Bird Photography Sweet Spot

I was out with my camera gear yesterday and discovered my bird photography sweet spot. The added enjoyment that this creates is hard to explain. Suffice to say I was having so much fun that I lost some of my concentration on fundamentals, and made a couple of rookie mistakes.

NOTE: Click on images to enlarge.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 560 mm, efov 1120 mm, f/9, 1/5000, ISO-2000, subject distance 5.7 metres

The first rookie mistake was repeated several times during my photography hike, but I didn’t realize what I had done until I was reviewing and processing my photographs.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 560 mm, efov 1120 mm, f/9, 1/2500, ISO-2000, subject distance 4.8 metres, full frame capture

While hiking I tucked my camera between my elbow and flank with the lens pointing backwards. This made it readily available, but also caused me to inadvertently adjust the shutter speed several times when I pulled the camera up to use it.¬†As a result, you’ll notice in the EXIF data that some shutter speeds appear a bit high.

The sparrow in the first photograph doesn’t have abs of steel and is not defying gravity. I happened to catch it just as it was about to take flight. I did not try to use Pro Capture yesterday.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 293 mm, efov 586 mm, f/9, 1/1600, ISO-1000, subject distance 20.7 metres, cropped to 3732 pixels on the width

The second rookie mistake was also made a number of times, but was most noticeable at the end of my photography outing.., forgetting to check my focus limiter setting.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 293 mm, efov 586 mm, f/8.5, 1/1600, ISO-1000, subject distance 19.7 metres, cropped to 4000 pixels on the width

The M.Zuiko 100-400 zoom uses focus limiter settings that break at 6 metres. I was changing this throughout my hike but forgot to set it for 1.3 metres to infinity when capturing some incoming in-flight ducks at LaSalle Park. As a result I missed many of my photographs as the ducks flew closer in. I eventually caught my mistake and changed the setting.

My confessions over… let’s get to the meat of the article.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 560 mm, efov 1120 mm, f/9, 1/2500, ISO-2000, subject distance 6.7 metres, cropped to 4168 pixels on the width

The question you may have in your head is “What is your bird photography sweet spot?” Using an equivalent field-of-view of 280 mm to 1120 mm with my E-M1X. I find this effective focal length range to be absolutely perfect for how I like to photograph birds.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 560 mm, efov 1120 mm, f/9, 1/2500, ISO-1600, subject distance 17.8 metres, cropped to 4661 pixels on the width

I always loved using my Nikon 1 CX 70-300 f/4.5-5.6 with its efov of 189-810 mm… but there were many times when I wished I had a bit more reach.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 321 mm, efov 642 mm, f/8.6, 1/2500, ISO-1600, subject distance 3 metres, cropped to 4838 pixels on the width

My M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with the M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter provides exactly what I’ve always wanted. A ton of flexibility, but not so long that I can’t effectively pan with birds when the combination is fully extended.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 560 mm, efov 1120 mm, f/9, 1/2500, ISO-2500, subject distance 11.3 metres, full frame capture

When I started my hike at Hendrie Valley yesterday I quickly learned that I couldn’t jump straight to using an efov of 1120 mm. My eye/hand coordination at this focal length just wasn’t good enough. I tried pulling my focal length back then zooming in on subject birds. This only worked on some of the larger birds like blue jays. Chickadees and other small, fast birds, typically do not stay in one place long enough to provide for the luxury of zooming back and forth.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 391 mm, efov 782 mm, f/8.7, 1/3200, ISO-2000, subject distance 5.6 metres, full frame capture

Throughout my extended hike I kept working on my eye-hand coordination and began to get a feeling for arm angles. Some muscle memory slowly began to develop. My success rate with chickadees began to steadily increase with patient practice.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 560 mm, efov 1120 mm, f/9, 1/3200, ISO-2500, subject distance 5.2 metres, full frame capture
OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 321 mm, efov 642 mm, f/9, 1/3200, ISO-3200, subject distance 6.7 metres, cropped to 4125 pixels on the width
OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 560 mm, efov 1120 mm, f/9, 1/5000, ISO-6400, subject distance 5.8 metres, cropped to 4447 pixels on the width

I had a few opportunities to use the close focusing capability of the M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS. The position of the focus limiter switch on the lens barrel is ideal. I found it very easy to find and quickly adjust.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 308 mm, efov 616 mm, f/8.5, 1/3200, ISO-4000, subject distance 3.4 metres, cropped to 4170 pixels on the width

The minimum focusing distance of 1.3 metres of the M.Zuiko 100-400 zoom is not affected when teleconverters are used. If a photographer can respond quickly enough, some wonderful close up photographs are possible as you can see with the next two images. Using an efov of over 1000 mm with a subject bird that is less than 3 metres away is nothing short of incredible!

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 502 mm, efov 1004 mm, f/9, 1/2500, ISO-2500, subject distance 2.8 metres, cropped to 4472 pixels on the width
OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 502 mm, efov 1004 mm, f/9, 1/2500, ISO-2500, subject distance 2.8 metres, cropped to 4620 pixels on the width

This close focusing capability when using a long efov contributes significantly to this lens/teleconverter combination and my E-M1X being my bird photography sweet spot.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 346 mm, efov 692 mm, f/8.6, 1/2500, ISO-6400, subject distance 9.7 metres, cropped to 4796 pixels on the width

Using the M.Zuiko MC-14 causes a loss of 1 stop of light. To me this is a small price to pay for an additional 40% in reach. As long as I don’t under expose images, I’m very comfortable using ISO values as high as ISO-6400 with my E-M1X.

