Low Light Wildlife Photography - M43 vs FF

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I have decision paralysis and hoping that someone here has experience with both M43 (ideally Olympus) and FF (ideally Sony) to provide some hands-on experience.

Putting the recent news about Olympus aside, I am currently debating what I do next regarding my system of choice. For context, I shoot landscapes and wildlife as seen here: https://www.instagram.com/mrjoemorgan/, and I travel - a lot! Multiday hiking/camping trips for example. Or 20 mile hikes up mountains to find a mountain goat, so size/weight matter.

When it comes to Landscapes, my Olympus gear is great and does exactly what I need it to do. Sure, I bet people will say that with FF ill get better DR and IQ etc but I don't think I really need it. And most of my landscape work is done in "good" light. I would like the shallower DOF you get with FF but I can make do.

However, when it comes to Wildlife, that's where I have a few pain points with my Olympus system and need to decide if it's worth me switching. And for now, I am going to not worry about price, size, or weight. Just camera performance for my needs.

The pain points revolve around AF performance and low light performance. AF I can't really do anything about that, apart from continuing to practice and getting a better keeper rate with the Olympus AF system.

But with low light, I really can't use my Olympus above 1000 ISO and be happy with the results.

However, will switching to a FF system really help me? And this is where my lack of technical knowledge does me a disservice as I try and do the math.
  • If I switch to Sony I would go from f4 (300mm/600eqv) to f6.3 (200-600), which would mean shooting at ISO 2500 (FF) instead of ISO 1000 (m43) for example, if keeping SS the same.
  • Olympus has 7 stops vs 5 stops of IBIS performance, so that means I could shoot at 1/400 (m43) instead of 1/1600 (ff), bringing down the ISO with it - although the whole 7 stops with IBIS seems like black magic to me and I don't understand how that's possible.
  • The DoF difference - obtaining the same level of front to back sharpness with a subject from m43 with FF requires me to shoot f8 (FF) instead of f4(m43) for example, but this also depends on the distance of the subject from the camera etc.
I was originally trying to compare the two systems using the same exposure and thinking how much better IQ the FF system is. But using the thought process above, I should in theory be able to shoot with lower ISOs with m43 than FF. But is it enough?

And the reason why this has come up is that I am still having to push the ISO of my Olympus to levels where I don't find the results usable, so this really comes down to a question of switching to Sony/FF to enable me to shoot at high ISO and get happy results. Or stop trying to photograph animals in the woods and choose subjects that enjoy glorious sunlight!

I'll quit rambling and see if anyone can share their experience of FF v m43 when it comes to wildlife.

Thanks in advance

Joe
 
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PakkyT

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The DoF difference - obtaining the same level of front to back sharpness with a subject from m43 with FF requires me to shoot f8 (FF) instead of f4(m43) for example, but this also depends on the distance of the subject from the camera etc.
Only if you had to keep the same depth of field, but I don't think you need to since I think the FF at f/8 is likely to give you plenty of DoF for telephoto wildlife shots. I don't think this one needs to be a concern.

Ex. Animal is 200 feet away and you have your Oly 300 and your FF 600. With both at f/8, yes the Oly had a DoF of around 32 feet which is huge, but the FF is still a very usable 10 feet which unless you are trying to capture a line of elephants, most of your typical wildlife shots are likely to fall within that 10 feet.
 

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Gitzo mountaineer carbon fibre tripod. What are you using?
 
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Only if you had to keep the same depth of field, but I don't think you need to since I think the FF at f/8 is likely to give you plenty of DoF for telephoto wildlife shots. I don't think this one needs to be a concern.

Ex. Animal is 200 feet away and you have your Oly 300 and your FF 600. With both at f/8, yes the Oly had a DoF of around 32 feet which is huge, but the FF is still a very usable 10 feet which unless you are trying to capture a line of elephants, most of your typical wildlife shots are likely to fall within that 10 feet.
Agreed, thanks for the clarity. The DoF is less of a concern unless doing more macro shots I think or at least close-ups where I want to ensure the nose and ears are nice and sharp.
 

