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Mirrorless for nature! Are you still mad - part two?

So am I still mad and using a micro four thirds system for nature photography?
Well yes and no! Hang on that makes me schizophrenic rather than mad or maybe both?
Should you be reading this first, this is in fact part two which is the follow up to my award winning first blog called 'Are you mad for using a micro four thirds system for wildlife?' on why I decided to try and use this set-up for wildlife instead of the common light gathering house bricks known as DSLR's.

Those who read the last blog I'm assuming are now suitably gagging to know if I still use Olympus? Well yes I indeedy do do but, yes there is a but, I also bought a DSLR instead of the new 300mm Olympus which I intimated I would do, which I really didn't want to do but do (that's a lot of do do's). Now I can hear you shouting 'turncoat'! You said you didn't need to, wouldn't, couldn't, shouldn't, etc (used etc there because I couldn't think of another dn't). So why, why, why (there's an echo in here!) did I falter?



Before I get to that answer later in this blog (irritatingly racking up the tension like Alfred Hitchcock) I have made an interim report on using the Olympus micro four thirds system, the whys and wherefores and hopefully for those thinking of changing or indeed combining systems this will help you understand the inherent problems but I think with far more plusses.

Ground control to major issue.

OK let's start with the major, major, major issue with the Olympus, that of tracking focus (yes it's that important), which of course is so crucial on many wildlife projects that involve fleeting and flighty subjects. The Olympus is rubbish, there we are, how scientific do you want? Actually it's not that bad, if you want to shoot meandering cows or trotting horses, it's your boy. The problem is with speedy mommas and the well photographed birds in flight. It just cannot catch up and is basically at this moment in time a bit like Shergar, it's not going win races any time soon. Please note, this is not the same thing as single focus lock or continuous shooting, the Olympus locks speedily onto its subject, no this is just about the need for instantaneous lock. So that's the reason I also, (please note, also!) use another camera for particular projects. In fact this is the 'ONLY' reason I don't use the Olympus for everything. I will report on my interim findings on the Olympus a bit later but first I will clear up the other camera/four thirds thing, which is a bit like the angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other.

Now a lot of the original blog was about the weight issues with using a DSLR system and it's lenses when it's a bit of a struggle. That issue hasn't gone away for me due to the dodgy shoulder so why the heck did you buy another DSLR you ask?
Simples! because I want to take the best photographs I can and even though as I explained that birds in flight and speedy subjects don't take up much of my photographic time, the devil on my shoulder still said he wanted to do it and I couldn't stop myself, arrgghhh! Now carrying both systems was not an option so I had to have a rethink. Think laterally (it's hard enough to think at all, now he's asking me to think laterally) and come up with an alternative solution, admittedly a bit of a fudge, but for the moment at least a working solution which inadvertently helped me concentrate better on the subject in hand on the day. Upon musing and stroking my imaginary beard along with puffing on my imaginary pipe (which is not bad for your health and way better than E-cigarettes), I decided to focus on specific projects using specific kit although allow myself a cross over lens should I lose concentration and not resist something totally opposite to what I just said. Now I have the Olympus set up and am more than happy with the set of lenses I have with it so I needed to decide the criteria for the DSLR set up:

1. Cater for tracking subjects quickly.
2. Best camera I could afford without my wife leaving me.
3. A good professional zoom with a good range allowing me a bit of leeway in subject matter and placement (plus see point 2).
4. A professional 1.4x converter to save myself carrying a bazooka.

So what did I buy?

Surprise! Surprise! Oh no Cilla's risen, sorry frightened myself there, A Canon 7Dmk2, a 100-400, a 1.4x converter and with the large range of the zoom on offer I just needed a standard 18-55 for when I need to shoot a wider environment shot or when that devil distracts me and shouts 'landscape'! I don't need to extol the virtues of this set up as it's widely used and is as good a set up as you are likely to use unless you are a professional or have far too much money in which case please donate to my chosen charity.....me! The focus tracking is so superior to the Olympus it's frankly embarrassing, in fact without trying out any of the big boy's cameras it's the best I have used.

How do I choose my set up for each shoot?

If my subject for the day is primarily wildlife, possible birds in flight and maybe with the subject at a distance I take the Canon set up. I bought a Lowepro passport sling bag which fits all this kit (the bag by the way is also very inconspicuous), spare battery, a polariser and various bits and bobs. I also often simply go out with just the camera on (depending on the mood I'm in, sometimes I even wear clothes!), battery fully charged, both cards in their homes and a cleaning cloth. It is of course still a weight but I don't have every lens under the sun packed or a second camera body (If I was on a paid shoot or maybe on safari I would take an expanded set up). If my subject is just about anything else including general wildlife as long as instantaneous tracking is not required I will take the Olympus set-up.

As I mentioned previously this has helped me concentrate on the matter in hand instead of going out all guns blazing shooting all types and targets. It also means that I have at least a general idea of what I want to achieve when I go out. Whichever set up I take has a bit of leeway should circumstances change.

OK let's start the interim report on the Olympus set up in my case an OMD EM1.



Last time I touched on a couple of areas that came up short compared to DSLR systems:

1. Firstly noise. This is not remotely as good as full frame cameras but then neither are APC cameras but that's not what this system is all about. You have to ask yourself what you need to shoot, what am I shooting for and how do you perceive the outcome?

