Over the past couple of days I’ve received a number of personal emails asking me about using Nikon 1 versus Olympus for bird photography. The intent of this article is to describe my experiences using both camera systems. This is a very extensive article, so grab yourself a cup of coffee… or make a pot of tea… and be prepared to spend some time.
NOTE: Click on images to enlarge.
Let’s be clear upfront that this article is not intended to comment on the use of other camera systems and formats. I came to the conclusion over 5 years ago that I much prefer using smaller sensor cameras, and I have no need or interest in using APS-C or full frame gear. That is my personal preference and does not mean that larger sensor cameras may not be the best choice for other photographers.
The information in this article is simply my experience working with specific cameras and lenses. As regular readers know this is not a camera gear review site. There are plenty of other websites that do an excellent job producing that kind of content. I have never had an interest in producing this kind of material. I would much rather get to know my camera gear and share real life images and my experiences with my readers.
Overall Nikon 1 Impression
For photographers looking for a small, lightweight birding kit that provides an excellent balance of size, weight, and reach there really is nothing that matches a Nikon 1 V2 or V3 paired up with a 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 zoom lens. This combination truly is a ‘shoot all day’ solution.
The Nikon 1 camera system was discontinued by Nikon back in July 2018. If anyone wants to get into this system, they would need to search the used camera market.
Current owners of Nikon 1, and specifically the 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 zoom lens, seldom part with their gear. They realize that there is nothing else on the market that provides them with the same combination of size/weight/reach.
Many Nikon 1 owners have added additional bodies, back-up copies of lenses and additional batteries to extend the usable life of their gear. Folks who love the Nikon 1 format are often loathe to part with their camera equipment.
Overall Olympus Impression
Shooting with Olympus camera gear, specifically the OM-D E-M1X (as well as the OM-D E-M1 Mark III with which I currently only have limited experience), expands bird photography into new and exciting territory.
OM-D cameras that have Pro Capture technology open up so much additional potential for a photographer to confidently capture precise action moments. It is technology that I use all the time, and I am still amazed every time that I use.
We need to keep in mind that doing a Nikon 1 versus Olympus comparison is not an apples-to-apples situation. Sensor sizes are different. The size and weight of the gear is different. The technology is different. And the investment required to shoot with each system is different.
Suffice to say that unless my specific intent is to create new content for my Nikon 1 readers, my preferred choice of camera gear when doing bird photography is my Olympus kit. Shooting with Olympus equipment is a totally different experience than using Nikon 1 for a number of reasons that this article will discuss. Once I receive my M.Zuiko 100-400 f/5-6.3 IS zoom lens, I imagine that my bird photography will expand dramatically.
Balance of Size, Weight and Reach: Nikon 1
As noted earlier, if a photographer is looking for a small, lightweight capable camera system that provides excellent reach, Nikon 1 is an excellent solution. End of story.
Auto-focus Performance: Olympus
Without question I have been able to capture images of birds-in-flight with my Olympus kit that I would have missed with my Nikon 1 gear. It locks on much faster under a range of lighting conditions. The number of auto-focusing options and settings with Olympus gear are plentiful which creates a steeper learning curve. These options give photographers the ability to customize their gear to suit their shooting style and preferences.
Some of these adjustments include auto-focus sensitivity and the creation of customized auto-focus grid patterns. Sometime in 2020 Olympus will be launching Bird Detection AI for my E-M1X. This has the potential to take my bird photography to a completely different level of performance.
Focusing in very low light is superior with Olympus. That’s not to say that Nikon 1 gear is bad… it’s not. About 5 years ago I owned a Panasonic GH4 and a couple of their pro zoom lens. I returned all of it after about 10 days of use, and paid a small restocking fee. One of the primary reasons that I returned it was that the auto-focusing performance of my Nikon 1 kit was far superior, especially in low light.
Ergonomics and Handling: Olympus
Even though my E-M1X is much larger and heavier than my Nikon 1 bodies, it is a joy to use. The availability of identically positioned, external controls in either a vertical or horizontal orientation is excellent. I can make necessary camera adjustments ‘on the fly’ without needing to take my eye away from the viewfinder.