Darmok N Jalad

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Have you ever thought about renting what you are considering and give it a proper field test? To me, it’s too soon to jump ship from Olympus unless you are confident that your next move is a good one. It’s a lot of money to drop and then find that you’re not much better off than before, or worse, completely regret ditching what you had.
 
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Olympus has 7 stops vs 5 stops of IBIS performance, so that means I could shoot at 1/400 (m43) instead of 1/1600 (ff), bringing down the ISO with it - although the whole 7 stops with IBIS seems like black magic to me and I don't understand how that's possible
I am unsure how IBIS numbers are calculated but the difference between 7 stops vs 5 stops is much larger than it seems. Either that or Sony's claims of 5 stop IBIS are a hogwash. I think sensor size also matters in this case because in real life Oly feels at least twice as stable as Sony and that is when using only IBIS of Oly v/s IBIS+OSS on Sony body and lens.
I am sure m43 lenses that have IS like 12-100 would widen that gap even more but I don't have that lens to compare. With the gear that I have I can safely say Oly IBIS is way more effective than Sony's or at least it feels like that when seen through EVF - highly unscientific test but quite an eye opener when actually shooting, in the field.
 

Bushboy

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My cameras ibis is quite useless in dark forest. Upping the iso is the cure, but the noise becomes ugly, quickly. Support under the camera, even a bean bag? I shot deer in heavy forest for years with 400 iso film and tele lenses. Just needed a tripod. Critters hold amazingly still sometimes. Check out Joes website, he’s got some great pics.
 

Bushboy

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When ya spend 3 days staggering up a mountainside, to get a pic, last thing ya wanna be thinking is, “I hope this works”... :)
 

John King

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When ya spend 3 days staggering up a mountainside, to get a pic, last thing ya wanna be thinking is, “I hope this works”... :)
If you really want guarantees about anything, good luck!

Life is what happens while we are planning other things ... :rolleyes: :eek: :doh:

Rosa, in poor light with the 12-50 macro, at ISO 6400 ...
Oh, and using the noisy E-M1 MkI ...

E-M1_JAK_2016-_2112448_Ew.jpg
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Aristophanes

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Your Instagram posts—if shot with Olympus—are so, good that your paralysis is self-inflicted!

You’ve mastered the system and PP. If “size/weight matter” and you’re getting those results, you’ve answered your own question.

You are clearly getting adequate and aesthetically excellent DOF results shallow (birds, primates) and deep (whale, elk). I see no example where the system is letting you down.

Go to FredMiranda and look at their wildlife shots. Many post their EXIF. You will see a LOT of birders shoot very high ISO for BIF. There are some outstanding Olympus shooters there, too. But the big FF guns are hauling in 22 kilos of gear, requiring a tripod.

My opinion is the 20MP sensor is good to 1600. If worried, Topaz Denoise is cheaper than system switching.

You would miss that IBIS. It’s that much better. The 5xstop inxlens stabilization of Canon and Nikon is also,excellent. But....and this relates to wildlife shots in good light....it’s not necessary when SS is above 1/2000. Many pros shut off all stabilization above that SS for redundancy and potential added shake. I learned that off FM from the bigwig Canon pro there. So it’s not the end-all-be-all Olympus makes it out to be. There is always a compromise.

Yes, you will definitely get better AF with Sony. That’s not technique, that’s algorithms. To replicate your existing work on FF you will add a 40%+ weight premium to your lenses and batteries. For someone who travels a lot (I do too, but it’s small planes bouncing off ice runways in the Arctic) weight saved is worth 1 stop of ISO. A lot of long FF glass cannot be carried on by a single person. “Multiday”? You’ve got the right kit with Olympus.

If you added in portrait work that might be reason to switch for the greater DOF and PP envelope. But then you’ve got some human scale shots on Instagram and they are outstanding. If you do want to shoot a candlelit Greek wedding, rent. Or just drink with the locals and see the photos the hired pro took later. Or get an RX1.

