Facebook Pixel Some of the Pros of Using Micro Four-Thirds Cameras for Wildlife Photography

Some of the Pros of Using Micro Four-Thirds Cameras for Wildlife Photography

Micro four-thirds (MFT) cameras have been on the market for 10 years now and have grown to be a preferred option for professionals and amateurs alike. The small camera bodies (you might even say tiny) house high-quality features including high dynamic range, high ISO sensitivity, and 16mp (or greater) sensors.

As the MFT format has gained popularity a range of professional-quality lenses has also been developed. I have been shooting the Olympus Em5 and Em5II since they came on the market in 2013 and 2015 respectively. Throughout my travels shooting wildlife across the U.S., I have been shooting this system with great results.

There are many aspects that micro four-thirds cameras great for wildlife as well as a few drawbacks. I will walk you through my impressions of this system for wildlife photography, both the pros and the cons.

humpback whales - Pros and Cons of Using Micro Four-Thirds Cameras for Wildlife Photography

I took this image of bubble-net feeding Humpback Whales with an Olympus OMD E-M5. All of the images featured in this article were captured using the MFT system.

Intrinsic Advantages (Pros)

The micro four-thirds system has some advantages for wildlife photographers due to the nature of its sensor and technology. These “intrinsic advantages” as I’m calling them are inherent to the system and can assist in your wildlife photography. In the next few sections, I will walk through how a 2x 35mm equivalency, quiet camera, high ISO range, high shutter speed, and high-resolution.

I will also review some features specific to the Olympus E-M5 Mark II system that you may find beneficial.

Micro four-thirds for wildlife - caterpillar

Here I have used MFT to photograph all forms of wildlife. From coastal brown bears to insects.

Pro – Get Closer with the 2x Crop Factor

Everyone who shoots wildlife photography wants to get closer to their subject and this is one way in which micro four-thirds sensors shine. When talking about how a sensor’s size affects the final zoom of your lens, the photography industry standardizes to “35mm equivalency”.

Without diving into the ins-and-outs of that means, here’s the bottom line: if you have a 100-300mm lens the micro four-thirds system effectively makes it a 200-600mm lens. The camera intrinsically doubles the length of your telephoto lens – you can likely appreciate how that doubling of focal length will help you get your wildlife shots!

Micro four-thirds for wildlife - portrait of a deer

2x equivalency is a big deal! You can get closer to wildlife with your enhanced telephoto lens.

small bird with a berry - Micro four-thirds for wildlife

As an avid birder, I appreciate the 2x equivalency to get closer to small birds.

Pro – High Maximum Shutter Speed

The micro four-thirds system is capable of really fast shutter speeds. As a wildlife photographer, it can give you a leg-up on fast-moving animals such as small birds or even insects.

The Olympus OMD E-M5 II is capable of shutter speeds up to 1/8000th of a second! In bright lighting conditions, you can use the fast shutter speed to stop water droplets of an animal walking in a river or the fast pulse of the wings of a hummingbird.

hummingbird in flight - Micro four-thirds for wildlife

Fast shutter speeds will help you stop the wings of a bird even as quick as that of a hummingbird’s!

Pro – 40MP High-Resolution Mode

A feature specific to the Olympus OMD E-M5 II is the 40-megapixel high-resolution mode. Sensor shifting-technology allows the camera to increase the resolution of the image.

One restriction of this process is the subject or animal has to be completely still. However, if you know you have the right conditions and a shot for which you need high resolution, you will find this mode convenient if your goal is to make large prints later.

owls in a tree - Micro four-thirds for wildlife

These great horned owl chicks were sitting so still that I was able to use the high-resolution feature of the Em5II to create a 40-megapixel image of them.

Pro and Con – ISO, and Light

The micro four-thirds system is capable of using high ISO settings to boost your camera’s sensitivity to light. However, high ISO values can create image noise (graininess in the image), and this is one area where the MFT systems fall much shorter than full-frame systems and DSLRs.

You will find that you can comfortably shoot up to ISO 800 or 1600 and be able to post-process out the noise. However, at ISO 1600 you will notice the noise if you crop the image, so be aware of that. Low-light conditions are common for wildlife photography, so consider that this system will not give you the performance of full frame cameras.

great horned owl eyes closed - Micro four-thirds for wildlife

This great horned owl was photographed in low light, so I needed to increase my ISO to capture it.

