Using Teleconverters for BIF

This article discusses using teleconverters for BIF and some of the practical considerations that come into play with this type of photography. Many people love to photograph birds and really enjoy capturing images of birds-in-flight (BIF). Using long telephoto lenses can be a challenge. This is compounded when teleconverters are added to the mix.

All of the photographs featured in this article were captured handheld in about 2 hours and 15 minutes during a visit to the lift bridge in Burlington Ontario on Tuesday of this week.

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, 1/2000, ISO-1250, Pro Capture L, Bird Detection AI, cropped to 3543 pixels on the width, subject distance 35.7 metres

Not all teleconverters are created equal.

While the optical quality of camera gear has improved over time, not all teleconverters are created equal. I’ve heard many photographers swear by their teleconverters… others swear at them.  Some photographers will use a 1.4X teleconverter without hesitation but will not use a 1.7X or 2X version.

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, 1/1600, ISO-1000, Pro Capture L, Bird Detection AI, cropped to 3619 pixels on the width, subject distance 39.4 metres

It pays to do some research on the teleconverter options that are available before investing your hard-earned money. Some of that research should definitely include discussions with other photographers out in the field. Using teleconverters for BIF can certainly be beneficial in terms of increasing overall reach. The caveat is knowing the practical limitations of their use. I own both M.Zuiko teleconverters and use them both regularly. The MC-14 gets more use than the MC-20.

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, 1/1600, ISO-1000, Pro Capture L, Bird Detection AI, cropped to 4686 pixels on the width, subject distance 49.8 metres

Some higher end telephoto lenses have built-in teleconverters which greatly enhances their functionality. From a cost standpoint these lenses are often out-of-reach for most of us. Since I do not have any experience with this type of lens this article discusses add-on teleconverters.

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, 1/1600, ISO-800, Pro Capture L, Bird Detection AI, cropped to 3355 pixels on the width, subject distance 63.3 metres

Loss of light.

Using teleconverters for BIF does involve a loss of light. Typically from 1 to 2 stops. We normally shoot birds-in-flight using faster shutter speeds to limit motion blur in our photographs. Our first practical consideration is whether we have sufficient light to shoot at the shutter speed needed. There’s little point using a teleconverter if the results are too blurry to be of use. Or if the resulting exposure will require an inordinate amount of time in post.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 800 mm, efov 1600 mm, f/13, 1/1600, ISO-2000, Pro Capture L, Bird Detection AI, cropped to 3456 pixels on the width, subject distance 65.5 metres

Eye/hand coordination.

It requires ongoing practice to develop good eye/hand coordination when using teleconverters for BIF. Regular readers will know that I am frequently out capturing bird-in-flight images of gulls and other common birds. I don’t use many of those photographs, but practicing eye/hand coordination is a critical success factor. I typically practice by using my lens/teleconverter combination fully extended. I find this is the best way for me to build and maintain eye/hand coordination.

If you check the EXIF data for the photographs in this article you’ll see the equivalent field-of-view for the majority of images is 1120 mm. Some, like the photograph above, were captured with an efov of 1600 mm.

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, 1/1600, ISO-800, Pro Capture L, Bird Detection AI, cropped to 4192 pixels on the width, subject distance 54.1 metres

Angle of flight.

Using teleconverters for BIF increases the magnification that you are using for your photographs. This can sometimes challenge the auto-focusing capability of a camera depending on the angle of flight of the bird you are photographing. Most cameras perform more consistently with subjects that are flying parallel to the camera’s sensor. Birds flying at your camera are typically the most challenging for a camera to acquire focus.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 800 mm, efov 1600 mm, f/13, 1/1600, ISO-1600, Pro Capture L, Bird Detection AI, cropped to 4844 pixels on the width, subject distance 64.1 metres

Single versus multiple bird photographs

It can be difficult to create images of multiple birds and get the desired birds in focus. Stopping down your lens is one potential solution… although there will be a loss of light penalty in doing so. It takes some experience with your camera gear to learn what distances between birds will result in acceptable images. Birds flying next to each other are more difficult than birds following behind each other.

