This lengthy article provides readers with details on my recent Olympus OM-D E-M1X bird-in-flight test. The test was conducted for about 9 hours over a two day period, with thousands of images captured during this time frame. The photographs featured in this article are from my second day of testing.
My first day of testing was to determine which AF-C mode would best suit my style of bird-in-flight photography. Once I had established my hypothesis, my second day was spent rigorously testing it. All of the images featured in the article were captured using my preferred AF-C mode. This is detailed later in the article.
NOTE: Click on images to enlarge.
Bird-in-flight test weather conditions.
I purposely conducted my two days of testing during mainly cloudy and overcast conditions. My primary photographic subjects were gulls. The combination of overcast conditions and mainly lightly coloured subject matter produced fairly low contrast auto-focusing targets. If a camera is going to struggle with auto-focus, this is one of the situations that can cause issues. As a comparison, I would not even bother to go out to photograph gulls under these test conditions with my Nikon 1 equipment. Experience has shown that I would have very little success in creating what I would consider usable images under the guidelines that I set for this E-M1X test. My Nikon 1 gear simply would not be able to auto-focus quickly enough to capture gulls in flight under these weather conditions. Also, with Nikon 1 gear it is important to be able to pre-focus my CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 zoom lens. Lens pre-focusing was not allowed during my E-M1X test.
Bird-in-flight test location.
The harbour area in Grimsby Ontario was chosen for the test site. There are two areas at the harbour where gulls tend to congregate. The first is a cement pier where gulls stand in groups. The second is in the vicinity of the boat ramp. The gulls either float on the water or circle overhead in that area. These two areas are approximately 100 to 150 metres apart. Gulls will frequently fly from one side of the harbour to the other. This can generate a significant number of bird-in-flight photographic opportunities. Often waves of gulls will depart at the same time, making for some very hectic photography.
About halfway between these two gull congregation areas there is a small point of land. It is slightly elevated from Lake Ontario and has a rock retaining wall running all the way along its length. I positioned myself about 3-4 metres from the water’s edge. There was no issue on the first day of my testing using this vantage point. On day two there was a very strong wind. It whipped up decent sized whitecap waves which would crash against the rock retaining wall, periodically sending a good amount of water spray onto the shore.
As you can see from the photograph above, my jeans were soaked from the knees down and the spray was frequent enough that water pooled at my vantage point. Luckily I had the foresight to wear waterproof footwear.
To give you a good idea of the water spray conditions what follows is a photograph that I thought readers may find interesting. I had a number of occasions when a wave would crash on the retaining wall and throw up a lot of water spray just as I was in the middle of capturing some photographs.
The image above is of water spray on its way to hit me and my Olympus camera gear. This was a particularly large spray of water. If you look hard at the background you can barely make out the surface of the lake. Suffice to say that I had the opportunity to test the E-M1X’s weatherproof rating (IPX1 rated) on numerous occasions on day 2 as I faced these splash conditions for several hours! It is hard to explain the feeling of absolute confidence that one has when shooting with the E-M1X in these kinds of wet conditions. There were quite a few people in cars and sitting on park benches at the harbour at the time. I’m sure all of them thought I was out of my mind using my camera at that location and allowing myself and my gear to get splashed with water spray. I would never have risked capturing images from this vantage point using my Nikon 1 gear, or any previous interchangeable lens camera that I have owned.
Purpose and structure of bird-in-flight test.
The emphasis of my testing was to find out how quickly and accurately the E-M1X could acquire focus without pre-focusing the M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 lens (the MC-20 teleconverter was also attached). I would look to my extreme right (i.e. toward the boat ramp) to see if any birds-in-flight were approaching. A couple of seconds later I would turn my head 180-degrees toward the pier and scan for birds in flight. If any birds were approaching from either direction… even if they were closing in fast on me… I tried to photograph them. As long as there were birds-in-flight near me, I shot constantly in order to capture as many attempts as possible. At times I was shooting almost non stop for several minutes. I used a pair of Transcend 64 GB UHS-II V90 cards in my E-M1X and never once had to wait for my camera’s buffer to clear. As noted earlier, I captured thousands of bird-in-flight images during the test period.
Frame rate and camera settings.
In order to push the Olympus OM-D E-M1X’s continuous auto-focus as hard as possible I shot using the Low Sequential Electronic Shutter setting. This is a silent shutter mode that fires at 18 frames-per-second. Most of the bird-in-flight articles pertaining to the E-M1 Mark II that I read recommended shooting at 10 frames-per-second using the mechanical shutter. Since I had the M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter attached, I used an aperture of f/8 to give me a reasonable amount of depth-of-field. I shot in Manual mode, mostly using a shutter speed of 1/1600, and with Auto-ISO. For the most part I used ESP metering. Almost all of my images were captured using the 25 AF point grid (i.e. 5 x 5). I found this worked best as gulls can be somewhat erratic flyers and the larger AF focusing grid was needed. Rather than capture long, uninterrupted bursts of images, I found that it was much more efficient to use pulse shooting, i.e. taking multiple short bursts in rapid succession.
Test results: AF-C + TR.
The initial mode that I tested on the first day was AF-C + TR. Many people, including a multitude of camera reviewers, do not realize that the AF-C + TR function in the E-M1X is exactly the same one that is in the E-M1 Mark II. Olympus is working on an improved AF-C + TR for the E-M1X but it is not yet available. This was confirmed by Olympus and noted in a Question & Answer YouTube video by the folks at DPReview. Scroll ahead to the 21:20 time code in the video to see this information. Olympus owners who have the E-M1 Mark II and buy the E-M1X expecting the AF-C + TR to be better may be disappointed… at least until the AF-C + TR is updated in the E-M1X.
