This is the fourth of a series discussing bird photography.
Anyone who knows cameras knows that the title of this post is hardly a fair fight, and may rightfully wonder why I would even bother. The Canon 7D Mk II is a wildlife photography powerhouse. The Olympus OM-D E-M1 is — for the wildlife genre anyway — a mixed bag of pros and cons, as I will show below. Nevertheless, I wanted to make this comparison because 1) these are the only systems I own, 2) the means I used to overcome the wildlife photography deficiencies on the E-M1 are relevant in their own right, and 3) I feel there are more advantages to the E-M1 than can be noted on a spec sheet, and as a result the contest is closer than one might think.
I’m focusing on birding in particular, so it’s important to point out at the outset that most other types of wildlife photography that I can think of (aside from Macro) are far less technically challenging on a camera. Even within the birding genre, the real difficulty only comes with continuous autofocus tracking of birds in flight (BIF). For any other type of wildlife photography, any comparative advantage between systems will mainly come down to whether the system has suitable lens options, and other variables that have less to do with the technical details of capturing the shot. I will try to touch on all of those aspects.
Of course, the usual proviso: the gear is only part of the equation; the photographer is another. My post series on Know Your Gear explains my thinking on this in far more detail. While the photographer is generally going to be the more important variable, I am not one to chant the mantra that gear doesn’t matter, or that better gear won’t help you take better photos. Though I agree that oftentimes those are true, this comparison is a case in point when they aren’t. The photographer (me) is the same with both cameras; yet I have had a distinct difference in BIF success rate between the two.
This hasn’t changed as I learn how to use the cameras better. When I use the E-M1 for birding, I am trying various things to to chase down the 7D Mk II’s amazing tracking ability. When I use the Canon, I am trying to get to a point where shooting is as effortless as it is with my Olympus. My skill development and the new techniques I learn end up being tried out and employed on both cameras, so as I have grown with one, I grew with the other as well. The gap never really closes. It is true that variations in the ways the cameras work can alter how they ergonomically and technically take to those techniques, but I have become acutely aware of those differences throughout this process, and even that has been a point of growth. Describing how I have compensated for those differences is one of the goals of this series, and in this and the next blog post in particular.
My Historical Account of OM-D’s Versus BIF:
I’ll simplify things by saying that a bird is either in full-flight, or it isn’t. If it isn’t, bird photography becomes exponentially easier. But if it is flying, the technical challenge of capturing and maintaining focus on the bird can strain a camera’s autofocus capabilities, as well as the skills and patience of the photographer, to their limits. Capturing BIF is considered one of the most masochist types of photography to try. Obviously, photographer skill has a role to play, but no camera can do BIF easily (though the 7D Mk II comes close), and most camera bodies are simply not up to it at all.
The problem is compounded because birds are small and don’t tend to come near. Not only is the camera trying to catch a fast and sometimes erratically moving target, the target is also small and far away. Until recently, these dual challenges have been particularly hard for µ4/3, which hasn’t had super-telephoto lenses with fast-enough focusing motors, nor the C-AF and tracking speed and ability to lock onto small, fast-moving targets reliably.
I spent my first year and a half (2012 to late 2013) doing bird photography with an OM-D E-M5 and a 75-300mm F/3.5-6.8 Mk I lens. Neither the AF of the body nor the focusing speed of the lens could do BIF, short of luck or very specific techniques that would not work all the time. It got a little better with the late 2013 release of the OM-D EM-1, Olympus’ flagship camera. Even then, however, C-AF and tracking was at first too slow to capture and track fast moving subjects such as birds in flight. Such speeds are not needed for most photography purposes, but for sports and wildlife, Olympus’ C-AF+Tracking (C-AF+T) system had been so unreliable that most people weren’t using it, myself included. To give a rough idea of how frustrating this was, my keeper rate for the E-M1 catching a medium to large size bird in full flight was roughly 5-10%. This meant that when such a bird flew close enough by to shoot (which doesn’t happen often to begin with), I had about a 1 in 15 chance of getting a shot in focus before it passed by.
I tried for over a year to improve that rate by studying, employing and practicing different techniques and various camera settings. While the exercise probably made me a more proficient photographer, the results weren’t enough to make the genre fun. Even at best, I would get one shot in focus before the C-AF system would fall behind — maybe catch up to get one more shot in focus before the bird was well past. Generally, I found better luck using S-AF, and repeatedly hitting the shutter button. I and many other users found Olympus’ CDAF system (the standard for normal shooting) was more reliable than it’s PDAF implementation (which kicks in with C-AF) on the hybrid EM-1. My best success, however, came with a trap technique (presetting my focus point and waiting for a bird to fly through it), but this is something that can be done with any camera and telephoto lens.