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, 1/2000, ISO-800, Pro Capture L, Bird Detection AI, cropped to 2820 pixels on the height, subject distance 51.4 metres

Getting in tight with a pair of birds using a teleconverter can produce interesting and dramatic images. The mergansers below were part of a group of four birds flying in together.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 800 mm, efov 1600 mm, f/13, 1/1600, ISO-2000, Pro Capture L, Bird Detection AI, cropped to 3633 pixels on the width, subject distance 64.1 metres

As the birds began to slow down in mid-air to prepare for their individual landings the spacing between them opened up a bit. This allowed me to focus on two of the birds that were flying very close to each other. The very tight crop in the photograph above isn’t ideal. Overall, I still find it visually pleasing.

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, 1/1600, ISO-1000, Pro Capture L, Bird Detection AI, cropped to 4892 pixels on the width, subject distance 36.3 metres

Shutter release timing.

Many photographers capture long image runs. On a personal basis I find this counterproductive from a couple of perspectives. The first is simply volume of images and the work it takes to slog through hundreds of similar looking images.

Birds-in-flight image runs can produce very repetitive photographs. I’d much rather take short ‘pulses’ of images as birds are approaching and save most of my buffer for key points in the flight. These are typically taking off, landing or banking, and tend to produce the most dramatic images.

The next four consecutive photographs are examples of waiting for the key moment of landing. The second image in the run is one of my favourites from my visit. I love the 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, 1/1600, ISO-1000, Pro Capture L, Bird Detection AI, cropped to 3739 pixels on the width, subject distance 38.9 metres
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, 1/1600, ISO-1000, Pro Capture L, Bird Detection AI, cropped to 3991 pixels on the width, subject distance 38.9 metres
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, 1/1600, ISO-1000, Pro Capture L, Bird Detection AI, cropped to 4304 pixels on the width, subject distance 39.2 metres
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, 1/1600, ISO-1000, Pro Capture L, Bird Detection AI, cropped to 3787 pixels on the width, subject distance 38.9 metres

Post processing considerations.

Using teleconverters for BIF can affect our post processing approach. With some teleconverters there may be some slight softening with images. Another potential issue may be dealing with more aggressive cropping. In both cases we may need to put additional emphasis on the edge acuity of our images. This doesn’t mean simply cranking up sharpening in post as this can be problematic. Spending some time with contrast settings, as well as working more with black and white sliders can often help edge acuity.

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, 1/1600, ISO-1000, Pro Capture L, Bird Detection AI, cropped to 4398 pixels on the width, subject distance 48.5 metres

Summary

Using teleconverters for BIF can significantly expand the imaging potential of our camera gear, and enable us to capture a wider variety of photographs. Understanding the limitations of using teleconverters for BIF, taking time for ongoing practice to build eye/hand coordination, and spending a bit of extra time in post can all pay dividends.

Technical Note:

Photographs were captured handheld using camera gear as noted in the EXIF data. Images were created from RAW files using my standard process. Crops are noted. This is the 1,093rd article published on this website since its original inception.

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, 1/1600, ISO-800, Pro Capture L, Bird Detection AI, cropped to 3092 pixels on the width, subject distance 63.5 metres

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2 thoughts on “Using Teleconverters for BIF”

  1. Hi Thomas,

    Many thanks for your explanations, one question: how do you, or on which basis, are you selecting the aperture ? In the above images you mainly use f/9 but on a couple of shots it is increased to f/13.

    Roland

    1. Hi Roland,

      I always shoot the M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS wide open. All of the images in the article were captured with the lens fully extended with either the MC-14 or MC-20 teleconverters. The MC-14 takes the aperture to f/9, while the MC-20 takes the aperture to f/13.

      Tom

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