17.02.2021 Tommy Simonsen

LENS STORIES: Tommy Simonsen x XF70-300mmF4-5.6 R LM OIS WR

Tommy Simonsen

Tommy Simonsen (1970) has been photographing travel, documentary, landscape and wildlife professionally since 1998, and been involved in portraiture since 1992. He lives in the city of Harstad, in the heart of Northern Norway. With this small northern town as base, Tommy has the world as his workplace. He is privileged to be able to work on longer expeditions, undeterred by extremes, whether arctic or tropical. His passport is stamped with the Americas, Africa, Asia and Antarctica from his many journeys making good friends around the world, but he is devoted to the wild beauty of arctic Svalbard, where he also has worked as a dog handler and guide. For ten years Tommy worked as a travel photographer, a job that gave him local insight to the most beautiful parts of northern Norway, Greenland, Iceland and Antarctica. His pictures have been used mainly in various book projects ranging from Lofoten, North Cape, Svalbard, to the Norwegian Coastal Liner and many other places. Since 2008 he has been working as a photography teacher/expedition leader/photographer on long lasting photo expeditions around the world, and of course many adventures in the field each year to his beloved Svalbard. Since he got his hands on his first Fujifilm X-series camera, he’s been totally devoted to the system’s perfect size for adventure, image quality and reliability in the field during extreme conditions. Life is Good! 

Tommy Simonsen is a Northern Norwegian photographer with a deep sense for landscape/wildlife/outdoors and expeditions. His career started within portrait photography back in -91, clearly visual in how often people appears in his landscapes with a touch of documentary style. His heart is set in the arctic, but certainly shared with the love for tropical expeditions. A dogsled expedition to the East-Coast of Svalbard comes just as natural as a week long walking safari with the Maasai worriors tenting the Loita Hills of Kenya. This all summons up in a thought of carry lite, also in his camera bag. This was even easier to follow after 2016 when he became a Fujifilm Nordic X-Photographer. The size, weight and technical advantage was a huge steppingstone on his creative path when Tommy converted to Fujifilm. Tommy has a huge network. Personal connection with good people all around the world is important to Tommys work; he finds it easier to pick up the phone than to write a mail to keep in touch. We all relay on each other. We have been doing a lot of cool things, but there is plenty of adventures ahead!

Heart pumping experiences with the Fujinon XF70-300 in magic colored, disappearing light at the top of the world.

What makes a person become a photographer? I guess the reason to that is as many as there are photographers. I cannot for sure say why I became one, but I have been thinking in images my entire life. In my early years I was entitled to drawing landscapes and animals. My Dad bought me a Kodak Ektra 12 camera using the small 110-cassette film when I was 6 (still got that camera). From that moment I used both drawing and photography to express myself, up to the age of curious youth gave me other things to think at, and drawing took too much time. From then it was only photography for me. I found an old classmate book, and at the age of 14 I have written: “When I grow up I want to be an Animal photographer”. Years later I found this book, and I couldn’t remember to have written that. It was plenty of other paths to follow. So it was quite fun to rediscover this, realizing that I had partly ended up doing the things I had said at the age of 14!

Today I have just turned 50, and want to take us back to this arctic midsummers night in 1977 when I got my first camera with a full packed roll of 110 film, with 12 fresh exposures available! My family where at a mountaintop, and I can clearly remember how I ran around, having all of this insane and awesome scenery in my viewer: old classic fishing boats down in the strait, surrounded by alpine mountains painted by the colored evening sun. What I saw in the viewer that evening would have been Insta-bangers today. Well at least if the images had turned out the way I thought they would. I can still remember the extreme disappointment I felt as the developed film and prints came back one week later. NOTHING looked like I had seen it. The fishing boats where almost not visual, like dots down at the fjord, and the colors where greenish and terrible. My photographic career could easily have ended right there in that 12 exposure film.
-Luckily I´m a stubborn fellow.

When I got the honor of being a test pilot for Fujifilm on the XF70-300 f.4-5.6, I actually thought back on that episode from 1977. How different wouldn´t those images on that mountain have turned out with the versatile XF70-300 and the viewer of a Fujifilm X-T camera? Then again that would be like turning up with a Kodak Ektra at the age of Rembrandt. I am glad I have been so lucky to follow the entire photographic evolution from the analog low ISO and manual focus era of time, till to days equipment that does the magic for me. Even the few years working with Fujifilm has impressed me on how much creative advantage the pro-active technical solutions the engineers of Fujifilm Corp has given us.