In July 2014, I even rented the Olympus 4/3 300mm f/2.8, which is their most praised (and expensive) lens made to-date. The older 4/3 line of lenses were the only quality telephotos native to the E-M1, and even they required an adapter (which I had received as a free promotion with my E-M1) and were not as fast to focus with µ4/3 as they were with their original bodies. I never seriously considered buying such a large and expensive lens (well, I did, but my wife didn’t), but I wanted to test the limits of my skill level with the best the system could offer. It was a brilliant lens, but still not enough to enable the E-M1’s CAF to do BIF well. I describe my experience with the rental in a later post on birding lens options.
This all started to change in early 2015, as Olympus released firmware update 3.0 to improve C-AF speed. The new capability still doesn’t match my 7D Mk II (which I had bought just prior to the firmware announcement), but it has made the camera much more usable for BIF photography. Along with fast-focusing lenses such as the 40-150mm Pro, which had been released in late 2014, I would now say the keeper rate of the E-M1 is competitive with many DSLRs that people have been using to photograph BIF for years. It’s still not as good as the best DSLRs in this regard, but I’m no longer frustrated with the prospect of using it. Another incremental but not insignificant advancement was the Spring 2015 release of the EE-1 Red Dot Sight, which I will also devote an entire later post to review and explain.
As of this writing, I have never been able to confidently say just how far off the E-M1 is from the 7D Mk II for the challenging rigors of birding, because I have never had a comparable super-telephoto lens that wasn’t holding the E-M1 back from reaching its full C-AF+T potential. The 40-150mm Pro has given us a taste of what to expect for the long-awaited 300mm Pro (which I have just pre-ordered for an early March 2016 delivery date). While I believe the 40-150mm Pro’s focusing speed and accuracy don’t hinder the E-M1 (which was an encouraging discovery), it is still too short a focal length to really provide definitive comparison with the Canon. What may seem like success could just be that the lens is focusing on infinity, or has such a deep depth of field at these ranges that it is achieving some level of sharpness by accident, and/or the subjects are oftentimes too far away to really compare resolution. The only times a comparison has really been possible is when we are photographing birds in the environments I described in the last post, Birding in Controlled Environments. My backyard setting, for example, is perfect for a 150mm focal length, which I can achieve with both the Olympus and the Canon. In terms of IQ the cameras are so close that they might as well be identical, but comparing C-AF is not as easy. In these circumstances, BIF is even more difficult from a skill perspective, due to the close quarters, and faster speeds and smaller sizes of the birds in question.
With the Olympus 300mm Pro, Panasonic-Leica 100-400mm zoom, and the E-M1 Mk II, the hope is that in 2016 µ4/3 will become competent enough at BIF to become a viable contender for bird photography. While big by µ4/3 standards, if both upcoming telephoto lenses retain the quality of their pedigree, they will offer fantastic IQ, fast aperture and focusing speed (at least the 300mm will assuredly have the last two), as well as weather sealing — all the while staying much smaller and lighter than any other lens in their class. With the teleconverter, the Olympus will be pushing 840mm (equivalent), while the Pan-Leica (no teleconverter announced at this time) would be 800mm (equivalent). They also both employ double image stabilization systems in the body and lens, working in harmony to reach unprecedented levels of hand-held stability. Sadly, Panasonic’s Dual IS version is not compatible with Olympus’ Sync IS system, so we cannot mix the lens/body combos and retain this feature. Even still, both lenses could be very interesting regardless of whether you are a Panasonic or an Olympus shooter.
Lacking the hybrid PDAF system of the E-M1, which kicks in for C-AF applications, the newer E-M5 Mk II and E-M10 MK II bodies don’t have quite as competent AF systems, even though both have been improved upon and are reportedly blazing fast (although I haven’t yet seen any reports as to how apt they are for BIF). More importantly, given the assumption that it will undergo a proportionate improvement in AF, I have high hopes that the E-M1 Mk II (slated for late 2016) will be a truly strong system for bird photography. It will be especially improved if Olympus adopts some cross or even dual cross AF points, making it far more competent at detecting movement in different directions. Coupled with the 300mm Pro and x1.4 teleconverter, it could potentially pan out to be a bird photographer’s dream. Such a small and light system with weather sealing, class-leading image stabilization, superb image quality and 840mm equivalent focal length is an amazing package for which there are currently no equivalents in the mirrorless or DSLR worlds.
So, Why Did I Buy a Canon?