Ultimately it’s about pixels on target. You are getting that currently with outstanding results. The “performance” you speak to is probably AF and ISO. Yes, FF will help. It’s has more elasticity including DOF and PP. In some ways it’s paradoxical in that FF automates the shooting experience better because of the extended envelope. It’s more forgiving. You do have less room for exposure and composition error (only 20MP) with m43. So for you do you want more convenience or are you in the zone with the Olympus kit? I’d say the latter. The bird and primates shots are trickiest in shaded woods, but you did get them.

I would also add some of your shots (mountain goats, sea lion) may not have occurred with FF as readily due to the added weight. Same for some of those high altitude landscapes. The main reason why you might want FF would be printing large and cropping. You have more than enough pixels in your current composition judging by Instagram.

You asked if you should simply choose more lit subjects. Isn’t that photography’s crucible? We always look for more light. To really answer your query, post photos you struggled with. The misses, the not keepers. The ones where you think higher SS due to ISO may have worked better. Odds are, you would STILL chase more light!

That sea lion...
 

John King

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My cameras ibis is quite useless in dark forest. Upping the iso is the cure, but the noise becomes ugly, quickly. Support under the camera, even a bean bag? I shot deer in heavy forest for years with 400 iso film and tele lenses. Just needed a tripod. Critters hold amazingly still sometimes. Check out Joes website, he’s got some great pics.
Look, after staggering up a mountain for three days (carrying your tripod ... ), good luck! I have difficulty staggering around the block, these days ...

BTW, your tripod would not have done much for you here, as this photo was taken from a moving, semi-pontoon bridge with about 100+ people walking around on it. IBIS worked fine at 1/6th, but the OoC JPEG was useless. This is from the RAW. Photo taken late at night (I'm not good at that either these days), with said poor high ISO Panasonic sensor in my E-M1 MkI and the truly awful 14-42 EZ pancake zoom. The photo is far from perfect, but prints fine at A4 size, which amazes me, quite frankly. Being able to see that the building is black against a really midnight blue sky (check out the stars to the right of the middle of the building - Eureka Tower, Melbourne!) is amazing to me. I grew up using film for the first 45+ years of my photographic life.

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My E-M1 MkII and 12-100 would probably have done a better job (if they had been released and I had owned them at the time ... ), as the Sony sensor in the MkII is about 2/3 stop better for ISO, DR and noise. But there was no way I would take that to a social occasion (Christmas party).

I am not arguing that there are not some advantages to using larger sensor cameras. However, I do think that they are sometimes (often?) overblown.
 
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Joe... I wish you luck on your endeavor. I took the journey last year, and I stayed with Olympus. I put my kit through rigorous testing regarding auto focus for birds in flight. I also doubted the low-light capabilities and how light impacted AF. My skills improved, and the image quality was acceptable. I was on the fence regarding what to do, and I was going over the comparison on B&H. To my surprise, all of my shots were taken at below the recommended operating temperature of Sony and Nikon. If you're ever out in the cold, you may want to add that variable. Since I just took a few thousand shots in an environment that the other kits were not recommended to operate in, mediocre low-light performance seemed better than an ice cube. Sure Sonys and Nikons can shoot below freezing temps, but Olys are designed for it.
 
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Thank you everyone for your help, guidance, and kind words.

@Darmok N Jalad - That would be the logical thing to do, my friend actually owns LensforHire here in the UK, but the Sony gear is always loaned out, I can't get it till August! I might see if any camera stores nearby are open so I can at least so handle it.

I have never really used a Sony, but just looking at them I grimace at all the plastic and the ergonomics.

@John King - wonderful shot in low light. Sharp and silky. I never seem to get good results past ISO 1000 but maybe I just need to practice some more.

@Aristophanes - Thank you! Haha, my paralysis is always self-inflicted! Luckily I don't like taking photos of humans so the arguments for FF + Portraits are lost on me.

