This section is intended to be a short summary of things to consider when entering the realm of nature field photography. Books can, and have been, written on the subject so here is just a short summary of what I consider important when using Olympus cameras and lenses.
Basic equipment needed: A mirrorless camera with GPS. This reduces your options considerably, though GPS can be added to some cameras. The Olympus OMD EM1X has GPS, two batteries, two card slots and has some nice capabilities for nature work. Several are especially valuable:
- photo stacking capability (done either in-camera or afterword with applications like Helicon Focus). The Olympus system can take up to 999 images in succession, each varied slightly in focus. When merged the result has excellent depth-of-field and is great for stationary insects and plants that aren’t moving in the wind. To take something like 24 images (a normal amount for me) requires about 2 seconds so the camera needs to be on a tripod and the subject can’t be moving during this time. Commonly the wind creates problems – or unseen insects like ants cause problems when they move.
- High resolution shots. Normal digital images are created when the sensor is sampled sequentially – red, green, blue, red, green, blue etc. The resulting signals from the sensors are interpolated, to obtain red, green, blue at each pixel. In the High Resolution shot mode the camera’s sensor is shifted by 1 sensor element in sequence in a pattern such that every sensor element receives a value for red, green and blue. Thus no interpolation is needed. This takes a second, so normally the camera needs to be on a tripod, but recently the firmware update allows for hand-held shooting, only that the image is cropped somewhat. These high resolution shots have substantially better resolution than normal images – and they are substantially larger in size. A good summary is here.
- Algorithms that help to track moving subjects. Tracking software on the camera has been available for a few years for cars, trains etc, but only recently has a bird-tracking setting been added. This isn’t perfect, but on a recent trip to Panama I found it very useful to get in-focus images of larger birds flying above (Gulls, Frigatebirds, vultures etc). My previous experience photographing flying birds had been dismal to say the least and this is a major improvements for those wanting to photograph birds in flight. It isn’t as useful when birds are in bushes or otherwise obscured.
Of the above capabilities I would say that focus-stacking is my most-used capability (I process the images later on my desktop – not in real-time in the camera), followed by using the bird-tracking setting. I rarely use the high-resolution imagery capability, but I could – in our greenhouses for example.
As far as lenses go, this is what I have, what I use it for, and how frequently I use it.
60mm macro: for tripod-based focus-stacking and also close-ups of frogs and other approachable subjects (moths etc) with flash. I usually bring on all trips.
40-150mm f2.8 Pro: Excellent and I used it extensively until I got the following:
12-100mm f4.0 Pro: Best “all-around” lens for landscapes and up to moderate close-ups (for larger subjects). It focuses quite close at 100mm – about 15 inches sensor to subject (8 inches subject to end of lens).
before I got the 12-100mm I had 12-40mm Pro for some years. It is fine, but I prefer the extra telephoto of the 12-100mm now.
7-14mm wide angle: Good, but I rarely use – best for insides of buildings, interior of forests etc. Forest photography is always a challenge due to harsh contrast on sunny days; best on cloudy days.
300mm f4: good, but takes some practice and focusing can be is tricky. Good stabilization, best for bird photography. Also good for dragonflies etc with flash. Can focus close – to about 4 ft, so good for skittish lizards and frogs and such. Hard to focus on birds in thick vegetation; manual focus often needed.
I have an Olympus 2X teleconverter, expensive/good, but don’t use it enough. Works only with 300mm and 40-150mm. With the latter it becomes 80-300mm F8 and with flash the sharpness is very good. Also 80-300 combo focuses very close with teleconverter – about 2.5 ft at 300mm (camera sensor to subject). This gives it somewhat better close-up capability than 300mm lens and also the flexibility to zoom out for wider field of view. (Composition with the 300mm f4 is only done by changing your distance to the subject – much more constraining. Doesn’t matter too much for small birds because you never fill the frame with them.)
flexible diffuser very valuable for creating shade on subject… but you either need an assistant to hold the shade (especially in wind) or have camera on tripod/timer and you hold the shade…
various flash units (GODOX less expensive than Olympus (my Oly flash failed) – flash diffusers work somewhat, but I use flash only when there is no other option. I’ve tried multi flash units but rarely worth the effort.
tripods; one good/large one and one small/low one are needed. I have a short RRS aluminum tripod (I think it is not available now – it was $375) for low-level macro work) and a larger tripod (carbon fiber) to mount spotting scopes or cameras for other stuff.
field photography vest to carry stuff (use for plane travel or in the field – if it isn’t too hot)
cotton carrier vest to carry up to two cameras at once or bino and camera
backpack to organize stuff for travels and plane travel
various boots (Jungle boots for swamp work, Desert Storm boots for most everything else – I like 8″ height for protection.
On my shelves I have two Nikon D200’s, one D300s, a D7100, plus Nikon lenses for them, then Olympus EM5, EM1 (2 of them), EM1 MK2, EM1X, plus a few older Nikon, Olympus and Sony cameras. The period 1998-2012 or so was one of rapid change in camera technology and I tried to keep up with technology. Now things are at a point where image quality is changing more slowly.
Main limiting factor now is my eyesight and monitors used to look at digital imagery. The eye’s resolving power prevents seeing improvements in camera image quality.
General thoughts about field photography
Books can be written here, but this is short. I do most photography on short hikes – usually not too far from the car. For longer hikes away from vehicle I usually wear a vest and have two cameras, plus possibly an extra lens. Equipment in backpacks rarely gets used – if a lens isn’t attached to a camera I rarely take the time to change lenses in the field. I could, but I’m lazy, and I know the moment I change a lens I will need to change it back. One lens is a birding lens because birds won’t wait, while the other lens can be a plant one (12-100mm) or a 60mm macro.
Carrying lots of gear is a pain and detracts for the pleasure of any walk. That is why iPhones are so popular (as long as you don’t surf the web while walking) and are needed for Inaturalist and Merlin stuff.
Having a goal of your photography is important (for me). I am always thinking about the educational potential of a photo op. Could the photo be used for something? See my write-up at: https://www.naturescapes.net/articles/business/distinguishing-your-nature-photography/