I had bought the recently-released Canon 7D Mk II at the beginning of 2015 for several major reasons. While I have always maintained that µ4/3 is strong enough to excel in general photography, I also recognize that there are specialty situations where a DSLR will serve me better. The 7D Mk II APSC body with the 100-400mmL f/4-5.6 USM IS II and x1.4 teleconverter was one of the best bird photography kits one could buy in 2015, if not the best. Other factors included:
- As mentioned, AF performance on the E-M1 was frustrating. I bought the Canon just before Olympus announced firmware upgrade 3.0, which improved the E-M1’s C-AF. While the Olympus update closed the gap considerably, the Canon still has a sizable lead in this regard.
- The lack of native M.Zuiko super-telephoto lens options with fast-enough AF motors was also a problem. At the same time, however, I was getting tired of reading that the long-awaited 300mm Pro still was still not going to be available any time soon. Of course, that has changed now. Coupled with the above circumstances, if I was faced with this decision this year, I would not have felt the need to buy the Canon.
- I also need a second birding kit for my wife. When we shoot wildlife photography these days, she uses the lighter and easier to control Olympus while I use the Canon. For any other type of photography, I use the E-M1. I would have preferred not to have to juggle between two systems, but it seemed the best solution at the time. I knew that the E-M1 Mk II could potentially render the Canon unnecessary, but figured I could easily sell the Canon if that time ever came. Whether I ever do remains to be seen.
- Lastly, I felt it was important to satisfy my curiosity about DSLRs. With the furious debate of mirrorless versus DSLRs in the photography world (and the simultaneous but separate contention over sensor sizes), I wanted to know what I was missing. I had always considered buying a full frame DSLR to complement my µ4/3 kit, but I found my need for a better birding kit to be more immediate. While I still can’t say that I have experienced full frame, I’m now satisfied with my understanding of APSC. While the 7D Mk II filled the BIF gap (utterly so), it isn’t really complementary. It is in fact redundant in most ways. The full frame I was contemplating buying at the time was the Nikon D810 (or now the Canon 5DS or Sony A7R II), thinking that this would provide the complementary full frame characteristics I was curious about, along with enough spare megapixels to crop away at least some of the crop factor advantage (yes, for this genre it is an advantage) of µ4/3. I ultimately didn’t go this route because of the higher expense as well as a few other costs that I associated with such a system, but the concept seems a sound option for wildlife photography, provided the camera has competent C-AF as well.
I’ve been using the Canon now heavily for a full year, but for reasons I get into below, I’ve never gelled with it as I have with the E-M1. As a result of this and its aforementioned redundancy, I never fleshed it out as a photography system. I am only using the 7D MK II as a birding kit. Its settings are specifically chosen for BIF and stay unchanged. The one lens I have for it is a sports and wildlife super-telephoto zoom lens just light enough for hand-held use. So, just in the context of bird photography, I am going to go into some comparisons between each system. I have tried to stay as neutral as possible, and in sections where the choice is subjective, I point out my biases. The primary aim is not to pick an overall winner, but if I did it would obviously be the Canon. There are several deficiencies (some real issues for concern, some not so much) that have largely held back the µ4/3 format from being a more commonly accepted platform for wildlife photography — particularly against BIF. The real point, though, is to address these obstacles one-by-one, as I see them, and offer up ways in which I have surmounted them (which I do even more of in the next post). I am also going to point out a few areas where the E-M1 wins. In this way, I hope to show that µ4/3 cameras like the E-M1 and its successors are becoming a good option for wildlife photography — one worth taking note of.
The Portability to Performance Ratio: Winner – OM-D E-M1
These first several categories may make it look like I am stacking the deck against Canon by straightaway hand-picking out the strengths of µ4/3, but I do believe they are all important factors, worthy of discussion, and you will start to see Olympus slipping the further down you read. My foray into bird photography with the E-M1 has been an extremely liberating experience because of its compact portability. Along with its weather sealing and durability (both of which the Canon also has), it’s truly a great camera for outdoor hiking. I am more likely to have my E-M1 with me, in my hand and ready to go, meaning I will more likely get the shot when the moment arrives. The E-M1 and 40-150mm Pro and x1.4 teleconverter (which is admittedly not the lens I will ultimately be using for birding) weighs just under 4 pounds. I expect this to be about the same with the Pan-Leica 100-400mm, or go up to about 5 pounds with the Olympus 300mm Pro. My APSC Canon 7D Mk II and 100-400mm lens are also hand-portable, but at 6.6 pounds are about as heavy as I would want to go.
