Swapping a heavy backpack laden with kit for a CSC makes a lot of sense, explains landscape photographer Steve Gosling

For many years, I lugged around a very large and extremely heavy backpack loaded with medium-format and 35mm cameras and lenses. It wasn’t unusual for me to venture into the landscape with several kilos on my back. Eventually, though, I reached the point where something had to go and, to no one’s surprise, it was my poor back. A trapped nerve, initially caused by over-exuberance in the gym, limited my capacity to carry a heavy bag for long periods.

Necessity required that I reduce the amount of gear I carried. This didn’t result in any loss of productivity, as I now got less tired on my landscape outings. I had more energy to concentrate on finding and making photographs, as well as being able to walk further and work longer. All contributed greatly to enhancing my enjoyment of the picture-making process.

So when Olympus released its first OM-D camera (the E-M5) a few years ago, I was excited about giving the system a try – especially as it offered a further reduction in weight compared to my DSLR system.

Don’t forget to check out our reviews section to keep up to date with all the best DSLRs and CSCs on the market.

Dramatic Finale

Necessity required a change of system, but that meant more time and energy for taking photographs

Back to the future

I’d always been a fan of Olympus cameras and lenses. When shooting film back in the 1980s I used OM-1N and OM-4 models, as I loved the small size, great build quality and very sharp Zuiko lenses. For these virtues, the E-M5 reminded me of using my old OM-4. It provided the basis for a small, lightweight system that allowed me to fit two camera bodies and a wide range of lenses into a smaller backpack that I was comfortable carrying around all day.

Hanging On

The freedom offered by a lightweight system has brought the joy back to photography

And the Olympus camera and lenses also enabled me to choose a lighter tripod as well as reduce the bulk of the filters I packed. The smaller Lee Seven5 filter system works well with the Micro Four Thirds prime lenses, adding further to a reduction in bulk and weight. My days of going to the gym just so I could lift my camera bag out in the field appeared to be finally over.

Gripped by Winter

The range of quality Micro Four Thirds lenses, both prime and zoom, is another tempting selling point

However, the key question facing me (and others deliberating a move to a smaller format) was whether the image quality from the Micro Four Thirds sensor would be up to scratch for my professional work. The proof of the pudding would be in the eating, so early on I had some 30x20in prints produced from the raw files.

I was astounded by the impressive level of detail obtainable from a raw file. From that point on I knew that image quality wasn’tgoing to be a concern.

Night Falls

After producing large 30x20in prints, Steve had no concerns about image quality

All these positive factors soon encouraged my conversion to a mirrorless system and I subsequently sold all my DSLR kit.

I now have all the Olympus primes – the 12mm, 17mm, 25mm, 45mm, 60mm macro and the 75mm – as well as the 40-150mm and 12-40mm Pro lenses. The lenses are a real joy to use – well made, great image quality, fast apertures, and much smaller and lighter than the DSLR equivalents.

The range of Micro Four Thirds lenses available is one of the attractions of the system as an alternative to a traditional DSLR. Olympus, Panasonic, Sigma, Voigtländer and others all make a wide variety of lenses to cater for every budget and requirement.

Under Venetian Skies

A lighter camera system also means you can carry lighter tripods and a smaller set of filters

Depth of field

As a landscape photographer, I’m often looking to maximise depth of field, so the smaller sensor gives me a distinct advantage over a full-frame DSLR. I can achieve an equivalent depth of field without stopping down to f/22 and thereby risking the negative effects of diffraction on image quality. Photographing landscapes at f/8 or f/11 means I get the required depth of field while shooting at the camera’s optical sweet spot.

Still Morning

You don’t need to stop down to f/22 to maximise depth of field

Electronic viewfinders (EVFs) are still contentious with some photographers who remain enthusiastically wedded to the optical finders (OVFs) found on DSLRs. But EVFs are improving in quality all the time and I’ve reached a stage now where I don’t even think about an optical finder.

I’m happy to enjoy the advantages of an EVF that shows 100% of what I’m taking and gives me the WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) benefits. Changes to exposure, colour balance and the effects of in-camera filters can all be seen through the viewfinder.

In fact, now, when I look through the optical viewfinder of a DSLR camera, it surprises me that I can’t see those things! I think EVFs are the viewing mode of the future, as quality improvements continue to be made and the benefits are acknowledged by all but the most die-hard OVF fans.

Talisman

The EVF means you see exactly what you’re expecting to get when you fire the shutter

Although not a feature I use a lot for landscape photography, the silent shutters of CSCs are a real boon for many photographers who shoot street or event photography where discretion is essential. This is something that’s nigh on impossible with the distinctive ‘clunk’ of the mirror and focal-plane shutter of a DSLR.

