• Sat. Jun 3rd, 2023

Interview: Olympus Educators Lisa and Tom Cuchara on how Olympus has transformed their outdoor photography: Digital Photography Review


Jun 15, 2021

Lisa and Tom Cuchara are photographers and Olympus Educators, based in Connecticut. Their work covers everything from weddings and infant portraiture, to bird and macro photography.
Over the course of long careers, they’ve used various types and brands of camera equipment, but these days their core kit is based around Olympus OM-D series cameras and M.Zuiko lenses. In this interview, they explain their background, the various kinds of photography that keep them creatively inspired, and why they chose to make the switch to Olympus’s Micro Four Thirds system for their bird and nature work.
What are your favorite photographic subjects?
Lisa: Our favorite subject matter is whatever we’re photographing at the moment. So we’ve been focusing a lot on birds, but once the insects start to come out, we do that. We’ve published a book on frog photography. We published a book on abandoned photography, urban exploration. So we really do love most subjects.
Tom: Lately we’ve been doing a lot of bird photography, particularly in the backyard this year, during the pandemic. I’m setting up our backyard for more pleasing backgrounds. I’ve also been spending time in the Forsythe nature preserve in New Jersey, and we travel around the Hammonasset to photograph some of the birds, like the short-haired owl and the terns and things like that.

Green Heron.Olympus OM-D E-M1X in Pro Capture (‘Low’) mode. Tom says: ‘Waiting for action, the decisive moment, is one of the best times to use Pro Capture. The Green Heron stood there not moving for many minutes, then snap! It grabbed the prey’.M.Zuiko 300mm F4.0 IS PRO + MC-14 1.4x Teleconverter (840mm equiv.)ISO 400 | F5.6
What first drew you to bird photography?
Tom: I think just the nature of a bird, it’s fast, there’s a lot of them, so you’re always interested. There’s always something happening. It’s a challenge to get the birds in flight, but it’s just as challenging to get a nice composition of a bird that’s just standing still or doing something interesting, like eating, mating, fighting. And the colors are just wonderful.
The nature of a bird, it’s fast, there’s a lot of them, so you’re always interested
Lisa: Right now ruddy ducks are in their breeding season and they just crack me up. They make me smile when they’re going through this mating ritual. Or the Cardinals in the backyard. It doesn’t matter what size bird it is, they all seem to have their own unique personality. Trying to capture the particular behaviors unique to that bird is really fun and challenging.

House Finch.
Olympus OM-D E-M1XM.Zuiko 100-400mm F5.0-6.3 IS (800mm equiv.)ISO 3200 | F8

How did you both get started in the world of photography?
Lisa: I got interested in photography as a teenager. When I was 13, my mother asked me what I wanted for my birthday present. I said I wanted a camera. I think in this fast-paced world, photography gives us a chance to slow down and notice things. It gives you a chance to notice the beauty that’s all around us, the beauty of every season, the beauty of every subject. At times, it’s therapeutic too. Tom and I met in a camera club in 2000.
Photography gives us a chance to slow down and notice things
Tom: My father loved photography and I became enamored with it. I used to work with kids in a psychiatric hospital and I developed a dark room with them. The staff liked my pictures, so they started hiring me to photograph events and picnics and weddings and things like that. It kind of grew once I met Lisa. We started doing weddings, and then we turned to nature, because we find it a lot more engaging and fun.
Lisa: We still have a portrait studio, we’ll photograph kids in it, and head shots. But mainly we’re using it now for doing hands-on macro photography, light painting, and teaching Photoshop.

Black-capped Chickadee.Olympus OM-D E-M1XM.Zuiko 300mm F4.0 IS PRO + MC-14 1.4x Teleconverter (840mm equiv.)ISO 2500 | F5.6
What makes a good portrait?
Lisa: I think key to taking a good portrait is just being patient. When a child comes in, we might actually not even have them look at the camera for 20 minutes. We’ll put out some toys and we might have them just get used to playing. We take some photographs of them just being natural. And then we build into it.
Tom: It’s making that emotional connection with people, taking your time and not feel hurried, not let them feel like they have to hurry, relaxing them, having a little bit of fun and then not being in a rush.
Your work is very varied, everything from macros of insects, to portraits, weddings and everything in between. What do you find the most challenging sort of situations as photographers?
Tom: I think bird photography. It’s physically challenging to stand out in the wind and the cold, carrying all your gear, and there’s a lot of waiting patiently for the bird to do something interesting. The bird’s going to go where it wants to go.

Male Wood Duck, with simulated Bird AI Autofocus reticle overlaid. Bird detection in the OM-D E-M1X uses AI-based deep learning to automatically prioritize detection of a bird’s eye, allowing the photographer to focus on composition. Olympus OM-D E-M1XM.Zuiko 300mm F4.0 IS PRO + MC-14 1.4x Teleconverter (840mm equiv.)ISO 2000 | F5.6
What’s your core equipment right now?
Tom: I’ve been using the 300mm F4 PRO with a 1.4X converter to photograph birds, alongside the 40-150mm F2.8 PRO. Lisa loves her 60mm macro. So we go from the macro to the longer lenses for birds, but also we can shoot flowers and things like that with a 300mm as well.
Lisa: For cameras, Tom has two OM-D E-M1X bodies and I have two E-M1 Mark III bodies and one E-M1X. My preferred camera is the E-M1 Mark III, but if I’m doing bird photography, I’ll use the E-M1X.

