On Safari Four Years Later

(commentary)

It was about this time four years ago that I pondered what non-DSLR camera to bring with me to Africa to shoot wide angle and mid-range shots with. 

Before we begin, let me explain that last comment: in Africa on a photographic-oriented wildlife safari, the "norm" is to use two DSLR bodies, one with your 70-200mm (full frame equivalent) on it, the other with your long lens (typically something that hits 400mm to 600mm, again full frame equivalent). You don't want to change lenses if you have to, as you're driving on dirt roads and are constantly in a very dusty, dirty environment. Moreover, you really can't predict which lens you need at any time. You can't always move the vehicle, and the animal may approach (70-200mm time) or move away (600mm time). Should you get really lucky and have real animal action going on, you simply don't have time to change lenses, either. You just grab the body with the lens you need and and shoot. Unfortunately, this safari approach means you have nothing to shoot wide angle to normal focal lengths with, thus most of us African wildlife photographers carry a third body with a mid-range zoom on it. Back to our story.

If you hadn't already noticed, a full safari kit these days tends to weigh way more than some airlines will let you carry on board, and the thought of adding yet more gear and weight to a kit you're already struggling to carry isn't exactly a happy one to start with. Still, given the amount of money you spend to travel on such shoots in Africa—even on the most minimal self-guided trip—you don't want to find yourself unready for any photographic opportunity. 

Four years ago, I decided to take a chance on the then brand spanking new Olympus E-P1, an m4/3 mirrorless camera. My logic was basically this: what's the biggest sensor I could get in a camera small enough to keep in my vest pocket? There weren't a lot of good answers to that question, but the E-P1 seemed like it was the best one. So that's what I took as my mid-range camera.

Remember when I spoke about being ready for any photographic opportunity? Yes, you guessed it, I had that happen to me multiple times on that trip, like this shot taken with the E-P1 (the opportunity to take it lasted exactly seven seconds):

INT Kenya Mara 2009 EP1 6.JPG

Had I taken it with my D300 and the 70-200mm, it would have been very tight. Too tight for what I was trying to do with the shot. Had I tried changing lenses, I would have missed the shot (even I can't change lenses that fast in a cramped Land Cruiser, especially since I tend to keep my extra gear I'm not using in plastic garbage bags to keep the dust from accumulating). Had I brought a compact camera of the time, I would have gotten enough noise in the image I would have had to carefully processed it. As it turned out, the E-P1 was nearly perfect for what I needed, and I found numerous situations during my four weeks in Africa that year fit right in the pocket of what the little m4/3 camera could do well. 

Which is how I got started with mirrorless: I had found one use where it delivered what I needed without further burdening me with yet another bigger DSLR and lens. I began actively looking for other opportunities where the mirrorless camera was a good choice, and I kept finding those, too. So much so that it's been rare that you find me on any photographic shoot or adventure without one of the mirrorless cameras.

As it turns out, I'm heading back to Africa next month, and I'm once again exploring my options. This time, however, there are far more choices. So it seems a good time to take a deep breath, settle down at the keyboard, and tell you where I see the mirrorless camera systems these days in terms of the safari experience that kicked off my mirrorless camera use. In other words, this is a "where are we now?" article. Short answer: a long way from where we were four years ago.

First off, the big difference this time is that I have a wide choice of systems to consider for my upcoming Africa trip from every camera manufacturer. Canon, Fujifilm, Leica, Nikon, Olympus, Panasonic, Pentax, Samsung, and Sony all make systems that I could pick this time around. Last time, my choices were a not-yet-optimized 10mp Leica M8 with an APS sensor, or an Olympus or Panasonic m4/3 body at 12mp. Today we have choices from 14mp to 24mp and 1/2.3" to full frame from different nine makers.

Now many of you reading my (sometimes snarky) comments about new gear think that I'm overly critical in assessing both performance and features. Mea culpa. I tend towards perfectionist, and I don't like missed opportunities. I want gear that's as good as it can (and should be). I want the perfect tool for the task I have to do. 