It is a truism that one can never have enough reach in bird photography. Photographers espouse APSC for wildlife because the smaller sensor’s crop factor provides a reach advantage over full frame, given the same size lens. That dynamic is even greater with µ4/3’s even smaller sensor, meaning its potential as a wildlife kit is even greater. The x2 crop factor of the µ4/3 sensor size (which along with being mirrorless is what enable this compactness) means that — given the same focal length lens — we have more reach and speed combined than with any other DSLR or mirrorless system of a similar size and weight. Because crop factor also affects a deeper depth of field (considered a flaw by many due to diminished background separation), it is an advantage here because it means a higher percentage of getting a target completely in focus, even if it is moving. DLSR users also realize this, and the general rule for them is to shoot bird photography stopped down to f/5.6 or f/8 to achieve the same DoF benefit, but they lose light gathering speed in the process. As a very high shutter speed is even more paramount, this forces DSLR users to instead raise ISO to higher levels to maintain the same performance level. While full frame DSLRs can handle those higher ISOs, the difference between APSC and µ4/3 in terms of noise performance is much closer — perhaps one stop (in my unscientific estimation). Moreover, the E-M1, can shoot wide-open for more speed (reducing any need to raise ISO too high, its primary weakness), while at the same time retaining the deeper DoF needed to capture a moving bird. It is a common characteristic of the higher-end µ4/3 lenses to be very sharp wide open and edge-to-edge, so the E-M1 user can afford to get the best of both worlds. If future µ4/3 bodies ever get cross or dual cross AF points, this advantage will become even greater, as those capabilities require brighter, faster apertures to utilize.
The Canon lens I use is f/5.6 at 400mm, f/8 with the x1.4 teleconverter attached, and I should stop it down one f-stop for optimal sharpness. While that makes it somewhat slower (exactly how many stops depend on teleconverter use for both lenses), it does have an advantage in reach — touching just shy of 900mm with the teleconverter. While my 7D Mk II does have dual cross AF points, the lens is not fast enough to take advantage of them. It would require a significantly more expensive and heavier lens to be able to use the dual cross AF points at these focal lengths. What about the oft cited background blur advantage of larger sensors? It doesn’t exist here, because DSLR users can’t have both deeper depth of field for sharpness and at the same time shallower depth of field for bokeh. The Canon’s background separation is (at best) the same as the E-M1’s, shot stopped down to f/5.6 or f/8 for deeper DoF and sharpness. But, this is an acceptable sacrifice. The telephoto ranges we are talking about mean the background separation is oftentimes more than adequate for the scene anyways, assuming background blur is even desired at all for the particular scene.
Handling and Usability: Winner – OM-D E-M1
This category is influenced to some degree by what I am used to and comfortable with, and because I started with Olympus and have been using it for much longer, my bias is admittedly skewed to the E-M1. I find that I don’t have to fight it as much to get the shot, and that’s a very big deal for me (perhaps even my most important factor of all). There’s nothing really wrong with the 7D Mk II, but there are many little differences with the E-M1 that make me feel like I am in more complete control of the Olympus, while the Canon at times seems to get in my way. The E-M1 is far more feature-rich, and in my opinion those features are more easily accessible with the Olympus. Again, my series Know Your Gear goes into numerous examples of what I am talking about. It isn’t that the Canon can’t do all of those things (though there are some things it cannot do), but even those that it can require a lot of menu work to set up. HDR is one good example, and HDR is a useful feature for certain situations of bird photography. Secondly, the E-M1’s button placement is also more conducive to the needs for wildlife photography. My primary example of this is Exposure Compensation — a constantly necessary control for any sort of bird photography — but the 7D Mk II’s implementation is slightly more cumbersome, in an activity where even split seconds count. Also consider the touchscreen on the Olympus, which makes the 7D MK II look archaic. It is useful in bird photography because it is a means to trigger the shutter more gently (for sharpness), to quickly zoom in to check focus, and to quickly access the Super Control Panel. Its tilting mechanism allows shooting from really high or really low angles, while the Canon’s does not move at all. Furthermore, the E-M1 also has the ability to wirelessly link to a phone or tablet as a remote device or to download pictures, which is a useful feature in the field.
Image Stabilization is generally not as big of a deal with bird photography as it is with some other genres, but it still does play a role. As I will discuss in the next post, when shooting BIF the impact of IS in making a sharp image is superseded by the need for high shutter speeds in order to capture the action. Many photographers recommend turning IS off because it is not needed and slows down processing speed. But I’m not so sure. For one, I don’t know how much it really does slow down processing power. More importantly, IS is still valuable in helping to keep the bird in frame, and with the reported incredible 6-stop IS capability of the Sync IS of the 300mm Pro lens, my expectations are that keeping this engaged will pose another advantage for Olympus.
