Gear Post: Why Going Mirrorless Works for Me
Wednesday, 09 September 2015.
When it comes to receiving praise for their work, photographers famously dislike the pseudo-complementary phrase "you must have a really nice camera". Of course I prefer praise that compliments my skills rather than my gear as well, but when it comes to wildlife photography it can't be denied that the right tools can make getting satisfying results a lot easier. I couldn't do what I do with a pinholed Pringles can and some photographic paper.
So what are the right tools for wildlife photography? Traditionally Canon and Nikon DSLRs are the two options to go with - with the possibility of combining their bodies with third party lenses. Judging by the results -the vast majority of amazing wildlife photographs you have seen- those two systems have definitely been the right tools to use. When I get asked if I'm a Canon or a Nikon guy though, I must admit that I'm neither. I'm an odd one out, I'm an Olympus guy.
When I decided to get into photography I started with Olympus' original digital Four-Thirds system, mostly by chance. Though not larger than top-tier Canon and Nikon bodies, Olympus' flagship E3 and E5 bodies were still quite bulky, which defeated one of the purposes of having a smaller sensor than other systems. This small sensor sacrificed certain image quality aspects (more about this later) to pave the road for a smaller, more portable system. What made me stick with the system at the time was a small but strong selection of excellent and relatively affordable lenses, both in build quality and optical performance.
Mirrors Be Gone!
The now largely discontinued Four Thirds standard morphed into the Micro Four Thirds standard. The sensor size remains the same but there is no mirror in front of the sensor projecting an image to an optical viewfinder anymore, which allows for much smaller bodies and lenses. The camera I currently use most is Olympus' OMD E-M1, which still lets me use my original Four-Thirds lenses without compromise alongside a quickly expanding range of designated Micro Four Thirds lenses.
There are quite a few differences between traditional systems and mirrorless systems. I find a lot of these differences to be beneficial when shooting wildlife, while some other feature still lag behind. Below is an overview of what sets the system apart for me, especially when it comes to shooting wildlife.
Size and Weight
When I go out to shoot local wildlife all my gear fits in a small shoulder bag. I usually bring my OMD E-m1 with battery grip attached, the Zuiko 50-200mm f2.8-3.5 SWD telephoto zoom lens, the Zuiko 12-60mm wide angle zoom and occasionally a teleconverter. I soon hope to upgrade to the new Olympus Zuiko 40-150mm f2.8 (plus teleconverter) and the Olympus Zuiko 12-40mm f2.8 for an optically similar selection that is even smaller in size.
Dragging along a full frame body with a 100-400mm lens would take up quite a bit more room!
You can find endless articles and discussions online discussing "crop factors". In short, it has to do with how the size of your camera's sensor influences the effective focal length of your lenses. 35mm film cameras and full frame DSLRs have a crop factor of 1, meaning a 50mm lens on one of those camera's has a focal length of 1x50, which is still 50mm. (Micro) Four Thirds cameras have a crop factor of 2, meaning that a 50mm lens has an effective focal length of 2x50=100mm.
For wildlife photography, the obvious advantage is that a telephoto lens has twice the reach, which comes in very handy when instead of a heavy and unaffordable 600mm lens, you can carry a much smaller, much more affordable 300mm lens.
Olympus' top tier gear is built to last. During outdoor use, the only thing you have to watch out for is damaging your front element. Everything else can handle dust, a good splashing of water and a wide range of temperatures. Needless to say, this comes in very handy when you're flat on your stomach on a beach enduring wind, sand and ocean spray while shooting snowy plovers.
Depth of Field
Another topic of endless online discussion. In short, while a certain f-stop on a (Micro) Four Thirds camera allows as much light to reach the sensor as the same f-stop on a full frame camera, it produces a depth of field comparable to double that on a full frame camera. So an image taken with a full frame camera at 100mm f5.6 has the same focal length and depth of field as an image taken at 200mm f2.8 on a Micro-Four Thirds camera. Confusing? Not really: It's quite easy when you stop calculating things and get used to shooting with the gear you have.
It is true that a fast enough lens on a full frame camera makes it a lot easier to isolate subjects from a nicely blurred background at standard focal lengths than it is trying to achieve the same effects with a Micro Four Thirds camera. When it comes to shooting at the telephoto end though, the DoF is shallow enough on nearly all situations.
This is a huge benefit, if you ask me. Olympus has a very effective 5-axis in body stabilization technology (IBIS) built into the bodies of their cameras. Switching IBIS on noticeably reduces the effect of camera shake on your images, allowing you to get sharp shots with lower shutter speeds. In-body image stabilization means the individual lenses don't need any kind of stabilization built in, which makes them cheaper.
Image Quality: ISO Noise and Dynamic Range.
This is an area where the grass is still greener on the other side. A smaller sensor has a harder time overcoming issues with noise, detail and dynamic range. But, like sensors across the board, the image quality is improving a little with the release of each new camera. Olympus may be lagging behind just a bit, but if you take into account that their sensors essentially produce the same quality as cameras in higher price ranges from other manufacturers did just two years ago I'm willing to keep things in perspective. In low light, I generally get away with shooting at ISO 3200.
Autofocus, Tracking, Birds in Flight.
Another area where I'm afraid Olympus is still lagging behind a bit, though I haven't done a hands-on comparison with other systems myself. If you look through my galleries, you see a lot of static, portrait-like photographs. This is partially due to my style and preference, but that doesn't mean I don't try to capture action. I won't blame my inability to get tack-sharp images of hunting birds of prey solely on my gear, it's a skill that I need to practice more. It is, however, a fact that Olympus' current tracking autofocus or continuous autofocus is not as effective as that of the competition. I prefer to use static autofocus, constantly refocussing before I click. Learning how to use manual focus quickly and effectively is another skill I need to master, in-focus shots of wildlife in action have been taken for decades, after all, before all of the fancy technology we have available today.
UPDATE: Through a recent firmware update, my OMD E-M1 is said to have greatly improved tracking capabilities, I'll be sure to write an update once I've tested this in the field. Initial tryouts are very promising!
Lens Lineup and Rental Availability
The availability of optics across every focal length, build quality and price class has matured for the traditional systems. For mirrorless systems, it's still very much in development. I'm eagerly awaiting the announced 300mm f4 from Olympus and a newly announced 100-400mm by Panasonic also looks promising. Until those lenses are released, I can rent Olympus' original four-thirds 300mm f2.8 or 90-250mm f2.8. If I'm on time to book them it that is, I believe there are only one or two of each available across all online rental providers in the country!
To me, the digital viewfinder is one of the most exciting and useful developments of new camera technology in the digital age. Rather than seeing directly through the lens, as you would with an optical viewfinder on a DSLR, you look at what the sensor "sees". This has huge advantages when it comes to quickly exposing a shot and evaluating light, depth of field and composition. Rather than losing time looking at your digital display on the back of your camera after taking a shot to make sure your settings and exposure are in order, you can evaluate your shots without moving or taking your eye off the viewfinder. This is extremely helpful when you're shooting action and are in a position where any tiny movement can startle your subject.
One of the benefits of a new system is that it tends to develop faster than existing systems. It also makes it easier to keep up with other quickly developing technology like smartphones and apps. The ability to connect my iPhone to my camera remotely has some great benefits for setting up shots without having to get close to my subject. I can follow all the action, focus and change camera settings right on my phone.