(And a bit of my own personal history with Olympus)
NOTE: I will refer to crop factors in this post. It’s important to know that crop factor and the associated focal length multiplier only affects field of view. I prefer to reference this as effective focal length (EFL) but others use FOV. Feel free to use whichever term you like.
Olympus and I go way back. I got my first OM series film camera in the mid-1970s. While I started in 35mm with Nikon, I ended up using mostly Minolta and Olympus back in those days. I even carried my gear around in a silver Zero Halliburton camera case. (Those of you who are like me, on the wrong side of 60, will remember those cases fondly, I am sure.) Then, as it is now, the Olympus glass was both spectacular and reasonably affordable and the OM series had the first reliable in-camera light meter. It was a match-needle affair that I thought was the coolest thing ever. That pushed me into the Olympus gear for shooting motor sports.
Over the years I eventually migrated to Canon (and even back to Nikon for a while) because of advances in autofocus and stabilization that the old Olympus film cameras just couldn’t quite match.
Fast forward to October 17, 2009, when I bought my first Olympus digital camera. It was the Olympus E-P1 and I remember the date because I wrote a post for Photofocus mentioning the camera.
In 2010 I picked up an Olympus E-P2, in 2011 I bought an Olympus PEN E-P3 and I enjoyed all of those cameras. Every time I used one of them the word “fun” came to mind. I got some great images from all of them, but was still shooting mostly Canon for my “serious” photography. Then something happened that really got my attention. In October of 2011 Olympus launched some lenses that really changed everything for me (and many others.)
First, I bought an Olympus M. Zuiko Digital ED 45mm f/1.8 Lens. It cost more than $400 back then and I thought that was pretty expensive for a M43 lens. But after using it I didn’t mind the price. Frankly, I was shocked at how good it was. With a field of view of 90mm, and a super fast f/1.8 aperture, I thought it might make the perfect portrait lens given how small and light weight it was compared to my big, fast, heavy, and expensive Canon 85mm lens. These days, this lens costs less than $250 and it’s probably the best $250 lens in the world.
As for the 45 being a great portrait lens, to make a long story short, I was right. The lens is sharp, contrasty, fast to focus and unobtrusive. It fits in your shirt pocket and when you pull it out and put it on any Olympus digital camera body you have a great portrait lens.
Next up was another important lens for me. Olympus shipped the Olympus M. Zuiko Digital ED 12mm f/2.0 Lens. When it comes to landscape, architecture, street photography, documentary photography, Americana photography, etc., this lens was just what I’d been waiting for. With an EFL of 24mm at f/2.0 it is useful in many situations. It’s a full metal lens and super well-built. It’s one of the sharpest lenses I’ve used and it’s not even in the Olympus “pro” line. It is definitely a sleeper lens that is oft overlooked but should not be.
As time went by, and Olympus continued to innovate, I became more and more drawn to the idea of a M43 kit as my only camera system. Why? Because they kept coming out with fantastic, sharp, small, lightweight, and in my opinion, affordable lenses. As good as the 45 f/1.8 lens was/is, the Olympus M.Zukio 75mm f/1.8 ED lens is even better. While at 150mm EFL, it’s not a typical “portrait lens” that is how I used it and I consistently had some of the sharpest pictures I’ve ever taken from this lens. Period. It is sharp and still has a lovely bokeh. I can’t stress enough how sharp this lens is. At the time it shipped, it was the sharpest lens I had ever used on ANY 35mm SLR or DSLR, Mirrorless or Micro Four Thirds system. It’s still available today, and while not mentioned all that often because it isn’t one of Olympus’ “pro” lenses, it’s a sleeper lens that I use every chance I get. Did I mention it’s sharp?
These three lenses got me thinking about Olympus as a full-time camera system. But because I migrated to full-time bird photography (pun intended) the one thing that I really needed was a fast, prime, stabilized, super telephoto lens. I also needed fast and reliable tracking autofocus and a high frame rate. These are just requirements for the kind of work I do. So I continued to use DSLRs, but longed for a M43 solution.
As Olympus began to develop (what I consider to be) one of the best line-ups of professional camera lenses in the business, they didn’t stop innovating when it came to camera bodies either.
In 2013 I purchased an Olympus OM-D EM-5 – (Now the MKII version is available.) This was a ground-breaking camera in my opinion. It offered several advantages over other systems…
2. Small size
3. Low weight
4. Easy to pack and carry
5. Amazing image quality
6. Lower overall cost
7. Options not available to DSLR users
I was so impressed with the Olympus cameras by this time that I authored a lynda.com title with Rich Harrington featuring Olympus cameras called “Learning to Shoot With Micro Four Thirds Cameras.” I wanted everyone to know how good these little cameras could be.
By this time in my life, I really wanted to switch to Olympus as my only system so badly I could taste it. My health was sliding in the wrong direction and as I approached my sixth decade on this planet, my tired, old bones were beginning to protest when I picked up a big, heavy DSLR/lens combo. And while the Olympus cameras offered amazing image quality, and amazing glass, the limitations of the system caused me to hold my fire and hope for a few key developments.
