Soon, Cathy and I will be making our second expedition to Africa. This time we will be visiting South Africa. We will be specifically looking to photograph the big cats; primarily leopards and cheetahs. In preparing for the trip we discovered one important difference between Kenya (our previous destination) and South Africa. The vehicles used in South Africa are a different design than the Land Rovers used in Kenya. When we were in Kenya we could stand up in the Land Rover, place a bean bag on the roof to stabilize the camera and lens and shoot.
The vehicles in South Africa have tiered seating and no roof to provide maximum visibility. However, this design leaves no place to put a bean bag. And there is certainly no room in the vehicle for a tripod. A monopod might be possible but I don’t care that much for monopods.
Thus we are left with the option of hand holding the camera. Even with the advent of image stabilization this is not a great idea. Especially when you realize that we will be shooting for up to 8 hours a day for 2 weeks. My Nikon D700 with the f4 200-400 mm zoom lens attached weights over 9 lbs. This is just too much weight to handhold for extended periods.
As we thought about potential solutions to this conundrum our mentor, Daniel Cox, reported on his work with the Panasonic Lumix GH-3. The GH-3 is a mirrorless, micro four-thirds format camera. The micro four-thirds format has been advancing rapidly in recent years. Due to the smaller sensor and absence of the DSLRs mirror box, micro four-thirds format cameras can be designed to be much smaller and lighter than DSLRs.
After visiting a local camera store and shooting a few test shots we took the plunge and purchased a GH-3 body and a 100-300mm zoom lens. The combined weight of the camera and lens is only 2.35 lbs! We would be able to handhold this camera all day long and not suffer from fatigue. And get this, due to the crop factor of the GH-3 the 100-300 mm lens is equivalent to a 200-600 mm in 35mm format. A perfect lens for our Safari.
The question however remained, is the GH-3 good enough to replace our Nikon’s on this very expensive trip. I’ve never believed for a moment that the Panasonic 100-300mm zoom could replace my beloved Nikor 200-400 mm zoom. But is it good enough? To answer this question we spent the last couple of months testing the camera and lens.
We have taken photos at the Oakland Zoo, while whale watching in the San Juan Islands and at Safari West near Calistoga. The photos are included below.
We have been astonished how great the images from this little camera are. In addition, the auto-focus is very fast and reliable and if needed you can shoot at 5 frames per second. There are still issues with this format. The camera uses a high quality electronic viewfinder. It is bright and easy to use. However, if you are shooting in burst mode it is difficult if not impossible to track the action. I therefore do not recommend this camera for sports photography or for trying to shoot birds in flight. Most other features work seamlessly. If you are interested in an in-depth review of this camera I recommend that you check out the report at DPREVIEW.
We are thrilled not to have to lug our heavy pro gear half way around the world. Hopefully we will be happy with the results. Stay tuned and we’ll let you know what happens.
Click on any image below to enlarge it.