I have been very surprised with the output of the files. I only shoot RAW mainly because I can get the most from the files but also it gives me a 'get out of jail card' should I cock up my settings (oh OK turn that importance around). When I process the shots (I use Capture One) there is not a huge difference in real world cases when the ISO is set at 800 but there is a noticeable difference thereafter (having said that see the photo Salty Sailor and note that this was ISO2000 and handheld, if it's going to be converted to black and white you can happily go even higher). This is obviously dependent on having shot the image with the right exposure in the first place. The extra speed of the higher ISO is hugely important when trying to take birds in flight or fast moving subjects especially in this country but the Olympus isn't being used for that.

2. I will just touch on the tracking ability again to explain what I can shoot happily.
You can still use it in most cases, just not that 10 percent of the time that maybe critical to you. Tracking obviously comes into its own as its name suggests for quick action and especially with birds in flight, aviation etc, I don't believe the Olympus is fit for purpose in this instance and you will just come away feeling disappointed especially if you use a consumer lens. If you want to shoot speedy wildlife either: a. pray or b. pre-focus and use either a single focus point or a small array. For the recent steam train shoots I used the Olympus with the 40-150mm and tracking and focus were absolutely fine, this I believe is because the target was big enough not to be distracted. When I have tried tracking birds in flight the focus hunts because it gets confused with the background such as clouds, waves, bushes etc.

3. There is now a 300mm f/4 prime lens which in real terms is 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). The 1.4x converter will also work with this making it an 840mm lens. Had I not bought the Canon I would have purchased this but won't until Olympus sort out the tracking.

4. The 5 way anti-shake/stabiliser is the best I have used.

5. One very frustrating thing for me is not being able to quickly change the focus point array without at least 3 button pushes. This also doesn't help with its tracking ability.

6. The ability to customise is very good and the most important functions can be assigned to various buttons and dials. You can also reconfigure some of the mode dial allocations with your own quick customised settings ready to go so you can quickly move from single to continuous focus or simply have your favourite settings at the turn of a dial. This for me is the reason I purchased it instead of the Fuji which I believe has slightly better noise control, I did originally have the Panasonic GX1 but just didn't like the feel and the stupid design of the dual wheel. There is also a function called 'super control panel' (which is not the latest Marvel comic hero) which brings up nearly everything you need on the LCD panel and can be accessed using the touch screen.

7. Live view has a great function that when you are taking a shot with a long exposure, say a landscape using ND filters or lowlight, the LCD will show you the image actually developing like a one of those colouring books you used to paint with water and the colour would magically appear (sorry nostalgia alert), which makes Bulb mode or similar less of a lottery for those of us not steeped in the mysterious ways of the 'beard'.

8. One thing to look out for, If you find that your images are looking a bit warm/pink/red it's because Olympus have a warm look set by default which can be turned off, which I have.

So I am partially mad but you knew that anyway. In the end use the tools to hand and take the photo without brands and types getting in the way. I would rather just use the Olympus set up. It's so much lighter and unobtrusive and a pleasure to walk around with however I also want to take the best wildlife images I can. This will be a conundrum for a while at least until the mirrorless cameras catch up with their DSLR elders tracking ability.

I hope this helps anyone who has or is thinking of moving to a similar system. As I mentioned in the last blog 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. contact me at rob@robcottle.co.uk

Addendum:

I thought I would add a section on the lenses I use as you don't necessarily need to buy the pro-lenses, after all one of the strong points of the mirrorless system is the relatively light weight of the lenses and in theory the better quality of the lens anyway. As I mentioned above I have a shoulder problem and if I were to buy all the pro lenses my bag would start to weigh similar to a DSLR system which sort of defeats the purpose however it will still relatively be a lighter system. One thing to remember is that you don't need to stop down your lens in most cases the lens can be used at it's widest.

1. Olympus 40-150mm f2.8 pro - This is sharp and very quick to focus with a better range than a 70-200 equivalent. It works great with the 1.4x converter, very little difference in sharpness if at all. It is fully waterproof/dustproof etc and balances well on the EM1.
2. Panasonic/Leica 25mm f1.4 - The equivalent to the classic 50mm. This is a fantastic lens that I use a lot especially for travel. It has lovely creamy bokeh and shallow depth of field should you need it. Portraits look great with it and it's also a good lens for railway enthusiasts as the field of view is perfect for classic shots. In my view it also has the 'look'.
3. Samyang 7.5mm fish-eye - This again is super sharp and relatively cheap for a specialist lens. It is manual only but very easy to use especially when the depth of field is huge. One word of warning keep your fingers, toes, feet, tripod stands and any other extremities out of the way as it will catch you out!
4. Olympus 9-18mm f4/5.6 - This again is sharp. It is a little slow at f4/5.6 but as it can be used wide open this isn't a problem especially if you are using it for landscapes. The only down side is it could be a touch wider.
5. Olympus 60mm macro f2.8 - I haven't used this as much as I should, again sorry stuck record, it's very sharp.
6. Olympus 14-150mm - This is a great walkaround lens especially for travel. I think it's one of the best 'super zooms' and quality wise it's pretty good through the entire zoom range.