An Unexpected Trip Back to 2013

My Journey Back to Micro Four Thirds

Jim Kuzman
Live View

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In the summer of 2013, my company sent me packing on a trip to Thailand to work with a colleague who lived there. I’d never been there before and wasn’t sure I’d ever have the chance to go back, so I did a classic over-pack job and took every piece of photographic gear I owned at the time, convinced that I would miss The Shot of a Lifetime if I left anything behind. This included a Nikon D7000 DSLR, a standard zoom, a telephoto zoom, and two prime lenses stuffed into a backpack that served as my carry-on luggage.

The 10,000-mile journey took nearly 24 hours to complete start-to-finish and included a 10-hour layover in Frankfurt. By the time I landed in Bangkok and endured the three-hour taxi ride to my final destination, the bloom had fallen off the rose, and my relationship with the Nikon and its lenses was already showing signs of strain. I regretted not buying the Sony RX100 I’d been eyeballing in the preceding weeks.

Nothing makes me moodier than heat and humidity, and Thailand has both in abundance. Hauling around a 10-pound photo backpack rounded out the misery trifecta. Each after-work photo adventure began with the fear-based decision between taking everything to avoid missing a shot or leaving most of it behind in the interest of relative comfort. By Day 2, I was down to just the camera and one lens. By Day 3, I’d convinced myself that my then-new iPhone 5 was good enough.

This is not a picture of me in Thailand, but it sums up how I felt! Photo from Adobe Stock.

When I got home, I headed to my local camera shop, Nikon gear in hand and ready to trade. I laid eyes on the original Olympus OM-D E-M5 for the first time that day, and it was quite the revelation. I left with the E-M5, a couple of tiny fast prime lenses, and a little Think Tank Retrospective 5 bag. My journey with mirrorless and the Micro Four Thirds system had begun.

A couple of years later, the siren song of Fujifilm lured me away from m4/3 with its retro styling, physical dials, aperture-ringed lenses, and compelling film simulations. For my type of photography at the time, it was a Goldilocks system: Still compact, but in some ways, more capable.

Two years ago, I borrowed a Nikon Z6 from a friend. The fact that it was a full-frame camera was immaterial to me. What struck me were the ergonomics, image quality, and Z lenses. I was so impressed that I bought one of my own. With the 50mm f/1.8 prime or the 24–70 f/4 zoom attached, the Z6 was no larger or heavier than my equivalent Fujifilm gear.

All was well until earlier this year when I waded into the waters of wildlife photography and became interested in capturing the birds in my backyard. Here’s some insider info on songbirds in case no one has shared this with you: They are tiny things, and they kind of like their personal space. My modest adapted telephoto lens was nowhere near long enough to fill the frame with these little fast-moving critters. Despite trying to convince myself to the contrary, I finally accepted that cropping — even on a modestly high-resolution sensor — could only get you so far before image quality suffers, particularly when your sensor reveals shortcomings in your lens. I imagined crisp, detailed shots worthy of the Audubon calendar; I created images reminiscent of those photos of Bigfoot taken in poor light from a quarter mile away. As experienced bird photographers will tell you, there is no substitute for long, high-quality glass in this space.

If I was going to stick to the Z system for wildlife, there were only two options within my budget.

There was the Z 70–200mm f/2.8 zoom with a 2x teleconverter, but that only got me 100mm more reach and was no faster than my old F-mount tele-zoom. The same was true of the Z 100–400mm f/4.5–5.6 by itself. Adding a 2x teleconverter to it got me double the reach but at a maximum aperture of f/11. Still, I went to my local camera shop to try them out in person.

Both were highly impressive optics, offering stellar image quality and silent, fast autofocus. Both felt like I had attached a telescope to my camera. With the early signs of arthritis already appearing in my hands, it became immediately apparent that the weight and size of both lenses would be problematic outside of using them on a tripod.

On the drive home, I began to think seriously about the m4/3 system again, knowing that its size and weight benefits really shine on the telephoto end. That night I took stock of some unused gear that I could turn into cash to help fund a new purchase and started looking at my options.

I noodled on my usual strategy of staying a generation behind to save money and considered the OM-D E-M1 Mark III, but instead, I went with the newer OM-1 with the 12–40 f/2.8 as a kit and added the 40–150 f/2.8 with the TC-20 teleconverter, giving me a 600mm equivalent field of view at f/5.6 with no noticeable loss of image quality.

A male Northern Cardinal grabbing a snack in my backyard, captured with the OM-1.

Between the compact size, light weight, and Olympus’ magical image stabilization, I can easily compose and shoot hand-held, even fully zoomed in. Factor in the OM-1’s impressive burst rate and the wizardry of Pro Capture mode, and I was making print-worthy bird photos on my first day.

A male Rose-breasted Grosbeak, one of my favorite springtime backyard visitors, captured with the OM-1.

I know the m4/3 system and the OM-1 itself are more than just one-trick ponies for birding and wildlife, but that’s another article or twenty for another time. Meanwhile, I still have my Fujifilm X-S10, and I kept my Z6 and Z lenses; they’re not going anywhere. I also understand that wildlife photographers regularly make amazing captures with full-frame cameras. But considering my personal needs and some looming physical limitations, m4/3 saved the day, and I’m glad to be back in the m4/3 family again.

If you enjoyed my story, be sure to check out other Live View writers, Scott Houston, Cynthia A Whelan, Lawrence Lazare, Andrew Howe, John Zachary, Sean Staples, Michael Bryant, Michael Alford, Brenda Jones, Ben Long, and Live View Editor and Writer Derrick Story.

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