Going Light – Micro Four-Thirds in Africa
My timing seems to be perfect. About 20 years ago my eyes started needing glasses. Along came really capable autofocus. Shortly after that, good slide film was getting expensive to shoot. Along came good digital. Last year, my shoulders were getting tired of hauling around big boy cameras and the lenses that go with them plus there were restrictions starting to surface on international flights with carry on size and weight being enforced. Along came the Micro 4/3 systems from Panasonic and Olympus. Other mirrorless equipment was also taking a chunk of the weight away, Sony, Fuji and Canon were all in the game. I bit early and bought a Canon mirrorless. It was the same crop sensor as my Canon 7DII. I was not happy with the original version. No eye level viewfinder primarily made this a non-winner.
I rented a Panasonic Lumix GX-7 and a couple of lenses to try out. A day into the 5 day rental, I went online and ordered my own GX-7 camera and lenses. I was totally intrigued with the size weight and performance of the little camera. With a sensor one half the size of 35mm film, the camera had some drawbacks. High ISO noise was worse than my full frame Canon 5DIII. The software for noise control has come a long way since the introduction of digital cameras and this was seen only as a mild issue. Built into the camera was a very simple to understand, set of menus. In only a few minutes I was shooting time lapse video, panoramas and other interesting effects. Several months later I bought an Olympus EM-10, the low end version of the Olympus Micro 4/3 camera. The Micro 4/3 standard was established by Olympus and Panasonic to promote a common lens mount and agreed upon standard for operation. All the lenses interchange and work with each other companies’ cameras.
I acquired the amazingly sharp Olympus 7-14/2.8 PRO lens for its great wide angle range, equivalent to a 14-28/2.8 on my Canon 5DIII. It is one sharp lens and my go to wide angle. Shortly after that I bought the Olympus 40-150/2.8 PRO lens and matched 1.4X teleconverter. That lens is another marvel of precision. At the long end it is equivalent to my fixed Canon 300/2.8 but is easy to hand hold and weighs a lot less than 1/4 the weight of the large Canon lens. Armed with the two bodies, the two top end lenses and the kit lens of 14-42mm, I left for Scotland. My camera bag weighed about as much as my 5DIII and 300/2.8 lens but held a range of optics I only dreamed of prior to buying my Micro 4/3 gear. The rather small backpack also held my 13” Macbook Air and a couple of hard drives for backing up photos. Still, it was lighter than the single Canon full frame body with vertical gip and the 300/2.8!
If you are out to impress people with the size of your lens, forget buying any of the Micro 4/3 gear. It is not impressive in scale and will not turn heads. I did find that getting into places with restrictions on professional photography was easier when carrying what was perceived as amateur gear. The trip to Scotland was a breeze! No longer did I have to worry about fitting my camera bag into the overhead space of the commuter jets in use today plus putting it up there didn’t require a lot of back strain!
Once in Scotland, I discovered that I felt a freedom I had not felt with the more massive full frame gear. I was able to downsize the tripod I normally would have carried and was not concerned about carrying my complete range of gear on a hike. My old knee loved me for it. At the end of the day I was not in pain and the images delivered were nothing short of superb. Downloading and working thru the images in Lightroom proved that the gear was perfect for almost all my shooting situations. What didn’t works well? Tracking focus was the largest gap in performance between the Micro 4/3 and my Canon gear. It just flat would not work. OK, so if I were going to Bosque del Apache to photograph the cranes or other locations to capture birds in flight I would take the Canon gear. That was all with the M10 and GX-7.
I also discovered one major difference between the two M4/3 platforms. Panasonic has moved in the direction if in-lens stabilization while Olympus has decided on in-body stabilization. Based on this I needed to make a decision. I decided that the in-camera stabilization fit my needs a little better so Olympus was the route I was planning.
Let me interject that I looked at other mirrorless options. Sony gets a lot of press with their full frame versions but that seems to negate to weight issue requiring the same large lenses. Fuji had a terrific system with a 1.5 crop factor versus the 2 crop factor of the M4/3 equipment. Again, the lenses would be larger but not prohibitively so. Noise from a smaller sensor was my concern. The technology to control noise has grown leaps and bounds so that was only an untested concern. Now that I own the Olympus EM-1 Mark II, I figure that it is about one stop noisier than my Canon 5DIII. Not enough to concern myself with, considering the weight and space savings in the camera bag.
Where the rubber meets the road! The GX-7 and the M10 are both 16 megapixel cameras while the M1 Mark II is 20 megapixels. Not much difference in my opinion so that doesn’t make much difference to me. Anything at 16 or better will work for just about any photography I want to do.
A few months before the trip to Tanzania, Panasonic, working with Leica, introduced a new lens. The range on that lens intrigued me, a 100-400mm. In 35mm camera terms that is equivalent to a 200-800mm zoom!!! I waited to see test reports on the lens. SLRGEAR.COM showed it to be quite sharp all the way out with only a slight loss of sharpness wide open at 800mm equivalent. I jumped all over that lens. Here is where the stabilization game gets tricky. If I use the lens on the GX-7, I need to turn on the lens stabilization. If I use it on the M1 Mark II I need to turn off the lens stabilization and let the camera body do the job. I learned quickly that I could hardly use the lens on the M10 at the full 800mm equivalent for one main reason. Olympus, for some reason has a noise maker and a vibrator so that when you shoot with the M10 it sounds like a traditional DSLR with mirror slap, etc. That vibration is enough to play havoc with images made at the long end of the lens. I tried bean bags, tripods, everything I could, but was unable to get sharp images at the longest zoom of the lens. The M1 Mark II has a silent shooting mode and it handled the long end of the lens VERY well with very sharp images. That meant that in Africa I used the M1 Mark II with the Leica 100-400, the M10 had the 40-150/2.8 and the GX-7 was fitted with the 7-14/2.8, a workable solution.
