The topic of mirrorless cameras for wildlife photography is an interesting one with some DSLR users completely against it while those shooting mirrorless sit proudly on the other side of the fence.
Now some of you might remember this post from October last year when I shared some thoughts on my first look and feel of a mirrorless system. I had some concerns which, to be honest, was based on what I read online and heard in various podcasts. Looking back now, some of these concerns were legit and at times in the field I found myself wanting more ISO or better tracking but overall the experience of shooting mirrorless was not all that bad and could see myself going this route. I had a full review of my mirrorless experience written up and ready to go but a laptop crash saw me loose everything which means I never actually got around to posting my thoughts.
Fast forward to a few weeks ago when, after another Twitter conversation with a photographer who shoots mirrorless, I once again decided to have a look at mirrorless cameras from a wildlife photography point of view. The main reason was that more and more people have been bringing mirrorless cameras on safari and apart from anything else I felt that I needed to learn more about the system in order to better assist my clients and guests with their photography. That, and also I had just returned from a few long weeks on the road which included an obscene amount of flights so the idea of lugging my always heavy (and way overweight from an airline point of view) camera bag around was still fresh in my mind.
I did some reading and spoke to a few friends who only use mirrorless for their street photography and, long story short, I ended up at the Olympus SA offices and they were kind enough to supply me with the following loan equipment that I could use for a private safari I would be hosting and guiding at Mala Mala a few days later.
Olympus OMD EM-1 Mark II Body
Mzuiko 40-150mm f/2.8
(35mm equivalent 80 to 300mm)
Mzuiko 12 to 40mm f/2.8
(35mm equivalent 24 to 80mm)
My main goal with trying mirrorless again was that, apart from seriously looking at a camera for myself and all my travels, I wanted to see if the system is a viable option for serious wildlife photographers. I’m not talking about people who just dabble in a bit of wildlife photography every once in a while but people who go on safaris in order to create wildlife images. People who take it serious and are trying to improve their craft by going on photo safari and workshops and even people who, for whatever it’s worth, call themselves professional wildlife photographers.
The thought with this post is to try and give you a real life, practical review of what my mirrorless experience was like and not do a pixel by pixel review. I sometimes have a bit of a problem with the reviews people use to judge camera equipment as the majority of tests are done under very controlled situations – often in a studio or a lab – which is definitely not the case with real wildlife photography. If you are curious as to the sensor pixel size and whether the camera can do focus bracketing then this review might not be for you as I am going to focus on the real world functions and features that you will use or that will make a difference to your wildlife photography experience.
Ok, so with all of that said one of the first things I did when I got back was to look for some sort of online comparison of the two cameras I used on my 4 day safari to Mala Mala and I was VERY very surprised to actually find a side by side review of the OMD EM-1 II and the D5. Yes, I shot the Olympus alongside Nikon’s flagship DSLR, one of the best cameras I have ever used in the field, which might seem completely ridiculous and unfair but in the end made for a very interesting exercise.
I spent quite a bit of time going through the detailed side by side review in order to not only learn more about both cameras but to see how my in-the-hand experience matched up with what the number geeks has to say. I’m not going to repeat all the info on this review – which was super comprehensive – but if you’re keen on all the detailed tech on how these two cameras stack up against each other you can check out this website.
On my way back from Mala Mala I recorded some initial thoughts on the Olympus OMD EM-1 II for my Wildlife Photography Podcast so if you want a little more background and my initial thoughts you can check it out here.
Right, so here goes with some thoughts on the Olympus OMD EM-1 II as a camera for wildlife photography in which I will share my in the field experience in order to answer two questions for myself:
- Is the OMD EM-1 II a real wildlife photography camera?
- Would I personally spend money on the OMD EM-1 II?
So here we… go!
Let’s be honest here. Very few of us, and I include myself in this, will ever use all the functions on anything above a prosumer camera which is one of the reasons I’m not a fan of reviews that wax to lyrical about the technical side of any given camera.
With that said, I pulled a few of the features out of the technical review and comparison which I think matter and will impact your wildlife photography.
- Sensor Size: This is probably the biggest difference this OMD EM-1 II has when compared to DSLR cameras. Keep in mind that the Four Thirds system means that the focal length of any lens used will be doubled to get the 35mm equivalent.
- Sensor Resolution: At 20MP more than enough unless you are one of those photographers who shoot a D810 or 5DsR, shoot everything in the middle and then just crop. I’m not one of those photographers and hope you aren’t either.
- Max ISO: I never pushed the Olympus further than 6,400 and from a practical point of view anything above 10,000 on ANY camera is just silly and not practical.
- Battery Life: This has always been a concern with mirrorless and yes, it lags way behind DSLR batteries.
