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photographing birds and birds in flight (BIF) with Olympus OM-D


  • photographing birds in flight is one of the more challenging genres of photography - both for the gear required and for the technique and skill of the photographer, not to mention, their patience.
  • assuming one is not using the preset focus technique for birds flying across a predictable flight zone, this genre requires exceedingly fast and accurate autofocus of fast moving subjects - traditionally a major weakness of mirrorless cameras such as the Olympus OM-D when compared to optimised mature PDAF systems of sports dSLRs
  • nevertheless, times are changing and the OM-D's are continually improving, the E-M1 Mark II has vastly superior AF capabilities compared to the other OM-D cameras for faster moving subjects and subjects with distracting backgrounds and C-AF mode works really well.

basic settings for birding with Olympus OM-D cameras

  • ensure you have the latest firmware
    • Olympus continually updates AF performance by releasing new firmware make sure you have the latest for the camera AND the lens.
  • reduce viewfinder blackout by:
    • set EVF refresh rate to HIGH
    • and optionally use LOW burst rate rather than HIGH burst rate
  • get the exposure correct and shutter to stop the action:
    • consider Manual exposure mode or Shutter Priority mode
    • set shutter speed to 1/1000th - 1/2000th sec to reduce motion blur of the bird
    • set ISO to auto ISO if not using Manual exposure, and have upper setting set to around ISO 6400
    • aperture will generally default to wide open if shooting Shutter Priority, but if you need more depth of field, then use Manual Mode and set everything individually
    • if not using Manual mode you may need to set exposure compensation, especially shooting into a bright sky
    • you could consider using spot metering, but then your bird MUST be in the centre of the image and depending upon whether that part of the bird is white or dark will affect your metering, but this won't be such an issue with manual mode as you can determine this before the shot
  • consider disabling image stabilisation
    • Olympus OM-D cameras have the best image stabilisation available so you may as well be using it if you are panning with slower shutter speeds
    • how general BIF, use a shutter speed faster than 1/2000th sec in which case you can turn IBIS and OIS off although many still have it on for better EVF experience and perhaps faster AF acquisition in which case you may wish to use S-IS 2 mode to correct only for vertical shake
  • decide upon Release Priority options
    • set Release Priority to OFF for your AF mode (S or C) if you want the camera to only take the shot IF focus is achieved - this means less out of focus shots, and less shots but you may miss great shots that were just a little out of focus.
  • set Noise Filter to OFF or LOW
    • Olympus noise filter settings higher than this are overly aggressive and degrade image detail as well as potentially slowing CDAF
  • set the focus range on the lens if it has one
  • set AF points
    • consider choosing a group of 9 points
    • in some situations just a single central point may work better, especially for stationary birds
  • avoid using teleconverters
    • these will get you closer but at the cost of needing higher ISO and having slower AF, and if you have a great lens, you may be able to achieve similar image quality by cropping the image
  • do NOT use C-AF + Tracking mode unless you have the E-M1 Mark II
    • this does not work well enough on other cameras, on the E-M1 Mark II you can consider using C-AF+tracking, but all other cameras, use S-AF+MF or S-AF
  • set Fulltime AF to OFF
    • this mode is NOT useful
  • set Release Lag-Time to SHORT
  • set EVF Frame Rate to HIGH
  • consider setting EVF to OVF mode

additional CDAF optimisation settings if shooting in S-AF mode

  • this applies to ALL OM-D cameras as they all use CDAF for S-AF mode, including the E-M1 (unless using CDAF non-compatible lenses such as Four Thirds on an E-M1 in which case PDAF will always be used instead)
  • consider using Picture set to Vivid to increase contrast and thus AF speed
  • if burst rate is HIGH, AF only occurs on the 1st shot but CDAF will not work well even on LOW burst rates if bird is flying towards you, so not much lost by not having AF between shots
  • if using S-AF+MF instead of S-AF:
    • use it by halfway depress the shutter for initial autofocus, and then, without releasing the shutter, move the manual focus ring for finer adjustments
    • if you take your finger off of the halfway depress before pressing down all the way to take the picture, the AF will re-engage and you lose your MF adjustment
    • consider using Focus Peaking to assist the quick MF adjustments
    • if shooting RAW, consider assigning a button to x2 digital teleconverter to give you a quicker magnified view for MF assist than the usual magnified view function.

additional PDAF optimisation settings for the E-M1

  • NB. if you use S-AF + burst mode, you only get AF on 1st image of the burst
  • the E-M1 uses PDAF if either:
    • C-AF mode, or
    • using lenses it deems as not being compatible with CDAF such as Four Thirds lenses
  • if using the E-M1 Mark I:
    • set burst rate to LOW to ensure C-AF occurs between shots and 6fps is generally adequate
      • if you choose a HIGH burst rate, you get more EVF blackout, you don’t get a true live view but the last captured image, and C-AF may struggle
    • set C-AF Lock according to scene
      • if shooting a blue sky background, can set it to HIGH
      • if shooting a busy background, set it to LOW to avoid it accidentally re-focusing on the background when the bird moves off an AF point.
    • set C-AF Release priority to OFF (having this OFF seems to give a better keeper rate)
    • consider using LOW burst with antishock if resorting to slower shutter speeds so that the mechanical 1st curtain shutter is not used and there is less sensor shake.
  • if using the E-M1 II, you have extra tricks up your sleeve:
    • set AF to C-AF rather than C-AF+Tracking as the tracking mode is not as reliable
    • set AF+MF to OFF as this is generally not needed and having it on risks accidentally changing focus
    • set AFL/AEL to C4 and set Half-Way AF to inoperative (E-M1III only) to allow assigning this to the Lens button instead of the shutter release
    • set AF Scanner to Mode 3
    • set AF sensitivity to +2
    • set C-AF Center Start to ON for All Area mode but probably not useful for smaller region modes
    • set C-AF Center Priority to OFF (E-M1III only) as you will have more chance of AF locking on background if bird is not in the centre of your AF region
    • set the AF limiter in the camera to a distance range which excludes the foreground and the background so the camera will use all its computing power just on the subject region and it will no longer AF on the background!
    • set the AF sensitivity to loose (+2) when there is no distracting background (eg. shooting against the sky or with the AF Focus Limiter excluding the background, and the bird is flying across the scene.
    • set the AF sensitivity to tight (-2) when there is a distracting background you can't exclude with the focus range limiter such as birds in a tree with lots of branches.
    • otherwise you can leave the AF sensitivity to default (0)
    • set drive mode to LOW mechanical shutter 10fps - seems to give best results although many use LOW 10-18fps electronic shutter instead or Pro-Capture mode (DO NOT USE a High burst mode as you lose C-AF!)
    • set AF region to all AF points if there is no distracting foreground or background (or these have been excluded by the AF range limiter
      • if the bird is not moving much, you may consider using only 1 AF point so you can place it on the bird's eye for critical focus.
      • otherwise set AF region to group of 25 points - this is probably the best option for obtaining the highest number of keeper shots (perhaps 10-15% better than the all points mode)
  • practice “bumping the focus”
    • when the AF marker displays red this means AF lock has been lost so you must take finger off the shutter and then re-acquire AF lock on your subject

using the right gear

omd/birds_in_flight.txt · Last modified: 2020/10/17 00:01 by gary1

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