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Five body/lens combinations for mobile bird shooters: Part I
A few general thoughts:
My own experience shooting birds goes back to about 1999, when on a trip to Trinidad and Tobago I took my first semi-serious bird shots with a Nikon N8008 film camera paired with a lousy 70-300mm lens. I’ve come a long way since, going through 15 or so digital bodies and who-knows-how-many lenses in the interim, practicing a great deal and improving my technique along the way. I am now quite happy with the results I usually get. However, my quest for better gear never stopped. To me, ‘better’ in this context means a combination of accurate AF and AF tracking, good IQ, and light weight, as most of my shooting takes place on hikes. I realize that many of you may have different requirements, especially as you could be placing less emphasis on size & weight, for instance because you mostly travel by car and shoot from a tripod. While eying them repeatedly and although I could afford them, by the way, I never opted for a ‘super-heavy’ because I have no real use for one. [Hint: The issue is not ‘super’ – it is ‘heavy’. 😉 ]
I’ve learned many years ago that comparing either bodies or lenses in isolation makes little sense. Especially for bird photography, where AF performance and tracking play as much of a role as the ‘usual’ criteria do, such as lens sharpness and bokeh, camera resolution and color accuracy, overall image quality (IQ) and a slew of other aspects, it is the overall performance of the gear that matters, not individual body or lens performance. Below and in the other parts of my report, I share my thoughts on pros and cons of each body and lens, but you may find the test/sample shot impressions and conclusions for each combo more relevant.
The driving force behind these tests, beyond curiosity, is that I am continually looking for the best compromise between good IQ, good AF performance, and good portability. I am willing to trade some IQ if that gives me a lighter kit I can take on long hikes, which is my primary motivation for looking at new-to-me MFT. If your own top three priorities are IQ, IQ and IQ, you may be looking at all of this quite differently. That’s ok. I still hope you might find some of my observations interesting.
A caveat: some aspects about which you might care may be suspiciously absent from this report. In some cases (e.g., build quality), this is because lots of sources of information are already available, so why repeat what others already wrapped up comprehensively? In other cases, I may not consider an aspect all that important. Chromatic aberration, for example, can be an issue for me when shooting landscapes, but it is of little concern –to me– when shooting birds. This is because the quality lenses I am comparing here don’t have much of it anyway, plus it is easily corrected in post, should that be needed. Didn’t want to make this write-up any longer than it will be anyway, so CA (and a few other subjects) won’t receive any further mention.
Turn of events:
The test was supposed to compare the Nikon, Canon, and the two smaller OM-1 based combos. Near its end, it became pretty clear that the OM-1 was there for me to keep while I would not use Nikon for bird shooting any longer. I was about to leave for a week-long bird shooting trip in Hungary, where I would not take the Nikon combo along anyway and, because an opportunity came up, I ended up selling the 500 PF lens (with a tear in my eye!) just before leaving for the trip.
At that point, I had already placed an order for the Big White (Olympus 150-400), expecting delivery to take many months, which various sources reported to be the norm. Funny turn of events: a few days into my stay in Hungary, my photo store back home notified me that my copy of the Big White had already arrived, months before I expected to get one. Because of this, I decided to repeat essential parts of my test with that lens after my return from Hungary in order to allow at least some level of comparison with everything else I tested. Note that at the time of this writing, I’ve had it for only two weeks or so, so my impressions of its AF performance are still rather rudimentary. I nevertheless feel that including it in this report adds value.
I’ll start with a discussion of size and weight that naturally needs to encompass bodies and lenses, so maybe it should have been a separate section. Well, whatever. 😉
The lightest body, the OM-1, paired with the heaviest lens, the Olympus 150-400 (the “Big White”), still make it the heaviest set of gear overall, at 2,474 grams. The Nikon combo, at 2,300 grams for body, FTZ adapter and lens, hood and foot included, comes in as the second heaviest, though barely so: the Canon rig is a scant 32 grams lighter. The lightweight OM-1 body, plus the fact that MFT lenses other than the Big White almost always weigh less than FF ones, give them an edge: while the Oly 300mm is still relatively heavy for an MFT lens, with the combo tipping the scales at 2,049 grams, the OM-1 paired with the PL not only offers the longest reach, with a full-frame equivalent of 800mm, but merely weighs 1,584 grams, making it the most portable option by a wide margin.
