I’ve mentioned before that my re-entry into photography (after many years away) came through a single, bright, but cold, day overlooking the Mississippi river. Bald eagles had congregated in a spot about 10 minutes from my home. They were looking for food in the open water around a dam, and they were plentiful! I saw a lone photographer there, and that, coupled with a few hundred eagles must have inspired me enough to go back home and grab my old camera.
After shooting for around an hour, my card was full, and my hands where frozen to the bone, so I headed for home and looked forward to going through my images.
At the time I was thrilled that I captured so many shots…good shots overall…the bird was in the frame. Most often no body parts were cropped off. The focus looked good. And I took a lot of pride in posting some of the images to Facebook.
As friends are inclined to do, everyone was very supportive and complimentary. It makes you feel good when people share their thoughts like that. But in my case, I think they were being way too kind.
A Reality Check
I don’t make a habit of suggesting you compare you images to someone else’s. You could turn into a neurotic mess, and end up frustrated, demoralized, and ultimately quit photography all together. And this isn’t a good thing.
However, you can learn from other people’s work, and in looking at bird photos from photographers I admired, I could clearly see that my images left room for a lot of improvement. It’s fine to be happy and even enthused with where you are right now…enjoy the journey you know…but also keep striving for better if you really want to improve. You have to be realistic and honest with yourself at times, even if it might hurt a little bit. So I set about to learn how to get better results with birds in flight.
Over time you learn the tricks of the trade so to speak. How to mechanically or physically get the best results for birds in flight. How to set your camera up (whatever model that my be) to optimize your chances of good results. And ultimately, to get a camera and lens combination that will keep up to the task.
Does Your Camera Equipment Set Up Well For Birds In Flight?
In the beginning of this journey into bird photography, all I had was an old Canon Rebel and a 75-300 kit lens. It was obviously outdated and lagging behind the current technology. I ended up replacing that with a Sony A65, which I enjoyed using, and I got some very nice results with it. At first I paired it with a Minolta 75-300, then a Tamron 200-500 zoom, and followed that up with a Minolta 300 F4 prime. Within a season or two I replaced the A65 with the Sony 77ii, an a900 full frame DSLR, and a Minolta 400 4.5. Although some of these lenses are kind of old, Minolta made some of the best glass in it’s day, and I think the equipment still holds up nicely today. My photographs continued to evolve and get better as my techniques, and equipment improved.
I have nothing bad to say about my Sony equipment. I continue to love, and be amazed at the vintage glass. But I was never fully satisfied or comfortable with it. And Sony lagged a bit when it made the transition to the emount system. Their focus, rightly so, was on the shorter focal lengths and cameras that could shoot landscapes and portraits. Eventually they came out with the terrific A9, but that was long after I had made the switch. Now you might say, well, if you’re into birding, you really should just get the Canon or Nikon gear. And I won’t argue with that, and maybe that was always in my back pocket if I felt the need to go that way, but instead, I decided to check out the Olympus equipment.
Smaller, Lighter, Faster
Olympus, and it’s main rival, Panasonic, both decided to forgo the full and APS C-sensors and instead opted for micro four-thirds sized sensors. These are considerably smaller than a full frame sensor and while this has a few pros and cons, the drawbacks were not that great to sway me away from either brand.
I came to view M43 as more of a benefit actually. Overall the camera and lenses, comparatively, were smaller and lighter. Because the sensor is so small, the field of view, and your photographs, are “pre-cropped”. In terms of what this means for focal lengths, a 300mm lens actually has the equivalent view of a 600mm on full frame.
This worked out great for birds and wildlife and it allowed me to save pounds, literally pounds, lugging around my equipment. I can now fit everything I have, from 14mm (equivalent) up to 840mm, in a single, medium sized backpack. My heavy tripod was replaced with a moderately priced carbon fiber model, and my 3 or 4 pound gimbal was updated to a 1 pound gimbal which I rarely end up using because you can hand hold the set up most of the time…all day long if you have to.
At the time of my transition, the primary Olympus camera in the stable was the original EM1. This workhorse had been around for a few years, but through firmware updates, Olympus really kept it up to date and pretty capable. I shot with the EM1 and the new Panasonic Leica 100-400mm for a time, and then added in the Olympus 300mm F4 early in 2017.
By the way, let me mention that prior to my switching from Sony to Olympus, I made a point to rent, and test out the M43 camera, lenses, etc, before I ever bought one. I shot some Pelicans and Cormorants and an airshow to get an idea of the overall image quality, handling of the equipment, and so forth. With rental companies like Lens Rentals or Borrowed Lenses, you can try before you buy, and I just think that makes a lot of sense.