In retrospect, though, we have gotten a lot of options. Not necessarily perfect ones—indeed, none are—but still, pretty much no matter what your priorities are, you should be able to find something in a mirrorless system that answers your biggest questions and performs to the task you're tackling. 

But that's also one of the problems with where we are today. Each mirrorless maker has taken a fairly different approach. You can certainly see this looking at the big three (Canon, Nikon, and Sony). But even the others all slot in differently than what the big three are doing (the exception was Samsung, who was basically mimicking Sony, though with their recent releases, they're getting very Android-centric and starting to deviate). The good news is that you have a wide variety of choice now, unlike where I was four years ago. The bad news is that the choice is confusing. 

Consider my trip to Africa this year: which system do I take this time? I narrowed it down to three choices:

  • Fujifilm: As tricky as the X-Trans sensor can be to post process sometimes, there's no denying that the Fujifilm sensor has strong benefits. It works great in low light. It's amongst the best sensor for converting to B&W, something I do a lot in my personal work. It does great with greens and browns, both of which are in abundance where I'll be shooting. Plus the Fujifilm lenses are all excellent. I could probably supplement my Nikon DSLRs with an X-E1 and the 14mm and 18-55mm lenses and be perfectly happy. The downside is that the Fujifilm doesn't fit in my vest pocket very well. Which is where I typically want that third camera.
  • Nikon: Here's the real trick: a Nikon V1 or V2 with the FT1 and any Nikkor AF-S DSLR lens is a lot like having a 2.7x teleconverter that imposes no optical penalties. Indeed, if anything, you get optical benefits (using only the best part of the glass, plus contrast detect that essentially does an AF Fine Tune in real time). The wide angle zoom for the Nikon 1 is superb (and the newer 10-100mm is surprisingly very, very good). The focus system is the best of any mirrorless camera to date. The drawback, of course, would come any time I have to boost the ISO much. The 1" sensor Nikon uses is very good for its size, but not good enough to sustain ISO 3200. Ironically, it's about where the E-P1 I used four years ago was in terms of high ISO: I try to cut off at ISO 800, I'll use ISO 1600 in a pinch, and I try desparately to avoid ISO 3200. The V2 does just barely fit into my vest pocket (with the smaller Nikon 1 lenses, not DSLR lenses!).  
  • Olympus/Panasonic: The cameras and sensors have come a long way in four years. After a long training period (of me by the camera), I've come to grips with my OM-D E-M5 much like I have with the Nikon DSLRs. I'll gladly use it out to ISO 1600, and ISO 3200 in a pinch. With the right lens, the combo is small enough to just fit in my vest. And those lenses! Plenty of choice, plenty of performance. The 75mm may be the best mirrorless lens made yet, and that's potentially a useful focal length on safari (though wouldn't generally be on the body normally). 

And then there's the large sensor compact cameras (Canon G1x, Sony RX-100/RX-1, Coolpix A, Ricoh GR, etc.). At least two of those could fill in the mid-range focal lengths well. So this time around, I'm facing far more choices than before.

You might have noticed something sneaky in what I've written: I'm willing to change lenses on the mirrorless cameras in Africa, less so the DSLRs. That's not hypocritical, believe it or not. I've actually found the mirrorless cameras easy to keep clean in the field. The exception to that is the Olympus OM-D E-M5 (and now the E-P5), which has that multi-axis stabilization system that Olympus says you shouldn't ever try to clean yourself. 

I mentioned those large sensor compact cameras for a reason: they influence my choice of mirrorless camera to bring. As many of you know the Sony RX-100 is my shirt pocket camera of choice these days. That the RX-1 uses the same battery makes the multiple battery, multiple charger thing I have to grapple with on these big trips a little simpler should I decide to go really big sensor for one of the best cameras. The Nikon 1 J# models share the same battery as the Coolpix A, but the V2 uses a unique battery. While it might not seem like a big thing, for me shared batteries and accessories are important: it's one way to keep weight down, and it even means there are fewer things for me to keep track of in my tent. Those are good things. 