My E-M1X (and some other OM-D bodies) allow for custom camera settings to be programmed and accessed by the top dial on the body. I have four sets of custom bird photography settings programmed on one of my E-M1X bodies. This allows me to go from photographing an approaching bird-in-flight, to a Pro Capture image opportunity by simply changing my top dial. After some practice, I can now select any of my four custom setting modes without having to look down at my camera.
Until a photographer experiences how quickly shooting modes can be changed, it is difficult to appreciate how many additional bird images are made possible. My Olympus kit has allowed me to capture photographs that other folks missed as they were fumbling around in their menus. I often missed bird photographs with my Nikon 1 gear while adjusting various settings.
The OM-D E-M1X (and some other Olympus cameras) have an IPX1 weathersealing rating. I have been out in inclement weather that has driven every non-Olympus photographer under cover, or to their cars. A good selection of M.Zuiko lenses also have excellent weathersealing, as do the Olympus flashes that I own. This allows me to photograph birds and other subjects in inclement weather with complete confidence. Recently I had several gallons of water pour down from the tarp on my pergola. It drenched me and my Olympus gear with no ill effect.
All of the videos you’ve watched, or articles that you have read, about Olympus owners cleaning their IPX1 rated cameras by putting them under their kitchen faucets are true. Obviously the camera body needs to have an appropriately weathersealed M.Zuiko lens affixed to it!
Image Stabilization: Olympus
The Vibration Control on my 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 is quite good and I have been able to regularly capture bird images at slower shutter speeds. Shooting with an E-M1X or E-M1 Mark III takes image stabilization to a different level for both bird photography and other genres. The IBIS (in body image stabilization) with these cameras is rated for 7 stops. Obviously bird movement can limit the use of slow shutter speeds. The Olympus IBIS system has allowed me to regularly capture multiple second handheld landscape images.
Overall Sensor Performance: Olympus
Physics simply are what they are. There’s no dispute that a full frame camera will have better dynamic range and colour depth when compared to a M4/3 sensor camera. The same is true when comparing the sensor in a Nikon 1 V-series camera with an E-M1X or similar current generation OM-D camera.
Low Light Performance: Olympus
While not matching the low light performance of a full frame camera, my E-M1X and E-M1 Mark III bodies outperform my Nikon 1 kit. The files are easier to work with in post, and as mentioned earlier, sensor size is impacted by physics which directly affects low light image performance.
Auto Sensor Cleaning: Olympus
It was pretty easy to clean the sensors in my Nikon 1 camera bodies using an Eyelead Sensor Gel Stick. It would literally take less than 30 seconds to do. The Supersonic Wave Filter in my OM-D cameras vibrate 30,000 times per second and shakes dust and debris off the sensor every time the camera is turned on.
It works incredibly well. During 18 months of use, I have never once had to clean the sensor in my original E-M1X. If you change lenses while out in the field, not having to worry about dust on your camera’s sensor makes a difference. Not only does it create piece of mind, it potentially eliminates a lot of work in post.
Precise Moment Photography: Olympus
While Nikon 1 gear has Best Moment Capture its functionality does not come close to what is possible when using Pro Capture with an Olympus camera.
Buffer and Card Writing Speed: Olympus
The buffer size on a Nikon 1 V2 or V3 is actually quite good compared to many other cameras. Even when using fast cards it is common to have to wait for the buffer to clear on a Nikon 1 body. Often when I was out doing bird-in-flight photography I would take a Nikon 1 V2 and a V3 both equipped with a 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6. This allowed me to fill the buffer on one camera, then immediately switch to the second camera to photograph more action. This came in very handy when capturing certain types of bird behaviour such as an osprey fishing.
My E-M1X has dual card slots both of which utilize fast UHS-II memory cards. It also has dual TruePicTM VIII processors so card writing is very fast. Thus far I’ve not had to wait for the buffer in my E-M1X to clear. This allows me to keep shooting, even successive Pro Capture runs.
Heat Dissipation: Olympus
During heavy use of my Nikon 1 gear on hot summer days, the camera bodies would occasionally overheat. Then, I’d have to wait for 10-15 minutes for it to cool off enough to resume use. My E-M1X has an internal heat sync pipe that is liquid filled. This heat pipe dissipates heat from inside the camera body to the upper portion of the body casting. This allows for extended, rigorous use without the worry of the camera overheating.
