I personally brought a Nikon D7100 kit, an Olympus E-M1 kit, and a Fujifilm X-T1 kit. I did that for a reason: these are all strong options for the Galapagos traveler that aren’t at the pro level, and pack smallish for all the travel we do in the islands. I wanted to pit them head to head to see what each did best and which I favored (more on that in a bit). I also carried a Nikon AW1 for the water work and a Panasonic GM1 for a pocket camera.
Tony also brought a D7100 kit and an X-T1 kit plus a Nikon AW1. Amongst the students there were mostly Nikon DSLRs (mostly D7100’s, but a D300 and D700 amongst them), plus several Olympus E-M1s. A few people carried GoPro or Coolpix AW1xx or Olympus Tough cameras for water work, but there were at least six AW1’s total on the trip out of the 18 of us carrying cameras.
I would say that the majority of the photos you’ve been seeing from the workshop were taken with D7100, E-M1, X-T1, and AW1 cameras. At the sizes used on this site, it’s unlikely that you could tell one from the other based upon pixel examination, though sometimes the colors coming out of post processing might give you some clues (shouldn’t from my shots or from Tony’s, as we try to post process to a consistent color model).
In terms of lenses, the most popular lens on the Nikon side was the 80-400mm, though we had pretty much every other non-exotic telephoto option amongst the group. Most Olympus shooters were using the Panasonic 100-300mm it seems (I used the Panasonic 35-100mm as my long lens, so I had less reach on my Olympus kit than on the others). Fujifilm doesn’t have much in the way of telephoto choice, so the 55-200mm was about it other than the 56mm prime (which is fantastic, by the way).
Let me start off by saying this: I was never unhappy with the D7100 and 80-400mm combo on the islands. I got sharp, in focus shots, even if birds were flying past me only a few feet away. It was more of a struggle to keep the subjects in frame than anything else. I think I hit buffer full twice in two weeks (though remember, I’m not big on long bursts; I tend to take very short sequences if I do a burst at all, and then only starting with the moment in time I really want). Sometimes I’d lose focus on fast flyers, but that generally was my fault for not keeping the bird framed properly. Static or near static subjects obviously didn’t have this problem.
None of us were unhappy with the AW1 while snorkeling, either, though Nikon needs to better think through how you keep hold of and control the camera while in the water (I use a floating wrist strap, but the camera’s too heavy for that to keep it floating). Their white balance choices don’t seem right, either. Most of us tended towards the 10mm AW lens on it, as most of us really can’t swim and zoom simultaneously ;~). Still, Nikon has a real winner here; they just don’t know how to market it and accessorize it properly. (Note: the AW1 is not a diving camera. But for the kinds of water work we did, including a few plunges underwater while snorkeling, it is a great choice.)
The E-M1 and X-T1 were slightly more of a mixed bag, mostly attributable to focus. While most of us figured out ways to deal with fast motion and getting in focus shots, for me the EM-1 turned out to be the better choice, and I believe that is mostly due to lenses and the snap of the initial focus acquisition. The long telephoto option for the X-T1 does not seem to be as fast at adjusting focus as the m4/3 options we were using, and tended to move less rapidly to initial focus.
If—and that’s a big if—you acquire focus and can keep the moving subject where the X-T1 wants it with the 55-200mm lens zoomed in, you’re fine, it’s actually better at holding focus tracking on regularly moving subjects than the E-M1 by a bit, though it will sometimes vary the burst rate doing so. Beware of what happens when you temporarily lose focus: more often than not you’re hosed for that sequence (not true of the D7100 or Nikon DSLRs at all when set properly. as their phase detect systems usually reacquire lost focus very rapidly). The Fujifilm often couldn’t reacquire initial focus quick enough when I lost it and restarted a focus sequence on a moving object.
When shooting from the cliffs with the X-T1 and the long lens I had to be very, very careful to keep birds in flight framed accurately in the viewfinder. The doves, petrols, and swallowtails were a real challenge due to their constant turning and random motions. What would happen is that if I didn’t anticipate a turn the X-T1 would lose focus, usually try to grab what was in the background, then take what seemed like forever to regain focus. What you have to do when you lose focus is let go the shutter release (or whatever button you’re using to keep focus active) and restart your focus once you’ve regained framing. That’s true of the E-M1 as well, though it usually snapped back faster to the subject than the X-T1. Both cameras seem to use a different sequence/procedure for tracking than they do for initial acquisition, and thus don’t reacquire lost focus as fast as they initially acquire it.
That said, some of the birds in flight photos you’ve seen were captured with the X-T1 and E-M1. Personally, my “miss percentage” was lowest with the D7100 by a good margin, slightly higher with the E-M1 and highest with the X-T1. It’s possible that the E-M1 differentiation with the X-T1 is partly due to depth of field, by the way. There’s a popular video on the Internet at the moment that uses a constant f/4 aperture in their testing of mirrorless and DSLR cameras with sensors ranging from m4/3 to FX. It’s nonsense to say that a mirrorless camera focuses as well as a D4 because of just that test choice. At least if you were actually trying to keep the resulting photo the same. A D4 focuses superbly at 400mm f/2.8, which is a pretty narrow depth of field that can’t be matched by any of the mirrorless cameras.
