Why Did I Switch To Micro Four Thirds While Living In A Full Frame World?

Eagle Photograph Copyright Scott Bourne Eagle Photograph Copyright Scott Bourne

The Backstory On My Switch To Olympus

NOTE: Crop factor and the associated focal length multiplier only affects field of view. I prefer to reference this as effective focal length but others use FOV. Feel free to use whichever term you like.

I used to primarily rely on Canon or Nikon DSLRs for bird and wildlife photography but my health and my age have made both impractical. Thankfully, Micro Four Third (M43) cameras and lenses have improved over the last five years to the point where they have significantly closed the gap with many DSLRs. For the last two plus years, I have exclusively used M43 gear from Olympus.

Falcon Photograph Copyright Scott Bourne
Falcon Photograph Copyright Scott Bourne

The Micro Four Thirds gear can’t deliver the low-light performance of the full-frame DSLRs, but there are some obvious benefits too.

The M43 gear is smaller, lighter and less expensive than the full-frame DSLRs. The M43 can match the image quality of the DSLR when there is sufficient light, and can even do a great job of tracking birds in flight. (Assuming you are using the newer flagship bodies like the OM-D E-M1 MK II or the OM-D E-M1 X.)

After more than two years of using M43 gear exclusively, I am certain that in the right hands, it can hold its own against most DSLRs. Moreover, pound-for-pound, dollar-for-dollar, I believe the M43 system can exceed the value of a DSLR. But that’s just me.

Sandhill Crane Photograph Copyright Scott Bourne

Good technique can yield good results with most cameras but I am particularly impressed with the Olympus OM-D E-M1 MK II camera body as well as the newer Olympus OM-D E-M1 X camera body. Both are relatively lightweight, powerful and affordable (compared to top-shelf DSLRs) and there is a full lineup of lenses for any task. Olympus has tracking autofocus that actually works and using a mechanical shutter, can deliver 10FPS while accurately tracking a moving subject. These cameras have sufficient battery life to capture a full session of photography and the image quality is superb.

When I switched – I had to start over. And contrary to what some people think, I bought all of my gear when I switched. I became an Olympus Visionary about nine months later. They didn’t pay me to switch – and I am sad about that :).

I started by purchasing all the items I’d need to do serious bird photography. (See my bird photography gear list here. It contains the main items I use when I am in the field – but doesn’t represent the full list of gear I own – just to be precise.)

After it was all said and done, picking up literally every single piece of Olympus gear that I could think of, from flashes to lenses I will only use once in a while (like the macro and portrait lenses,) all the accessories, three bodies, etc.. the total value was just under $20,000.00. Does that sound like a large sum? You bet. But hold on. You need to evaluate this the way I did. As a bird photographer, I am used to even bigger numbers. The three Canon bodies I used to use cost $18,000 alone – without the lenses. Throw in $30k for just TWO of the big telephotos I used to carry, and another $20k for everything else and you can see, I saved a ton of money.

Eagle Photograph Copyright Scott Bourne
Eagle Photograph Copyright Scott Bourne

The switching costs will be less impactful for a person who’s just stepping up to pro-quality gear. They either don’t have a lot of old gear to sell first or maybe are starting from scratch. But it’s not impossible for someone heavily invested in another brand to switch. After selling just my Canon 800mm lens I had enough money to buy two Olympus flagship bodies, a battery grip and the Olympus 300mm f/4 lens with teleconverter. I even had some change! I could have stopped there and been happy. But then again, you know me…. stopping isn’t my thing 🙂

I do want to add a caveat. I am a professional and make my living with my camera gear. As an amateur you have no need for most of the things I buy, unless you are an aspiring bird photographer :).

All that said – The reason I switched to Olympus had nothing to do with money. For me it was all about the size and weight advantages. (But seriously, the money advantage isn’t bad either.) It was mainly the access to super telephoto lenses that were lightweight and small enough to use all day long without getting tired.

The lenses that bird/wildlife photographers crave are available in M43 format. The super telephotos and super zooms that I use in my Olympus kit weigh much less than their DSLR counterparts. They also take up less space in the bag and in some cases cost less than one fourth (1/4) the price of similarly situated DSLR gear.

Duck Photograph Copyright Scott Bourne

In addition to being lightweight, small and affordable, the M43 lenses have amazingly short close focusing distances and superb image stabilization (IS.) Being able to hand-hold lenses that allow you to fill the frame with distant subjects is amazing. If you want to use a tripod you can also get by with any old ball head on your tripod. While a gimbal head always helps,

I have made some great portraits and birdscapes with this gear and even made some salable prints from the RAW files I get from the Olympus. Olympus printed my images from two to three meters wide for exhibit at national trade shows and they look great. No matter what excuse you hear from people about why they don’t think M43 will do the job, I have an opposite reaction. In my opinion, there’s no reason to fear the image quality from it and other top-quality M43 cameras.

Some people want to use big, full-frame cameras and that is of course, fine. However, some people have to switch. For some, there is no other option. Many people who love birds and wildlife photography simply can’t carry or effectively wield the large, heavy full-frame gear that most associate with such photography. There are also lots of challenges associated with traveling with long lenses. And let’s not forget cost. Some people can’t come up with the $30k that it costs to grab a couple of high end DSLR bodies with matching telephoto lenses.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X Product Shot

If you need to save space, weight or money, and/or want some gear that is easier to travel with yet grabs great images, rest assured that the Micro Four Thirds gear I’ve discussed here will get you some great results. You may have to work a tiny bit harder to get winning shots, but you can absolutely do it. If I can do it – you can too!

DISCLAIMER: I am an Olympus Visionary – All bird photos contained in this post were made using Olympus OM-D cameras and Olympus lenses.

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