- Focus Points: 121 is a lot and depending on how you shoot and what focusing modes you use you probably won’t get close to ever using them all.
- Continuous Shooting: No, that’s not a typo.
- Weight: This is and always had been one of the great features of mirrorless cameras and one of the reasons I was keen to see what kind of photography power can be packed into a smaller, lighter body.
- Dynamic Range: Most people won’t worry about this but when shooting at a certain time of day a larger dynamic, and ‘deeper’ RAW files definitely make a difference especially when it comes to the processing of your files.
- Video Resolution: I have been using this more and more in the field and the 4K on the Olympus is a pretty solid offering.
- Touch Screen: Didn’t think it would be a bog deal for me but I got very used to this on both cameras.
- Weather Sealed: This is a no-brainer for wildlife and nature photography.
- Timelapse Recording: I’ve included this as on a lot of my safaris I have people creating timelapses at waterholes or of sunsets as it’s a very nice, and easy, way to add a whole new dimension to your content from a trip.
- Price: For most people out there a very big factor when looking at and buying a camera.
Whichever way you cut it the OMD EM-1 II is a very good looking camera.
The first thought I had when I picked up the camera was that it felt a lot more like a DSLR than the XT-2 I tried last year. It felt good in the hand and even though it’s noticeably smaller most DSLR bodies – especially the D5 which I had alongside it – it felt solid. I like that.
The other thing that struck me off the bat was the articulating screen.
I have not used a camera with a screen like this for a very long time and I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. It’s pretty easy to move around and even flip the screen over to protect it while traveling but I wasn’t convinced I would actually use it in the field.
During one particular elephant sighting I thought I’d give it a try and it was very easy to do and the 50cm drop in height – from holding the camera up to holding it our and next to the vehicle – made a massive difference. It wasn’t this that surprised me as a change in height will always make a difference to the look and feel of a wildlife image. The smaller camera size and weight made it possible to hold, compose (with the screen tilted upwards), shoot and aim at the same time which is something most people would definitely not be able to do with a DSLR and similar focal length.
Not an award winning image by any means but knowing that the camera offers a uniquely easy way to create new different types of images is a big bonus. In areas where you can go on foot while on safari this will come into play even more and places like Mana Pools could be a whole different story with the angles you could create and the ease of carrying a much lighter kit could only be pleasant.
Overall the OMD EM-1 II makes a very good first impression and out of the box it has a certain old school, retro sexiness which is evident in the entire OMD range.
Menus and Ergonomics
Before I even saw the camera for the first time I did a LOT of research online. The one thing that came up time and time again was the menu systems that are quite deep and difficult to manage. Linked to this is the fact that you can customize almost every button and dial on the camera to fit your style of shooting.
Now I have to confess the menu was, at first glance, quite involved but if you understand the technical side of photography you should have no problem whatsoever in setting up the camera and working your way through the settings. Let’s get real for a second here. Many people out there who are currently shooting DSLR bodies have never gone through every setting in their camera’s menu. More than this, if they were to ever take the time to work through their menus there is a very good chance they would not know what some of the settings and technical terms even mean or do.
I am fluent in both Nikon and Canon menu systems as this is what most of my clients bring on safari and it’s my job to be able to assist them in the field. This knowledge, combined with a solid understanding of the fundamentals of photography, made it quite easy for me to scroll through the menus, find what I’m looking for and make the necessary changes. Yes, a little time consuming I’ll admit but not difficult. I guess the take home here is that whatever camera you shoot – if you take time to learn not only the camera’s menus but more importantly the technical foundations you will have no issues with menu systems.
One of the things which I found very user friendly is that when you press the OK button on the camera you get a menu on the back screen from where you can change pretty much anything you want.
It’s quick, efficient and a made changing settings on the fly very easy.
This has always been a concern with mirrorless cameras and I remember last year in South Luangwa I tore through two full batteries – I was using a battery grip on the XT-2 – in almost now time. For something like a Great Migration safari where you are normally out in the field all day long this would mean you would have to have at least 3 full charged batteries before heading out in the morning.
From what I’ve read Olympus did a proper job in upgrading the battery on the Mark II. The reviews mention about 350 shots per fully charged battery but I was able to get a lot more in Mala Mala.
- Friday: 1311 shots
- Saturday: 538 shots
- Sunday: 788 shots
I know there are a lot of variables involved in battery life and you can set up your camera to maximize the battery life but I was able to get through each day – one day I literally scraped home with like 2% left – without running out. Sure, I had to manage how I used the camera but I made it through the day which included a LO off shooting including a decent amount low light, high ISO sightings.
