Olympus OM-D E-M5 Review: Wildlife

Canada Geese at Archbald Regional Park on the morning of 29 April 2012.

While portrait and commercial shooting is my professional niche, wildlife photography is my personal addiction. The challenge of finding critters, of learning their habits and behaviors, and then pulling it all together to make portraits of them in their wild environments is a rush. On a good day, at least. (On a bad day, when the light stinks and the critters are hunkered down somewhere else, it can be frustrating as hell.)

I got into wildlife photography about three years ago and as my interest in it increased, so did my investment in longer, faster telephoto lenses, finally culminating in the Canon 300L f/4 IS, which wasn’t the ideal solution, but the best compromise in terms of usage and affordability.

Enter the m4:3 system. One of its initial appeals for me was its potential as a wildlife photography rig. The biggest benefit? The smaller sensor and it’s 2x effective crop, which while damaging on the wide end of the spectrum, is a huge bonus on the long end, making my Panasonic 100-300mm lens an effective 200-600mm.

I know that the whole effective-focal-length thing irritates some people out there, but it’s a fact of the system and I don’t see any reason to take issue with it, especially when we can turn it to our advantage. Want proof? Here you go:

Despite the utterly abysmal aesthetic properties of these two images, the comparison in lens capability is pretty clear. The image on the left is from the Canon 7D + 300L, at an effective 480mm; the image on the right is from the E-M5 and 100-300mm, at an effective 600mm. When you’re shooting wildlife, and especially birds, that additional 120mm of effective reach is crucial and can spell the difference between getting a shot, and missing it. When it comes to wildlife, you can essentially never have a long enough lens.

So how does the E-M5 perform with a long telephoto? In a word, well. But here’s the caveat: well, so long as you are aware of its limitations and requirements and are able to work within both. The good news is that they are mostly the same limitations as any other telephoto system.

Let’s start with the biggie – focus. The AF performance of the E-M5 has impressed me every step of the way and while it is certainly capable when it comes to wildlife, it isn’t without its frustrations. So long as there’s good subject isolation, the AF acquires and holds a target without any difficulty. However, in the case of small animals, such as songbirds, amid cluttered backgrounds, the AF has a tendency to get lost.

Cedar Waxwing at Fords Pond on the Morning of 06 May 2012.

The problem, I believe, lies in the size of the AF point itself, which is really quite large. Even at full-zoom, a songbird rarely fills the frame, and because of this the AF can have difficulty locking onto the bird itself, as opposed to the background. (For whatever reason, if the AF starts to get confused, it seems to lock onto the background by default.)

There are, however, a couple of ways to deal with this. The simplest is probably just manual focus – the AF system has a setting for Single-Shot + MF, which works the same as having a Canon USM lens; half-press the shutter, then manually focus with the lens dial. When you begin to MF, you activate a magnified image section in the EFV to help you. The catch here is that, even with the IS system, at 300mm + the MF zoom, it is very hard to hand-hold the camera and keep it steady enough to be useful. For MF focus with a telephoto, I strongly suggest a tripod.

The second option is something I’ve read about, but haven’t tried myself yet. But apparently if you zoom into the image preview, the focus point remains the same size while the target critter gets “bigger,” resulting in a relatively smaller AF point. The camera uses the zoomed view to lock AF, in essence creating a virtually smaller AF point that is able to focus on a smaller section of your target critter. (But again, I strongly suspect that doing this hand-held would be almost impossible.)

Killdeer at Abington Area Community Park on the morning of 06 May 2012.

I work primarily in the S-AF mode, as I find it the most dependable and responsive. I’ve played with C-AF, but just like AI Servo in the Canons, I don’t have much use for it, or at least can’t get a good feel for using it. I’ve also played with the C-AF+TR (tracking) mode, which I think has some good potential, especially when used against relatively simple backgrounds, where keeping a lock on the subject is easy. I’m thinking birds in flight against a blue sky, or shorebirds at the beach; busier scenes, like songbirds against brush, may prove too much for it, but that’s mostly just a gut feeling.

Lens aperture may be the one weakness in this system. The telephoto options currently available, the Olympus 75-300 and the Panasonic 100-300, are f/6.7 and f/5.6 respectively. The reciprocal rule for shutter speeds is stretched in this case, since you have to take the 2x sensor factor into consideration. So steady shooting at 300mm (effective 600mm) really requires about 1/600. If you’re like me, and spent a lot of time shooting in morning – or mixed – lighting, then you know this is nearly impossible, especially at the base ISO.