My revised, and now standard¬† post processing approach, is working very well. Worrying about ISO values with my bird photography is something that I simply don’t bother doing.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 560 mm, efov 1120 mm, f/9, 1/2500, ISO-1600, subject distance 7.2 metres, full frame capture

Capturing the mourning dove image above was another confirmation that the E-M1X/M.Zuiko 100-400/MC-14 combination was my bird photography sweet spot. I was slowly hiking down a path at Hendrie Valley when this mourning dove landed just in front of me, about 7 metres away. These birds tend to be skittish around people and I’ve never had one land so close to me before. I had one chance to get my photograph. My E-M1X with the M.Zuiko 100-400 with MC-14 teleconverter nailed it with the full frame capture above.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 560 mm, efov 1120 mm, f/9, 1/2500, ISO-1600, subject distance 7.7 metres, full frame capture

Every photographer has their own bird photography sweet spot when it comes to camera gear. As I became more and more comfortable with my personal sweet spot I began to capture images without really having to think about it.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 560 mm, efov 1120 mm, f/9, 1/2500, ISO-2000, subject distance 5.8 metres, full frame capture

This included acquiring focus behind obstructions in the foreground.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 560 mm, efov 1120 mm, f/9, 1/4000, ISO-3200, subject distance 7.7 metres, full frame capture

Timing my captures to help create a feeling of anticipation.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 560 mm, efov 1120 mm, f/9, 1/4000, ISO-5000, subject distance 5.7 metres, cropped to 4416 on the width

And, staying focused on a bird waiting for something a bit different or special to happen.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 293 mm, efov 586 mm, f/8.5, 1/1600, ISO-1000, subject distance 17.4 metres, cropped to 3888 on the width

Finding one’s bird photography sweet spot not only creates a feeling of absolute confidence, but also serves to stimulate creativity.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 359 mm, efov 718 mm, f/8.7, 1/1600, ISO-400, subject distance 18.6 metres, cropped to 4518 on the width

You can observe behaviours around you and see a photograph in your mind. Then… a few minutes later you can have that image stored on your memory card.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 560 mm, efov 1120 mm, f/9, 1/4000, ISO-3200, subject distance 7.8 metres, cropped to 3840 pixels on the width

Many of you have already found your bird photography sweet spot. Regardless of the brand and format of camera that you use… you know how that has changed your photography.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 195 mm, efov 390 mm, f/8, 1/2000, ISO-5000, subject distance 4.5 metres, full frame capture

For those of you that are still searching for your bird photography sweet spot, it is my sincerest hope that you find that special combination that creates an incredible ‘ah-ha’ moment. Whatever band and camera format that happens to be for you.

For me, its the OM-D E-M1X with the M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 and M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 195 mm, efov 390 mm, f/8, 1/2000, ISO-5000, subject distance 4.5 metres, full frame capture

Technical Note

Photographs were captured hand-held using camera gear as noted in the EXIF data. Images were produced from RAW files using my standard process. Many photographs are displayed as full frame captures. Cropping is indicated where appropriate. A lens module for the M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS lens was not yet available for DxO PhotoLab 4 at the time of writing this article.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 293 mm, efov 586 mm, f/8.5, 1/1600, ISO-1000, subject distance 17.4 metres, cropped to 4121 on the width

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4 thoughts on “Bird Photography Sweet Spot”

  1. There have been millions of great bird photographs captured with DSLRs and mirrorless cameras with far less capable cameras than your new rig. Most of those, of smaller birds particularly, were captured with very expensive, huge, 500 or 600mm lenses often with a 1.4x attached or with a APS-C sensor camera. Bird photographers always want more reach but also learn the limitations of physics! The 2x TCs were never very popular on those long lenses, and the 800mm FL lenses were too big, heavy, expensive, and not very flexible, with a long MFD. Having that kind of reach in a lightweight, portable rig with a short MFD is so liberating, especially when it is affordable. All that and an incredible AF system and IS as well! The Olympus system is definitely a game-changer! I’m sure my sweet spot will be the 100-400+1.4x for all the reasons you mention. Flexibility and fun!

    1. Hi Glen,

      Flexibility and fun are always the primary objectives! It surprised me how quickly I became acclimatized to the 100-400/MC-14 combination. Within a couple of hours it was starting to feel quite natural and familiar. I couldn’t say that with the MC-20. The extra reach going out to 1600 mm efov was just a bit too much for everyday use.

      I need to do some additional experimenting with the 100-400/MC-14 combination, but towards the end of my photo session I actually turned off the IS on the lens as I felt the combo performed better just using the IBIS with my E-M1X. It seemed to settle down faster and hold a bit better. Perhaps it has something to do with using the MC-14.

      Tom

  2. Having had the M1X with the 100-400 and 1.4 TC for a few months now, I can agree that this is an outstanding combination for bird photography. Looking at the above, I think you have passed my capabilities already as these are some great photos. I feel a little better about my mistakes, of which there are many, after reading the above confessions of your errors in this shoot. I have been back to reading the manual again to help avoid future mistakes and also to learn or relearn more of the great features of the wonderful M1X. I am now waiting with great anticipation for Thursday and the new bird AI firmware. As good as things are now, they are about to get a lot better I think.

    1. Hi Joel,

      I’m glad you enjoyed the images… I had a blast capturing them!

      Mistakes happen to everyone and I think it is healthy to share missteps from time to time. I agree that the Bird Detection AI will make a great experience with the E-M1X even better. I would not be surprised at all if the introduction of Bird Detection AI and the M.Zuiko 150-400 cause many more professional wildlife/bird photographers to switch to Olympus, or at least add this gear to their kit. I think this AI technology has the potential to revolutionize this genre of photography.

      Tom

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