After shooting the Olympus for a week or so, I personally found no problems or issues with the image quality and management of the camera. I had done a fair amount of study before even considering Olympus, and I know some folks view the EM1’s menu as chaotic and complex, but in a strange way it felt somewhat intuitive for me. I didn’t have as much of an issue with it as I thought I would. I was also keeping a close eye on the noise in the images, particularly in low light, and I wanted to see how much one could crop an image and still maintain some decent quality.
There is truth behind the idea that in certain conditions, mainly low light, that M43 won’t provide the same image quality as a full frame, high ISO marvel. Noise will be showing up. Ultimately that’s a matter of physics and a limitation of the smaller sensor. However in most cases, I can deal with some of this noise in post, and I have gotten good images up to ISO 3200 with the old EM1, and up to 5000 with the Mark 2. It just isn’t a deal breaker for me. Maybe it would be for you.
In January of 2017 I tested out the new EM1 Mark 2 on the subject I probably know best…eagles. And I was smitten. The new camera was faster, AF was improved, the view finder was better, menus were a bit better organized, and image quality at 20mp was excellent. I bought one a month later, paired it with the 300 F4, and never looked back.
My suspected benefits of going with micro 4/3 have turned out to be true. It is a nimble birding package with very good reach. It’s light and compact, compared to any full frame 600mm system, allowing me to downsize everything in my entire lineup including accessories. The excellent image stabilization in the Olympus cameras (some lenses allow dual IS) make it easy to shoot most everything hand held, and forgo a tripod most of the time. Cost wise, although this top of the line camera and lens are not cheap, they are considerably less expensive than their full frame counterparts. And I do think that ultimately, despite the smaller sensor, the camera will deliver excellent image quality in most instances…certainly enough to satisfy most photographers.
What Settings To Use
If you might be considering the Olympus EM1.2 for bird photography I would highly suggest you read through this article by photographer Scott Bourne who recently switched to the Olympus system. He breaks down the very best settings, in a comprehensive way, to use for birds in flight. I’m also including specific details into a number of settings that I use at the very end of this post. You can scroll down to those now if you’d like, but I think it might also help to explain a few things first…so for a quick meat and potatoes overview, keep on reading.
As for myself, I try to keep things as basic and simple as possible. And I think as Scott mentions, these things are not absolute…you will want to experiment and see what kind of set up works best for your needs. That said, our advice can be a good starting point for you. So here goes.
For speeds sake you’ll want to use one of the burst modes on the EM1.2. Most commonly I’ll stay with low sequential, but in certain instances where action might be happening, high sequential will be useful. For take offs and landings in spots that I know are going to be targeted, I might use Pro Capture, which shoots at very high frame rates. Rather than you having to anticipate when the bird will take off, for instance, pro cap will allow you to collect a backlog of shots until the bird actually does take action, then you can fully press the shutter button and collect the series showing the entire take off sequence. It’s a very handy feature, but one I don’t use all the time.
Focusing uses CAF, with no tracking activated, and AF sensitivity set to +1. There are several focus zones to choose from, but most often I’ll use the 5 box zone, centered in the EVF. For static birds I’ll use the small, single point. And for birds flying against a clean background, like the blue sky, I may use all the focus points activated across the screen. Usually this will work pretty well, but if you find it’s missing a bit, I’d encourage you to go down to a more constricted zone and the 5 box works best for me.
Olympus makes a dot sight apparatus that can help track a bird in flight, and while I do have one, I honestly have not used it very much. There are cases where birds are very fast and moving across the screen, where I think it would come in handy, helping to track the bird and keep it in the frame.
Most often I will use a technique that trap and skeet shooters use, in order to acquire the bird in the EVF. Initially, before you bring the camera up to the eye, you’ll likely be viewing the bird with both eyes open. I’ll leave both open, and raise the camera to my eye. I think doing this helps find the bird more quickly, rather than closing (in my case, the left eye) and searching in the EVF for some sign of the bird. There is some kind of triangulation in my brain that seems to help bring things together…so if you have trouble picking up the subject with something like the 300mm F4, give this technique a try and see if it helps.
Panning and tracking a bird well takes some practice…at least it did, and still does, for me. I work on being smooth and steady as I attempt to keep the bird centered in the EVF. I generally pick my spots, my burst points selectively. What I mean by this is I will first try to acquire the bird in the viewfinder, then activate the CAF using back-button focus which I prefer. When I see that I have the bird in focus, I’ll wait for the right angle or position of the bird and fire a burst of shots, keeping the CAF engaged. I tend not to lay on the shutter bursts for very long, because I personally track the bird better by shorter bursts.