While I have owned and used the Olympus gear on and off since the 1970s, occasionally shot with it professionally, written about Olympus gear, taught photographers how to use it, I still had a few problems that held me back from a full-throated endorsement.
As a bird photographer I needed a very sharp, fast, quick-focusing, stabilized, super telephoto lens. I also needed a camera capable of shooting with tracking autofocus and high frame rates. I also needed very good image quality because I often make very large prints. Lastly, I needed a professional service and loaner program like Nikon’s NPS or Canon’s CPS to back me up.
When I started looking for mirrorless cameras to lighten my load and before I made the switch to Olympus, I spent a year shooting Fuji. Frankly, I had some of the worst service experience of my career with them. Back then, they had no reliable system for pros to gain access to the quick turn around times and loaner gear necessary for us to know we could count on having gear when we needed it for a paid shoot. That caused me to look elsewhere. (NOTE: I believe Fuji is now offering pro service.)
Then the stars in the universe aligned for me because all the aforementioned problems were solved.
The advent of the Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 300mm f/4 IS PRO Lens with an EFL of 600mm, and the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II Mirrorless Micro Four Thirds Digital Camera changed everything for me. And I mean everything.
I was literally at the very point in my life where I thought my time as a photographer had come to an end. My doctors were telling me they couldn’t do any more work on my shoulder and knees because there was nothing left to work with. These days, because of my health, I simply cannot carry, transport, lift and accurately use large DSLRs and big telephoto lenses for more than a few minutes at best. I really needed something smaller, lighter and more manageable if I was going to keep shooting.
But having had the luxury of at least testing if not owning and regularly using the very best cameras and lenses in the world, my need for something light and small just couldn’t be allowed to trump my need for very high-quality gear that produced professional results. Unfortunately, the type of photography I do requires the top-of-the-line cameras and lenses. In other words, I need the best gear that money can buy because frankly, even with the right gear, bird photography is just stupid hard! Without the right gear it’s just stupid :).
I am happy to report that I didn’t have to lower my standards a bit to switch to Olympus.
Fortunately the new systems from Olympus offer more than enough image quality for me to get marketable images. I have printed up to three meters wide, and the prints look great. I now have thousands of published images using the Olympus system and I am never looking back.
I am also extremely happy to report to you that Olympus does indeed have a program called Pro Advantage which is similar to NPS and CPS. I immediately joined. For under $100 a year it’s an amazing bargain and while I have not needed to call on Olympus for help, knowing I can get the fast turnaround I need in case of repairs or other issues is great peace of mind. The program comes with two free clean and checks and once I returned from my Palouse workshop with Gary Hamburgh I sent my gear in for those free checkups.
Like any new camera system it took me a while to fully understand how to coax the best images out of it. But now I am confident that I can do that. I’ve now spent almost 30 months with the new flagship Olympus gear. I’ve traveled more than 250,000 miles with these new cameras and lenses. I’ve used them to photograph eagles in Alaska, cormorants and pelicans in La Jolla, herons in Florida, ducks and migratory birds in Arizona and shorebirds in Washington. I’ve used this gear in extremely cold conditions (-22 degrees wind chill in Alaska) and in extremely warm conditions (92 degrees) in southern Arizona. I’ve shot in bad weather from a boat, getting wet from the five foot seas near Kachemak Bay. My cameras have survived cargo holds the world over and water from simple rain storms in Hong Kong to the fine sea spray on La Jolla cliffs in California.
I’ve flown on large jets, regional jetliners, sea planes and even a helicopter carrying Olympus cameras. I’ve driven on roads only passable via four-wheel drive vehicles. I’ve been in boats, large and small, on lakes and the open ocean. I’ve even hiked (okay not very far – but I did hike) with the gear on my back.
No matter what I’ve thrown at the Olympus system, it has performed like the pro cameras I’ve always been used to.
All the glass is sharp. All the camera bodies operate as expected. Battery life is amazing for a mirrorless system. I’ve never experienced any freezes or lockups in the production camera bodies. I’ve also never noticed any dust spots on my sensor (something I constantly struggled with as a Canon shooter.) Olympus has already updated the cameras and lenses I purchased with new firmware making them even better. Tracking autofocus with the new Olympus OM-D E-M1 X Mirrorless Micro Four Thirds Digital Camera actually works very, very well and all the autofocus modes are both fast and accurate.
All Olympus cameras are infinitely customizable and I have practiced enough with the new OM-D E-M1 X to get a working setup for bird photography that produces reliable results when the camera is in the hands of a capable operator.
Also of note for me is the amazing stabilization of both the new camera body and some of the lenses. When I pair the IBIS in the Olympus OM-D E-M1 X together with a lens that is also stabilized, I am handholding shots at unheard of low shutter speeds with incredible results. The fact that I am handholding at all is a miracle. When I put the Olympus M.Zuiko Digital MC-14 1.4x Teleconverter on the 300 f/4 lens, I have an EFL of 840mm. I have never handheld an 800mm lens in my life before this. But thanks to the stabilization (that really, really works) I can do it for extended periods of time. I have shot with the aforementioned combo at 1/50th of a second, handheld and am confident I could go slower, if need be.