That said, I wouldn’t be terribly upset if I had to rely on any of the three cameras I was testing for an important trip, though my first choice would be the D7100 with the 80-400mm for several reasons. First: 24mp and a superb sensor. Second: the 80-400mm is excellent even at 400mm, and fast to find and follow focus, and fast to reacquire it when lost. Third: the Nikon DSLR focus system is a bit more sophisticated and offers plenty of tunable options that help in the different scenarios we faced.
The E-M1 really needs the right telephoto lens to match the 80-400mm (e.g. a really good 40-200mm). There are plenty of lenses in that range, but none match optically what I was getting from the Nikon, and f/5.6 on m4/3 is tougher to isolate backgrounds with. We’ve got a 40-150mm f/2.8 and 300mm f/4 pro lens coming from Olympus later this year, and I think those two options will make the E-M1 shine even more than it did. On the wider stuff (mid-range and wide angle) my E-M1 was every bit as useful as the Nikon D7100, though again I missed those extra pixels. Indeed, the wider I framed, the more I missed them, and started taking to doing impromptu hand-held panos to make up for it (as did at least one student). I did find myself several times fighting shutter shock on the E-M1 in the early morning or late light with slow shutter speeds. I had to keep remembering to check my settings in those situations (the update that added the antishock option on single shots wasn’t available to me before I set off on this trip).
I really liked the X-T1 in the mid-range and wide angle as well. It holds into the shadows a little better than the Olympus, and it handles high ISOs a little better, too. The 56mm lens is a stunner on the X-T1, and great if you can get something framed fully with it. I was far less happy with the 55-200mm f/3.8-4.5. It drifts to initial focus rather than snaps. Fujifilm needs some better telephoto options to round out the X system.
Things are really changing at the amateur enthusiast, prosumer level. Add in the Sony A6000 and A7 plus the Panasonic GH4 and the choices for a really competent camera that can competently follow motion with a bit of work learning settings and practicing with them is now getting pretty deep. The DSLRs still reign supreme in terms of the toughest focus and timing challenges, but note that the E-M1 and X-T1 have weather sealing that is quite useful in a place like the Galapagos, plus they’re smaller and lighter than most DSLRs. That’s actually one reason why I could bring three different systems with me: I picked three lenses for each and still managed to fit all three camera bodies and those lenses into my backpack. I could have used a smaller (and lighter!) backpack had I just settled on one system (two bodies, three lenses).
We’re at a place with interchangeable lens cameras where the image quality is there on virtually all models for most work. The DSLRs still have an advantage in both ultimate image quality and focus performance, but there’s the “good enough” rule that comes into play for 95% of the market: I’d judge the Olympus E-M1 and Fujifilm X-T1 good enough for most people for most things. The only thing I’d suggest is that to maximize focus performance, you’re going to need to spend some time learning how these new systems work and how to optimize your use of them. I’m not sure I fully got there with the Olympus and Fujifilm cameras on this trip, though I did make significant progress at that. At the start of the trip I was having a difficult time getting more than one in-focus shot of a fast moving subject, but by the end I was starting to get solid sequences of images of moving subjects. That’s really no different that it was the first time I picked up a film SLR with autofocus.
Since I’m doing this trip again next year, the question is what I’ll bring. Right now the D7100 still wins for the long work while the AW1 wins for the water work. Whether I’d opt for the Fujifilm or Olympus for the next trip really depends upon lenses, I think. The same would absolutely be true for the Sony A6000 and A7 cameras. But we’ve got more than a year in between trips. Someone’s likely to introduce a new camera that will improve upon where we’re at today. To some degree, we’re in an embarrassment of riches right now: plenty of choice for a competent DSLR-style system that can do the Galapagos justice.
As I note in my article about lenses to bring to the Galapagos, most advice people are getting about camera gear for the islands is wrong if you want to get photos like our group made: you need a long lens, and a highly capable one. A 70-200mm (equivalent) isn’t enough, you’ll simply not get some shots or being doing one heck of a lot of cropping. Even 300mm (equivalent) can be short at times. The problem, of course, is that once you get up to a 400mm lens on a fast moving subject (e.g. the birds in flight along cliffs in the islands), you’re going to be taxing the focus system and your ability to keep the subject steady in the viewfinder. So not only would I recommend the longer lens, but I’d also recommend that you practice on similar subjects prior to going to the Galapagos.
Likewise, try swimming in a pool with your underwater camera. You need to figure out how to manage your swimming while also being able to handle the camera and shoot photos. The good news is that you’ll have fins on while snorkeling, so you have a bit more propulsion capability you do with freestyle swimming. The bad news is that even small cameras are going to occupy your hands, so you need to figure out how to move in the water while keeping control of your camera, and small controls on many of those cameras make things more difficult. Best to practice that in a pool where the water is calm than wait until you get to the Galapagos where the sea can be choppy and currents strong.