I mainly photograph birds and wildlife and have a decent number of high quality Nikon lenses and cameras to pursue my hobby. Here is a list of my currently used gear. But as with most high end DSLR users, especially who do any bit of serious birding and wild life photography, size, price and weight of pro equipment are a huge concern. For instance the huge 600mm F4.0, although a brilliant lens, along with a pro DSLR and a matching support system tilts the scales at over 10 kg and not to mention, is prohibitively expensive, almost equal to the cost of an entry level sedan in India.
No one likes to carry such heavy equipment for any reasonable distance on the field. So it is every wildlife photographers dream to have that little inexpensive camera and lens that will give them all the features and abilities of a DSLR and a long lens, for their bird and wildlife photography, and I was no different. A 400-600mm equivalent reach is something that is usually needed if you want to do any decent bird photography and till I got my 600 F4.0, I used a 300 F4.0 with a 1.4 TC on a DX Nikon body as my inexpensive, light weight, quality 600mm set up (630 at F5.6 = 300 F4.0X1.5X1.4). Yes, I could get one of those Tamron or Sigma 150-500/600mm zooms on a DX body and have a reasonably light system that is actually hand holdable, has decent reach and is portable. But these offerings are already at F6.3 at the long end and anyone who has done any amount of serious shooting in Indian wildlife conditions will tell you that these are good light condition options only. Most wildlife and birds are most active in early morning or late dusk when these slow zooms can be quite difficult to use. Also zooms just did not give me that IQ that I was looking for, so stuck to my Nikon 300 F4.0 (reviewed here) plus a 1.4 TC option for many years. But even this kit seemed big and heavy after continuous walking for a few hours and tilts the scales at over 2.5 kg especially when used with a D800E, but I had no option.
Then I discovered the m43 system and here are my reasons for choosing it. Initially, I did not have bird photography with my m43 system on my mind at all, but the idea of a m43 birding rig was very appetizing. But unfortunately there were no decent native m43 long lenses, rather, just consumer plastic zoom lenses on offer like the Panasonic 100-300 F4.0-5.6 and the Olympus 75-300 F4.8-6.7, which were too expensive and almost impossible to get in India. Then one day while browsing amazon.in, I saw that the Panasonic 100-300 F4.0-5.6 was available for around 29k INR and I grabbed it. This was a very good price on par with B&H prices with Panasonic India warranty. Amazon managed to ship it within a single day and I was surprised to see a jjmehta invoice for it. I started using it and since it came in the monsoon of 2014, there wasn’t much to shoot, but initial impressions were not too great especially in fading light and the small m43 sensor could not resolve enough detail at full 600mm equivalent at ISO 800 and above. But I kept practising and shooting more and more, keeping in mind the strength and weaknesses of the m43 system and the slow 100-300 F4-5.6 consumer zoom lens. The one thing immediately apparent to me is that I needed shutter speeds of 1/250 and above to get decent sharpness and pop even with OIS enabled. After keeping this in mind and shooting in brighter light at lower ISOs I started getting better results. No, it is nowhere near as sharp as my 300 F4.0 + 1.4 TC on my D7000 and just forget about the Nikkor 600 F4 even wide open on my D800E. But it will be unfair to compare a slow consumer zoom to a pair of ultra-sharp Nikon prime lenses on Nikon’s larger sensors.
So this is a seriously small and light-weight bird and wildlife photography kit that performs very well in decent light. Many times I don’t even carry a dedicated camera bag to carry this. I just have a Focus F1 strap, slung across my shoulder and I don’t even realize I am carrying a 600mm lens on my shoulder. In Nikon land, the D7000+300 F4.0+ 1.4 TC is considered as a light-weight bird and wildlife setup. But in comparison, the GX-7/GX-1 + Panasonic 100-300 F 4.0-5.6 weighs about 800 grams, which is just a bit more than what the D7000 body alone weighs. As with most consumer zooms, it is much sharper at the shorter end than at the longer end. In fact, I can say that at 300mm it is quite soft and much better at slightly less than 300mm than at 300mm. So I typically shoot at 270-290mm for maximum sharpness. Here are a few comparison shots of the Nikon D800E + Nikon 300 F4.0 + 1.4 TC vs the Panasonic GX-1 + 100-300 F4.0-5.6
AF limitations and comparison with Nikon AF.
The biggest negative of this combination is the AF. For static subjects, till about 200-250 mm, the contrast detect AF works fine, but it struggles a bit beyond that. It is pathetic at tracking moving subjects. I have tried everything that my Panasonic bodies offer like focus tracking, 21 point AF, but none work satisfactorily for moving birds. Another problem is that when taking close-up shots at the long end, if the AF locks on something beyond the subject it is very difficult to get it to AF back at the subject. For some reason it refuses to AF at the shorter distance. So I zoom to a shorter focal length, focus and then zoom back to the longer focal length and try to lock AF. This works a lot of times if light is good and if the subject is cooperative. In short, focus tracking is simply nonexistent even in good light, especially for smaller AF targets like birds. I have never tried this with mammals or larger targets. Now this is something that is quite common with the 100-300 F4.0-5.6 with almost every other m43 camera regardless of brands. The newer ones like the GH4 and the EM-1 may be better due to the improvements that have been incorporated on these new generation m43 bodies but I am yet to try any of these. The difficulty in incorporating tracking abilities rivaling the best of Canon and Nikon DSLRs is mainly due to the Contrast Detect AF employed in m43 cameras vs phase detect in DSLRs. In comparison, the D7000 and 300 F4.0+1.4 TC combination locks on anything I point it to, without much hesitation even in low fading light. My AF fine tune value is -3 with this combo and 0 with the 300 F4.0 alone. But the bane of the 300 f4.0 is that it lacks VR and its very difficult to get adequate shutter speeds for sharp images at low ISOs. But when it does, it is as good or better than anything out there including some new lenses. Here are quick comparison shots of similar birds shot in similar conditions on 2 different days at the same place. First with the m43 and next with the Nikon.