When I next use the Olympus I will definitely use a battery grip and possibly even have a third battery on spare just to be safe. With three batteries you should get through even the most action filled days out int he field. The battery grip not only boosts the battery life but, from what I’ve heard, also makes the camera even more comfortable to hold.
For most DSLR users this will be the biggest thing to get used to. My initial experience with EVFs was not great and it felt like I was also a step behind the action. I didn’t feel this at all with the OMD EM-1 II even when shooting fast moving subjects as the EVF has a refresh rate of 120fps a smooth 5-milliseconds.
I must admit that I really enjoyed being to see all the shooting info through the viewfinder including what the image will look like when I under- and overexposed. This could however be a potential catch-22 for photographers who do not understand the basics of photography as it’s easy to not worry about the settings and just judge the image based on what you see.
I’m a sucker for information so being able to see literally everything on screen was pretty cool but I can see that for people who aren’t up to speed with the basics it could be confusing. That said, you can minimize the info and shoot it very much like a normal DSLR.
I was a bit skeptical on the EVF but during the entire 4 days it did not bother me once and I quite enjoyed the new ‘look’ at what I was shooting.
I am not a spray and pray type of photographers and the shot count above is most definitely not how I normally shoot. Yes, I purposefully shot more than I normally would with the intention of seeing what the camera is capable of under different conditions but the other reason the shot count was so high was because the camera is fast. Very fast!
Depending on your focus mode you can push up to 60fps out of the camera with C-AF sitting at around 18fps. To be honest it took me by surprise and the first afternoon I was quite amused by how many frames – all sharp and in focus – I was able to capture. The buffalo in the images below was walking along at a steady pace and in 2 seconds I shot the following sequence.
I eventually set my camera to low speed shooting which still gave me around 11fps – more then fast enough for 95% of the sightings you might encounter. Looking ahead to something like river crossings in the Mara I am quite keen to crank it up and see what kind if moments I can freeze with the 60fps shooting speed.
Related to the above is a unique feature called Pro Capture.
The Olympus website describes it as follows: “Pro Capture Mode ensures you’ll catch the exact moment you want without any lag. Pro Capture uses the silent electronic shutter to start buffering a running series of full resolution JPEG / RAW images when you press the shutter release button halfway. Then, fully press the shutter release to capture an image plus the 14 previous frames all at once. You can keep the shutter release fully depressed to continue sequential shooting. With its time machine-like capability, Pro Capture always has the perfect shot stored and ready to save.”
Interesting don’t you think? Sure, some might think of it as cheating but imagine the possibility when photographing birds taking off or a cheetah ready to burst into full stride. I didn’t play with this too much on my trip but will definitely be experimenting more with this next time I get my hands on a OMD EM-1 II.
Tracking and Autofocus
Along with high ISO performance tracking and autofocus have always been the main points of discussion as to the shortcomings of mirrorless cameras in the realm of wildlife photography.
When photographing and tracking along with large mammals like lions, elephant and zebra I had no issues with focus or tracking. I always – always – use back button focus and combined with the AF-C tracking found the system to be quite intuitive. As with any camera you still have to make sure that you hit the correct point to focus and track along with but I cannot think of any shots I missed because of an inferior tracking or autofocus system.
To be fair, our focus was on the large mammals – lions and leopards specifically – and I did not do too much bird photography but I did make a point of trying to test the system with a few very common situations you might face in the field.
One of those was a roller taking off. I focused on the bird before he dropped from his perch, dropped the camera and then picked up and ‘found’ him in the viewfinder before taking a sequence of shots. Not very scientific I’ll admit but this was the first shot in the sequence and the camera had no issues locking on and tracking with the subject.
Another very common sighting was a vulture taking off from it’s perch. It’s interesting to note that that we were facing him almost head on when he took off and we were far away. This is the crop.
I locked on and shot a sequence of 16 frames and the camera did remarkably well to stay locked on the subject considering how busy the background was and the distance to the subject. I cropped all the RAW images in the sequence to exactly the same size.
I took a random image from the sequence and ran it through my standard processing and sharpening and the result was pretty solid and, as fas as I am concerned, very acceptable.
I would love to test this feature in more details and in more challenging conditions but from what I saw the tracking and autofocus has been stepped up in a big way since my previous mirrorless experience.
Let’s just agree on something here. A lot of the success around tracking and focusing on moving subjects has to do with how the camera is set up and used – i.e. it depends on the user. I have seen people with D5s and 1Dx2s with prime lenses struggle to track a jogging zebra as they didn’t know their camera, they had the wrong settings and the way they managed their camera.
I truly believe that if you know how to use your camera, how to set it up and you know how to track – yes it’s a skill – you will be able to create better images of moving subjects.