For the last years I have used the XF50-140 and the XF100-400. Many Fujifilm users have also been using the XF55-200. When Fujifilm now releases the XF70-300, I think it´s a long awaited tele zoom lens. A versatile, small and lightweight lens that delivers high quality images. Fujifilm users coming from other systems will probably also be more familiar in using a 70-300, although the magnification will be larger if coming from a 35mm system.

Given the opportunity to try out this new lens, I wanted to test it on one of my specialties: the arctic whales.

Normally this would be done during October or early November, but my initial test phase where set to the end of November. At this time of the year, the sun won´t be above the horizon. This would be a rough test for any tele lens. Regarding that the XF70-300 is a f:4-5.6, this would certainly be an extreme test.
But I figured: lets play ball!

I did a stop at my friends in Polar Park, to do a pre-test on the XF70-300 before giving it the bigger challenge with the whales. Polar Park has a pack of wolves that got a large area to roam at. I have known the wolves since they where puppies. The wolves are not tame, but are used to humans on the animals conditions. This has always been a close up and personal experience to me.

The natural bokeh I got on the portraits of the wolves where lovely, with good texture in the fur, and nicely blurred trees behind. My images came out with crisp sharpness at iso 3200. The XF70-300 gave me impressive macro with 83 cm at the full zoom range, which allowed me to keep shooting even when the wolves gathered around me, howling intensely under a meter away from me. The close by howling is an event that even after all those years doing this, is still one of my most valued experiences Relieved by the lense´s capacity, I carried on my northbound drive for many hours. The further north you get, the darker has the dark season reached.

For several years I have been doing footage at the whale phenomena. Every year the large pods of whales come from the arctic oceans into the narrow fjords of Northern Norway. A migration driven by food along the Norwegian coast and eventually propagation in the South Atlantic. The pods follow the large numbers of the silver of the sea, the Herring shoals. Normally every mid-October to early January the Herring pods are in the fjords on a limited geographical area to rest. Latest years that has been into the fjords around the small fishing village of Skjervøy. Fjords surrounded by impressive white covered alpine mountains raging straight from the water. Whales in unbelievable scenery. The huge amount of Herring coming into the fjords is not just a feast for the whales. The local fishermen, but unfortunate also some of the bigger national companies with large boats, also benefits of the Herring shoals, providing their boats and families with a solid income.

A spectators dream and a photographers nightmare!
The whale adventure happens to appear at the same time as the light disappears in the Arctic. Much of the months November, December and January, the sun won´t simply be seen above the horizon. However: The time in November and January just before the Sun disappears, and after the Sun comes back, the Arctic light is a gift in pastel colors with sunrises and sunsets that lasts for a hour or two. This time is my peak moments to do my images throughout the day. And then again you must have been able to locate the pods that move around in the fjords, with a little luck at the right locations. This is not a zoo. Some days you might actually not see much of them. Lets also not forget the Arctic weather: It might as well be Arctic low-pressures stacked out in the ocean all the way to Greenland, bringing snow or rain that takes away colors and visibility. -And winds in a way that you cant even be out in the fjords. But luck favors the bold!

Lets break this down into the essential photographic challenges that I have experienced. Every wildlife photographer’s challenge is always shutter time, dynamic range and accurate auto focus. To do images of moving wildlife, I use preferably 1/1000 sec. or higher. Even with aperture f.2.8 that is difficult to achieve under these limited light conditions. It is really easy to get heavy underexposed images. My solution to this challenge would be to search for highlighted parts of the fjords that would give me enough light, hoping that the whales would be In that area. By combining the firmware upgraded X-T3 house´s low light AF capacity and the new AF technology of the XF70-300, this should be possible. Pushing on high ISO is absolutely needed to get the shutter value needed.

Without a sturdy local boat driver, my job to locate the whales would be difficult. I have for several years used Susanne of the adventure company “Explore 70 degrees north”. She uses my preferred working platform, a low sturdy open Polarcircel boat with a 300HP that would take me safely out to the whales at most conditions. Susanne also has a conscious way of approaching the whales without disturbing them, and that is a quality I can enjoy. My sidekick at the behind the scenes on this project where fellow Fujifilm Nordic X-photographer Pål Laukli, a superb Oslo-based photo/videograph.

What did I learn by using this new lens?

The XF70-300 mounted on a X-camera feels good and well designed in my hands. This is a compact tele zoom of high quality that would suite many types of photographers. Approx. 13 cm long at the smallest and 580g, it equals the 35mm to 107 – 457mm. That means that I get A LOT in my camera bag, that needs to be as small as possible for me as a outdoor/expedition photographer. This is a versatile, small and lightweight lens that delivers high quality images.

If you are working on portrait, wildlife, documentary or whatever under normal light conditions, this lens would give you a good advantage to an affordable price. The lens is the perfect companion for anyone seeking a small reliable telezoom lens if you need to get real close as well as the bigger picture.

