My Experiences using the Olympus OM-D for shooting Birds in Flight

12/07/2013 - 11:55

Photographing birds in flight with the OM-D


In my evaluation of the OM-D for Ephotozine in August  last year I wrote "Birds in flight is one area where I have had real problems using the techniques I developed using my Canon DSLRs as the AF performance of the E-M5 + 75-300mm does not seem capable of getting focus lock on birds against the sky and, to a lesser extent, against other backgrounds" .


This was based on two months of use of the new system so when I was asked me if I'd be interested in writing this article it gave me a chance to look back on how my experiences over the last 12 months have changed my views on this


So here is a brief review of my progress (or otherwise) in learning to shoot birds in flight over the last year using the Olympus OM-D EM-5.


The techniques I will describe here aren't necessarily the best and certainly aren't the only ways of shooting BIF but are simply ways that I have found work for me. They should be read as "Work in Progress" because I'm frequently finding different / better ways of doing things and I find that my ideas of what is possible are changing as I learn.


I'll start by declaring my belief that no matter how effective I become at using the OMD for this purpose it will never be as easy to use nor yet achieve the same success rate as I managed using the Canon system. On the other hand, the light weight of the OM-D system means that I am now able to shoot hand-held all day without being crippled by pain the next day (which was the only reason I changed from my canon system in the first place)


So, for those who don't wish to wade through my ramble here are the key pointers that have helped me to, sometimes, achieve my objective of shooting Birds in Flight in both controlled and random encounters.



Camera Settings:



I'm exclusively using the EVF (with the eye switch to the LCD screen turned off as is the instant review function). Refresh rate is set to 120fps and depending on the ambient conditions I will either have Live View Boost off (my primary choice) or Live View Boost on (when the sky is strongly back-lit or dusk is approaching)

For the bulk of my work I am using single point focus except when shooting fast moving birds in a clear sky when I will use the 9 point central box

AF is set to SAF + MF, mostly working with SAF only but keeping my hand on the focus ring to make fine adjustment if I feel that it hasn't acquired the precise focus point I want (I have tried CAF mode but unless its a slow moving bird filling around 30% of the EVF or more I find I can't get it to consistently lock on to and track the subject)

I manually track my subject frequently "Blipping" the half-pressed shutter button to maintain focus as the bird moves across the sky, going to full press of the button as I judge the moment of interesting action begins

I find that I am now mostly using 4fps shutter action typically firing a burst of three to four shots to capture the action

I am still undecided whether I prefer shooting in RAW or LSF JPG so find that I frequently shoot with both modes activated although I am coming to think that except when the light is "Difficult" jpg files seem to work very well. Using .jpg only does allow me to capture more frames per card (although have you noticed how the card always fills up unexpectedly just as the most exciting action of the day kicks off in front of you! )

I prefer to keep my shutter speed above 1/1000th sec (ideally 1/1600th+) and usually shoot with ISO 400, going to ISO 1600 to achieve this (if its possible) when its a shot I really want and the light is poor (working on the basis its better to have a grainy shot than none at all if its a rare bird or some unusual action)

Looking at my EXIF data I find that I am mostly using Aperture priority but when the light is more consistent I switch to either Shutter priority or Manual exposure control.


I keep IBIS set to IS/1, activated on half-pressing the shutter button to stabilise the view in the EVF (I have tried other modes but not seen any significant difference in image quality)



Lens choice:


As the bulk of this work is done at range my "go to" lens is the Olympus 75-300 so I will concentrate my comments on using this lens with the OM-D but will show one example of how the Panasonic 35-100 f2.8 helped get a previously unobtainable shot.

Some case studies:

 Living close to the coast means that much of the time I will be shooting Gulls or other sea-birds but I also spend a fair bit of time at the Hawk Conservancy Trust photographing the birds of prey in flight. Other than this I usually have this lens on the body when wandering about our local Salt-marshes and nature reserves when the shots are very much more random and unpredictable

With Seabirds its fairly straightforward to locate and shoot the subjects which tend to be quite predictable in behaviour (and can even be manipulated with the use of suitable food thrown into the air). The key to success here is good light and strong contrast against the sky / background. I have more or less given up trying to shoot these birds against the typical light grey burnt-out skies we often get in the summer as the system appears incapable of achieving focus lock with any consistency. When the conditions are right lock is fast and accurate and the lens is capable of producing sharp and well detailed results.



some examples:



Its easy with excellent light with a clear blue sky


ISO200, 1/1250th sec with f8 at 140mm (280 equiv FOV) +0.3 ev




 On the days when there is bright grey but flat light I find I can get good results shooting the Gulls etc flying against the sea, (which improves the contrast)

ISO400, 1/2500 sec with f8 at 1187mm (375mm equiv FOV), -0.7 ev exposure compensation



It was during one of my wanders along our local quayside that I had the chance of a grab shot of a Starling in flight which I show as an example of what they system can do when the light is right. Its a very large crop (983 pixels on the longest side) as the  Starling was some distance off but despite that it is possible to see the catch-light in the eye and feather detail

ISO 400, 1/1600th sec with f8 at 228mm (457mm equiv FOV), +0.7 ev exposure compensation



Now a few Birds of Prey shots from the Hawk Conservancy. With these it is possible to, roughly, predict where the bird is likely to be in the sky although with birds such as the Falcons they are so fast its very difficult to have the time to do more than locate, focus and shoot. This is when I will typically be using the centre 9 points AF activated. The larger, slower birds present less of a challenge and its often possible to roughly pre-focus and / or use the manual focus ring to refine focus accuracy whilst tracking the bird


Some examples:



A Lanner Falcon approaching at speed shot using ISO400 for 1/1000th sec with f8, 0 ev compensation





Here is the little Merlin at high speed shot using the Panasonic 35-100 f2.8 with ISO400  for 1/1250th sec with f4 at 100mm (200mm equiv FOV), +2.3 ev exposure compensation. On previous visits I had failed to get anything worthwhile when trying to capture this tiny little bird in flight so it was a good test of the 35-100.