Olympus has been better at this than Panasonic, for example. While I like some of my Panasonic cameras, what are we on at this point, battery type #3? In four years. It's one of those things that makes me consider my Olympus gear before my Panasonic gear on many trips. 

Before telling you exactly what I'm doing on this year's safari, let me back up a bit and tackle each of these mirrorless systems as a potential primary safari product these days:

  • Canon EOS M: While we've got an adapter that lets you put the big EOS lenses on the M body, the problem is that focus reliability and performance is poor. I don't think you can really rely on an M as your main safari camera, though it certainly makes a reasonable backup for a Canon DSLR user.
  • Fujifilm X Series: Not enough reach and not enough autofocus performance yet. Sure, you could put long telephotos on a mount adapter, but getting precision manual focus on moving animals (and sometimes in low light) is not a chore I'd relish with my X-Pro1. It can be done, certainly. Some might enjoy it. And a few decades back we were all manual focusers in Africa ;~). But as a first choice, nope, not on the list as a primary safari camera.
  • Leica M: Same problem as Fujifilm, only in spades. (I should probably mention that for someone whose style is solely environmental wildlife shooting—small animal in big environment, for example—both the Fujifilm and Leica have relevance, especially if you have the total ability to position yourself vis-a-vis the animal, which is not the case in Tanzania and some other popular safari locales.)
  • Nikon 1: A really strong candidate as long as two things don't apply: you don't want to print big, and you can keep the ISO value reasonable. Consider this an 11x14" print size at no more than ISO 800 camera for best results. The limited print size doesn't concern me as much as what happens in low light. While many safaris are daylight-centric, I tend to shoot edge of day as much as possible, and that means I'm pushing ISO, especially when using f/4 and f/5.6 maximum lenses. Still, a V2 with an 80-400mm is one powerful combo, giving you a 216-1080mm effective reach. I actually like the V2 with the 70-300mm better (still gets you to 810mm equivalent). Note that focus performance is great, but only for the center position when you use DSLR lenses on this mirrorless camera. This restricts your composition abilities somewhat, though it doesn't really pose much of a problem for me except for birds in flight. As much as many people malign the small sensor of the Nikon 1, and as poorly as Nikon did in dumbing down the controls, the V1 and V2 are still very remarkable cameras that, in the right hands, can take some darned good images. Plus, these cameras can do things your safari DSLR can't: shoot 14mp at 60 fps, for example. 
  • Olympus m4/3: The OM-D E-M5 with either of the m4/3 lenses that take you to 300mm (600mm equivalent) is actually a pretty useful combo that's small. This camera isn't all that great for continuous autofocus, though. It's not even in the same league as the Nikon 1 in that respect, IMHO. But for most safari work, it has not only more than acceptable, but actually pretty good focus capabilities. Those birds in flight shots will prove to be difficult, though. I wish the focus performance were better with the 4/3 lenses on converters, as some of those lenses are gems. They're still very usable for subjects that aren't moving or at least aren't moving fast. In particular, the 90-250mm f/2.8 is a near perfect safari companion optically. If you're thinking this direction, make sure you test this on an m4/3 converter with your camera before committing to it, though. Rent one for a weekend and make a trip to the zoo. You'll know whether that's going to work for you or not after one afternoon.
  • Panasonic m4/3: Here's the difference that's important: on sensor image stabilization versus in-lens (at least until the GX7). There absolutely will be times when you need stabilization for you long reach lens. On the Olympus bodies, no biggie, you've got it with any lens you stick up front. On the Panasonic, only the Panasonic lenses are going to suffice, which cuts down your choices considerably. 
  • Pentax: We have 1/2.3" compact cameras with lots of reach (the Sony HX50V gets you to 720mm equivalent), and the furthest we get with the diminutive Q7 is 200mm equivalent. Not really a primary safari camera candidate.
  • Samsung: Nothing really over 200mm yet and most of their better, more recent cameras don't have EVFs. Focus has been getting better, but is still not all there yet. 
  • Sony: The lenses just aren't there. Sure, we've got a 55-200mm kit-type lens and the 18-200mm super zoom, but note what I said I was shooting with earlier: I want a 70-200mm that's faster than f/5.6 and I want another (stabilized) lens that's also fast, but longer. I can get that with really only the Canon, Nikon, and m4/3 systems at the moment. Plus, even the NEX-6's autofocus performance isn't quite where I need my primary camera to be. 

