Regular readers will know that I have been a mirrorless convert since late 2013, which is when I got my Olympus E-M1. That camera has now been on 6 safaris with me in the past couple of years, including a foot slog through the iMfolozi game reserve last year. Apart from an issue with the rear command dial not making proper contact (apparently caused by dust) it has been 100% reliable. In a few weeks time it will come with me back to Sabi Sabi for yet another safari.
The Mk II version is expected sometime this year but to be honest, it will take something truly extra-ordinary to come out for me to consider upgrading. I’m not that keen on more mega-pixels and I have found the auto focus system to be quite suitable for my needs. Improvements in the menu interface would be welcome though. I suppose the EVF technology is also improved quite a bit these days, although while what’s in the E-M1 now is perfectly fine for me, I do recall that the jump from the original E-M5 to the E-M1 in terms of EVF was significant.
So, camera sorted, what lenses have been the best performers for me on safari?
Over the past couple of years I have used a variety of different telephoto lenses on safari. When I was first getting into the m43 system I had the Panasonic 45-175mm X series lens (90-350mm F35 angle equiv) which did well in good light. It’s probably the one m43 lens I most regret selling, especially since the lens I gave it up for, the Olympus 75-300mm really failed to impress me. The Panasonic is very small, has a motorised zoom and while it’s got decent sharpness in its focal range, it’s best feature for me is the fact that it doesn’t change length when zooming. For a lens that is less than 10cm long, it makes a very worthy travel option. However, on safari you might find yourself wanting more range on the long side.
Image taken with Panasonic 45-175mm and Olympus E-M5
The Olympus 75-300mm that I mentioned certainly does give you the extra zoom range (150-600mm F35 eq) and could be considered good enough in terms of sharpness, but that slow aperture of f/6.7 at the long end just proved to be too slow, especially when light levels drop. Also, one has to understand that with such a narrow angle of view (4.1˚) you really do need good stability to get sharp photos. Even with the IBIS I often battled to hold this lens steady enough when used at 300mm. I don’t have a single photo shot with this lens that I am totally happy with. At the time I got it though it was the only game in town for m43, unless you were fortunate enough to have some legacy 4/3 telephoto glass in your back pocket, like Olympus’ 90-250/2.8 and their 300/2.8.
Image with Olympus 75-300mm on Olympus E-M1
In 2014 I did manage to obtain an Olympus 50-200mm f/2.8-3.5 SWD lens which I used on both the Wild Waterways and Ultimate Big 5 safaris that year. I was very happy with the reach and the image quality from that lens. The equivalent Nikon/Canon option is the 80-400/100-400mm lenses, but those are slower by 1.5 stops when compared to the humble Olympus (which I should add is still obtainable new for around $1200). In my old Canon days I had the original 100-400mm lens and hated it immensely. I believe the new one is much, much better, as is the new Nikon 80-400mm. Those lenses are much more expensive than the Olympus.
The Olympus 50-200mm didn’t come with me on safari in 2015. Instead I opted to use the Olympus 40-150/2.8 PRO with the 1.4x TC. This was a mistake. The 40-150 is very good for subjects that are close to you (like within 30m or so), but as soon as those subjects get a bit further away I found that the lens performance dropped off. The images just seemed to lose their pop for me and subjects weren’t well defined at all. Also, the bokeh of this lens is a bit nervous in my opinion whereas the 50-200mm has beautiful bokeh and is also quite good on distant subjects. This will be my main lens for safari again this year.
Here are some images with that old Olympus.
Not hard to see why I like it so much.
New lenses I would like to try on safari include the new Olympus 300/4.0 PRO and the Panasonic 100-400mm. The Olympus continues to get rave reviews from users, but I fear that it will be simply too long to use at a place like Sabi Sabi where we get very close to our subjects. If I was interested in birds then that would be a different story. The Panasonic remains an unknown entity for safaris so hopefully soon I might be able to get one for evaluation. It certainly does have a good range for that use.
Bag wise I am considering taking only my little ThinkTank Retrospective 7 this year. I have the much bigger Retro 50 which can take my laptop, but once I am there I don't want to carry such a big bag around on the vehicle so I will probably take the Retro 7 with the 2 E-M1 bodies, the 50-200/2.8-3.5 on one body with a grip and my other body with the 12-40/2.8 PRO for general purpose snapshots. If I get a demo lens from either Panasonic or Olympus to try out then I will have to take the bigger bag.
One thing is for sure, I am really looking forward to being on safari again!
Edited by DDFZ