Reasons to hold on?

So are there any reasons to hold onto our DSLRs? Well, I’ll say upfront that my answer to that question is no. I don’t own a DSLR camera now – I don’t need one for the type of photography that I do.

Those dedicated OVF fans might be hard to convert and photographers working in remote locations who have to eke out battery life for as long as possible will be glad they don’t have an EVF consuming vital power.

Sports and wildlife photographers might claim that the AF speed of many CSCs isn’t up to meeting their exacting needs. But this argument is rapidly diminishing in credibility as manufacturers improve both the phase detection and contrast detection AF systems in their mirrorless cameras.

So I’m struggling to find a valid argument to support the long-term viability of the DSLR. An existing investment of several thousand pounds in DSLR lenses is a persuasive factor, but not if the manufacturers can find a mirrorless solution that retains existing lens mounts. But then the resulting camera bodies won’t deliver the full benefits of a CSC by offering reduced size and bulk. I think it’s a nettle that will have to be grasped.

I have no regrets in making the switch from DSLRs when I did. My images haven’t suffered (far from it) and the process of going out and taking photographs is far more fun. Plus, my back has benefited, too – it’s a win all round, I’d say!

Incoming Tide

The live bulb is ideal for long exposures, allowing continuous assessment of the image as it’s exposed

Steve Gosling

Steve is a UK-based award-winning professional photographer who specialises in producing creative and contemporary landscape and travel images. His photographs have been published internationally across a wide range of media. stevegoslingphotography.co.uk

Kit list

Gitzo Traveler tripod

Gitzo-traveler

I have a selection of Gitzo tripods and the latest Gitzo Traveler model is ideal for when I’m working overseas. It will easily support my Olympus system, and is small and light enough to be packed in my bag.

Lee Seven5 filter system

Lee Filters

This is a compact but comprehensive system ideally suited to CSCs and their smaller lenses. I use ND graduated, ND and polarising filters on a regular basis.

Cable release

Cable Release

When I’m using a tripod it makes sense to fire the shutter with a cable release. If I’m taking an exposure of several seconds I don’t want to cause any unnecessary vibrations by touching the camera.

Think Tank Airport Essentials backpack

Backpack

This backpack is the perfect match for a CSC-based system, being small, of excellent quality and with a well thought out design for the travelling photographer.

  • Jorge M. Treviño

    Shivian, Robin, I couldn’t agree with you more.
    The use of obscure acronyms is a gross lack of education and courtesy –everyone knows what USA, and probably CIA & NASA as well, stand for; most (old) photographers know (or knew) what SLR, TLR and RF stood for. Digital era new wagon jumpers know the meaning of DSLR; after all it has become a common acronym in the trade and it’s also aspirational to many; but CSC? You must be kidding. I had to look it up (breath, it means “Compact System Camera” which can be nearly anything!) and the definition was buried under a dozen other aceptions.
    Authors, there’s no excuse for lazyness. Acronyms are not well received unless they are absolutely common use. Politicians love them but everyone knows they’re stupid. Military, hmmm… no comment. Photographers? Think twice, please! Actually, you should be referring to a “Mirrorless” system. A compact, in my time, could be anything from a Leica CL, Olympus Pen F or Nikon FM2n to a Pentax 110. Heck! The Panasonic Lumix LX100 is a “compact” and also a “system”, or is it a semi-pocketable?… In any case, drop the acronyms! No one but typists like them.

  • David Lloyd-Jones

    Brian, I’ve been a user of Nikon full-frame DSLRs for some time but a year ago I bought an Olympus OMD E-M10 as a ‘carry-round’. I can tell you that it is a cracking little camera, capable of taking very good pictures in a wide variety of circumstances and environments. The kit lenses (14-42 and 40-150) are very usable, but I’d wholeheartedly recommend the Oly 25mm and 45mm f/1.8 prime lenses, which are inexpensive and very sharp. I also have the 12-40 f/2.8 Pro lens which is excellent. On a week’s holiday in Cornwall last autumn, the 12-40 stayed on the camera constantly and allowed me take holiday snaps as well as some more ‘arty’ shots. I did a lot of walking around the coast and in towns, and the E-M10 + 12-40 F/2.8 was barely noticeable around my neck or carried in a small shoulder bag.

    You fears about light-gathering are unfounded. If I know I’m going to be shooting in poor light or indoors with no flash, I’ll happily use my OMD. Its light weight, especially when using a prime lens, means it’s very easy to hand-hold while use slower shutter speeds and modest ISO settings. I try not to shoot above ISO 800 and usually manage to stick to ISO 400, except in near darkness. Even then, it’s no problem shooting hand-held at shutter speeds as low as 1/10th second.

