Experience with the Olympus EM-5 and M. Zuiko Digital 40-150mm f/4-5.6 “R” Part 1: The Miami Zoo to Colombia

I am currently off the coast of Colombia and since fall is upon us many of birds are migrating south to escape the harsh North American winter that lies ahead. They have been stopping off on the vessel I am working on which has given me plenty of opportunities to practice birding and work on my photography skills. As an amateur I am very far from being an expert on judging lens quality, but recently my Oly 40-150mm has functioned beyond my expectations and several occasions it's image quality has blown me away. This post focuses on my initial experience with the 40-150 zoom and my journey to off the coast of Colombia where I realized the potential of this lens as an actual tool for birding in the field and not only just for the easy stuff... like taking photos of owls at theme parks :)

Screech, Animal Kingdom at WDW, 150mm, f/5.6, 1/250, iso 3200

Before the trip, I had used this relatively inexpensive telephoto on two occasions, once at the Miami Zoo because I was anxious to try it out and the other at Walt Disney World because I figured I could use the reach. I was happy with the resulting photographs on both occasions, but never really categorized it as "special". I did like it though, and in addition to giving me some access to distant subjects, it made for a decent portrait lens on the wide end. In the photo below my partner’s face is sharp and at f/4 (wide open) the lens rendered a good amount of background blur with (what I think is) pleasing bokeh. Sure, the lighting is a bit harsh and I could have worked to compose a proper portrait, but hey, we were having fun at the zoo and it’s sometimes it’s the candid moments that bring a photo to life.

Fun at the zoo, 40mm, f/4.0, 1/200, iso 250 

I am still very new to photography in general and during my initial run with this lens, was just becoming familiar with an inter-changeable lens system. I had yet to learn that this (and every other) lens has a "sweet spot". I was just shooting everything wide open and adjusting my shutter speed when I needed to. I had the mentality that more light was better… it had to be right!?! If I had done a little more research (see here, here and, here-older version), I would have learned that staying in the 40-100mm range (if possible) and stopping down a touch results in the best image quality for this lens. In any case, I was pleased with my initial “blind” use especially because the auto focus is lightning fast and only rarely misses target when subjects are not moving too fast. For instance, it can keep track of Mickey and Minnie, Peter Pan, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty while they were performing on stage at Disney's daytime "Celebration" show. BUT, it probably wouldn't fare too well trying to focus on the quick and nimble sparrows flying around Snow White's head. 

Watching Mickey, 150mm, f/6.3, 1/2000, iso 640

One thing to note is that I live in Florida (the sunshine state) and in the photos above, light limitation was most definitely not a factor which is important with this relatively slow lens. The photo below was taken in the Indiana Jones stadium at Disney's Hollywood Studios which is fairly light limited. Although the image is OK, it is most definitely not tack sharp. However, I feel that this was my fault… Here I should have zoomed out to around 70-100mm, stopped down, and increased the shutter speed. Still, the shot is not bad considering I was at 1/5 of the recommended “1/effective focal length” shutter speed. Luckily I have an annual pass so I can experiment with this environment again at a later date (and hopefully get a better seat).

 Do not touch 150mm, f/5.6, 1/60, iso 6400 

Soon after my vacation at Disney, work rang and asked if I would be willing to travel to Colombia for an offshore hitch that could last 6-8 weeks. I rarely miss an opportunity to travel (especially outside the U.S.) and was excited to use my EM5 in the field so I jumped on the opportunity and contemplated on purchasing the M. Zuiko Digital 75-300mm f/4.6-6.7 II (see here). In the end I opted to just stick with what I had, mainly to conserve space and avoid the expense. So my camera kit consisted of an OMD EM5, a legacy M.Zuiko 50mm f/1.8 and OM to m4/3 adapter, the Olympus 15mm f/8 body cap lens, and my 40-150mm telephoto. Relative to all my other gear (binoculars and field guides etc..) it weighed next to nothing which was a major plus! It is not only that I prefer to travel light… it is a requirement. Usually helicopters have a 15kg (roughly 30lbs) weight limit for ALL of your luggage. This means I pack one duffel bag with my clothes and toiletries to last 1+ months and a backpack. I figured the kit above was all I needed for now and was pleased when everything fit into the medium sized pocket of my pack. Unfortunately I did not use the 40-150mm zoom while traveling through Colombia. Instead I relied mostly on my body cap lens (post about the awesomeness of this lens? to come) because it transforms the EM5 into a very low profile camera and does not draw attention which is very important when traveling in Latin America so you don’t get mugged.

 Street smarts, 15mm, f/8, 1/250, iso 5000

I finally reached my destination, and for this particular job, I was employed to monitor for marine mammals at night. Unfortunately, this meant I would not be awake to catch any of the great wildlife (at that point I was not aware of all the early am bird activity on the ship). I was still curious about my system’s performance so I asked one of the daytime marine mammal observers to test out my EM5 and telephoto for a day alongside his gear. He was around during the days when researchers had to develop their own film (for 10 miles in the snow) so he has a pretty good background in photography. He owns a Nikon DSLR and when I asked him to try out my setup he looked at me with confusion and his response was “with this?” holding the tiny EM5... I laughed and gave him a very quick run down of the micro four-thirds system and let him know that my telephoto had an equivalent focal length of 80-300mm. When I woke up later that evening and asked how it fared he said he was truly impressed and that he had taken the best picture of the day with it. We talked about the pros and cons of the EM5 and now he is seriously contemplating switching over to the dark (or in my eyes, light) side when he gets back to Spain.

Juanma, 150mm, f/5.6, 1/800, iso 320

Juanma’s photo of the day sparked something in me and I realized this lens was capable of a lot more than I was giving credit. I began birding every morning and any opportunity I get I am out on the back deck practicing wildlife photography. The image below serves as a preview to what I hope will be a short article showcasing the potential of this lens as a tool for bird watchers and naturalists. I will also share the some of the good, the bad, and the ugly moments caught while birding with the MZD 40-150mm zoom so far. All the images in this post were processed using Lightroom 4, but this should be done when using any system especially when shooting RAW. In the next (more in depth) "review" I will post RAW files and show how a little cleaning up with LR4 can really make your images from this lens shine.

Frayed (original size, edited, 100% crop), 70mm, f/5.6, 1/640, iso 500

To see more photos taken with those lens check out my Flickr album dedicated to this lens here.
If you are interested in any other images related to this post such as photos taken while traveling through Colombia they can be found here and here

Sam D.

And for good measure,

JUMP!!! 150mm, f/6.3, 1/125, iso 200 

Jazz hands, 70mm, f/4.6, 1/800, iso 500

 Safari Donald, 40mm f/4.0, 1/4000, iso 400

Reticulated, 85mm, f/5.0, 1/200, iso 250