A lot of the good wildlife stuff – the stuff that we want to see and photograph – happens when the light is either quite weak or no existent. This means pushing your ISO way up in order to get a fast enough shutter speed with which to create sharp images. This is also one of the areas where mirrorless camera have taken a back seat to modern DSLRs.
Yes, a full frame camera (like the D5) will always be better than a Four Thirds camera. It’s a topic that has been discussed a lot and has always been one of the reasons / excuses people have given for not considering mirrorless cameras for sport and wildlife photography. Last year, when i shot the XT-2, I was pleasantly surprised at the resulting high ISO images but what I saw on the OMD EM-1 II last week blew me away.
As with anything in photography there are a lot of different variables when it comes to noise in your images but so keep it simple, here are a number of example images from my safari shot at ISO’s ranging from 1000 to 6400.
As you can see I shot in various types of light and with varying ISO settings and short version – I am very happy with the result and managed to bank some solid shots all the way up to 6400 ISO.
Let’s keep it real though. Would a D5 perform better in similar circumstances? Probably. Would 90% of the photographers out here be able to tell the difference? Probably not.
On a related note, check out the shutter speed on some of the shots above and you’ll notice that it’s a lot lower than the recommended 1/focal length. The upgraded 5-axis image stability in the body of the OMD EM-1 II makes a huge difference. Olympus reckons it’s about 6.5 stops worth of stability which is the result of a magnetic field which enables the sensor to float inside the camera. I am not sure of exactly how this works but I do know that for both low light shooting and video it makes a marked difference to the end result.
My average RAW file sizes from this particular safari was as follows:
This will obviously change depending on the type of images, settings and other variables.
To me, more important than the file sizes is the details in there and what I can do with it. Granted, I have only shot a relatively small amount of images but so far the RAW files are crisp with good saturation and is very workable in Lightroom or Photoshop.
This screenshot shows a 1:1 view of one of my RAW files.
Good details in the lights and the darks and lots of info to work with.
One of the things I often play with to check the integrity of my RAW files is to seriously underexpose a scene and then try and recover the shot in processing. The image below is a RAW file, as shot, which I underexposed by almost two stops in camera.
With some basic processing in Lightroom the file held up very well and I was able to, with relative ease, bring back the details color and sharpness of the scene I saw and photographed in the field.
Ok. so time to wrap this up and answer the two questions I started out with:
- Is the OMD EM-1 II a real wildlife photography camera?
- Would I personally spend money on the OMD EM-1 II?
The thing I always tell people when they start discussing brands and which is better is this. When you look at an image on the wall, in a magazine or online; is the first thing you think “I wonder what camera it was taken with?” If so I think you are missing the plot.
Seriously, if you think you can tell the difference and which camera an images waken with try this. Of the 174 images in this gallery on my website 159 were made using OMD EM-1 II and only 15 with the Nikon D5. I’ll bet good money that you won’t be able to tell the difference.
To me a camera is a tool which I use to create images of wildlife and nature and as long as it can do what I want it to do I couldn’t care what brand it is. I want it to have the technical ability for me to execute my creative vision, I want it to feel good in my hands and I want to enjoy the experience. If a camera can do all of these things I am more than happy.
On top of this the ease of traveling with my gear – I travel a LOT – and a certain fresh and sexy look and feel adds to the attractiveness of a camera and makes it ‘feel’ like it’s new and exciting. Well, I think so anyway.
Ok, for what its worth and just as a bit of a fun exercise, before I share my final thoughts let’s consider this.
If you were to look at the final scores given to the two camera on the review website mentioned at the beginning of this post and you compare it to the selling price you get the following:
Do you see what I see?
Even though the OMD Em-1 II only scores 3% less than the D5 it is only 30% of the price!
Right, so with all of that said and done.
Is the OMD EM-1 II a real wildlife photography camera?
Would I personally spend money on the OMD EM-1 II?
For the first time in a long while… yes, I would personally spend money on this camera.
If you are looking to explore the world of mirrorless cameras for your wildlife and nature photography I would highly recommend you have a look at the OMD EM-1 II as it brings a lot to the table from both a technical and practical point of view.
That said, in order to get the best out of the camera, shooting experience and images I would suggest that you make sure you have a solid grip on the basics of the photography because if you do you will not only have a much easier transition to the Olympus system but you will also be able to to get a lot more out of the camera which, at the end of the day, will translate to better wildlife images.
I look forward to exploring mirrorless in a lot more details in the coming months and to digging deeper into a technology which is going to add a whole new dimension to the world of wildlife photography.
Thanks for reading and I look forward to your questions and comments.
Until next time.
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