    Compact systems don’t yet have a great choice of fast-aperture long
    lenses for wildlife or sports shooting, but they will come, no doubt.

    Unlike some (apparently), I have no problem swapping between cameras with optical and electronic viewfinders. EVFs don’t have the resolution of an OVF but they are more than good enough, improving with each new camera and have the advantage of showing you the actual exposure you are going to achieve as you adjust the shutter speed, aperture and ISO.

    I continue to use my DSLR for studio work and for wildlife and macro shooting. For street photography, family snapshots and when I just want to have a camera with me (pretty much all the time), I pack my Olympus. However, I know pros and serious amateurs who use only compact system gear.

    So if you want to reduce the weight of your kit, I say have no fear of going for a compact system. Olympus run a scheme called ‘Test & Wow’ that allows you to borrow some of their kit from a official dealer for a few days, which might help you to decide. Of course, other compact systems are available from other manufacturers!

    I hope the above helps you in your deliberations.

  • Brian Miller

    I am in the same position. I can no longer carry my full frame gear. I am considering the Olympus system but I am concerned about the light gather capability of the lenses. The crop factor of 2x means the pro 12-40mm f/2.8 is really a 24-80mm f/5.6. It is going to take a higher ISO or a lot more light to compensate. I also do a lot of bird and wildlife photography and I am worried about the speed of the autofocus.

    What has been your experience with this?

    Thank you.

  • Jonathan Mimnagh

    DSLR & CSC are not mutually incompatible. I bought an Olympus Pen lite epl7 in December 2014, I’d been looking for a new camera for a while to use alongside my Olympus E500 DSLR & I saw a good offer on the Pen Lite with 2 kit lenses.
    I mostly use the pen lite now, except for airshows, where I find the viewfinder a big asset over the electronic screen. I’m using a Panasonic 14-140 zoom & have recently purchased a Panasonic prime; the prime is because my wife is establishing a jewellery making business & my role is the photography for the website.

  • Robin Goodfellow

    wtf is a CSC?§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Nov shmoz kapop. Useless article if nobody knows what you are talking about.

  • You guys should really define CSC in the article when it’s first used…

  • Guy Borremans

    I enjoyed your article a lot.

    I have used the Pana GH2-3 and 4, for all the reasons you mention.

    The reason i now have a Canon 7DII with eg the 100-400, is because of AF and AF-tracking.
    The GH4 was still dissapointing me and frustrated me when not being able to track birds in flight.

    May i ask you, did you try this with the Olympus?

  • Howard Pepper

    Great article Steve! I too am being forced by infirmity (lower back injury, right rotator cuff) to move away from my substantial collection of DSLR bodies and lenses. I purchased a Fujifilm X100T back in February 2015, and now find I do probably 80% of my photography with it. At the beginning of this year, I made the decision to switch completely to Fujifilm, and currently have an X-Pro2 on order, and my first lens (XF35mm f/2) is sitting at the house, silently waiting for the body to ship. I have plans to acquire more lenses for the X-Pro2 as time goes on.

    For most of 2014 and about half of 2015, my photography ventures needed to be kept short, and the following day was always fun (/sarcasm), but since I began really using the X100T, I have found I am more free to partake in the joys of photography without as much of the pain as I had in the past. Oh, and the IQ from my X100T is phenomenal, and I expect even more from the X-Pro2.

  • David C

    Interesting piece even if personally I don’t agree with all aspects you raise. Seeing the non-camera gear you use was nice too.

    However it does read like an advert for Olympus. I also think the whole “mirrorless is smaller therefore better” trope is less and less valid these days. Especially when you stick proper glass on the camera. Did you consider comparing the image quality with the high resolution cameras like the 5DSR/A7RII? The difference in size/weight doesn’t personally make much of a difference when you factor in everything else – you’re still taking a lot of kit so whether you camera weighs 500g or 750g hardly makes a difference.

    Thanks for sharing your viewpoint!

  • Thanks – glad you liked the article and the images. When I was using Canon (5D MkII) I frequently had to shoot at f16 or f22 to get the required DoF and accept any image degradation due to diffraction. That’s just not an issue with M4/3s where I can get the DoF I need at f8 or f11. And if you use the Olympus primes then it’s possible to get the benefits of a small camera and small lenses.

  • Piero Serra

    Interesting article and great photos, but one doesn’t need to go to f22 or even f16 to get sharp landscape images with full frame, and I find a larger camera with a small lens is much more manageable than a small camera with a large lens.