Red-bellied Woodpecker.Olympus OM-D E-M1XM.Zuiko 150-400mm F4.5 TC1.25X IS PRO (1000mm equiv.)ISO 1000 | F5.6
How has the gear that you use evolved over time?
Lisa: Both Tom and I used DSLRs for decades and we really didn’t have too much interest in changing over to something else. And then we were at a workshop and we were photographing a lighthouse in the dark. The workshop participant that standing next to me had the Olympus OM-D E-M1, and he could see what we were photographing in the dark in Live Composite mode. And I’m like, “Wait, what is that? How are you doing that?” And I went home and immediately investigated. It was definitely the computational technology – Live Composite, Live Time, in-camera focus stacking, pro-capture, and so on, along with wide variety of sharp lenses, that drew us to Olympus
We found that the Olympus gear was just light and fast, and the focusing was sharp. We came home and we sold all our DSLR equipment.
We still kept all of our DSLR gear for our bird photography for a while, but on a trip to Florida we decided to try and see if we could shoot everything with our Olympus mirrorless kit. We found that the Olympus gear was just light and fast, and the focusing was sharp. We came home and we sold all our DSLR equipment. We just thought if we brought it all the way down to Florida and didn’t use it, there’s no point in having it anymore.
Lisa, you’re known as ‘The Frog Whisperer’ – what’s your top tip for photographing frogs?
Lisa: Patience. The frog isn’t going to do what you want it to do. I got the name frog whisperer because I would put my frog, Pixel, in place and I would talk to it. And I just put my finger up to it. And the frog would sit there. So, that’s kind of where I got the frog whisperer nickname.

Gray Tree Frog.
Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark IIIM.Zuiko 12-40mm F2.8 PRO (80mm equiv.)ISO 6400 | F8

At one point, I had like 350 frogs. And then Tom finally said, “No more frogs!” So I started coming home with chameleons and a praying mantis and walking sticks. Every once in a while, there’ll be something down in the kitchen, and Tom will shout up to me “Lisa, you’ve got to come and get your critter, it’s escaped!”
How has technology changed the way you shoot?
Lisa: Over and over in the past few years we’ve found ourselves saying again and again how much more fun photography is because the technology has changed, and we’re also a lot more productive. A lot of times with our DSLRs, we had to do a lot of work in Photoshop. If you wanted to do star stacking or focus bracketing, we had to bring it all into Photoshop.
I find myself handholding pictures at an eighth of a second thinking, “Wow, these are sharp”
Whereas now, for example, we can do focus stacking in camera. I used to take focus bracketed pictures with my DSLR, but I would say I only processed like 2% of them because I’d rather be out shooting rather than sitting at the computer. Versus now, I get that focus stacked picture right out of the camera.

The Olympus OM-D E-M1X and E-M1 Mark III feature advanced 5-axis image stabilization, which is effective up to 7.5EV with supported lenses, and up to 8EV with the new 150-400mm PRO zoom (CIPA-rating) .
Even the image stabilization with the M.Zuiko lenses – I used to lug my tripod everywhere. I hated the tripod, but I love the pictures I got with it. But now I find myself handholding pictures at an eighth of a second thinking, “Wow, these are sharp.” So I think that has helped. And like I said, I think Tom and I both use the word ‘fun’ quite a bit now with our photography,
Have you been able to use the new 150-400mm PRO lens?
Lisa: We have. We were supposed to be sharing this lens but it’s superglued to my camera, so Tom doesn’t get to use it much!
I’m using it a lot for bird photography. I love the fact that the varied focal length range lets me capture different behaviors without changing lenses. I’ve never had a lens with a built-in teleconverter. The TC switch is right there where my thumb is, so when I want to go in close for a bird that’s further away or for a headshot, I can just flip it on. It’s also lightweight, and fast. Compared to the 500mm lenses we used to shoot with our DSLRs, I can hand-hold this lens all day long.

The M.Zuiko 150-400mm F4.5 TC1.25X IS PRO is a powerful telephoto zoom lens, which offers excellent image stabilization and a maximum equivalent focal length of 1,000mm using the built-in teleconverter.
Are there any features that you’d really like to see improved or added in future generations of Olympus cameras?
Lisa: I’d love to have Bird Detection AI Autofocus in a camera more of the size of the E-M1 Mark III. I was just about to sell my E-M1X, actually, because I really was only using the E-M1 Mark III. And then in December last year, Olympus came out with this Bird Detection AF and I was just like, oh, good thing I didn’t sell it. That’s something I use for birds all the time now.

In Pro Capture mode, with the shutter button half-pressed, Olympus cameras can constantly record images to buffer memory at frame-rates up to 60fps. To capture the perfect moment, simply press the shutter button down fully. At that point, a sequence of full-resolution images taken before and shortly after the shutter actuation will be recorded to your memory card.
Tom does a lot of shooting with Pro Capture mode. I don’t do as much, but it really does feel like cheating. You’re sitting there waiting and this Green Heron’s here and just sitting there and sitting there and sitting there. And then it finally goes for the fish. And by the time that your brain connects to your finger to trip the shutter, normally you’d miss it. With Pro Capture, you capture it every time and that’s just amazing.

This is sponsored content, created in partnership with OM Digital Solutions. What does this mean?

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