Plenty of people will tell you that you need to spend a fortune and hire three assistants to carry all the gear you need to be a successful wildlife photographer, but I would disagree.
I have put away my heavy, expensive, complicated DSLRs and my monstrous telephoto lenses that required top-of-the-line, large, expensive tripods to hold them.
In their place I have opted for Micro Four Thirds gear from Olympus. Here are the reasons for my switch…
The Micro Four Thirds gear takes up less physical space. I can travel with only one camera bag and have everything I need for any expedition.
The Micro Four Thirds gear weighs much less than the DSLR gear. On average, my weight savings is nearly 40%. That means I can carry more, shoot longer, and stay in the field for extensive periods without getting tired. I can also hand-hold the longest focal length lenses for my camera. I used to use a tripod 95% of the time. Now I rarely use a tripod (or an expensive and heavy gimbal head) unless I am shooting time lapse, etc. I hand-hold for hours without getting tired.
DEPTH OF FIELD
While some people would see the smaller sensor in my OM-D E-M1 Mark III or E-M1X as a disadvantage (particularly when it comes to depth-of-field) I see it as an advantage. When photographing larger birds an animals (say a bald eagle) with a large wingspan, it’s usually necessary to stop down to F8 to offer sufficient DOF coverage to get the bird sharp, wingtip-to-wingtip. I can shoot with my M.Zuiko 300mm F4.0 IS PRO wide open at F4 and still have sufficient DOF to cover the bird, and yet I retain the advantage of more light passing through which helps in low light shooting situations.
POWERFUL IMAGE STABILIZATION
The combination of the built-in 5-axis, sensor-shift image stabilization with lens-based stabilization on certain Olympus lenses offers me the chance to work handheld in many situations where I used to use a tripod. It’s better than any stabilization I ever used when I shot with a DSLR.
The electronic viewfinder on my Micro Four Thirds camera lets me shoot into the sun when trying to frame birds flying through a sunset without risking damage to my eye like I would when shooting with a DSLR. I also get the advantage of seeing what my final image will look like right in the viewfinder.
DOESN'T DRAW ATTENTION
Micro Four Thirds gear lets me fly under the radar. Recently I was able to get into places that banned “professional” cameras with just my E-M1 Mark II body and the ED 300mm F4.0 IS PRO lens. Security assumed it was just a high-end vacation camera.
FIELD OF VIEW
The smaller sensor means that I can get the same field of view with a 300mm lens that I would a 600mm lens. As a bird photographer this is incredibly valuable for me.
The E-M1 Mark II has 121 autofocus points. These AF points cover a wider area of the screen than those on even the highest-priced DSLRs. And all of them still work when you attach a teleconverter. Many DSLR cameras actually limit the number of AF points you can activate when a teleconverter is attached.
CONTINUOUS SHOOTING SPEED
The OM-D E-M1 Mark II has the ability to shoot at up to 60 FPS. This is faster than any DSLR can shoot.
The Micro Four Thirds cameras are mirrorless. Omitting the mirror means doing away with the loud thwack you get from DSLRs as the mirror swings up to let light reach the sensor when the shutter button is pressed. You can shoot quietly which lets you work around birds and wildlife that might be stressed or even scared away by the noise you hear when working with a DSLR.
The close focusing distance on all my Olympus lenses is a fraction of what it would be on a DSLR lens. This means that if I can get close enough to my subject, I can more easily fill the frame than I could when I shot with a DSLR.
Buying every piece of gear you might possibly need as a bird or wildlife photographer will cost you less than the price of any two telephoto lenses made for DSLRs. The cost advantage is very real, especially when comparing the prices of 600mm and larger lenses for DSLRs against the longest super-telephoto lenses for Micro Four Thirds cameras.
If you listen to the pixel peepers on the camera forums, you may become convinced that Micro Four Thirds cameras are somehow inferior to full frame cameras. Don’t believe it. They are a reasonable alternative to FF given the cost, size and weight savings alone. The image quality in the cameras like the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II is amazing, and I regularly print 40” on the longest side without any quality loss. Just to see for yourself, rent one of these cameras for a weekend and really put it through its paces. See if it’s right for you. Enjoy.
Scott Bourne is a professional wildlife photographer, author and lecturer who specializes in birds. He was one of the founders of “This Week In Photo”, founder of “photofocus.com”, and is co-founder of the new “Photo Podcast Network” (photopodcasts.com). He’s been involved with photography for more than four decades and his work has appeared in more than 200 publications.