm lens, which is a very long zoom lens that has in-built image stabilizers. When you shoot with a long lens, the tiniest movement you make translates to a big movement in the image itself. So, image stabilization is key to keep the image sharp and in focus. The lens weighs a lot but I strap it to my back as I’m exploring!
Q: What motivates you to continue taking pictures?
OM: I take pictures primarily for me, not for other people. I’ve taken far more than I’ve shared on Instagram or sites like 500px. I found at the show that when people actually see the whole image, and understanding its context, they appreciate it more. It goes from “oh that’s a coyote” to oh that’s a coyote just down the road from here, in my neighbourhood”. It’s doing what a wild animal should do; it’s avoiding people and doing its own thing. That’s eye-opening. They’re not just pests that get into your garbage. To see them in a natural way, but in an urban setting, is important in terms of educating people. A big part of why I do this is to show people that these animals are here and that they’re beautiful and wild. They’re not impacting or encroaching on your life. In fact, we’re probably encroaching on theirs.
To see more of Oli’s photography, visit his website.