Ducks Using Cluster Area C-AF

Yesterday I was out photographing ducks using cluster area C-AF. Being new to Olympus I had no idea that this mode of continuous auto-focus was available. After watching a video on using cluster area C-AF that Robin Wong posted, I decided to give it a try.

One of the questions that Robin left unanswered was how effective cluster area C-AF would be when photographing birds-in-flight. This article shares some initial thoughts I have in this regard.

NOTE: Click on images to enlarge.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 164 mm, efov 328 mm, f/7.1, 1/1600, ISO-800, cropped to 4291 pixels on the width

Cluster area continuous auto-focus is currently available with four Olympus cameras: E-M1X, E-M1 Mark II, E-M1 Mark III, and E-M5 Mark III. Robin provides instructions and menu screen shots in his video to show how to set cluster area C-AF with your Olympus camera, so I won’t bother to repeat them in this article (don’t worry.,. it is very easy to set up).

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 230 mm, efov 460 mm, f/7.1, 1/1600, ISO-800, cropped to 3477 pixels on the width

When using cluster area C-AF a photographer allows the camera to pick up its subject with continuous auto-focus, rather than the photographer making this choice. It is important to make sure that your intended subject bird is separated from other flying birds so cluster area C-AF doesn’t get confused. You can use cluster area C-AF to photograph a group of birds flying together in close proximity to each other.

I always photograph birds using silent shutter. The images in this article were captured using Silent Sequential Low continuous auto-focus at 10 or 15 frames-per-second.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/7.1, 1/1600, ISO-500, cropped to 4112 pixels on the width

I didn’t notice any difference in performance when using these two frame rates. Later on in the afternoon I tried capturing an image run of an egret in flight at 18 frames-per-second using cluster area C-AF and missed most of my shots.

My initial thought is that if photographers keep their frame rate to a maximum of 15 fps or less when using the electronic shutter, they should get good results. I never use mechanical shutter for birds-in-flight so I can’t comment on this.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/7.1, 1/1600, ISO-800

After setting up my E-M1X I went to Grimsby harbour to capture some images of ducks and gulls. The photograph above and the next two that follow are consecutive images from the same run. All three are 100% captures without any cropping.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/7.1, 1/1600, ISO-800

My impression of cluster area C-AF is that it is quite easy to set up and use. As is the case with any continuous auto-focus mode used to photograph birds-in-flight there is some technique and shot discipline involved. Having that said, it works well and if you have an Olympus camera with this feature it is worth a try.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/7.1, 1/1600, ISO-800

Cluster area C-AF does a good job holding focus on a subject bird in flight. It is important to pick up your bird when it is reasonably isolated from other birds.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/7.1, 1/1600, ISO-640, cropped to 4142 pixels on the width

If you do, you can pan with your subject bird as it flies in without too many issues. I included the photo above to illustrate how the subject bird flew over a floating gull, and the cluster area C-AF maintained focus on the duck. Here are the next two consecutive photographs from this image run.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/7.1, 1/1600, ISO-640, cropped to 3950 pixels on the width
Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/7.1, 1/1600, ISO-640, cropped to 3953 pixels on the width

To further illustrate how well cluster area C-AF can hold focus on a subject bird I’ve included the next three photographs. As you view the images you’ll see that the subject duck flies past a Canada goose in very close quarters.

This action happened about 18 metres (~59 feet) away from me. If you check the EXIF data you’ll see that I captured these images with my lens/teleconverter fully extended to 300 mm (efov 600 mm). So, this action happened at a reasonably close distance… and very quickly. The third image in the following series is not cropped.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/7.1, 1/1600, ISO-640, cropped to 4668 pixels on the width
Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/7.1, 1/1600, ISO-640, cropped to 4505 pixels on the width
Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/7.1, 1/1600, ISO-640

I typically do not photograph birds-in-flight that are at a distance, but I appreciate that many readers use this approach. I captured a few photographs of more distant birds to help illustrate what readers can expect.

What follows are five pairs of consecutive photographs from the same cluster area C-AF run. The first image in each pair is a 100% capture. It is followed by a version that was cropped to 3500 pixels on the width.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/7.1, 1/1600, ISO-500
Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/7.1, 1/1600, ISO-500, cropped to 3500 pixels on the width
Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/7.1, 1/1600, ISO-500
Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/7.1, 1/1600, ISO-500, cropped to 3500 pixels on the width
Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/7.1, 1/1600, ISO-500
Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/7.1, 1/1600, ISO-500, cropped to 3500 pixels on the width
Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/7.1, 1/1600, ISO-500
Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/7.1, 1/1600, ISO-500, cropped to 3500 pixels on the width
Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/7.1, 1/1600, ISO-500
Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/7.1, 1/1600, ISO-500, cropped to 3500 pixels on the width

When photographing birds-in-flight one of the common challenges is when a bird is flying against a busy background. Often a camera’s auto-focus can drop off the subject and pick up the background instead. Many photographers use a single auto-focus point to pan with the subject bird, or use an auto-focus distance limiter on their camera, to maintain focus on a bird-in-flight in this situation.