The Viewfinder: Winner – OM-D E-M1 (barely)
In my opinion, the biggest difference in handling between the two cameras is using an electronic viewfinder (EVF) versus an optical viewfinder (OVF), and the immediate feedback that the EVF provides. I know many DSLR users defend OVFs over EVFs, and I believe this is both due to a similar comfort zone bias that I have formed with mirrorless as well as the noted imagery deficiencies of first generation EVFs. Nevertheless, I genuinely believe that a modern EVF (which now boast fantastic IQ) offers so much more control over exposure that it constitutes a technically revolutionary innovation in its own right. The biggest difference shows up when choosing proper exposure. In most bird photography situations, spot metering is preferable, as the background will generally either be dark leaves or bright sky (or both), which could throw off the metering and over or under expose the bird’s plumage. On the E-M1, this is no problem.
The EVF shows me exactly how the bird and surroundings are exposed, and I can use the E-M1’s more convenient exposure compensation dial as needed. For the Canon, however, the view does not change with the exposure settings, instead utilizing whatever light is coming through the mirror, and the sensor’s exposure is a tiny meter on the side of the OVF. It’s erratic, slower to use, and generally unhelpful. As a result, spot metering such tiny subjects is much more difficult on the Canon. Evaluative metering is less fussy, but that essentially means I am giving up exposure control to the camera, and it is averaging out the exposure between the bird and the background. Any discrepancies will have to be fixed in post. Its a major, fundamental issue that we don’t often hear about, and a big win for EVFs. That said, I will mention in the next post a workaround I have learned to make exposing with the Canon a lot easier (it works with the E-M1 too).
So why do I say the Olympus wins only barely? In every other photography genre, I consider it a landslide win for the E-M1, but the mirrorless/EVF layout does have one major drawback and one minor (arguably negligible) one for BIF. First, the major issue: When shooting the E-M1 on long bursts there is a significant blackout time on the EVF, which makes tracking a moving subject much harder. The effect, however, entirely depends on the settings. There are two settings to mitigate the effects, EVF Refresh Rate (In the “Gears” menu under “Display”) and High or Low burst rate (most easily accessed in the Super Control Panel). The EVF will flicker between image and blackout in much the same way that a DSLR shutter will open and close, causing blackout on an OVF. The difference is in the interval time of blackout versus image can be severe with an EVF. High EVF Refresh Rate improved this ratio, as did shooting on Low burst rate, as the below chart shows:
|EVF Refresh Rate Normal||EVF Refresh Rate High (EVF IQ is diminished)|
|High Burst Rate||Blackout period longer than imaging period||Blackout period about equal to imaging period|
|Low Burst Rate||Almost no blackout time||No blackout at all|
How important is this? It depends on the situation, but it can be fairly important and the workarounds all involve compromises. When I get into burst shooting characteristics below, you will see that I think both cameras’ duration limits already far exceed what is normally practical, but regardless of how long you may choose to depress the shutter, that doesn’t change the fact that you need to be able to follow the action during that time period. I have offered the above settings to reduce the impact of EVF blackout, but High EVF Refresh Rate comes at a price of diminished image quality in the viewfinder. Similarly, while I generally find the Low Burst Rate setting of the E-M1 (6.5 shots per second) to be enough, 10 fps is certainly better if capturing the exact split-second moment is absolutely critical. There is another workaround for Olympus, using the EE-1 Dot Sight (which I will discuss in a later post) as the viewfinder when tracking action. This works fairly well for a number of reasons, although it takes some getting used to, and isn’t always going to be as exact as a viewfinder, particularly when it comes to composing a shot.
To give an example of all that I am referring to, the title image of this post was taken with the 7D Mk II at 10 frames per second. I captured the entire series of images playing out the gull’s pass as he swooped in, snatched the fish out of the water and flew off with it in its mouth, but I missed the exact moment the fish was caught, just a split second before the above image. I think I may have taken my finger off the shutter momentarily, an unnecessary and bad habit. The action only took perhaps two seconds to play out, and my finger was only on the button for perhaps one of those. Despite my gaff, the 10 fps served me well here. They aren’t all perfectly focused (the distance was very far on a foggy and wet day), and I chose the above of all the frames in the sequence. In other scenes with slower action, such burst rates will provide multiple frames of almost the exact same image, forcing me to arbitrarily delete most of them.