Weight matters in mobile bird shooting for two reasons:
- Carrying your gear on your back, on a shoulder strap, or any other way tends to make itself known to your body, more so the heavier the gear is.
- Mobile shooting means hand-held shooting. The heavier the rig, the harder it becomes to keep it still for any length of time.
The first point is what most people have in mind when considering weight, but the second one strikes me as more relevant. Sure, image stabilization now compensates for more body tremble than ever, but there is a limit. If you ever tried hand-held shooting with a Nikon 200-500, or a Sigma 60-600 or 150-600 Sports, you know what I am talking about: there is a time limit to how long you can hold it in your hands comfortably before you start feeling an urge to put it down. For some, that may be a minute or two, for others, 15 minutes or more, but unless your first name is Arnold, you’re not going to like using that gear for hours on end.
Personally, I draw the line at a total weight of around 2.5 kilograms / 5 pounds. Much heavier than that, you cannot sustain hand-held shooting for long. On top of that, you’ll start feeling the weight on your back or shoulder after a few hours of hiking. This obviously depends on use cases, age and physical fitness, but none of us are getting any younger. ‘Mobile’ to me also means ‘no gripped bodies’. I have to admit that I never liked them anyway, but it is not only the added weight that disqualifies them (for me), it is also their bulk that requires larger bags. I travel internationally a lot, so bag sizes matter.
This disqualifies Nikon’s Z9, a gripped body weighing in at a hefty 1,340 grams. Let’s put this in perspective: with the new Z 800 PF, a fantastic-looking new lens that matches the MFT lenses focal-length-wise, that combo tips the scales at 3,725 grams and costs about $12,000. Even with the 500 PF plus the required adapter, we’re looking at a total weight of 2,935 grams, more than a pound heavier than the heaviest rig I am comparing here. It will in all likelihood outperform most, maybe all, of these combos, though that remains to be verified, but it is way too bulky and heavy for my needs. In addition, both of these lenses are primes. A zoom lens, assuming it performs well enough, gives you much more flexibility.
The above also means that Sony has nothing to offer to me: its 200-600 G lens is about the only lens that even comes close when looking at focal lengths (and I understand it is a very good lens, at an attractive price). However, at 2,115 grams, that lens alone already weighs more than the OM-1 and Oly 300 combined and makes hand-held shooting hard. No matter which Sony body you put it on, we’re again looking at a pound or more above my weight limit. Too much for me.
The size advantage of the ‘regular’ MFT lenses is substantial, as shown in this picture. From left to right: Nikon Z7ii + 500mm PF (with LeoFoto NF200 foot), Canon R5 + RF 100-500mm (with Kirk LP71 plate), OM-1 + Olympus 150-400mm (badly photoshopped in, as it arrived much later), OM-1 + Olympus 300mm, OM-1 + PL 100-400mm (with iShoot THP140 foot). The Olympus lenses are the only ones here that come with an ArcaSwiss compatible foot out of the box, by the way, where the fact that other brands don’t feature this remains a nuisance. [Side note: I like putting neoprene covers on my lenses, more for protection than for camouflage. The cover set for the PL lens consists of several small sections that would not always stay in place, so I took it off again before taking this picture. The one for the Big White has yet to arrive.]
All bodies were brought up to date with the latest firmware. In case of the OM-1, that’s V1.1, as V1.2 did not appear until I was almost done.