Pro – A Stealthy Camera

This camera contains no mirrors or moving parts inside the camera – every process occurs digitally. That makes the camera extremely quiet when you press the shutter button and it will not disturb the wildlife you are watching. This helps you keep the animal in range and also be an ethical wildlife photographer that does not negatively impact the wildlife you are shooting.

dragonfly damselfly - Micro four-thirds for wildlife

A quiet camera is very important for capturing skittish animals such as this damselfly!

Pro – Flexibility

This camera can provide incredible flexibility to your kit. In the next sections, I will review some features that I find helpful for wildlife photography.

Pro – Light Body

All of the mirrorless cameras are light which makes them ideal to transport. This is due to the lack of moving parts within the camera such as mirrors – which allow the cameras to be smaller. The lenses native to micro four-thirds cameras are also generally light.

Reiterating my point about 2x equivalency, you can get a 600mm equivalent telephoto lens that only weighs a few pounds. As a traveling wildlife photographer, you will appreciate the light weight in your backpack, carry-on luggage, or strapped around your neck.

micro four-thirds for wildlife - olympus camera

This is the Olympus Em5II body and Lumix 100-300 that I use for wildlife photography. You can see how small the body and lens is!

Pro – Fast Autofocus

The autofocus system on this camera is very fast and is useful for inflight shots of birds and general wildlife photography. Upgrades to the autofocus systems in the Olympus E-M5 II have provided accurate focus points giving you the ability to target an exact spot in your frame to focus.

One disadvantage is I find that the autofocus hunts in low-contrast situations. So you should be prepared to manually focus in low-light shooting conditions such as at dusk or in a heavy forest canopy.

micro four-thirds for wildlife - eagle in mid-air

A fast autofocus system will help you a lot with in-flight images of birds.

crane in flight - micro four-thirds for wildlife

I relied on the autofocus to capture this sandhill crane as it flew by.

Pro – High Resolution

Almost all micro four-thirds cameras come with a high-resolution (16mp or greater) sensor. The 16mp sensor on the Olympus E-M5 II gives plenty of resolution for enlargements. This is useful for printing and also gives you the ability to crop a shot and maintain sharpness.

I have made canvas prints up to 36” with images from this camera and found the resolution was ample for that as long as you have a sharp shot.

owl in Lightroom - micro four-thirds for wildlife

Here is a 1:1 crop of an image of a great horned owl. You can see that the image maintains decent sharpness even at a large crop.

Pro – Native Lenses and Adapting Lenses

If you are willing to shoot with manual focus it is possible to adapt nearly any brand of telephoto lens (Canon, Nikon, Sigma, etc.) to your MFT camera using an adaptor. This is thanks to the small flange distance of the MFT format. I have had success adapting long telephotos, old Olympus OMD lenses, and even old screw-mount lenses such as a Takumar 35mm that I have.

Why does that matter? Adaptors are cheap ($25 – $50 generally) and allow you to utilize glass that you may already own bringing down the price-point of your system.

olympus camera and adapted lens - micro four-thirds for wildlife

You can adapt almost any lens to the MFT bodies. Although I do not use this Takumar portrait lens for wildlife, it shows off the ability to adapt even a screw-mount lens such as this one built in the 1960s.

Pro – Sealed Bodies and Lenses

The body of the Olympus E-M5 Mark II is sealed from dust and water. Although that is not the case with all MFT cameras, as long as you do your research you’ll find other camera bodies that are sealed and well-built too.

This is invaluable to a wildlife photographer! I am sure you can think of times that you needed to shoot in the rain, the dust, or perhaps the mist of a waterfall. Having a sealed body will protect your camera and investment.

breaching whale - micro four-thirds for wildlife

On a boat or on land, you need to be able to count on a sealed body to protect your camera.

The Bottom Line

You may have found the features above appealing for your photography needs, so let’s look at the bottom line and the value-to-cost of this system.

You can find micro four-thirds cameras starting at $200 and going up to about $1,000. For those prices, you are getting a camera capable of shooting high-resolution images with excellent quality. With practice and patience, you can take beautiful images of wildlife and not break your back (or your bank) while doing it.

As I like to say, “pixels are cheap”, so I hope you make lots of them photographing wildlife with a micro four-thirds system.

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Ian Johnson
Ian Johnson

is a photographer, scientist, writer, wildlife biologist, musician, and woodworker located in Hoonah, Alaska. Described as a Renaissance Man, he lives and breathes the challenges and opportunities that life in rural Alaska can present. You can find him subsisting-in and photographing Alaska simultaneously. Ian writes a personal blog and sells print products on his website here.

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