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Photography Review: Olympus to the Test 1/3

Photography

Wildernessblogger

4/4/2018

Olympus OMD EM-1 Mark ii, 7-14mm, 12-40mm, 40-150mm 

Will Goodlet recently tested the Olympus OMD EM-1 Mark ii and two camera lenses. In his first post he shares a comprehensive guide on the camera’s features in relation to wildlife photography… Here’s what he had to say:

I’ve recently had the opportunity to use the Olympus OMD EM-1 Mark ii mirrorless camera paired with the 40-150 mm F2.8 and 300 mm F4 IS Pro and I thought I would share some thoughts and tips in the context of nature photography, in particular wildlife and birds.

Normally I use Canon DSLRs and even though I recently downsized my rather eclectic long lens collection to just two super-teles, I still use a ton of stuff in this rather broad genre. Sometimes I fantasise about picking up just one backpack when going on a trip, especially where flying is involved. The Olympus Micro Four-Thirds system packs a lot of punch into a far smaller package than I am used to.

Micro Four-Thirds

The main difference between micro 4/3 mirrorless and the 35 mm DSLR is the internal mechanism of the camera and the overall size of the image sensor.

Mirrorless cameras do away with the prism and mirror system that allows the photographer to look through the lens when taking a picture. Instead, they show the scene in an electronic viewfinder or on the LCD mounted on the back of the camera. The advantage of this approach is that the camera can be made smaller.

So mirrorless cameras are generally smaller and often have smaller image sensors. Using a system that does not require the mirror to move out of the way during each shot also means that they can take more shots in a second than the mechanical DSLR, a feature I was very interested to try out.

Up to now, the downsides to mirrorless systems have been poor battery life, unimpressive viewfinders and slow, inaccurate focus. Additionally, the fact that many of them have smaller image sensors, also means that they tend to underwhelm in terms of noise performance and image quality in low light. The Olympus OMD EM-1 Mark ii has been slated as a camera system that addresses many of these problems.

Olympus OMD EM-1 Mark ii + M 40-150 F2.8 - ISO200, F2.8, 1/90 @150mm - Cropped 10%

Mirrorless and Wildlife Photography

If we think about wildlife photography, we generally see the best and most interesting behaviour taking place in the dim light of morning or evening. We also have animals moving in poor light (requiring good bright lenses and focus systems) and we have to take many, many shots all day in order to get a few good ones.

All of these requirements have traditionally played right into the weaknesses of most mirrorless camera systems when compared to DSLRs.

DSLRs with their bigger sensors tend to produce better image quality in poor light, the bigger bodies can house more powerful motors (for focus) and batteries, and the fact that they don’t have to display the image through an electronic viewfinder saves power. The downsides are relatively slow frame rates and sheer size and weight.

So what’s new? I wanted to find out... I especially wanted to find out if this Olympus camera was a serious option for nature and wildlife photographers considering an upgrade or a switch from their current DSLR and lenses.

Olympus OMD EM-1 Mark ii + M 40-150 F2.8 - ISO200, F2.8, 1/1000 @79mm

What is important in wildlife photography?

I suppose I should define what I feel is important for wildlife photography and then see if the Olympus ticks those boxes.

Reach

One of the most important things in wildlife photography when dealing with skittish animals and birds is just to get close enough to them to take a decent shot. Obviously, there are a few ways to achieve this but as a minimum, a camera system should allow enough reach to photograph small animals or to photograph distant animals without scaring them.

The right focal length depends on what sort of animals and animal behaviour one hopes to capture. For my purposes, I need a focal lengths between 70 mm and 600 mm, sometimes up to 800 mm. Normally I use two camera bodies and attach a zoom to one and a long prime to the other.

The Olympus system offers two professional choices, a 40-150 mm F2.8 and a 300 mm F4. It is important to mention that the Olympus has a 2x crop, meaning we have to double those focal lengths to get to the 35 mm equivalent field of view.

