NOTE: I’ll be adding some or all of this to my Bird Photography Gear Guide very soon
*Lightweight in comparison to standard FF 35mm gear
**Small in comparison to standard FF 35mm gear
***Afordable in comparison to standard FF 35mm gear
This is a monumental day for me. As someone who has carried heavy, bulky, expensive camera bodies and lenses across the United States, up hills, down ravines, across rivers, onto boats, beaches and a variety of terrain, I have come to the conclusion that I am simply too old and too beat up to do it any more. My doctor says no more knee or shoulder surgery – it won’t help. My left wrist is also shot. I have to face the fact that my bird photography career is just about over unless I can find smaller, lighter gear to replace the heavy stuff.
Up until today, I had little choice. The only way to practice bird photography at the highest levels was to use the big, heavy, expensive gear.
While I have used and tested and tried (often) to replace the big, heavy expensive gear, it has always been touch and go. For the most part I had given up on getting small, lightweight glass that could give me enough reach with enough quality. I had given up on getting small, lightweight camera bodies that would deliver acceptable auto-focus with sufficient frame rates, without being big, heavy and expensive.
Getting the right lens for the job happened first. Olympus delivered their fantastic Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 300mm f/4 IS PRO Lens. Combining it with their Olympus MC 14 1.4X Teleconverter, I could shoot between 600mm (effective focal length – EFL) and 840mm EFL at f/4 (600mm) or f/5.6 (840mm) with a fixed aperture, lens-based image stabilization (multiplied when connected to an Olympus body with IBIS) and delivering a super sharp, hand-holdable, lens that makes contrasty, detail-rich images.
This was quite a discovery. Let’s compare the this with the lens that I WAS using most of the time. The Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM Lens costs $11,499, has a minimum close focusing distance of 14.76 feet, weighs 8.64 lbs and is 18 inches long. The Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 300mm f/4 IS PRO Lens costs a fraction of that price. At $2,499 it’s almost 1/5th the cost. But the Oly has a minimum focus distance of 4.59 feet and weighs only 3.25 lbs. Almost a third of the wight of the Canon with roughly three times better close focusing distance. Oh yeah, the Olympus is only 8.9 inches long – half the length of the Canon.
While it’s true that an f/4 lens on a Micro Four Thirds system doesn’t offer the same exact bokeh of f/4 on a full-frame 35mm sensor, for the kind of photography I do, this is simply not an issue. Also, the ability to close focus means I can get much closer to my subjects which means depth-of-field will be greatly reduced. It turns out to be a wash a lot of the time.
The image quality between the two lenses is comparable as is the image stabilization. Well I am being generous here because the IS on the Canon offers about one and a half stops less stabilization than the Olympus 300 when paired with the right Olympus body.
Next came the teleconverter. Canon’s TCs are expensive but very high quality. With proper technique (one I find hard to achieve) a photographer can pair a Canon TC with a big lens and seriously extend its range.
Up until recently, no MFT TC was good enough to put into that category. But then Olympus released the Olympus MC 14 1.4X TC for $349. It weighs just .25 lbs and offers premium optical quality when paired with the Oly 300. The 1.4 extends the Oly 300 to 840mm EFL. It costs a stop to use the TC so the f/4 lens becomes an f/5.6 lens but it still autofocuses rather quickly and matches the image quality of a similarly situated Canon lens/TC combo.
As far as lens selection goes, the most important lens in a bird photographer’s kit is their longest lens and the Olympus lens covers that just fine.
Now to the camera body.
There’s no denying that the Canon 1DX MK II is the finest DSLR made when it comes to the perspective of a bird photographer. But it weighs more than three pounds with battery and memory cards installed and costs $6000.00! It’s also rather large and bulky.
The two features that are super important when it comes to camera bodies for bird photographers would be autofocus quality/speed and frame rates/buffer.
The 1DX MK II is king of the hill in all of those categories. It’s simply the quickest, most reliable autofocus on any DSLR. And at 14FPS with an unlimited buffer, it has no peer.