The built-in IS system does do some heavy lifting when it comes to stabilizing the telephotos, but even it has its limits. I haven’t done any “IS-gets-you-3-stops” type tests, but I can say that, from shooting in the field, once I start to get down to the 1/160 range, my shots usually show camera shake. (But I also have unsteady hands.) In order to keep the shutter speeds as high as possible, I’ve accepted that shooting at ISO 200 just won’t happen. ISO 400 seems to be the best starting point, and up to 800 is common.

Side note: Speed is largely why I chose the Panasonic 100-300mm over the Olympus 75-300; the Olympus’ aperture is a half-stop slower at 300mm. Since most of my shooting will be at 300mm, every extra bit of light I can get is important.

Killdeer at Abington Area Community Park on the afternoon of 27 April 2012.

The good news here is that ISO performance on the E-M5 is fantastic. I’ve yet to push it past 1600 (because I rarely ever shoot higher than that) but I’ve been very please with everything I’ve see up to that point.

What I do have to stress, however, is that there is a learning curve for shooting wildlife with the E-M5. It handles and responds differently from the Canons I’m used to and, because of that, my keeper rate is lower than usual. I’ve found more shots that are just slightly out of focus, or blurred, than I’d like. But I’m convinced this is part of the learning curve and not a flaw in the camera.

The same things that draw me to the camera – it’s small size and light weight – also work against me, or at least against my instincts, when shooting wildlife. I used to brace my heavy gear against my body, and was pretty good at using its heft as a sort of counter-weight. When I try that now, I nearly stumble backwards, because the E-M5 doesn’t have any heft to balance. It takes some getting used to. (I plan on getting a battery grip in the near future and think that will help. It should add just enough mass, or at least enough additional gripping area, to make the camera a little more hand-holdable.)

A few final comments:

  • using the E-M5 with a Panasonic lens, I’m unclear on how the IS actually works. Since both the camera and the lens have independent IS systems, both obviously shouldn’t be engaged at the same time. I’ve tried just the lens, and just the camera, and seem to get roughly equivalent results with each, but really don’t know which is the “best” way to go, although for now I’m using the IBIS. The camera doesn’t indicate that it doesn’t know what lens is on it, so I can only assume that it does. I haven’t been able to find any information about this online, so I’m just speculating. But since Oly and Pana seem to share a lot of info (and each system can update the firmware on the others lenses), I can only assume that the body and lens are communicating focal length, etc, for effective IS.
  • those of you who use a hotshoe flash and Better Beamer style flash extender may be disappointed, as none of the Olympus speedlight options appear to be as powerful as Canon’s 580EX. I also tend to think that putting a traditional speedlight-type flash atop the E-M5 would unbalance it, especially if you’re using it without the battery grip. Since I waffle back and forth about using a flash+extender for wildlife, I’ve set this issue on the back burner for now, but it’s something we’ll have to consider at some point.

Female Red-winged Blackbird at Fords Pond on the morning of 06 May 2012.

So far I’m loving the E-M5 and find it a perfectly capable wildlife rig. Naturally, I’d love to see some faster – or even longer – lens options come along. And I think that the AF system could use some firmware upgrades, especially for the tracking mode. But I also think it’s likely that we’ll see these kind of improvements shortly. In the meantime, I have no reservations about grabbing the E-M5 and Panasonic 100-300mm combo and heading out into the field.

And I’m thrilled that, once out there, I’m comfortable carrying it around for hours. The difference in weight and size is incredible. It’s liberating, actually. And as I see it, if I’m spending less energy hauling gear around, that’s more energy I have to trek farther and stay longer.

Brent Pennington is a freelance photographer and the driving force behind The Roving Photographer. When he\’s not working with portraiture or promotional clients, he’s usually in the field, hiking, or kayaking in pursuit of nature and wildlife shots.

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  1. So I have been reading the Olympus Diaries over the last few weeks. Except for the obvious (smaller and lighter) I’m not hearing about any real benefits or improvements.

    The 2x crop (4/3) vs. the 1.6x (APS-C) is a false advantage on focal length as its just an additional in camera crop. The smaller sensor cant possibly match the IQ of the larger one on a apples to apples comparison.

    You seem to be writing about shortcomings and compromises but no advantages. Am i missing something?

    • Brent Pennington

      “Improvements” is such a relative term :) For starters, I find the EVF to be a HUGE improvement over the traditional optical viewfinders. So much so that I’ll never go back to an OVF. The increase in usability, the sheer volume of information available and the ability to pre-visualize your final exposure are a major step forward. From there, you could argue that the other integrated technology is “only” at the same level as the Canon xxD series or 7D, although that’s not entirely true… The IBIS system gives IS to every lens, be it the newest Oly or Pana, or a vintage MF lens via adapter. (Canon/Nikon, on the other hand, make you pay extra for the IS in select lenses, of course.)