On a much less valid note, EVFs have a lag time between when a scene occurs and when it plays on the viewfinder. This is compared to an OVF, which has no such lag at all. Nevertheless, I find complaints about this delay largely dismissible. In normal shooting conditions, the E-M1’s refresh rate for the EVF can be as fast as 16 milliseconds. According to the interweb, the average human’s quickest reaction time is 215 milliseconds. In other words, whatever lag there is, it’s far too fast for anyone to have lost a beat by it. That’s still even true for slightly slower EVFs, such as on the E-M5 or E-M10, or the E-M1’s default refresh rate settings. So, for most us mere mortals, this sort of EVF lag is not an issue. Another oft cited type of lag is shutter lag, the time it takes for the shutter mechanism to operate. Shutter lag with the E-M1 is about 13 milliseconds, which is extremely good for any type of camera.
Autofocus: Winner – 7D Mk II (by a lot)
This is the big one — the category that has caused me to use Canon instead of Olympus for birding. Most mirrorless shooting situations utilize contrast-based detection (CDAF) to autofocus. Without going into technical details, CDAF is slower but more accurate than phase detection (PDAF), which is what DSLRs use. In good contrast situations CDAF is still really fast, and a photographer who is used to dealing with CDAF can utilize local contrast to score focus more quickly. More importantly, the E-M1 utilizes a hybrid autofocus system incorporating both contrast and phase detection, and with 81 focus points across the frame, it focuses as well or better than most mirrorless or DSLR cameras. That said, continuous autofocus for mirrorless cameras in general has still not been as fast as the highest-end, modern DSLRs; and for BIF, that makes a huge difference. What good is accuracy if it can’t keep up with a moving subject? Its speed received a boost with firmware upgrade 3.0, making it far more usable, but I am comparing it with what I believe is as of this writing the best in the business.
In comparison, the C-AF performance of the 7D Mk II is truly amazing, and makes shooting BIF almost child’s play. With the 7D Mk II straight out of the box, firing at 10 frames per second on a passing bird, every shot can be in focus. As it is, I am still not getting the 7D Mk II’s full AF capability with my current lens, as the new dual cross shaped AF points only engage with an f/2.8 lens or faster (which the 100-400 is not). Unless I choose to spend many more thousands of dollars on a lens too large for me to hand-carry, I won’t be able to access that power. As of now, I don’t really plan to do that, especially considering how good the system already is even without it. The true depth of the camera’s capabilities come into play when I optimize the AF settings for specific conditions. I go over those settings in more detail in the next post, but for this conversation, I think it is sufficient to say that Olympus doesn’t need to get this complex to compete. The 7D Mk II’s system is so deep that several renown bird photographers can’t agree on what settings are best for bird photography. While I have some opinions on the debate, I can safely say that the Canon’s AF is so strong that even the default settings yield good results. The competence of the Canon’s AF is such that I have even started trying to capture our backyard songbirds in flight from close range. Capturing a tiny chickadee or goldfinch launching without warning from nearby branches is extremely difficult with the EM-1 without relying on a trap technique. It even challenges the 7D Mk II’s AF system, but it is still in reach.
Interestingly, I found that in dark winter conditions with prevalent white snow, the Canon AF system struggles mightily. The problems get even worse when the snow is falling, as the Canon’s PDAF system recognizes the snow as a trackable object (something its settings can address). The contrast-based AF system on the Oly, however, has no trouble focusing on dark birds perched against a white background, even amidst falling snow, and has proven more reliable in dimly lit conditions. This is simply a difference between the ways CDAF and PDAF work. Understanding those differences, which I discuss more in the next post, is an important step in getting the most out of either camera.
As I mentioned earlier, the E-M1’s autofocus deficiencies stem from both the body’s AF as well as the lens. The former improved in early 2015, the latter will improve next month as of this writing. Until then, I will not have had the lens to really isolate and test the E-M1’s CAF capabilities, but I have every expectation that even at its best, it will still not be as good as the 7D Mk II. It simply does not have as many focus points, let alone cross types at this time, nor the deep AF system of the Canon. It does have just as high a burst rate, but I don’t expect it to have the focus speed and tracking accuracy. I will go more into detail on the EM-1’s various AF and shooting options, and which ones I use for wildlife, in the next post.
Image Quality: Winner – 7D Mk II (barely)
While image quality (IQ) is certainly important, as a point of comparison there just isn’t much to tell these days among most modern cameras. They’re all really good. Here as well, the two cameras (and my Canon 100-400mm L glass versus the Olympus 40-150mm Pro lens) are surprisingly close. Sharpness and color rendition are both excellent. Dynamic range is close, but the Olympus fares a bit better in this regard. The extra four megapixels on the Canon allow me to crop a little more (important for birding), adding to the tremendous reach advantage it already has because of the lenses I own, but the megapixel difference is really a minute factor when it comes to actually viewing the image.