All that said, I can remember when I was shooting birds with camera bodies that were far less exotic. The old Canon 10D and then 20D had AF and other specs that were laughably weak when compared against today’s 1DX MK II, yet, I managed to make award-winning, salable images with those cameras. Finding a camera body in the MFT realm that could replace the 1DX MK II was always going to be about compromise. Maybe I can’t get to the performance level of a 1DX MK II but I should be able to surpass the old 10D 20D and who knows what else.
Enter the new Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II camera body. It weighs only 1.2 lbs and costs $1999.99. Remember I am comparing this to a 1DX MK II which weighs and costs about three times as much. This camera doesn’t have to match the performance of the 1DX MK II and nobody in their right mind should expect a camera that costs $4000 less than a 1DX MK II to do so. But as a bird photographer there are simply minimum performance standards that have to be met if you want success. Great technique can always overcome some camera deficiency but great technique can only take you so far. There must be accurate, fast, reliable, tracking autofocus to photograph birds in flight with any degree of regular success. The new Olympus body passes this test! It has a new, faster sensor that features 121 on-sensor phase-detection AF points, which cover 75% of the imaging area vertically, and 80% horizontally. This is superior to top-of-the-line cameras I bought 10 years ago. There is a dedicated quad-core processor in the E-M1 II that is devoted entirely to autofocus and it delivers superb results (once you learn how to properly use the system.) Casual reviewers of the pre-release version of this camera clearly didn’t master the four ‘AF Target Modes’ which allow the E-M1 II’s autofocus system to be quickly tweaked to suit different kinds of subjects. This is similar to the six Canon AF “cases” which help the photographer tune the AF to certain situations like birds in flight flying horizontally across your field of view.
There are ways that the OM-D E-M1 MK II surpass the performance of the 1DX MK II. The E-M1 II is capable of full-resolution shooting at up to 18fps with AF tracking! The 1DX MK II is a speed demon at 14fps but slower than the Oly. If you enable the electronic shutter, the Olympus camera is capable of high-speed continuous shooting at up to 60fps with the focus fixed (18fps with C-AF.) No DSLR can even come close to beating these numbers.
In my initial tests, the continuous AF tracking delivers about an 80% hit rate when properly configured. I set the threshold for success at 75% because that is STILL the norm for dynamic tracking on some of Nikon’s most expensive sports cameras. While some photographers will expect the AF to work 100% of the time it’s just not realistic. At 80% it’s more than enough to make sure you get great results in any situation because if you’re using subject tracking and it does fail, that initial acquisition time is so fast that you will re-acquire and correct in time to make up for the lost 20%.
The buffer on the OM-D E-M1 Mark II is the weak point in the camera – especially when compared with the 1DX MK II. I am afraid the new 1DX has spoiled me since it has a NO LIMIT BUFFER! This is the only camera that I know of with this feature. And I certainly didn’t expect the Oly to compete. It’s buffer is merely adequate and in some cases will fill too quickly for my tastes. But it’s not so bad that it’s a deal breaker. It will force me to shoot more like I did 10 years ago when I fired consistently shorter bursts, mindful that I didn’t want the buffer to get so full I actually missed an important opportunity.
There are of course many other features to look at in the new Olympus camera. Two card slots, battery life that nearly competes with DSLR battery life, good dynamic range and good image quality.
Remember I mentioned compromise. There’s no way a Micro Four Thirds sensor can deliver the same dynamic range and IQ as a full-frame 35mm sensor but it CAN deliver dynamic range and IQ that is sufficient to the task. Again I am reminded of my older Canon cameras that made award-winning images. Let’s take the Canon EOS-1D Mark III. I made great images with that camera. But by today’s standards it would be rejected by a large percentage of photographers. Canon EOS-1D Mark III was released about nine years ago and had “only” a 10-MP sensor with a 6.5fps frame rate and acceptable autofocus (Most of the time.) It wasn’t full frame, didn’t have near the dynamic range that today’s cameras have, it was heavy and expensive. I made THAT camera work and it’s easy peasy to see how the more sophisticated and newer Olympus can also be made to work when used by someone with good technique.