So that I can offer a balanced report I want to address two issues that I see talked about in the forums regarding M43 cameras in general. First there is the noise issue. It’s simple physics. A smaller sensor will not be able to deliver files that are as “clean” as a larger sensor. But it’s not an issue for me and here’s why. On the Mark II and on the X, the noise is well-controlled by the camera’s on-board computer system and at very high ISOs, the noise is easily fixed in post with any of the various one-click noise reduction programs on the market like Skylum’s Luminar. There are also techniques you can use to reduce noise, even in high-ISO situations, like making sure you have enough light on your subject, and exposing to the right (without clipping) so you can give your post-processing software more data to work with, generating less noise.
Next I want to talk about the depth-of-field issue. There is a great deal of misinformation on the Internet about the way M43 cameras handle DOF. Yes it is true that when it comes to DOF, an f/4 lens on a M43 camera delivers the same DOF as an f/8 lens on a full-frame camera (given the same focal length, and the same subject-to-camera distance,) BUT what’s not true is that less light reaches the sensor. (I should mention that if you shoot with a 300mm M43 lens, your EFL is 600mm – if you want to know what the DOF will be relative to 35mm, full-frame, cameras – just compute it from 300mm – ignoring the crop factor – and in that case, the DOF is exactly the same.)
When one purchases a fast lens, say an f/2.8 lens; One often does so because of the need to shoot in low-light conditions not just because of the need for a nice bokeh. When using M43 cameras there is absolutely no penalty in this respect. It’s a simple rule. In every case, without exception, f/2.8 is f/2.8 is f/2.8 on a M43 camera, an APS-C camera and a full-frame camera. The same amount of light passes through the aperture no matter what. The DOF is indeed impacted. For some, in a negative way. But not for me. For me it’s just the opposite. There are lots of times when I need more DOF. The increased depth-of-field over larger sensors suits my needs perfectly. And when I do need a smooth creamy, bokeh, I just get closer to my subject. As I’ve said before on many forums and in many articles, it’s easy to prove to yourself with a simple test. As subject to camera distance decreases, so does DOF. If I need a creamier bokeh, I just get closer. (You can also try to increase the distance between the subject and the background – which has the same effect.)
In any event I have never been disappointed with the bokeh of any Olympus lens and that includes the combination of the 300 with the 1.4 TC.
Speaking of getting closer, the close focusing distance of the Olympus lenses is nothing short of stupendous. I can work almost three times as close with my Olympus 300 (EFL 600) f/4 as I could my Canon 600 f/4. This offers many advantages including the heretofore mentioned ability to create a smooth, creamy bokeh in the background. It also allows near macro-like capability in some of the longer lenses. The ability to fill the frame with a bird’s eye for instance without cropping is amazing. I am like a kid in a candy store with a pocket full of quarters. I am not sure I will ever get used to how much fun this is.
And fun is the operative word. While sometimes the discussion on the camera forums varies from NOT fun to downright nasty, I think we should all remember that photography is indeed supposed to be fun. If it’s NOT fun for you, I’ve got news for you. You aren’t doing it right. Carrying this lightweight, but highly capable gear has made photography fun again for me, even when I am shooting for money.
I’ve always been willing to make changes in my gear as new, improved items become available I have been known to completely switch brands or to work with multiple sets of gear at the same time. In the last decade, I’ve shot with both Canon and Nikon as well as Tamron, Olympus, Panasonic, Sigma and Fuji. I have enjoyed many aspects of all this gear. I will always shoot with the best tools available to me. But the change to Olympus is different. It’s the kind of change I wouldn’t/couldn’t make or take lightly because of my current circumstances, i.e., primarily my health. For me, this is a required, but welcome sea change.
If you haven’t figured it out by now, I am hooked. For the first time in many decades I only own one camera system. I sold all my other gear and Olympus is the only brand in my camera bag.
Nothing I have written here is meant to indicate that I don’t think there are plenty of fine camera brands out there. If you shoot with something else don’t be offended or concerned. We live in an era when almost all cameras you can buy are very, very good. I am just saying that for me personally, based on my personal needs and use case, the Olympus is the right choice.
I am grateful to Olympus for taking the time to engineer and create this new gear. It gives me hope that I can still go on making the photographs that are important to me for many years to come. I also wanted to write this to assure anyone else who is thinking about making such a switch (whether to save money, (I sold two Canon lenses and purchased EVERYTHING I might need from Olympus) or to save size/weight, you can do it and everything will be fine.
I hope this article is helpful and encouraging, but if anyone still has concerns that I didn’t address, or need more information feel free to contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks for reading.
DISCLAIMER: Please note that I am an Olympus Visionary. I paid for my own cameras when I switched, Olympus found out and later asked me to join the program.