The cluster area C-AF on the Olympus cameras mentioned earlier, gives photographers another option that they can use. Let’s have a look at two examples.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/7.1, 1/1000, ISO-640

The duck in the above photograph was about 80 metres away (~262 feet). If I would have tried using a single auto-focus point and panning with this bird, I may have missed my shot. Using cluster area C-AF made this capture pretty simple. The next image is a crop with the image reduced to 3715 pixels on the width.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/7.1, 1/1000, ISO-640, cropped to 3715 pixels on the width

Our final image is another duck in-flight that was a fair distance away. In this case it was well over 100 metres distant. The first image is a 100% capture. It is followed by a crop done to 2876 pixels on the width.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/7.1, 1/1000, ISO-500
Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/7.1, 1/1000, ISO-500, cropped to 2876 pixels on the width

Again, using cluster area C-AF made capturing the photograph above quite simple.

I will be doing more experimenting with the Olympus cluster area C-AF mode. Based on my first attempts using it, I think it is a feature that can be of benefit to many bird photographers.

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.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/7.1, 1/1600, ISO-800, cropped to 4178 pixels on the width

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8 thoughts on “Ducks Using Cluster Area C-AF”

  1. It’s interesting (but, obvious, I guess) how our experience influences our expectations. Having come to Olympus from Sony, I simply assumed that cluster-area C-AF would be an available option. Are you saying, Tom, that this shooting configuration was not available on your Nikon gear ?

    And, how do you compare effectiveness of this approach (for BiF) with ProCapture mode ? … Or, is it simply a case of horses-for-courses ?

    Regards, John TKA

    1. Hi John,

      I do not recall using a camera that has had this particular continuous auto-focus feature before. There are various auto-focus ‘cluster’ configurations available with my E-M1X such as 3×3, 5×5 and the typical “+” shape 5 point cluster. Custom AP point groupings such as 3×5, 3×7, 1×5 etc. can also be programmed. These formal AF ‘clusters’ are completely different than using the cluster area C-AF feature.

      With cluster area C-AF all 121 AF points are continually active and the camera decides which points to engage on a moving subject in real time. This selection of AF points continually shifts in terms of the number of engaged AF points changing as the subject moves. These AF points follow no specific pattern and adjust to the changing shape of the subject bird. This type of continuous auto-focusing may be available with other brands of cameras. I did not know that it was available on my E-M1X, nor how to engage it. Cluster area C-AF is only currently available on 4 Olympus bodies.

      The purpose of Pro Capture is different than cluster area C-AF in that it stores images in temporary memory.

      Tom

      1. My question regarding C-AF versus ProCapture was more about comparative *effectiveness*.

        Tho, now that I think about it; they’re not mutually exclusive settings and there’s no reason one can’t use both together … that’s something to experiment with.

        John TKA

        PS. It’s typical for Sony cameras to provide various AF cluster options (from all AF points to smaller sub-sets) – tho, not with as many pre-set configurations as is available on the E-M1s.

        1. Hi John,

          I almost always use Pro Capture H at a fast frame rate which does not allow the use of C-AF so using cluster area C-AF would be a non-issue for me as far as Pro Capture H goes. If I used Pro Capture L, then using cluster area C-AF could come into play.

          Tom

  2. Hi Tom,
    Thanks for a very interesting article.
    I’m very new to bird photography having just recently come to the subject during Covid 19 lockdown starting with garden birds. I’m now beginning to dabble in birds in flight (BIF) and am finding it a challenge. I am very grateful for any tips I can pick up.
    I initially discovered your small sensor photography website after seeing one of your articles on the mirrorless comparison website. As you’re no doubt aware Mathieu Gasquet has carried out quite a lot of analysis regarding BIF and the best camera settings to obtain the highest percentage of keepers. If you have tried his latest recommended settings for OM-D cameras (he posted a YouTube Video 8 Oct 2020). It would be interesting to know how you feel his setting recommendations compare with Cluster Area C-AF.

    1. Hi Robert,

      Welcome to the wonderful world of bird photography!

      Camera settings are a matter of personal choice, so on a personal basis I’ve never spent much time reviewing how other folks use their camera gear. What one photographer enjoys and uses may not necessarily be what another would want to use.

      Mathieu and Heather over at MirrorlessComparisons do a great job and we’ve had a very good working relationship with them for many years. If you want to test out Mathieu’s recommended settings then I would encourage you to do so. Then you’ll know first hand how well they work for you and your shooting style. There are a number of Olympus Visionaries who specialize in nature/birding photography. They may also have some tips and recommendations that you may find useful.

      Tom

  3. Thanks for posting Thomas – it’s an interesting article. I’m new to Olympus and am struggling a bit after so many years with Nikon, so am reading a lot and seeing what other wildlife photographers use. I watched Robin’s video yesterday and was left wondering how the cluster setting would work with birds in flight. Normally I would track with the smallest group area I could hold on the bird, but clearly this option needs to be looked at.

    1. You’re welcome Tony! I’m glad the article was helpful.

      I’m also fairly new to Olympus having invested in gear about 16 months ago. I still have my Nikon 1 kit, but parted with my Nikon full frame gear over 5 years ago. The more I use my Olympus equipment the more impressed I have become with what it can do. Cluster area C-AF is very interesting. Yesterday was my first attempt with it, and it is quite easy and effective to use. I still need to get a lot more comfortable with it, but my initial impression was very positive. Since I own a pair of E-M1X bodies, I am really looking forward to the Bird Detection AI to become available. That has the potential to be a true game changer for bird photography.

      Tom

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