For my first real post, I thought I’d start by explaining why I chose to start a blog about a camera system that is hardly mainstream. Full disclosure: I also recently bought and shoot a Canon DSLR in specific situations (I’ll be discussing in a later post the differences I see between the two systems and why I have both), but my wife and I have been and continue to use Olympus Micro Four-Thirds (µ4/3) as our main system. The OM-D E-M5 was the first real camera we ever owned. I first chose it for its compactness, retro good looks and from reading the glowing reviews in 2012. It was followed by the E-M1 in 2013, my current and still favorite camera. For the most part, I have been extremely happy and have never regretted my choice. Before I even begin to describe why I chose this format over any other, there are a few important truths to remember:
- There is no such thing as a bad camera anymore. Any digital camera from the past several years is good enough to do general photography. Even a modern smartphone’s tiny camera is good enough for what most people care to do with their pictures, so any mirrorless camera or DSLR will be more than capable.
- That said, there are differences that reveal themselves when getting off the beaten path of general photography and into more specialized genres. There is no perfect camera that can satisfy all needs across all photography genres and all photographers’ personal preferences. The trick is to find the camera that best fits one’s personal uses.
The Olympus µ4/3 OM-D line has been the camera system that my wife and I have learned photography with. While we first dabbled in a number of genres, we found ourselves gravitating toward nature photography – wildlife, macro and landscape. We are also avid travelers, and while the nature theme is generally prevalent in all our trips, we take a lot of generic travel photos as well. So, my system needed to be a good one to learn on, good for travel, and a good nature photography system.
µ4/3 has been a great system with which to learn photography, partially because it is a versatile, competent and (with only a few remaining gaps) well-established system. While it may not be the best in any one technical category, it is very good in just about all of them. However, the main reason µ4/3 is so good for learning with is because the philosophy behind it makes more advanced photography accessible and fun. Though I may be putting words into Olympus’ mouth, I think they are about opening photography to the masses, as opposed to making it the arcane purview of professionals and techno-geeks. That’s not to say a µ4/3 camera makes photography easy — the art is too deep for that — but it strives to remove all of the technical hurdles within its control. The E-M1’s flexible feature set is easy to access and simple to use, so you can concentrate on the artistic side of taking photos with techniques like HDR, long exposure, and others. In nearly every photography technique I explored with the E-M1, I was never stonewalled by the camera’s lack of ability, nor did it take too long to figure out the controls.
There are many resources on the internet that will get more in-depth on this than I care to in this post; but in an nutshell, it is a mirrorless camera format utilizing a sensor smaller than what one would find in a typical DSLR, but larger than that of a smartphone or point-and-shoot camera. The sensor size makes for some important differences, referred to as “crop factor” in photography parlance. There is a lot of heated debate and misinformation on the internet about crop factor, which I will discuss from time to time. In fact, even the term “crop factor” is a misnomer. The mirrorless aspect is completely separate from the sensor size, but also makes for some significant differences from DSLRs. Here are some of the characteristics of the mirrorless, crop sensor µ4/3 system (good, bad, or just different):
- Smaller and lighter than DSLRs, both the bodies and lenses
- Electronic viewfinder (EVF) rather than optical (OVF)
- More depth of field than larger sensors
- Slightly decreased noise performance
- Reduced battery life, mainly because of the EVF
That all said, while even professionals are agreeing that µ4/3 makes for one of the best travel kits around because of its portability, it is not often cited as a nature photographer’s weapon of choice. I suspect part of the issue is that nature shots are more heavily critiqued for image quality than other genres, leading most nature photography pros to prefer the higher mega-pixel, better noise performance of full frame cameras. But then, they have to, as their livelihood depends on getting the very best — even if those differences are of little notice to non-professionals. For wildlife, the system at the moment also natively lacks the massive, wide aperture super telephoto lenses of DSLRs, as well as the more agile continuous autofocus tracking abilities of some of the higher-end DSLRs. Both of these shortcomings are changing, however. For macro… well, I’m actually astounded that µ4/3 is not being used more for macro, even by professionals, but that’s for another discussion.
So why do I feel µ4/3 is a good system for nature photography? Because the most important thing to producing amazing nature photos isn’t professional grade equipment, its being able to be at the right place and the right moment with a camera that can do the job — whatever job that happens to manifest. In my opinion, no camera does this better than µ4/3 and still provides excellent image quality. None. I don’t believe many professionals necessarily see this point, because they had to get used to the inconvenience of lugging around a huge amount of gear to get to the shoot. It’s accepted as part of their job, understandably so.
The small size and low weight of µ4/3 cannot be overemphasized. The best camera is the one you have with you (a cliché, but true), and while it is not as compact as a smartphone or tiny point-and-shoot, a single µ4/3 body and lens can easily be carried with little notice. It also allows taking more gear. Nature and travel photography require a lot of hiking, and oftentimes I am carrying enough equipment for landscape, wildlife and macro photography with cameras for both myself and my wife. With µ4/3 I can do that with neither bulk nor weight slowing me down, yet I am not a particularly big or strong guy. Even the E-M1, the new Pro lenses, and associated gear packs at about half of the bulk and weight of a comparable DSLR pack, which in airports or the wilderness are massive advantages. Said associated gear can also be smaller, from the bag to the filters I use. For my wife, who has a wrist problem, this light weight is even more essential. The image stabilization means that I won’t generally need a tripod, but if I did (say, for long exposure), the tripod could be smaller as well. Add an extremely reliable weather sealing to the mix, and this is an entire camera system that can easily go anywhere.
Lastly, Olympus has impressed me with its innovation, keeping their cameras relevant against the heavy hitting DSLRs by taking different approaches. Most would agree that nearly all of the innovation in the last several years have been in the mirrorless segment. They’ve clearly also taken aim at improving nature photography via firmware updates or new gear, addressing many of the weaknesses I cited earlier. While not all of this new gear has been released yet, by the end of this year the situation will look a lot different. This means that, to me, we will have a lot to talk about down the road.