After doing the mathematics we end up with an equivalent focal length of 80-300 mm F2.8 and 600 mm F4. Pretty exciting focal lengths for those apertures, especially if we add the 1.4 teleconverter which takes them to equivalent focal lengths of 112-420 mm F4 and a 840 mm F5.6.

Olympus OMD EM-1 Mark ii + M 40-150 F2.8 - ISO400, F2.8, 1/2000 @150mm - Cropped 30%

Low Light

If you have ever tried to pick up a 400 mm F2.8 Prime or a 600 mm F4 you will know that they are hefty beasts, the price of great low light performance is weighed in kilograms as well as Rands and Cents.

Even the variable aperture 150-600 mm zooms from Sigma and Tamron are pretty weighty and large.

Dropping down to Four-Thirds is a real advantage because long bright lenses can be made much smaller.

I tried out the 40-150 F2.8 and 300 mm F4. Both of these lenses are very high quality and deliver sharp images wide open.

The 300 mm F4 is smaller than a Canon 100-400 zoom, probably about the same size as a 70-200 F4 and this lens offers an equivalent focal length of 600 mm!

The wide F4 aperture undoubtedly helps the Olympus handle low light better, gaining between 1 and 1.3 stops over a number of DSLR lenses of equivalent focal length. With at least double the extra light streaming in (no need to stop down the Olympus' aperture), the image sensor can afford to be a little smaller.

Autofocus

I consider good autofocus crucial to my kind of photography. I am much more interested in behaviours and movement than static portraits, so it’s crucial that my camera system performs. The Olympus, perhaps surprisingly for a mirrorless camera, has excellent, snappy and DSLR-like autofocus that covers the entire frame, unlike many DSLRs. More on this below.

Frame Rate

When the wildlife moves you want to capture the action. A high frame rate is really useful and this is something the Olympus delivers in spades. In fact, I shot during testing at 18, 30 and 60 frames per second and this phenomenal speed opened me up to a whole new shooting style. The very best and most expensive DSLRs can only manage 14 frames per second at the moment. It really is amazing how many frames are unusable (due to body or wing positions) when photographing fast-moving action, so higher frame rates really pay off enormously.

Olympus OMD EM-1 Mark ii + M 40-150 F2.8 - ISO200, F2.8, 1/1600 @150mm - Cropped 70%

Portability

You know the old adage, the best camera is the one with you? Well the Olympus is small enough to take anywhere over one shoulder. If you are travelling on a light aircraft or overseas this is a massive benefit. It also has superb image stabilisation, so you might get away without a tripod too!

Olympus OMD EM-1 Mark ii + 40-150mm Left, Canon 7D Mark ii + 100-400 Right

Weather Sealing

The conditions I photograph in are characterised by extreme heat (45° Celsius), cold (below freezing), chronic fine dust, some rain and constant vibration, and knocks from poor road surfaces.

My Canon cameras have stood up to the punishment perfectly. The Olympus has weather sealing and seems solid and robust. I haven’t stress-tested the camera because it isn’t mine, but it seems well-built and solid enough to sustain a drop and tumble in the Land Rover. If you can shoot two bodies and avoid changing lenses in the field, I am sure that will go a long way to keeping the camera’s internals healthy.

Image resolution

Image resolution showing lots of detail is a really nice thing to have, especially for those images that end up as prints rather than being shared online. The Olympus delivers a 20 MP sensor for normal shooting but adds sensor-shift technology and an additional eight shots to generate 50MP JPG files and 80MP RAW files. Astounding. Although, obviously, this doesn’t work for moving objects.

The 20 MP is an improvement over the previous versions 16MP and now makes cropping more of a possibility.

Olympus OMD EM-1 Mark ii + M 300 F4 - ISO640, F4.0, 1/1600

Image quality

Of course, you want good image quality, especially for any print work. A larger format sensor is likely to be best but the Olympus does very well here. The quality of the lens also plays a big role and the Olympus lenses are very evidently highly engineered, excellent and pretty sexy-looking pieces of glass. It's not a 35 mm full frame but the image is extremely good, especially given the size and versatility of the camera.

Review Camera and Lenses were very generously provided by Olympus and Tudortech.

 

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