I freely admit that excess noise is a pet peeve of mine, the one thing I lament about µ4/3. Noise performance favors the larger-sensored Canon, but not by much. I should state that 90% of my shooting situations with the E-M1 are relatively noise-free, but as I gravitated more to bird photography, I found myself needing fast shutter speeds while dealing with low-light conditions, as well as the need to crop in post processing, and noise became more and more of a problem due to all three of these factors. The 7D Mk II’s noise performance is better than the EM-1’s by what I would say is a slight but welcome one stop. But, as I noted earlier, that extra ISO is required for the Canon because I have to stop down the already slower lens to get the same DoF and sharpness. Canon’s APSC x1.6 crop factor is, after all, not so much different in sensor size from µ4/3’s x2 crop factor, so we should not be expecting massive differences. In any case, I recently purchased better noise reduction software (Noiseless from Macphun) than what I was using previously, which has been a considerable game changer. Noiseless can eliminate the levels of noise commonly seen in either camera’s images without any noticeable loss of sharpness (particularly on the two lightest settings), making this issue much less of a factor than it used to be for me. I frequently now use it to eliminate the noise I see in both cameras.
So, the IQ balance only very slightly favors the Canon. The advantages matter more in post processing, where they can but usually will not be called upon to make a difference, but they don’t really come across in the final images. As a rather unscientific means of demonstrating this, I purposefully did not denote any of the pictures in the last post in this series (Birding in Controlled Environments) that were shot with the Canon, though a few of them were. Even I would have to go back to the EXIF data to see which ones, as either camera could easily have taken any of those shots. That post was the only one I could confidently say this, only because it is the only one in this series where the focal ranges were all the same. I will continue to include some shots from my backyard throughout this series, but won’t refrain from pointing our which are from the Canon, such as the female House Finch above. Most of the images in this post (though not all) were taken with the Canon, not because it produced better results, but because throughout 2015 it has been the Canon that has had the lens I needed for birding in the wild.
Memory and Buffer Speed: Winner – 7D Mk II
The Canon wins this bout because it has two memory card slots, one SD and one potentially faster CF slot. Dual card slots are useful for insurance, as you can record to both cards simultaneously. (I should point out, however, that no matter how fast your CF card is, dual card reading speed is limited to the slower card, so this will keep the Canon’s dual card reading buffering at the same level as the E-M1’s one SD card. Nevertheless, as you will see below, that is hardly a major issue to me.) As of this writing, I have never had a card fail on me, but I accept that someday I will. I do prefer to download files at the end of the day to a tablet or laptop, for this reason and also because I want to be able to cull and edit files as I go. I recommend for the E-M1 buying a Class-10 SD cards at 95 mb/sec, which should be more than enough for wildlife.
When it comes to write speeds while in burst modes, there are a lot of variables that can come into play — the format of file (let’s assume RAW), the burst rate (10 frames per second maximum for both cameras), and the type of card being used. That all said, buffer limit is another number I think is starting to get rather ridiculous in the camera world — another spec improvement far beyond what most people will ever need. For example, the new Nikon D500 is said to buffer up to 200 compressed RAW files before stopping, and it also shoots at 10 fps. I suppose there may be rare circumstances where holding the shutter button down for 20 seconds would be helpful to capture an entire scene as it plays out, but I can’t think of many. Most of the action scenes I have experienced have come and gone in less than a fifth of that time. Just remember, however, that such shooting will fill up a memory card in no time, drain the battery much faster and create more heat (making more noise), not to mention it would produce 200 almost identical pictures per moment to sift through later on, maybe to only keep a few. No thanks. I don’t think it is prudent or necessary to use either camera to those extremes. With the card write speeds I mentioned above, I have never once had either the Canon or the Olympus stop shooting because of buffering issues. With similar SD card speeds to what I mentioned above, I have read that the Olympus can burst shoot about 40-50 RAW files before the buffer fills. The 7D Mk II and a CF card can attain about 31 shots in a single burst. For the same reasons mentioned above, I don’t prefer to shoot a full 10 fps anyway. The 6.5 fps of the E-M-1’s low burst setting is enough for me. Conclusion: while the Olympus wins in the speed contest, I hardly think it matters even for BIF; and having the Canon’s dual card slots for insurance is more important here.