      The AF and ISO performance won’t win any awards – they aren’t really any better than any other modern camera, but the point is that they are equally as good. (Although the Face and Eye-detect AF is a big deal for me, when it comes to portraits.) Certainly good enough to establish the OM-D as a viable option for nearly any level of work (at least that I’m likely to do). And I have found the OM-D performs better than the Canons in a few unique cases. For example, my first time using it for astrophotography the other night, it blew the Canons right out of the water, both in terms of results, and especially in ease of use. (A full post on that to come shortly.)

      I believe that when paired with the right optics, the system really begins to shine. I just got my hands on a pair of primes – the much-coveted 25mm and 45mm lenses. The fact that stores can’t keep either of these in stock says quite a bit, and after using them both this past weekend I can understand why. I’m getting wide-open sharpness and performance that none of my Canon lenses ever attained. Yes, if I’d bought a 50L, perhaps I’d have seen this level of quality – but the 50L’s $1500 vs. the Lumix’s $540 makes that an empty argument for me. Simply put, I cannot afford this kind of lens from Canon.

      It’s really not accurate to make comparisons to the Canon system, since it is so different from the Olympus from the ground up. But that’s the kind of system most of us have a history with, so it’s a comparison of necessity, although it is sometimes more apples to oranges. Looking back at my posts, I guess I don’t see them full of shortcomings and compromises. Yes, there are some of both – after all, no system is perfect. But I feel that they are minor and are more than overcome by the benefits. One of the largest is that it is a smaller, lighter system – and one that gives me images that are comparable to what I’m used to.

      Not everyone is going to love this camera, or want to switch, or even want pick it up in the store. Personally, I love using it. And that may be the most important thing to me – I want to use it, I want to throw a couple of these tiny lenses in a bag (or my pocket) and go out and shoot with it. I’m having fun with it. It’s like the difference between my old Motorola StarTac phone and an Android. Where the Canon was a brick, the Oly isn’t.

    • Olympus diaries — I like it :). I think Brent has done a good job of telling it like it is with the E-M5. With any switch in systems, even going from Canon to Nikon or Nikon to Canon, there are going to be shortcomings. The important thing is that we as photgraphers learn them and learn to get the best out of the camera. As far as image quality goes spend a little time reading Robin Wong’s blog and this post in particular: http://robinwong.blogspot.com/2012/03/olympus-om-d-e-m5-kl-bird-park.html

      The images in that post are some of the best images I’ve seen from any camera system. After reading Robin’s posts I knew the E-M5 would suit my needs as a photographer better than my current Canon gear so I’ve sold it all and have migrated over to the E-M5. The E-M5 isn’t the perfect camera but it’s good enough for what I want to do that’s for sure.

  2. Rob Waker

    I move across from a Canon 40D to the OM-D. So far, I’m enjoying the new body, but not totally comfortable with it. My one big gripe is when combined with the Panasonic 100-300 for wildlife, especially small birds. As noted in your piece, I rarely if ever get a good fast focus lock, and by the time I’ve got manual focus they have often flown. I used the Canon 100-400 previously, and am really suffering the “few keepers” problem. When I get home, many are ever so slightly out of focus. Far as I can tell, my copy is sharp and doesn’t have any inherent focus issues – I get pretty sharp and well focused shots of static objects.

    I’m on the verge of calling it a day with this lens and going to my local shop to try the Olympus 75-300 to see if I find it handles better. Frustrating, but after several outings I’m just not getting there.

  3. Brent, thank you so much for sharing your opinions and expertise with respect to the OMD, and of course your wonderful images! I am changing most of my DSLR inventory to Olympus due to weight issues and I’m delighted with the results. I just recently purchased the 100-300 for my wildlife work (and possibly for some of my portraiture) but I’m struggling a little to get to grips with it – as you say the low weight obviates the stability I have with my big pro bodies and lenses and I need to persevere and practice. The fast Micro 4/3 primes are a revelation and the IQ I am enjoying from my OMD is wonderful. Kind regards, Lindsay.

  4. Hi Brent, after deciding that my first copy of the 100-300 was likely one of the bad ones, I exchanged it and the replacement lens is notably better, very sharp up to around 250, sharp up to 280, where it visibly softens (which I can forgive). I think it’s a question of hoping you get lucky and I agree it is frustrating if you happen to get one of the softer examples.

    • Brent Pennington

      Thanks for the update, Lindsay – that’s what I’ve heard from others as well. I’m thrilled to hear that you tried again and got a better one!

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