As for the different camera bodies, let me say that the GX-7 is nice, the M10 is OK but the M1 Mark II is a workhorse. It does just about everything right. I did have some issues (more on those later) but for almost all my shooting it was in my hands. Because the camera and lens combo is so small and light you forget that you are shooting at 800mm equivalent. At that level of magnification you need to be rock steady and use a fast shutter speed. I shot mostly at ISO 400-1200 during the day to minimize and shake at the long focal length. For the most part, the images were tack sharp. Most of the unsharp images were directly traceable to screw ups on my part.
There are two silent mode shooting speeds on the M1 Mark II (M1MII). You can custom set the top speed in each mode. I was shooting the low speed and set the top speed for only 8 frames per second. The high speed silent mode will shoot at 60 frames per second!!! I tried that a couple of times but was eating up SD card real estate at an alarming rate and knew that it would just result in lots of deleted photos later anyway.
Bad photos from the M1MII were basically my own screw ups. I was not totally familiar with controls and made a few mistakes along the way. Canon controls are very familiar to me since they have only changed minimally over the past 7 to 8 years. This is like a whole new ball game. I will say that by the end of the trip, I was making changes on the fly without having to look closely at what I was doing.
I had one issue with the M1MII that is still not resolved. When turning the camera on, sometimes it hangs up and never finishes “booting”. If I turn it off and back on again it turns on completely. The “Hang Up” position does not allow the focus to work or to make changes to settings, it just shows an image on the screen and viewfinder but nothing else works. I tried wiggling the switch and sometimes that worked to get the boot routine to finish. Other times it came on normally and other times it was slow to boot completely. I am not sure if this is a serious defect or some mode I selected accidentally or dust in the switch. Not sure but I need to contact Olympus to find out quickly. Leaving for the Galapagos in a couple of weeks.(Update to the above. Not sure what the deal was but maybe a little dirty contacts but it seems to have gone away.)
I will say that I didn’t really get to use tracking focus on still images much but did use it on video mode. I am bit confused by the tracking system in video mode. I would be shooting video of a zebra (excellent contrast and a simple thing for digital tracking to follow or so you would think) walking along with tall grass in the background. For a few seconds the tracking would be spot on, following the zebra, then it would get distracted and lock up on some nebulous spot on the grass. As I panned it would stick to that goofy spot on the grass until it went out of frame then hunt and find the zebra again. During that hunting period the camera would go out of focus and back in again. I was really getting frustrated with it by the end of the trip. Maybe there is something I was doing wrong in video mode but it seems to me black and white stripes should be a no-brainer for tracking. I am certain there is a setting that would alleviate this but I have not worked with it enough to make that discovery.
Other than that, I had no issues that were a deal breaker. I leave for the Galapagos Islands in less than 12 days and I am only taking Olympus gear plus a GoPro Hero4 for underwater shooting. OMD-EM1 Mark II and OMD-EM5 Mark II; 7-14/2.8Pro; 14-42 Kit Lens; 40-150/4-5.6; Leica 100-400. The 40-150/2.8Pro and 1.4X are staying home in the interest of being even lighter. I sold the OMD-EM10 and bought an OMD-EM5 Mark II as my back-up camera.
I have been using a friends Olympus 300/4 PRO and find that lens indeed impressive! I will likely add one of those in the near future. The drawback is not having a variable focal length (zoom). In Tanzania we shoot out of vehicles and there are restrictions on where we can and cannot drive off the roads and vehicle paths. Composing images is a great deal easier with a zoom lens rather than a prime, fixed focal length. Getting out of the vehicle to get closer or further away is prohibited, most easily described as entering what is commonly known as the “Food Chain”. The 100-400 will be a fixture on trips to Tanzania. Future plans are to add a second OMD-EM1 Mark II body, the 300/4 PRO. I recently added the Olympus 60 Macro and 12-100/4 PRO. I wasn’t sure I needed the 12-100/4 but on a recent assignment for the Nature Conservancy, fully 70% of the images were taken with that lens!
Jim & Cindy Griggs have been active in photography since 1976. Jim has been an instructor with Wilderness Photography Workshops for 11 years and has recently started doing local and regional workshops. In addition he leads photography trips with instructional help to locations as diverse as Tanzania and Peru. Jim & Cindy have been photographing high school seniors for well over 20 years and in the same time span numerous weddings and family gatherings. Our photography has been used by National Geographic, The Nature Conservancy, The Sierra Club, Wyoming Wildlife and hundreds of other publications, newspapers, books, websites, Museum Dioramas, billboards, postcards, calendars… …well, just about in all facets of photography usage. Jim does lectures for groups all over the region on topics such as the Prairies, Serengeti and Tanzania, The Tambopata Rainforest of Peru, The Galapagos Islands, Alaska, Hawaii, Jasper National Park and instructional programs for photographers, both beginner and advanced including Lightroom.