In short, very few choices for primary safari shooting (basically Nikon 1 or m4/3), lots of choices for secondary safari shooting (virtually all of the systems, though I narrowed things down for me to the Fujifilm, Nikon, and m4/3 choices). 

Now some of you may think that I'm being harsh by isolating out how these cameras might manage as a primary safari camera choice. But think about this: when you buy reasonably high level interchangeable lens cameras, you want them to perform for all the functions you might need. Today I'm in Africa, next month I might be doing landscapes in the West somewhere, I might shoot an event or two, I need to do some product photography in my studio, the list goes on and on and on. I really don't want to buy multiple systems to do multiple things. I really want one common system that I can accessorize to do anything I need. 

And that's an important thing to note in terms of the "where are we now" aspect of this article: m4/3 has pretty much got to that point where you could make it your common system that you can accessorize to anything you need. I strongly considered just going all m4/3 to Africa this year, but the long end in the lens lineup is still a bit weaker than I need it to be. I could make do if I had to, but I don't have to so I won't. 

The Nikon 1 has the opposite problem: it's still missing the wide and near options I really want. But it, too, is surprisingly close. I continue to marvel at the things I can sometimes do with the V2 that I can't with other cameras (e.g. it's not much of a payload for my quadcopter, at least the J1 with the 10mm, plus it can do a silent 60 fps on a golf swing, even during a pro match). 

But when I look at the other systems and how they'd do tackling the wide-ranging and sometimes speciality work that I do, I keep coming back to: they do the casual and common stuff fine, but they start to break down as a fully usable system when I start shooting sports, or wildlife, or extreme landscapes, or…well, lots of things, really. 

Don't get me wrong. Most of the mirrorless systems are getting to the point where they clearly pass the 80/20 bar (in other words, they can do 80% of the things you'd ever need them to). Unfortunately, with the wide range of work that I do, my bar is more like 99.9/.1. 

Which brings me back to this year's trip. 

Two D800's, one with the 70-200mm, one with the 200-400mm. Now, what else? 

This time around it'll be a Nikon V2, supplemented with my trusty RX100, and just for the heck of it, the RX1, as well. Surprised? So was I. 

I actually debated back and forth between the Fujifilm XE-1, the V2, and the OM-D E-M5. The V2 gives me a backup to my DSLRs in a real pinch. Essentially, I end up with three bodies that can all take the same lenses (though the V2 would be at a 2.7x crop). And that 1080mm effective is just too damned tempting to ignore. (I'm not sure what I'll do with that, but I love options.)

Had it not been the V2, the OM-D E-M5 would have gotten my nod, again because I could with a couple of extra lenses build a full backup system in case something goes wrong (things do go wrong: check out Day 8 in my last Botswana workshop; that little dip submerged three lenses, amongst other gear). I can't do that with the Fujifilm. 

But don't worry m4/3 users, I haven't given up my Olympus (and Panasonic) gear. They'll be back in my bag for my next hiking trip, coming up soon. 

If you made it this far, the takeaway is this: four years ago I didn't have much of a choice. Today, I have lots of choice. Almost enough choice to not need the big DSLRs. I actually considered a Nikon 1 + m4/3 mix to do everything I needed on this trip. Basically m4/3 for everything out to about 200mm, the Nikon 1 for everything past that and for any fast moving animal work. I may yet try that on another wildlife trip I have coming up later this year. 

text and images © 2013 Thom Hogan -- All Rights Reserved   //    Follow us on Google+: Thom Hogan or on Twitter: @bythom, hashtags #bythom, #sansmirror