The Shetland Olympus Revolution

A big day for me, 30th January this year, with more than slight relief but also a fair share of bond-breaking anxiety, I put down my Nikon gear after more than 20 years and enthusiastically raised my new lightweight pro set up – the Olympus E-M1X coupled with the 300mm f4 pro lens and 1.4 converter. I had been seriously thinking of switching my photo system for some time after becoming aware over the past few years of the rise in the lightweight mirrorless revolution and seeing the excellent results being obtained by professional photographers around the world, in particular by UK and Finnish pro photographer friends who had joined the converted and who’s imagery continued to impress and wow.

My Nikon system had served me well for many years but of late, it’s limitations and my knowledge of the alternatives on the market saw me feeling detached and dis-enchanted by my gear and hesitant to continue with it. Lugging my heavy D3s and 300mm VR f4 out in the field and in particular, out on the boat, was no longer working for me! It was time to either have a DSLR upgrade or totally change my photographic gear to a mirrorless system.

I organised a brief but very helpful intro session with top bird photographer and official Olympus mentor David Tipling at his excellent hide set up in North Norfolk, trialling out the operationally very different Olympus camera bodies and lenses for the first time on a Sparrowhawk plucking away at a Wood Pigeon (see my first ever Olympus image below).

My first image taken using an Olympus mirrorless system using the E-M1X and accompanying 300mm f.4 lens. Hand-held at 1/160sec, f.4 ISO 400.

I had been slightly apprehensive about changing to such a different system which seemed theoretically at least to be quite complicated and others had told me it was a difficult, complicated menu – I was apprehensive it would be like starting my long self-taught photographic journey again……but no……(#1) different yes, difficult, no not really, that was certainly my first thought and a month on, still my thought. Although only touching the surface of such an advanced featured system, I was confident after handling the Olympus E-M1X for half an hour that this was a camera body I could get really excited about getting to grips with. (#2) The size and feel I found immediately appealing. Yes it is a large solid body compared to the other Olympus range of bodies, but still lighter than my previous Nikon body and it felt comfortable in the hand, the shaped hand grip perfect for solid, steady hand-held shooting.

My other initial impressions as I practised on that Norfolk sparrowhawk, well, at last, (#3) silent shutter shooting, what a dream, and at up to 18fps, no rapid gun fire, a total game changer for me after having spent years cringing with my DSLR. Even my old ‘silent mode’ was far from silent and only allowed single frame shooting in that mode, far from ideal with ever moving wildlife subjects. Canon was comparably quieter than Nikon too, something which always jarred with me when shooting alongside colleagues in the trade. This was incredible, it felt unreal, did I even just take a photograph at all? (#4) the bright, large digital screen certainly showed me that I had, a screen which also has a touch screen ability not dissimilar to an iPhone….I like that.

The lens I used with that initial trial was the Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 300mm f/4 IS PRO Super Telephoto Lens (a micro 4/3). (#5) What a lens, apparently the world’s most compact, lightweight telephoto lens on the market, and I can believe it. This seriously was a lens I knew immediately I had to own. No more carting round my enormous DSLR telephoto lenses, the physical endurance and back problems associated with my bird photography for years could be removed in an instant with a powerful image stabilised, (#6) super quick focusing 1270g of Olympus. This lightweight mirrorless system seemed initially to be almost toy like, it was so extremely lightweight compared to what I was used to. A lot of my photography back home in Shetland involves walking, often over rough terrain for hours at a time. In particular my many spring and autumn birding and photography trips to Fair isle would involve covering serious ground in the quest for good birds and often spontaneous, opportunist bird photography. With this super little transportable set-up, the constraints of the birding/walking v photography dilemma were alleviated. (#7) The ease of mobility with this lightweight lens and camera body, even with an additional converter was perhaps my No.1 reason for changing. The mobility and fast focus options would be so beneficial to me during the beautiful summer months on Shetland too, in particular whilst out on our daily Noss Boat surrounded by an incredible array of seabirds, the huge towering gannetry cliffs of Noss, the swirling masses of gannets circling and plunge diving close to the boat. So many opportunities I could now see being able to capitalise on with Olympus at hand.

A close up of the above Sparrowhawk image at 100%  shows the very high quality and detail obtained as well as low noise at ISO 400. I was certainly impressed by these initial images.

As I practised on that Sparrowhawk and other woodland birds, I started changing the ISO’s to see how much grain/noise was evident the higher I went. I had been told this was perhaps one of the Olympus limitations and this concerned me given that I am used to dealing with high ISO’s in the often dark, unfavourable conditions stuck out on an island in the middle of the North Sea. Particularly for rare bird photography, conditions often mean that I need a high ISO to attempt to hand-hold and achieve a sharp shot of often very mobile subjects in bad weather. ISO 1600 has often been the norm for me with my DSLR set up, the Nikon 200-400mm f.4 VR & 300mm f2.8 VR with accompanying converters attached to my D3s worked very well at ISO 1600 but not any higher and I certainly couldn’t hand-hold at less that 1/80sec without losing the pin sharp qualities I desired. At my initial intro to Olympus, I was not totally convinced it could match my needs as far as ISO’s go, still on the fence, I could though see that at least up to ISO 800 looked pleasing to the eye but any higher and the images started to suffer. However, as you will see in forthcoming blog posts, as I delved into what the gear could actually do post purchase, my thoughts on this changed quite dramatically.

Olympus has given my photography a new lease of life and certainly brought back my enthusiasm and passion for bird and wildlife photography. I can’t wait to get out in the field at every given opportunity. With the winter storms beginning to abate and with spring apparently on the horizon, there is much to get excited about and much to learn.