So it’s finally happened. There is a camera lens combo that I can use which saves me seven pounds of weight on my shoulder. (That’s just body/lens – when you add the weight savings of a smaller tripod or monopod, no need for a gimbal head most of the time, and fewer/lighter accessories and bags, the total weight savings is about 16 pounds or more depending on your particular gear choices. That may not seem like a lot to some of you, but take a 16 pound weight and walk around with it on your shoulder for an hour. Tell me if that doesn’t make you tired. For me it’s the difference between giving up something I love or not. I am thrilled to say I can make this work. Yes it will require compromise. Yes it will require superb technique. I can do both and in the process I will save a ton of money since this gear is anywhere from half to two thirds less costly than comparable full-frame 35mm gear.
But this isn’t the end. Olympus has a habit of updating their firmware regularly to improve things like autofocus. The original EM-1 was update all the way to firmware version 4.0. So I expect things will only get better. And the good news is that there are other cameras and lenses either here or coming that could be added to the kit as backup or to round out the choices for people who want more focal length without TC and don’t mind zooms.
Let’s discuss some of Panasonic’s offerings here.
Starting again with the lens, Panasonic now makes the Panasonic Leica DG Vario-Elmar 100-400mm f/4-6.3 ASPH. POWER O.I.S. Lens. It’s $1800, much less expensive than the Olympus 300 and offers more focal length. The Panasonic zoom is a 200-800 ELF lens. It weighs just more than two pounds. This isn’t my first choice for a bird photography lens because it’s a zoom. I am not faulting Panasonic or the lens. It’s just physics. If you have a zoom lens with a variable aperture, it’s not going to deliver optical performance that can match a prime lens with a fixed faster aperture. But some photographers prefer zooms, this one is less expensive and in many situations you wouldn’t always be able to tell the difference in results achievable from either lens. The biggest advantage of the Olympus is that it’s an f/4 lens. The Panasonic is f/6.3 at the long end of its range and in low-light situations will struggle where the Olympus with its faster aperture doesn’t miss a beat. If you add the Olympus TC to the 300 you get an EFL that surpasses the Panasonic’s 800mm and still have a faster f/5.6 aperture. For me it’s simply not a contest. That said, in a pinch I could make the Panasonic work and would use it for video all day long where the flexibility of a zoom is welcome. It’s a very good lens to be sure. It’s much better than Panasonic’s first big zoom and I own it and use it. Just not as often as the Olympus 300.
The real question I can’t answer yet is where will the upcoming Panasonic GH5 fit in as a camera body compared to the Olympus MKII. Nobody knows right now. I suspect that will be somewhat comparable. Based on rumors it appears they have similar specs and cost the same. I expect that the Panasonic will be a better choice for video although the Olympus has seriously upped its game there too. Panasonic has always had the lead here video wise. The question is will their stills quality rise to the occasion and will the Panasonic AF tracking be able to match the Oly MKII. We’ll know by first quarter of 2017 and I reserve the right to make a change (or an addition) then if the new Panasonic warrants it. I will probably have both in any event because my suspicion is that the Panasonic will be the best video camera in the world (in this class) and the Olympus will make superb AF tracking stills.
There are a few other accessories I want to mention because they cut weight, size (and budget) off the big, heavy DSLR kit I used to carry.
Olympus EE-1 Dot Sight
Makes it easier to track BIF with the big Olympus lens.
Replaces a tripod for me 75% of the time.
Kirk MPA-2 Monopod Head
Makes the monopod much more versatile.
It’s a great time to be a photographer. The gear we can buy today is some of the best ever made. If you need to downsize to save money, or weight, or space or all three, you can now do that without sacrificing quality. Good shooting to you.