In this first article in the “Micro four thirds for Hybrid Nature Photography” series I want to point out some of the advantages of using smaller-format cameras for nature photography. I personally use Micro Four Thirds (MFT) cameras and lenses, but many of the tips in this series would apply to other mirrorless cameras as well.
What good is a camera if it doesn’t make images that meet your standards? The top-of-the-line MFT cameras (currently the Olympus OM-D E-M5 and Panasonic GH3) use 16mp sensors that are capable of beautiful image quality. The lens selection for the MFT system is extensive and there are some truly amazing lenses in the lineup. If you are printing, uploading to the web, shooting for clients or selling stock photography (as I do), you will not be disappointed in the IQ of the MFT system. Even high ISO is not a problem for these cameras. I’m happy to shoot at ISO 1600-3200 for many subjects with no complaints. Of course, this depends on the situation and your mileage may vary.
The first thing that attracted me to the MFT system was the small size of the components. Nature photography generally involves working “in the field”, and that means you have to carry all of the tools you need. If your tools are smaller they are that much easier to carry. There is a lot more to this size advantage than small camera bodies.
Since the sensor in the MFT cameras is smaller than full-frame or APS-C sensors, the lenses for the system can be much smaller. There are some fantastic MFT lenses that are a fraction of the size and weight of their “full-frame” counterparts. Most photographers will only carry one or two camera bodies, but tend to bring a lot of lenses. Small cameras are great, but small lenses are even better. With the small cameras and lenses comes smaller accessories as well. You can use smaller, lighter tripods and smaller camera bags to carry it all. My full frame Nikon kit filled a carry-on size rolling camera bag, while the same amount of MFT gear fits into a small backpack.
Depth of Field
One reason some “experts” knock cameras with smaller sensors is that it is not as easy to get the shallow depth of field look (blurred background) that is popular for portraiture. There are several MFT lenses with wide maximum apertures (especially longer focal lengths) that can create a beautiful out-of-focus background, but for nature photography we usually like the depth of field to go the other way…
No matter what you’re shooting, the smaller 4/3 sensor makes it easy to get maximum depth of field. That means with a wide angle lens (12mm for example) your landscapes will be sharp front-to-back at around f8. For wildlife, the greater depth-of-field helps to get an entire animal in sharp focus without stopping down the lens and losing valuable shutter speed.
Micro Four Thirds cameras (especially those from Panasonic) are known for their professional quality video recording. They are also designed so that you can easily switch between still photos and video recording by simply pressing one button or the other. Take my word for it: when you’re shooting wildlife, the ability to switch between stills and video quickly is a huge benefit. You also get an LCD’s and EVF (Electronic viewfinder) for framing pictures. For hybrid nature photographers that means you get the same great auto focus speed for video that you get for still photos. The Panasonic Lumix GH3 does an excellent job of tracking focus during video recording as well.
These are just a few of the things I like about the Micro Four Thirds system cameras for nature photography. Stay tuned for the next article in this series where I will point out specific lenses and accessories that make hybrid nature photography easier with MFT cameras.
I would love to hear what you like about the system (or other mirrorless systems) in the comments.