Mirrorless for nature! Are you mad?

I have been asked numerous times why I sometimes use an Olympus set-up especially when I am predominantly a nature photographer.

Why are you using an Olympus micro four thirds system for nature photography? Are you mad?

Now before you waste ink on sending death threats, firstly, I realise that this camera system is not the best there is and certainly not the best wildlife camera, that would of course be either the D4 or 1DX and If you want to aspire to be the best in wildlife photography then in theory one of them needs to be your tool. But what if you can't use one of those light gathering house bricks, don't want to use them or can't afford them?
Secondly this blog is much, much, much longer than I anticipated and probably too long but I wanted to jot down my thoughts in case anyone was thinking of using an Olympus system and wanted a touch of information, help or reassurance (I'm sure a Panasonic system will be practically identical although I didn't like the Panasonic G1X and changed to an Olympus). Remember this is not scientific just my findings after using it for a while..........If you have some paint to dry now may be the time to watch it.

The sage like adage that 'the best camera is the one you have with you' has never been more apt especially if like me a conventional system can be a bit of a hindrance to your photography. I have suffered for a while with a bad back but also in more recent years an extremely dodgy shoulder (I believe that's the correct medical term?) both of which have become an irritant. No sympathy necessary, don't send me chocolates or cards, it doesn't stop me from doing anything but the future was looking very sore and to be honest I wasn't looking forward to long days in the field with a heavy camera and backpack.

My epiphany came when I was on a 'recce' for a deer project. I'd taken the Olympus OMD-EM5 micro four thirds (here on in known as m 4/3) to shoot possible locations and just in case something should pop up unexpectedly, like a panther (you never know and they are of course prevalent in South Wales, no really!). Anyway after a decent walk I found a few things and also unexpectedly a few deer that were in a photogenic area. So I thought pop back to the car, pick up my 'main' camera and nip back (at the time a Pentax K3, 300mm lens and 1.4x converter. Blimey! Pentax! can I trust this man?). Wow what a difference, after 5 minutes carrying the camera my shoulder started to ache and that was without the usual backpack too, where as with the Olympus, I had practically forgoten that I had it with me (and to top it off as usual the deer had miraculously disappeared when I returned). The Pentax set up was by no means the heaviest either and I decided there and then to try and find a way to use the Olympus set up as my only choice.
Technical waffle warning - Unfortunately in the next few paragraphs I have to delve into f no's, ISO's and crop factors but please bare with me.

By the way crop factor is not: 1. A reality TV competition involving hairdressers, 2. A strange camera shaped indentation in wheat fields or 3. (for you older readers) an arable puzzling/assault course TV quiz.
Now there was a main stumbling block (others are available) and that was the shortage of a professional long telephoto, no, make that there weren't any. So the plan took a little longer to come to fruition than I had hoped. At the time I tried some of the 'superzooms' from Olympus and Panasonic, truthfully in hope more than anything but even though they were good for their class (in some instances when conditions were right, absolutely fine) the shots didn't have the 'look'. This is partly because of the large depth of field but also lack of sharpness and contrast at the extreme zoom. So fast forward a year on and the arrival of the Olympus 40-150mm f/2.8 and the 1.4x converter has enabled the complete switch to the Olympus. Yes I know, I can hear you shouting at your computer screen, "but it's still a big bloody lens", so please bare with me.

A lot of people have questioned the Olympus professional lenses being too big and bulky when the whole idea of the system was to be small and light. I can totally understand this view however everything is relative and you need to compare like for like.
As an example the new Olympus 40-150mm f/2.8 is 50mm shorter and 600g lighter than a Nikon 70-200mm but because of the m 4/3 crop factor being 2 x, the lens actually has a similar range of an 80-300mm. There is also no hindrance to performance using the widest aperture of f/2.8 rather than like most lenses which have to be stopped down to f/4 or even f/8 to reach optimum quality and critical sharpness.

One thing I should explain is that as the crop factor is 2x the depth of field is doubled however the light gathering ability is the same as its widest aperture. So the 40-150mm f/2.8 is in fact an 80-300mm with a depth of field of an f/4 but a light gathering of f/2.8. What does this poor explanation mean in terms of its use to us? Well it means that if you shoot wide open, you will gain an extra stop of depth of field but at a quicker shutter speed. Now this is not going to be a problem unless you want a dramatic shallow depth of field which is very unlikely when shooting wildlife. This quicker shutter speed will also help with the noise issue (see disadvantages below) as you do not need to raise the ISO as much and you are able to shoot quicker. This has better potential for blur free shots and helps with the possibility of handholding should you wish to. The Olympus anti-shake system is also one of the best with up to a 5 stop saving.

Here are a few more examples of the weight differences:

Working out the weights of a Canon 5d and a 100-400mm lens (I know it's not quite the same but it's close enough) against the Olympus, 40-150mm and a 1.4x (which in reality is 112 x 420mm), there is just over a 1kg difference which doesn't sound much until you walk around with it all day. That's a bag of sugar removed from your shoulder or bag. I have just read AJ's announcement of the new Nikon 600mm and just to reiterate the difference again, assuming when it arrives the new Olympus 300mm (remember this is actually a 600mm) will be similar in size and weight as the 40-150mm, this would make the lens a foot smaller and 3kg lighter! As another example the Samyang 7.5mm fish-eye is razor sharp and weighs only 197g compared to say a Nikon at 305g. With a bag full of lenses this all adds up. The last time I packed my bag with everything including filters and my spare Olympus OMD-EM5, I saved 3.5kg from my previous Pentax set up. I'm sure you get the point by now.