I do not want to belabor body ergonomics much, especially since a lot of them boil down to hand/finger sizes plus personal preferences. There are little things I prefer or dislike with each of these bodies, but in my view, few of them are substantial. Just three points: Nikon’s right-hand index-finger flip for the On/Off is a MUCH better solution than Canon’s and OMDS’ On-Off button placement to the left of the viewfinder. OMDS at least lets you put On/Off on another button or the 1/2 lever, but this means you lose a control element. Similarly, Canon’s multi back-button focus arrangement offers an AF-On button plus two other customizable buttons adjacent to it, all well positioned on the top right of the body’s backside, allowing you to move your thumb between them as desired and thereby letting you easily switch between AF modes and areas. This is a MUCH better arrangement than Nikon’s, where you usually have to press the AF-On button on the back together with one of the front-side function buttons (plus the shutter to get an image) simultaneously to temporarily change AF modes: cumbersome and by no means well-suited for all hand sizes. OMDS’ solution is somewhat in-between here, as you can customize backside buttons and/or the 1/2 lever to change AF modes. Not always as perfect and fast to use as Canon’s options, but significantly better than Nikon’s. Lastly, Canon’s RF 100-500 lens has a custom control ring that sits at the very end of it, close to the mount. I customized it to adjust Exposure Compensation, which gives me a handy way of adjusting image brightness with my index finger while still holding the camera firmly. Very convenient, and a feature I wished the others had.
The Canon’s EVF is better than the Nikon’s, owing to its higher resolution (5.76MP vs 3.69MP). It delivers more contrast and also a more vivid picture. The OM-1’s EVF has the same 5.76MP as the R5, and while for some reason I like it a little better than the Canon’s, as it somehow feels crisper and more ‘real world’ to me, the differences are subtle. All three bodies are solid and will not disappoint. While blackout can still be irritating on the Nikon (depending on shooting mode, also on the other two), I can’t help the feeling that most people complaining about this just like to nag where in reality this isn’t much of a problem. Certainly not on the Canon and OMDS.
Base ISO is 64 for the Nikon, 100 for the Canon and 200 for the OM-1. Not much of a differentiator for bird shooting, as you rarely get to shoot at base anyway.
The elephant in the room is the frame rate: the Nikon is not even in the same league as the other two cameras. Truth be told, at 5.5 fps vs 20-50 fps for the others, it is not even in the league below, where 10-12 fps have become table stakes and new camera introductions keep upping the ante. With some bird species, even 20 fps can feel slow if you are hunting for the bird’s best pose, so the Nikon’s shoddy performance in this area is a big issue. This does not mean that you cannot get great BIF shots with a Z7ii. It does mean, however, that with this body, this is left to chance much more than with the others. [Yes, the Z7ii can be brought to shoot at 10 fps, but that makes the viewfinder look like you’re watching an 1890’s movie, and there will be zero AF tracking .]
With the zoom lenses fully extended, the Canon and Nikon to me feel about the same: a little heavy, but well balanced and still easy enough to handhold for a long time. Yet, “better is good’s enemy”, as a German saying goes: shooting with the OM-1 and the PL lens feels like you just shed a ton of weight when contrasted with the others. I know some photographers feel such a combo is “too light-weight”, making focusing difficult. I never felt this way. On the other end of the spectrum, the Big White balances surprisingly well on the OM-1, which feels like a small attachment to the lens anyway. The combo is a little front heavy, but this does not feel unpleasant when shooting it hand-held and is a non-issue when shooting with a gimbal.
The OM-1’s excellent weather sealing, with its IP-53 certification, is good to have from an ease-of-mind perspective. You can shoot in pouring rain with it and either of the Olympus lenses and never have to worry. On a similar note, the Big White zooms internally, meaning its outer size remains the same, whereas the Canon and the PL 100-400 zoom externally, changing their length as you zoom. Even with excellent sealing, the latter is always an opportunity to get dust into the lens, so the pricey Big White promises better long-life performance than the other zooms.
Part II: Lenses, AF impressions Part III: Test shots Part IV: Sample shots, my personal conclusions