Handheld High Resolution: Olympus
One of the unique features that I occasionally use for bird photography is the Handheld Hi Res mode. This is available on both the E-M1X and E-M1 Mark III. Since this shooting mode requires a subject to be quite still it is most effectively used with larger perched birds, or those that are resting. The amount of detail that the Handheld Hi Res mode can produce is quite amazing with its 50 MP RAW files.
Equivalent Field-of-View: Olympus/Nikon 1
The 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 is a wonderfully small lens given its equivalent field-of-view (efov) of 189-810 mm. This beats the M.Zuiko 75-300 mm f/4.8-6.7 with its efov of 150-600 mm. The 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 also performs better optically than the M.Zuiko 75-300 mm f/4.8-6.7. At this point my favourite M.Zuiko lens for birding is the PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with the MC-20 teleconverter. This provides users with an efov of 160-600 mm at f/5.6. Optically this combination performs better than the 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6.
The recently introduced M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 super-telephoto zoom provides an efov of 200-800 mm. It is also compatible with the M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter. This extends the efov of the lens to 280-1120 mm at f/9. The M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter can also be used which would further extend the efov to 400-1600 mm at f/13.
The M.Zuiko PRO 150-400 mm f/4.5 TC1.25X IS PRO lens will be released in the winter of 2020 (think northern hemisphere). It will provide bird photographers with an efov of 187.5-1000 mm at f/5.6 when the built-in 1.25 teleconverter is used. Another option is attaching the M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter. This further expands the efov to 375-2000 mm (at f/11 when fully extended) in a package that can be used handheld for maximum flexibility.
Nikon 1 owners can use the FT-1 adapter which allows them to use a variety of Nikon F-Mount lenses. Given the small size of the Nikon 1 V2 and V3 bodies it can be difficult to shoot large F-Mount lenses handheld when using the FT-1 adapter… but very long equivalent fields-of-view are possible. Many Nikon 1 owners use a monopod or tripod with using a heavy F-Mount lens with the FT-1 adapter and a Nikon 1 body.
Frame Rates: Olympus
Both Nikon 1 and Olympus camera bodies offer users some terrific frame rates including up to 60 frames-per-second with the first frame locking focus and exposure for the balance of the run. When using continuous auto-focus the Nikon 1 V3 can shoot up to 20 frames-per-second, compared to 18 frames-per-second with the E-M1X or E-M1 Mark III.
An important difference when using OM-D cameras is that a photographer gets the benefit of fast frame rates along with shooting with silent shutter. This is often a critical factor when trying to keep birds and wildlife calm and undisturbed when photographing them.
Cost: Nikon 1
Since the Nikon 1 system is discontinued photographers can purchase used equipment for quite affordable prices. For someone getting started with bird photography buying used Nikon 1 gear can make a lot of sense. The challenge is in finding some good, used gear.
Sale of Olympus Imaging to JIP
The Olympus Imaging division is in the process of being transferred to OM Digital Solutions, a company created by Japan Industrial Partners, Inc.. This transaction is scheduled to be completed by the end of 2020. No one really knows what the long term future is of OM-D cameras and M.Zuiko lenses. Nor do we know what the impact of this change in ownership may do to the price of these products, as well as the resale value of used Olympus camera gear.
There are some very attractive prices currently in effect for Olympus cameras, lenses and accessories. These offers will likely be short-lived given the approaching completion date of the sale of the Olympus Imaging division.
Using a smaller sensor camera system to photograph birds can make sense for a lot of photographers. For the folks who want a small, lightweight, capable and cost affordable solution, choosing Nikon 1 gear is an excellent choice.
Comparing Nikon 1 versus Olympus for bird photography is more than just using a small, cost affordable system for many people. Photographers wanting more rugged gear that provides them with a host of advantages will recognize the benefits that come with using OM-D bodies and M.Zuiko lenses.
If you’ve been comparing Nikon 1 versus Olympus for your bird photography needs, hopefully this extensive article has been helpful for you. Only you can decide what camera gear best meets your needs. It could be Nikon 1, Olympus, or some other brand and camera format.
Photographs were captured hand-held using camera gear as noted in the EXIF data. Images were produced from RAW files using my standard process.
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