The D800E and the 600 F4.0 lock at just about everything and in every light condition without any problem, including with a 1.4 TC in dusk or dawn. And so it should, considering that this is arguably one of the best combinations for bird and wildlife photography across all systems available today. The feather detail, bokeh, color, sharpness are all superb even wide open at high ISOs.
Bokeh, CA and Image Stabilization The bokeh is good especially at 300mm where a lot of background is anyway blurred away at short to medium distances even on a small m43 sensor. Sharpness is quite good as I have mentioned earlier at FLs less than 300 especially if light is good and ISOs are low. There is no CA that I have seen, as Panasonic bodies automatically correct these for Panasonic lenses, but not Olympus bodies. The optical image stabilization that is built in the lens works well and I have taken sharp images at around 1/100 at full 300mm but this can’t be achieved consistently. The OIS is very silent unlike the clicking I notice when the VR kicks in on my Nikkor 600 F4.0.
ISO performance On m43 I avoid going above ISO 800, on Nikon DX its ISO 1600 and Nikon FX its ISO 3200.
Ergonomics M43 cameras may be small and portable but these come at the price of bad ergonomics. Yes the Nikon DSLRs especially the professional ones are big and heavy but they fit my hand like a glove and I don’t even need to look away from the VR for my most-used functions. M43 cameras on the other hand are a handful to use and even though my GX-1 and GX-7 have dedicated buttons for most important functions, the buttons are small with a low tactile feel. A lot of buttons and wheels do multiple things at the same time and sometimes they are just frustrating to operate. Some common shooting options are deeply buried inside menus or need multiple button clicks to work on m43 cameras. I have heard Olympus is even more cryptic with their menu structures and functions on buttons and wheels. The hand grip is almost non-existent but just a small raised part as a woeful excuse for a grip. The GX-1 is so small, that the 100-300 has a larger diameter than the total height of the camera and because the camera is so thin I cannot attach a generic plate to the camera as it interferes with the 100-300. But it is fine with any smaller diameter lens. Thankfully the buttons and the metal body are durable with all my usage so far. The cameras may be small but they are well built for sure. The Olympus EM-1 seems like the right step forward as far as ergonomics for m43 go, but this is because it is one of the biggest m43 bodies on sale today.
Other peeves Smaller size also means smaller batteries which leads to shorter shooting times. Anyone owning a m43 camera surely must have faced the problem of dead batteries more often now than when they were shooting DSLRs. So one definitely has to invest in additional batteries for their m43 cameras as having just one battery just isn’t enough to last a complete day of shooting. Another negative is that accessories like lens caps for small diameter m43 lenses are very expensive. I lost my 14 F2.5 lens cap and I just can’t find a cheap generic lens cap in 46mm filter size for it in India. The OEM one costs over 1500 rupees on Amazon whereas a 52 mm kit lens size, normally seen on Nikon kit lens, costs about 200 Rupees. An OEM spare battery is again very expensive.
Future of m43 and mirrorless Of all the mirrorless systems in the market, m43 in particular has covered almost all genres of shooting with some exceptional lenses and cameras except wild life. But this is also changing now with Olympus releasing a pro 45-150 F2.8 and is soon releasing a pro 300 F4.0. Panasonic is also releasing in partnership with Leica, a 100-400 F4.0-6.3 lens. I am particularly interested in the Panasonic lens as it promises a 200-800mm lens in a compact (for 800mm) hand holdable package. I am hoping that both Panasonic and Olympus work on a hybrid AF system like that on the Nikon 1 to provide better AF especially for subject tracking and wildlife.
Closing words For wildlife and bird photography, m43 still has a lot of catching to do but if you can live with its limitations, it can reward you with some nice images. But it still has a long way to go, before it can replace a traditional DSLR in these genres of photography. Here are some images taken with my m43 system.
I am a strong advocate of the m43 system and slowly and surely I have collected some nice m43 glass like the 7-14 F4.0, 14 F2.5, 25 F1.4, 45 F1.8 in addition to my 100-300 F4.o-5.6. Future upgrade path will be a larger m43 body like a GH-4 or EM-1 with a soon to be released 100-400 F4.0-6.3 to replace my 100-300 F4.0-5.6. I firmly believe that for most practical genres of photography, mirror less cameras can very well replace DSLRs even today, but do need some some catching to do for sports and wild life. So finally, do I use my m43 system any serious wild life photography? No, I don’t. For serious bird and wild life photography I still reach out for my Nikons. But on vacations and travels when I may do some wildlife or bird photography, I always have this with me.