One of the Wild Herons over Reg's Meadow, this was a grab shot as the bird suddenly appeared into view from the side of the hide window and there was no time to pre-focus or use the MF ring for final focus trim

Shot using ISO 400 for 1/1600th with f8 at 194mm (389 equiv FOV), 1.3 exposure compensation



As an example of shooting into a confused background using the 75-300, making use of the option to roughly pre-focus the lens here is one of the Black Kites in a close encounter with Cedric whilst taking food from the Mess Tin (regulars to the HCT will have seen this many times). Its a good example of the ability of the OM-D + 75-300 to capture the critical moment using the shooting technique I have developed





I have had some success using a range of other lenses from an aged Tamron 500mm Mirror lens (purely manual focus and capable of surprisingly good results), the Panasonic 35-100 f2.8 (a wonderful tool for shooting birds close too and where fast, accurate focus is more important than a frame filling image at distance), the Olympus 40-150 (fast focusing but not a lens I would use in preference to the Panny 35- 100) and on one occasion the Olympus 45 f1.8 (an amazing little lens for shooting Gulls and the like when throwing food into the air to feed them with very fast and accurate focusing).

You can see examples of images shot using some or all of these in my portfolio and on my foliopic website.


Final thoughts:



So, how does my original statement 

"Birds in flight is one area where I have had real problems using the techniques I developed using my Canon DSLRs as the AF performance of the E-M5 + 75-300mm does not seem capable of getting focus lock on birds against the sky and, to a lesser extent, against other backgrounds" 

look in light of a further 12 months or so practice and experimentation?

At one level its still true, the techniques I used when shooting BIF with the Canon system don't work very well with the OM-D but now that I have adapted my techniques to suit the OM-D I am much more confident of getting the shots I want.

I have had to accept that under some conditions where I could have got the shot with the Canon its just not worth trying with the OM-D but on balance this is a compromise that I'm happy to accept (but many wouldn't)

The reason I am happy to accept this reduction in performance when BIF shooting goes right to the heart of the reason I changed from Canon in the first place - light weight.

As I got older I found I was unable to manage the weight of the canon body with my longer L lenses so I was leaving more and more gear at home, meaning that I usually ended up with the wrong lens on the body at the critical moment. I was also getting very sore neck, shoulder and hands after quite a short session of shooting which was reducing my enjoyment of this genre of photography.

All that has changed with the OM-D system, I can carry all my lenses needed for a days birding in my small Lowepro Nova 180 shoulder bag (weighing in at around 2.5 kilos), shoot all day hand-held and still get a good night sleep and not spend the next day crippled with neck and shoulder pain

The light weight of the OM-D system does have one unexpected downside however, the heavier canon lenses seemed to be more stable resting in my hand as I tracked and locked on to the bird. With the OM-D even the 75-300 is so light in my hand that the lack of inertia results in it tending to waver about the sky somewhat unless I consciously think about it and change my grip (using the left hand holding the lens as a brace as well as a tracking device). With the canon system it was a totally instinctive action, point, locate and shoot, it still isn't yet with the OM-D

So, there you are, my thoughts on using the OM-D system as a tool for shooting Birds in Flight. It suits my needs (but probably won't suit those of many fitter, younger photographers who need the highest quality images with the best "Keeper Rate")

If like me you decide this is the system for you then I hope there may be something of use to you here and that you found my thoughts interesting (even if you disagreed with some of them)


Stephanie Baute
04/11/2013 - 00:52
Wonderful article! I wish there was an article like this for the Panasonic GH3
LInda Austrian
05/01/2014 - 02:41
Have you tried the OM-D EM-1? I am very curious to know if it locks on the BIF better. I currently have the EM-5 and am thinking of trading "up" or I will wait for the next iteration from Olympus. Thanks very much...
David Bernheim
05/01/2014 - 17:49
Excellent article. The photographs of the wild heron and the starling in flight were superb.
David Bernheim
Steve Albano
23/03/2014 - 16:22
An interesting article. I agree that the E-M5 allows those of us with aches and pains to shoot much more comfortably! There's much wisdom in your statement "I have had to accept that under some conditions where I could have got the shot with the Canon its just not worth trying with the OM-D but on balance this is a compromise that I'm happy to accept (but many wouldn't)"
Christian Fuerst
18/10/2015 - 14:53
I believe, the report would help many bird-Afficionados to overcome there initial problems with the Olympus-gear. photographicaly shooting BIF is difficult with any DSLR, and I still hope that Olympus' next generation E-M1 will have an improved EVF which seems at the heart of the C-AF-Problem

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