This is not a review. It is my explanation of why I use Olympus OMD bodies and pro lenses.
I came to nature photography primarily from fishing and backcountry travel and camping to find unpressured water. My instructor and mentor was my father. He caught a lot of fish. Our family ate a lot of fish. Our friends and neighbors ate a lot of fish at his fish fries. He was often asked how he caught so many fish. His answer was straight forward: “I fish where the fish are and where a lot of fishermen aren’t.” He avoided fishing where sport fishers were “beating the water to death and scaring the fish”. That meant we fished in some isolated, hard to get to waters. It was not ‘Andy-of-Mayberry-sitting-on-the-bank-whistling’ fishing.
He put a premium on being mobile. His gear reflected that. Each piece was designed to do its task well. With the exception of an old Mercury hothead outboard, the gear was functionally simple and easy to use when chasing and catching fish. I learned to cuss as he tried to start that motor.
It was light as possible. Easy to break down and set up when time to move. It was durable. When you are in the middle of nowhere you can’t run to the bait and tackle store for a replacement.
His summarized saying about gear: “I don’t take a bunch of shit fishing”.
I brought this mindset to my nature photography. It frames my criteria for choosing a camera system as well as a piece of kit for the system. I emphasize camera system: Body + Lens + Accessories required for stabilization (tripod, monopod, beanbag, etc.). This is for the simple fact that the three must be attached to each other. It is the whole package, in its field configuration, that will be judged against my criteria. Not the individual parts & features.
Image Quality. I think that any camera body from a major brand, including ‘entry level’, is capable of taking quality images. From a technical perspective. Sensor technologies have improved materially since the early days of digital. There are very few bad cameras on the market.
2021 BirdWatching Magazine Photography Awards Finalist
Exhibited in 2020 GNPA Double Vision
Plus, over the last 5 years, in-camera computational imaging has profoundly changed image making. Almost all of these computational advances come from the smartphone\camera brands’ unbridled competition to get the most ‘punch’ out of very small sensors and lenses. These technologies are now moving up to bigger sensor standalone cameras. Arguably, most cameras today, especially mirrorless, are computers with a high-quality optical lens attached. The output becomes very high-quality because the software, some artificial intelligence (AI) driven, corrects for hardware, and even some operator, flaws. If you attach a exceptional quality lens, like the Pro Series, output quality exceeds the media’s capabilities to show all of the quality. I know that some purists object to this manipulation, but it is digital technology and the files are the same raw materials computers consume and manipulate. Software engineering is now very much a part of camera system engineering. I happen to think Olympus engineers do an outstanding job, especially as it relates color science.
AI is driving even more post processing advances for pulling more quality out of RAW files. If the data is there, but just hidden under a lot of signal noise or lens softness, AI can pull a lot of it out and put it in the output media.
This is why I don’t think image quality is as defining a criteria as it was just a few years ago. Some full-format gearheads argue with me about this, but I don’t often go into the field with them because they have to carry a lot of bulky, heavy ‘shit’ with them. They have a different style and it doesn’t require mobility. The ones that are excellent photographers get excellent or better shots, if the shot comes to them. So I’m not really concerned if their pixels are a tiny bit sharper than mine because think that at least some of my pixels are more interesting because they are unique. And, the ‘hunt’ in isolated places is in my DNA and is a large part of the fun factor for me. Different courses for different horses.
To balance my opinion concerning sensor and software technology, I will say, if the data is not there or is completely mangled, i.e., it is a really badly taken shot, computational imaging, with or without AI, is not going to save the day. Skill still counts.
Olympus cameras and lenses are capable of exceptionally high-quality shots. They are not constrained, in my opinion, by their smaller (compared to full format) and older (on the monthly technology introduction timeline) as the mainstream photography reviewers and store salespeople would have the public to believe. They ‘can do their task well’, if I do my tasks well. I have taken shots with my Olympus OMD cameras and lenses (especially the pro series) that have been published on national websites (some without my permission which I find flattering that they were worthy of stealing 🙂 ). I have had shots exhibited. I have provided shots for NGO communications initiatives. I use them in conservation presentations and they are well received.
First Place Georgia Nature Photographer’s Association & GA DNR Wildlife Resources Division 2020 Photo Contest: Conservation Story in 5 Shots
If a shot turns out bad, it is most likely my error, and I make a lot of them, or taken in light conditions that wouldn’t make for a good image anyway.
Portability. Just about every format comparison commentary devotes considerable space to size and weight. In the case of Olympus (and Panasonic) Micro Four Thirds (terrible marketing call for a name), it is usually positioned as an advantage. Because in general, Micro Four Thirds camera bodies will be smaller because they are mirrorless. Lenses will be smaller when compared to other formats’ lenses of equal field-of-view because they only need to fill a smaller image circle. The combination, very importantly so when shooting super-telephoto, is considerably smaller and lighter – less bulky – than comparable kits that provide comparable camera features and lens ‘reach’.
Olympus also has industry-leading in-body and lens stabilization. In the newest OMD EM1s, the two are in sync providing up to 7.5 stops of stability. When combined with the less bulky and lighter camera\lens, this means I can shoot handheld at significantly slower shutter speeds. Liberating me from tripods (except for astro & macro).
I also include ergonomics in portability. Handling is a key attribute to mobility. It allows you to stop, move, set up in a fluid fashion. Increasing the chances of a unique keeper. My kit, including the ‘big EM1X\150-400’ simply works in my hands.
These features in total, making the system more portable in the field, in my opinion and preferences. Increasing the opportunities to stealthily chase and work shots – going to where the subjects are and hordes of photographers aren’t. And, finding a place to securely store the kit in a kayak or flats boat.
If posted in a camera forum, these comments would bring out the ‘equivalency theory’ proponents. I understand and agree with the theory’s principles regarding more light gathering in larger sensor formats. It’s basic physics. But, as stated above, if I do my job well, I get the image quality I need. I’m not trying to get an equivalent shot at slightly better exposure and ISO settings. The larger format’s shallower depth-of-field is actually a disadvantage for my super-telephoto shots. This is a case of size matters, but 180 degrees from the common use of this saying – smaller is better for my style of shooting.
Durability. I take care of my gear, but I don’t pamper it. I don’t want to have to pamper it. Pampering changes decisions about when and where to pull it out. This can be a problem because in nature photography conditions can rapidly deteriorate. In addition, it is often ‘bad’ conditions that produce some of the most interesting shots. This point-of-view drew me to my first Olympus cameras, the 35 mm film μ Stylus series, that evolved to the μ720SW waterproof digital, that evolved to the Tough series. I still have my 720SW and keep a Tough 5 in my fishing kit bag.
This commitment to durability and weather resistance has been a first-order design principle for Olympus since it’s film cameras. It carried to the DSLR Four Thirds EM series. It is a hallmark of the OMD EM bodies and pro lenses. They are built like the proverbial tank. They are IPX1 rated. This means they can take direct water flow. A very important feature for a photographer in the SE United States who is often on or wading in water and summer thunderstorms are frequent. Google Olympus OMD EM1 iii or EM1X and you will find multiple YouTube videos of them being hosed off or out in a deluge.
Image quality that exceeds my needs (and often my skillset), freedom of portability in the field, durable and capable of standing up to any conditions I care to be out in. Throw in some innovative features like pro-capture, handheld hi-resolution, and bird tracking AI as bonuses. That’s why I shoot Olympus OMD bodies and pro lenses.