Battery Life: Winner – 7D Mk II
Largely because of the use of an EVF over an OVF, the battery life of a mirrorless camera is significantly diminished when compared to a DSLR’s. My E-M1 (which is low even for mirrorless, most likely also thanks to IBIS) is rated at about 350 images for a full charge, and my 7D Mk II is listed at 670 — about twice the usage. I understand the 7D’s numbers are low for professional DSLR standards, but I can also attest that the E-M1’s performance can be stretched quite a bit longer than the listed battery life by being a little extra frugal in the feature usage. In any case, while better battery life for the E-M1 would certainly be desirable, I don’t feel the issue is as bad as it sounds. I look at battery life in terms of my needs per shooting event. That is, I ask myself what is the maximum number of shots I will need between recharges. This is just my opinion based on my own shooting habits, but I feel most photography excursions — or even full day outings — usually won’t completely drain a fresh µ4/3 battery, and if it does, a single extra spare will usually do the trick at the price of about 30 seconds to change it out. Yes, I’ll be charging batteries when I get back home or at the hotel to get them ready for the next day, but it isn’t as if I will need to buy several extra batteries, as some reviewers of µ4/3 systems have suggested. I’ve gotten by with two per body (a total of four) for years, even on long photography trips, and have never run dry.
I do the same with my Canon — keep one fresh spare just in case — but the fact is I have never needed to swap it out in the field. In fact, even a very full day’s (non-stop) photography excursion with the Olympus generally puts me at a near-spent Olympus battery ready for charging. With the Canon and the way I shoot with it, I end up with a battery that still has some life yet, but not necessarily enough to repeat the exercise the next day. Regardless, of how far down it actually drained, I either have to recharge the Canon battery anyway, or let it drain out while I am in the field the next day and then swap it while shooting. We all know it is better for battery life preservation to recharge a completely empty battery. (EDIT: I am told this is not the case with modern lithium batteries) The point is, I feel that for most situations the extra battery life of a DSLR isn’t really the important advantage it’s touted as. For many it would probably be overkill, not needed. I suppose DSLRs with better battery life than the 7D MK II might only need to be recharged every other heavy shooting day, as opposed to every day, but for me this is a small issue.
So what’s the real-world problem? Forgetting to recharge at night could leave me in a lurch. Some professional reviewers have claimed they can’t afford to miss a moment from their shooting to change the battery. That sounds a bit overdramatic to me (but then, I am not a professional), but if it were the case, they can just get the E-M1’s battery grip and have two fully-charged batteries loaded to go. (If you do, set the battery priority to the extra grip, as that one is easier to change out.) Others have mentioned the price of buying all those extra batteries for Olympus, but (as of this writing) the price of my Canon LP-E6 battery is $62 (U.S. prices), whereas the price of my Olympus BLN-1 battery is $47. I don’t find the issue of buying one or two additional Olympus batteries as really that much, especially considering most people like me would buy at least one extra Canon battery anyway in case something goes wrong.
That all said, the real issue is that there will certainly be a small percentage of serious or professional wildlife photographers who spend many days at a time in the field and away from electricity. For them, mirrorless battery life being about half that of a DSLR would be a real cause for concern. Doing a lot of burst shots, which is common in wildlife photography (my Canon is always set this way), would also speed up the drain. In these cases the photographer would definitely want to bring several more spares than they normally would, and/or preferably some means to recharge them in the field, just in case. The logistics of the problem would vary on a case-by-case basis, but this circumstance is where I think the Canon’s advantage is very relevant.
The bottom line, however, is that if at some point you can recharge, you only need enough batteries to get you there, and perhaps a spare in case something unexpected goes wrong. When looked at it this way, the additional number of batteries needed is usually only one or two. If you don’t find it necessary to let your batteries drain all the way down before recharging, this is even less of an issue, as you can always start a shoot with a fresh battery. I do let my batteries drain all the way to preserve their longevity, but even then it is not a problem of significant differentiation between my Olympus and my Canon.
So, that’s my personal opinion on the virtues of the E-M1 for wildlife, compared to a camera that was literally made to excel in wildlife and field conditions. The bottom-line takeaway I want to convey is that there are still some areas where Olympus needs to catch up, but 1) they have been working on addressing them for the last few years, and 2) these are not insurmountable obstacles. With the firmware updates and release of new, high-end telephoto lenses, Olympus has come a long way to close the gap. In most respects the E-M1 is already perfectly suitable — even desirable — for outdoor work. The handling and lightweight compactness, as well as the crop factor, are all significant advantages over the competition. However, a camera is not really a serious wildlife option unless it can follow action, with BIF being the gold standard for that challenge. If the E-M1 Mk II can improve its C-AF+T even more, this would probably be enough to make it a genuine competitor for wildlife photography, and due to the aforementioned advantages, it doesn’t have to have as good an AF as the 7D MK II (nor the new Nikon D500) to have already become part of the conversation. Battery life and dual card slot are a few other advantages of a DSLR, but for many they will not prove to be major issues.