As you can imagine Instagram only shows the images I am happy with, not the many that I am not. But one example on Instagram that I wasn't really happy with was the Bear Shots (below) which were shot at ISO 1000 or above. Now I could have brought the SS down from 1/400 but I wasn't sure if the bear was going to move etc and didn't want to risk not getting the shot. Plus they were underexposed which in hindsight was a mistake, as I've found its much harder to recover details in the shadows of m43 than when I shot FF many moons ago.

http://instagr.am/p/B84-MIqnzrt/
http://instagr.am/p/B82Huv_ne7Z/
http://instagr.am/p/B8zgRk4H5KA/
@RR Jonny thank you for sharing your experience. I sometimes go to some "extreme" locations, so weather sealing and operating temp are a concern. Amazon Rain forest, Iceland, Deserts, Patagonia etc.
 

John King

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Thanks, Joe. Very kind of you to say so ... :).

With mFTs you MUST get the exposure right. The (relatively) wide margins for error that you have with FF is not an option with mFTs.

Same with cropping. Getting the framing right is very important. Large crops will lead to tears!

The picture of Rosa is an example. This is a minimally PP JPEG. The Eureka Tower shot JPEG was unusable due to low light. The RAW file was reasonably recoverable, even though very 'grainy'.
 

Aristophanes

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If you are really intent on dedicated wildlife shooting, it may seem heretical, but I’d look at a Canon or Nikon DSLR.

Lenses the same size as Sony mirrorless, but larger bodies, though with long glass that’s actually a benefit. You’ll also experience the best AF. And you should be able to rent or Borrow a kit readily. Most of the dedicated pros continue to use DSLRs for mission critical work. It’s easier on batteries and is proven, rugged tech.
 

Darmok N Jalad

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Thanks, Joe. Very kind of you to say so ... :).

With mFTs you MUST get the exposure right. The (relatively) wide margins for error that you have with FF is not an option with mFTs.

Same with cropping. Getting the framing right is very important. Large crops will lead to tears!

The picture of Rosa is an example. This is a minimally PP JPEG. The Eureka Tower shot JPEG was unusable due to low light. The RAW file was reasonably recoverable, even though very 'grainy'.
Call me crazy, but it’s something I like about M43. It’s like driving a car with a manual transmission—you have to work a little bit to get the best performance, but it’s a very connected experience. Maybe that’s one reason I don’t like to just use my smartphone for pics beyond eBay listings and for video, which is more about convenience of sharing and less about passion.
 
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If you are really intent on dedicated wildlife shooting, it may seem heretical, but I’d look at a Canon or Nikon DSLR.

Lenses the same size as Sony mirrorless, but larger bodies, though with long glass that’s actually a benefit. You’ll also experience the best AF. And you should be able to rent or Borrow a kit readily. Most of the dedicated pros continue to use DSLRs for mission critical work. It’s easier on batteries and is proven, rugged tech.
So I used to shoot with the Canon 1Dx series and their L lenses. Had to 200 1.8 and 400 2.8. This was when I was the official photographer for Team GB and the Olympics so was shooting pro sport and the gear was cheap (for me). But as soon as I left the sports world and travelled move, that’s where M43 came in. I was actually supported by Panasonic back in 2014 and received all their top kit, I didn’t like it at all back then but in 2018 when I rekindled my love for photography I picked it back up and loved the system, eventually switching to Olympus.

This weekend I’m going to visit two safari parks in the UK and the weekend after I’m going to shoot the International Horse Trails. I’ll have both the Olympus Gear and the Sony gear with me so going to put it through some serious testing.

If there is anything people would like me to test for their own curiosity let me know. I might make a video of my experience, although the last thing the world needs is another YouTube reviewer.
 
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Call me crazy, but it’s something I like about M43. It’s like driving a car with a manual transmission—you have to work a little bit to get the best performance, but it’s a very connected experience. Maybe that’s one reason I don’t like to just use my smartphone for pics beyond eBay listings and for video, which is more about convenience of sharing and less about passion.
Great analogy! I totally agree and understand what you mean. Taking pause for a couple of weeks to test other gear and see what happens with Olympus is going to be my smartest move I think. I might lose value of my gear but that’s a fair price to make sure I make the right decision.
 
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