Practice is important. I think it’s a bit unreasonable to expect someone who has never really shot BIF, to just pick up a camera and go out and nail everything. Keep expectations within reason and make a point to have goals that will drive you to get better and better results. I would say my first several years of photographing eagles were not terrible (well OK, the very first year was terrible), but with each season I did improve. After 3 or 4 seasons I felt I was doing better and becoming more proud of my work…but it took a good amount of practice, and it still does. Eagles aren’t always present here so I’ll photograph other things in flight. Gulls tend to be one of the more common targets, and that’s fine with me. You just need something that you can photograph repeatedly, something with similar movements, or flight patterns, compared to the bird of your ambitions. All of this work will help to improve your consistency in acquisition, refine your settings, and test, and improve your technique.
Because of the excellent image stabilization that Olympus is known for, I hand-hold a lot more than I used to. I will occasionally use a tripod and gimbal set up but often that’s more out of convenience, than necessity. Despite the camera and lenses being smaller and lighter, it’s still nice to not have to carry them if you don’t want to. Fortunately because the EM1.2 and 300 F4 are so light, you won’t need a super heavy support arrangement. My personal favorites after some testing turned out to be the Feisol Tournament CT-3442 tripod, and the Jobu Jr-3 gimbal head. It’s an extremely light weight, but sturdy, combination.
I think it’s a mistake for anyone to assume that one camera will work for everyone, or meet every photographers needs and tastes. So I will refrain from doing that here. The truth is though, I made the switch to Olympus for some very specific reasons and I’m finding many other photographers are doing the same. They want a lighter, smaller package, most notably in the longer lenses. But along with that, they still want a camera that is capable, fast, and accurate with the AF.
Birds in flight, some say, is the most demanding subject to photograph. Maybe that’s true. And if so, I feel that I’ve proven, at least to myself, that M43, and Olympus make an excellent birding package. Mind you, it’s no slouch on landscapes and portraits as evidenced by some of the work coming out of the Olympus Visionaries group. But for an all-around, enjoyable camera system, I can say, for the first time, in a long time, I’m not looking for the next great offering from various brands. There is a comfort level, an enjoyment level, that comes from using this system, that I have never experienced before, and as much as I enjoy the capabilities (and the results) I’m getting from the Olympus line, this last quality may be the most important of all. Photography should be fun, and I’m enjoying my photography more now than I ever have.
My Preferred Settings – The Deep Dive
These settings apply to the EM1.2 w/ 300 F4 and most often without the 1.4 extender.
Shutter Speeds: Most often I’ll shoot birds in flight at 1600 or above. Faster flying birds, may go up to 2500 or higher. For eagles 1600 to 2000 is usually sufficient and if light is problematic, I may drop down to 1000 or lower. Expect some wing tip blurring at this level…that’s ok though because it can still make a nice shot. And it’s worth experimenting with even slower shutter speeds to really show the bird in motion. If light is low it’s great time to try this.
Aperture: Mostly wide open at F4 but if light is really good 5.6 is common. This would be with no extender.
ISO: Is always on auto. Most often it’s capped at 3200 and will go no higher.
IS: Auto Stabilization is set to IS priority over FPS priority.
Exposure Compensation: I use this a lot. It depends on the conditions and lighting. If light is good, balanced, and behind me, then sometimes no compensation is needed, or you might even dial it down into the negative if the whites of lets say an eagle are too bright. Usually though I’m working somewhere between +0.3 and +1.0 or higher. If I take a test shot on a gray, cloudy day, and +1.0 isn’t bring detail up in the body, I’ll go higher…+2.7 might be the highest I’ve gone.
To manage noise levels on M43, or any camera really, it’s important to not underexpose the darks in an image. It’s easier to expose to the right in the histogram (without blowing out highlights) and bring the exposure down to an acceptable level in post…rather than boost shadows and exposure…which can ultimately lead to big problems with noise.
I end up working the compensation routinely through the day…up or down as conditions and light dictate, or the results I’m getting dictate I should say. Again, the darker part of the subject must be reasonably exposed. Many other settings just don’t change that much in comparison.
Lens IS Priority is off
AF Scanner is set to Mode 2 however this may be worthy of more experimentation.
AF Illuminator is off.
Frame Rate Display: High
Flicker Reduction: Auto
Record View: Off
CAF with Low Sequential Mechanical Shutter at 10fps
CAF Sensitivity is normally at +1 but may vary.
Focus Zone: I’ll fluctuate between the centered 5 box, and the full AF array. With busy backgrounds and conflicts…such as trees, waves, etc…I always shrink the zone down to isolate the bird better or subject better. I may do this as well if I’m not getting clean shots of the head and eye with the full zone. I use the small single spot for static subjects.
AF Pointer: This may be on or off. I find it useful when using all the AF points because it will highlight if the target is actually being focused on or something else. However when using the 5 box or more compact zone, I turn the pointer off completely. My intent is to eliminate all possible distractions from the EVF and keep the bird or subject in that small focus zone…I trust if I do that the AF will pick it up and work well. It usually does.
I always use back button focus. For me, my brain, and eye/finger coordination it just works better when I separate the shutter button and the AF.