Fujifilm has made the XF70-300 weather resistant, and that is of highest importance to my sort of use. On the ocean, I don’t need to worry too much for spray from the waves, although I try to protect the tools from salt water as much as possible; read the waves pattern. “whipe and shoot” technic with a microfiber cloth is the answer. Also during hiking, dogsled expeditions, snowmobile trips and tropical jungle adventures, the weather resistance sealing’s on both lens and house are vital to me.

Zooming out the full range is quick and smooth. Combined with the fast Auto Focus it is easy to catch both the wider and close-up perspective of the situation.

Image stabilizer is vital to any new tele lens, and I wouldn´t dream of using one without, as I often find myself in low light situations. The new powerful image stabilizer of the XF70-300 gives me impressive 5,5 stops. On the whale project this was clearly important to save most of my images from my small boat´s movement on the rough sea. The whale´s movement I had to solve by pushing ISO/shutter values. Older lenses has an on/off IS button. The XF70-300 doesn’t have this, as it would automatically recognize whether the camera is mounted on a tripod or not. So how about the aperture of f.4-5.6? Since I´m used to travel light because of all the other stuff I need to bring to spend days and nights out in the arctic, a lens with that large zoom range with an aperture of 2.8, would simply not be an option. It would just come out too large and heavy. Therefore the XF70-300 suites me well. Yes I got plenty of noise in my images. I had planned for that by using ISO between 1600-10.000. But the images still came out nice and artsy; I can certainly use them in my portfolio. Next year I´ll be earlier anyway.

The XF70-300 can use both the 1,4 and the 2 times converter. Compared to 35mm the 1,4 converter would give a 640 mm and the 2 times converter would give an impressive 914 mm. AF, Stabilizer and other would work as normal on the lens, but of course with some loss in F-stops. I do find myself using the converters when needed. However for this project I planned to push the aperture, shutter time and ISO to the max. I decided to not use a converter this time, as I was anyway close enough on the animals with the zoom range of the XF70-300 as it was. Both converters are however good options to use under normal light conditions when you need to get even closer, and travel light.

Photographing whales is just like most of wildlife photography: a waiting game. And even more waiting considering sittin in an open boat in the the cold fjords. But suddenly the ocean explodes of whales, and everything is on again. That´s the game I love. Just being out there. Feeling the elements, trusting the decisions that are taken, from the planning and trust in the weather forecast. Local knowledge on weather forecast. The lunar phase on how much and what sort of light you might get, and to when you sit in the boat and decide what fjord to enter.

Both the Orcas and the Humpback whales follow the large shoals of Herring as those come in from open waters into the fjords. Herring is food. Where the Herring goes, so follows the whales. It is as simple as that. I must however say that I favors the Orca experience. More speed and action when they appears:
-After one hour the Polarcircle boat suddenly slows down. I look around.
P-Tchhh! Orcas are blowing close.. -P-TCHHH! Really close! All over suddenly an Orca pops up right next to our RIB boat as it breathes out with the sound of a big P-TCHHH again, and the cold air is filled with the smell of fish.
Marvelous! -I Love the smell of Herring!-

As the light gets brighter, we realize that it is a large family group we have stumbled upon. And they totally ignore our boat. A shoal of Herring is here; the Orca family pod is in hunt mode. They work as a wolf pack. Keep control of the shoal, gathering and confuses the fish by blowing bubbles. Forcing the Herring close to the surface and then crashing through them, with their mouths full of fish. Shell-shocked and paralyzed, loads of Herring swim at the surface. Several fish divided in half, floats headless in the water. Then Seagulls and Sea Eagles join the feast. Screaming in joy

The boat lies quiet in the water. Snow covered mountains all around us. The light has turned into intense yellow on the southern sky. The northern sky changes from deep blue into pastel pink.  In these impressive surroundings, groups of Orcas zig zag. Coming right toward the RIB, with the dorsal fin tall against the sky as a giant shark. Diving under us, for then to emerge on the other side of the boat.
-Close by us. –Far away from us. –Everywhere.

I must remember to breath. It´s intense. Orcas Everywhere. Must not forget why I am here. -To get extraordinary pictures.

I can’t wait to try out the XF70-300 later this winter. Further north photographing Polar bears from a distance in the field without disturbing them.
-Under normal light conditions that this lens is actually made for.
Cause this lens has impressed me so far, on both Wolves and Whales in the darkness.

Tommy Simonsen
Harstad, Norway
December 2020

All images shot on X-T3 & XF70-300mmF4-5.6 R LM OIS WR