I tried using the AF-C + TR for a while on day 1 of my testing and found its performance lacking under the low contrast shooting conditions. To be fair, the E-M1X using this mode was significantly better than my Nikon 1 V2 or V3 with subject tracking under similar overcast conditions. I just didn’t find it as reliable as I would like.
AF-C + TR is not a setting that I would ever use for photographing birds-in-flight with my OM-D E-M1X. It wasn’t as consistent as the two other modes I tested, especially in the low contrast situations I used during my testing. Once Olympus updates this function in the E-M1X, I could very well change my mind.
Test results: AF-C
This was much more effective than the AF-C + TR mode. It acquired focus faster and delivered better results overall. You do have to track a bird-in-flight manually which takes a bit of additional skill. Without question AF-C would be my preference over AF-C + TR when shooting with the OM-D E-M1X. However, I discovered that this mode was not the best of the three E-M1X AF-C solutions I tested under low contrast conditions.
Test results: AF-C + TR used with Airplanes Tracking Subject Mode
The winner in my E-M1X birds-in-flight test was using the Airplanes Tracking Subject mode. This can only be engaged when AF-C + TR or AF-C + TR MF is used. If the E-M1X cannot track the chosen subject (i.e. Airplanes) it will default back to AF-C + TR.
Using the Airplanes Tracking Subject mode with birds-in-flight takes some technique and discipline. First you must get the E-M1X’s Airplanes mode to acquire focus and track the bird-in-flight. As long as the bird was fairly close and the background was not too busy a simple half-depress of the shutter release would get the camera to lock on. If my E-M1X was already focusing at a similar distance as an incoming gull, the camera would recognize the bird-in-flight automatically and put a white tracking box on it without me having to do anything.
Tracking was quite good and sticky. With some practice I could get the Airplanes Tracking Subject mode to lock on an appropriate bird quite quickly. One the E-M1X was locked on the bird in this mode, a quick half press on the shutter would confirm AF and I’d capture some images.
Even in the low contrast lighting of my tests, the E-M1X would regularly nail focus… even when I only had time to whirl around and fire at a bird that was quickly passing by. Gulls flying directly at me could be effectively captured in continuous auto focus as they approached using the Airplanes Subject Tracking mode. As long as I got the camera to quickly begin to track the target with Airplanes mode, then confirmed AF acquisition, the E-M1X was absolutely solid and consistent. Under the low contrast conditions of my test, my OM-D E-M1X kit easily, and significantly, surpassed the performance of my Nikon 1 gear. This is not surprising. After all this is not really an apples-to-apples comparison. The E-M1X uses technology 5 years newer, and costs 3 times more than a Nikon 1 V3 when originally launched. Also, my test was designed specifically using low contrast conditions that I knew were very challenging for my Nikon 1 equipment.
Going forward, my standard bird-in-flight mode with the E-M1X will be the Airplanes mode. When executed well, it is simply awesome. In situations where this may not be the best setting, a quick change to the AF-C mode would be in order. As mentioned earlier, using AF-C + TR is not something that I would use. Folks who own an OM-D E-M1 Mark II and have downloaded the latest update may want to try the improved AF-C mode.
There are some caveats of course. If a target bird is too close to a busy background the E-M1X can get totally confused in Airplanes mode… and draw its white tracking box around almost anything. Also, if the bird is too far away the Airplanes mode may not recognize it. For my style of photography I would not capture an image of a bird that distance anyway, as I like to get in ‘close and personal’ to birds-in-flight whenever possible.
Based on how well the Airplanes Tracking Subject currently works with birds-in-flight, I have little doubt that Olympus can’t be that far away from a ‘flying bird’ AI subject tracking mode for the E-M1X. Even if a ‘flying bird’ mode isn’t in the cards, the Airplanes Tracking Mode works extremely well for birds-in-flight when used appropriately.
Under the difficult conditions of my birds-in-flight test the E-M1X performed very well, especially when using the Airplanes Tracking Subject mode. Once Olympus releases its new M.Zuiko PRO 150-400 mm f/4.5 with built-in 1.25 teleconverter in 2020, a lot of professional nature photographers are really going to take notice of Olympus gear. Just as professionals like Tim Boyer, Tesni Ward, and Petr Bambousek already have.
There is also a long telephoto zoom for the consumer market on the Olympus Lens Road Map which could also be of interest to a lot of photographers. Most recently Olympus also announced that a 500 mm telephoto lens is under development. Olympus will soon have a good selection of longer focal length lenses that will appeal to a wide range of photographers interested in nature and birding, including the M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm and PRO 300 mm lenses that are already in the line-up.
Going forward my primary birding camera will be my Olympus OM-D E-M1X, with my Nikon 1 kit being used periodically.
I know that many photographers and a host of camera reviewers just “don’t get it” when it comes to the OM-D E-M1X. The majority of them don’t fully appreciate the performance and ergonomic differences between the E-M1X and the E-M1 Mark II. The only things that many people seem to focus on are the physical size and price of the Olympus OM-D E-M1X, as well as the camera’s micro four thirds sensor size.
The more experience I gain with the E-M1X, and the better I understand its capabilities… the more I see its price as fully justified. There isn’t another camera out there that can do everything that the E-M1X does for my specific needs. Regardless of sensor size or price.
All photographs in this article were captured hand-held using camera gear as noted in the EXIF data. All images were produced from RAW files using my standard process. All photographs are displayed as 100% captures without any cropping.
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