Introduction: Five body/lens combinations for mobile bird shooters

Finally, here comes the detailed evaluation report I have been meaning to put together for quite some time, having eagerly awaited my copy of the OM-1 for more than three months. It compares five camera/lens combinations with a focus on mobile bird shooting.  I emphasize ‘mobile’ here because that is how I usually shoot. It dictates my requirements: most of my bird shooting is done on long hikes, often at faraway destinations that require international flights, so I need gear that performs well and is reasonably small and light, which all of these are. This disqualifies bodies such as Nikon’s Z9 and lenses such as 600mm f/4 primes: way too bulky and heavy for my needs. If you usually employ the services of a big tripod with a “super-heavy” lens on a large body, my conclusions will mean little to you. I hope you will find some interesting aspects here nonetheless.

Ok, here is the cast of characters:

  • Nikon Z7ii with 500mm f/5.6 PF lens and FTZ adapter (about $6,450)
  • Canon R5 with RF 100-500mm f/4.5-7.1 lens (about $6,800)
  • OMDS OM-1 with Olympus 150-400mm f/4.5 lens with built-in 1.25x TC (about $9,700)
  • OMDS OM-1 with Olympus 300mm f/4 lens (about $5,200)
  • OMDS OM-1 with Panasonic Leica (PL) 100-400mm f/4-6.3 lens (about $3,600)

Quite a price range.  Does this mean a similarly wide performance range?  We will see.

For those unfamiliar with MFT = Micro Four Thirds:  because of the smaller sensor size, the system comes with a 2x crop factor vs full frame.  The OM-1 is an MFT body, so the 35mm equivalent focal lengths of the three MFT combos are 300-1000mm, 600mm and 200-800mm.  In my report, I will refer to the 150-400 lens as the “Big White”, as it is the biggest and heaviest here, plus it has a white coating.

As a lucky owner of all of this gear, I am posting this comparison solely for the purpose of sharing the findings from my evaluations with anyone eyeing any of these bodies and lenses.  I do not get sponsored by any company or brand.  This is a looooong report that includes many test shots.  For convenience and easier discussion, I split it into four separate parts:

        Part I:  General thoughts, turn of events, bodies
        Part II:  Lenses, AF impressions
        Part III:  Test shots
        Part IV:  Sample shots,  my personal conclusions 

TLDR Summary:

I did not expect a clear winner, and there was none. 

If neither money nor size/weight matter much, the Canon R5 with the RF 100-500 lens is a great rig to use.  At the long end, the lens is not as sharp as Nikon’s superb 500 PF or the Oly 150-400, but it performs well enough and complements the R5’s stellar AF performance with good AF speed and accuracy.  This pair is well balanced, showing few weaknesses and no outright flaws. 

Among the few features the Canon body misses are some where the OM-1 shines.  Most prominent is ProCapture, which makes getting shots of birds taking off far easier than with the Nikon and Canon combos, even in seemingly difficult settings.  This, coupled with size and weight advantages, positions the OM-1 as an attractive alternative to the Canon.

Putting the pricey and relatively heavy Olympus 150-400mm f/4.5 on the OM-1 creates a dream team that may be even more appealing than the Canon combo because of ProCapture and better lens sharpness.  The combined weight is almost at par, but the Olympus’ built-in 1.25x teleconverter makes it a 300-1,000mm (full-frame equivalent) lens that performs extremely well in all kinds of bird photography.  Canon still has the edge when it comes to IQ, but the OM-1 plus Oly 150-400 shine in most other areas. 

Olympus’ 300mm f/4 lens also complements the OM-1 well and almost puts it at par with the Canon combo, though you get “less pixels on the bird”.  Using Panasonic Leica’s cheaper 100-400 lens instead means an IQ hit but still yields decent results.  At the longest reach (sans TC), lowest cost, lowest weight, and smallest size of the five combos tested here, this is still an attractive option. 

There was a clear loser in this comparison:  as great as Nikon’s 500mm PF lens is, and it is really great, the Z7ii it was paired with cannot hold a candle to the other bodies when it comes to shooting birds, owing to its poorer AF performance in low light and/or with fast-moving subjects.  Not a dud, and its IQ is excellent, but it is clearly not in the same league AF-wise.  The rumored Z7iii may be able to change this but is not yet on Nikon’s official roadmap. 

        Move on to  Part I:  General thoughts, turn of events, bodies  if eager to learn more.