Of course you don't actually need to buy the professional 4/3 lenses, it will depend on your photographic target, ambition and pocket. The micro system has some very nice lenses for relatively modest sums. If you choose the right lenses and are shrewd with your purchases (although my so called shrewdness has cost a bit of money, so ask me rather than waste yours) you will get some great results. I currently use the cheaper wide angle lens which is incredibly petite but is not short on quality with one of my landscapes shot with it recently printed in Outdoor Photography magazine.

Now there are some disadvantages to this system of course such as: 1. You won't grow muscles carrying this and therefore you will have to go to the gym, 2. You will have to find something else to do with the space left in your bag? 3. You may get embarrassed when everyone says how sexy you look (actually I made that last one up).

Oh ok, it's not all smelling of roses in camp Olympus, there are a couple of areas where it comes up short compared to other systems.

Firstly the thorny subject of noise. This is not the camera's strong point and 800 ISO to me looks around its maximum before artefacts are seen however, I'm more than happy to use it at 1600 without it being a problem on a well exposed shot and higher if I'm desperate.
Secondly its autofocus with tracking is nowhere near as good of course as a Canon 1DX or Nikon D4 but then it shouldn't be in terms of cost. It's not even as good as a Pentax K3 mk2 or Canon 7D mk2 et al but it's also not that bad and you can still happily use it in most cases, just not that 1 percent of the time that maybe critical to you. So this is where you have to think, is this critical to my photography? Now I'm going to be a little naughty here and put my Devils advocate suit on (no, not the one I wore at that party currently showing on youtube!), I think tracking can be a little overstated on times, there I said it! I fully realise that a lot of you are wildlife photographers so you need the best equipment able to capture anything thrown at you and this slight failing will be obviously unacceptable but what percentage of the time will you use tracking to that critical degree? A lot will obviously depend on your chosen subject. The majority of my wildlife shots are taken with a single focus point and continuous auto focus. Landscape work of course is a single focus point and often, manual focus. Tracking obviously comes into its own as its name suggests for quick action and especially with birds in flight, aviation etc. I shoot both but it is an extremely small part of my work and in the majority of cases the tracking on the Olympus works fine. As at the beginning of this weighty tome I'm not saying that it's not important but from my perspective it's a compromise I am willing to take if it means I can take images rather than not.

One final area currently lacking is the longer prime lens but this will also be rectified shortly with a 300mm f/4, 300mm you say, that's not very bazooka like! Ah but in real terms it's a 600mm lens (with an f/8 wide open aperture but please note as before this is still an f/4 in terms of light gathering). Trust me that f/8 will be fine for depth of field as if you are taking a critter from that far back (which is why we are using a 600mm) you will still be lucky to get nose/beak to eye in focus. The 1.4x converter will also work with this making it a 840mm lens. Try telling your partner you are buying a 800mm Canon and still be in your own home afterwards. There are of course more disadvantages but I wanted to point out the ones I think are its current worse failings and would like improved.

Of course all this would be pointless if the quality of the image wasn't up to much however purely based on my opinion, unless you have a reason to shoot a billboard (there are a few, I know) printing to A3 is an absolute doddle and the quality also holds up if you should you be fortunate to supply a magazine with a double spread, this meets that criteria with a pixel or three to spare. There is an interesting article on the Luminous-Landscape site at regarding the abilities of lesser sized sensors, admittedly from 2008 and the comparison is with a compact camera but the analogy about quality is the same, basically as in all walks of life it's not the size, it's what you do with it!

So this rather long winded tale is slowly coming to end, so many breaths are sighing relief that the Bristol Balloon festival doesn't need helium. I am not remotely telling anyone to ditch their tried and trusteds especially if it works for you. No, I'm just saying that there are alternatives and a good shot is a good shot with any camera. I was able to relieve my fears of long days of drudgery by moving over to Olympus enabling me to manage my body better (ladies please stop sending emails saying you will help me with my body, it's getting embarrasing). Now I have a relatively small Kata backpack which fits every lens and camera I own if need be at 3.5kg lighter than my equivalent Pentax kit. This is also a bonus should you want to take all your gear onto a plane (the weight and size of the backpack passes all main airline requirements). On most occasions I can simply choose the set up for the project I'm working on (with a few 'just in case lenses') and find the comparatively light load a pleasure to walk without an aching back (although my shoulder will still hurt, just put that in for sympathy).

OK, wake up at the back I've finished! Reading this again I'm not even sure I understand my explanation but hopefully we all kept up? Hope this helps anyone who has or is thinking of moving to a similar system. Please let me know If you have any questions as I have a feeling I will have already found a few solutions and probably tried some of the lenses you were thinking about.

No lenses were harmed in the writing of this blog.

Oh and I don't work for Olympus either although if they want me to become an ambassador I'll think about it ................................................ thought about it, yes please.