Experience with the Olympus EM-5 and M. Zuiko Digital 40-150mm f/4-5.6 “R” Part 2: Tips for Photographing Birds

I need to begin this post by saying that I am not an avid bird watcher and am very far from an ornithologist. However, I do admire birds and really enjoy the challenge of trying to identify them in nature. For this I use David Allen Sibley’s guide, but there are many others which have been recommended to me. I guess I am a light birder and people who have been bird watching their entire lives likely would give you far better advice than me on techniques to stay unnoticed while observing birds in their natural habitat. In addition, I suggest checking out Ming Thein’s tips for telephoto photography which has some great advice regarding the use of long lenses. I am just writing this in order to share some of my experiences while using my EM5 and 40-150mm zoom to capture photos of birds while working on the Viking I. I think this vessel makes a great habitat for birds because the machinery on the back deck offers plenty of hiding spots and vantage points. I guess we are somewhat of a concrete jungle floating in a sea of blue.

Peregrine Falcon (), 150mm, f/5.6, 1/100, iso 200
When I first ventured out to try and capture photos of birds in this environment I was not aware of this lens' sweet spot (see part 1 for links to reviews). My initial photos would likely have been sharper if I had controlled my shutter speed, aperture, and iso settings in a better manner, but C'est la vie. The first morning that I ventured out I was immediately greeted by a red-eyed vireo while walking up the stairs.. he actually scared me instead of the other way around! Luckily he stuck around for a bit and I was able to take several photographs of him. After processing this first series I was amazed at the detail that my "cheap" zoom offered. I found that it was absolutely enough to identify the bird down to species level, even to the point where I could count the whiskers coming off its face =) 

Red-eyed vireo (Vireo olivaceus), 150mm, f/5.6, 1/100, iso 200
Although its is not the BEST photograph in regards to sharpness, it makes a good example for my first tip.

1.     Shoot RAW or RAW+JPEG

There are a lot of articles online that expain the benefits of shooting RAW vs. JPEG, and put simply, RAW files are the digital version of film which can be “developed” using photo editing software. When shooting RAW, images you take are not compressed and you are able to retain all of the data your sensor records. This is less important when say, you are shooting a "landscape" or "street" because they are not reviewed in on a micro scale. Birds on the other hand are intricate and detailed so you want to preserve as much information as possible when capturing a photo of one. One drawback to shooting RAW is that the images are much much bigger in size so investing in a portable external hard drive to keep all this awesome data is necessary. On a side not (and likely a future blog topic) I do all my editing in Lightroom 4, but Photoshop, Olympus viewer 2 (which if you have an EM5 came with your camera) and a host of other software are also available. If you use LR4, there is a great set of presets developed by Slotshot for the OM-D. I typically use these in conjunction with the Huelight Color Fidelity LR4 camera profile and then tweak as necessary. The images below are 100% crops of my red-eyed friend showing the differences between the RAW file, out of camera JPEG, and edited RAW file.

Unedited RAW, 100% crop

Out of Camera JPEG, 100% crop
Edited RAW, 100% crop
As you can see, there is some improvement in the quality and color rendering between the out of camera JPEG and edited RAW version of this photo. Again, stopping down to f/8 and increasing my shutter speed to at least 1/200 to 1/300 would have in my opinion helped with the sharpness of this photo. Another technical problem with this shot is that the subject was not in the dead center of the frame as you can see in the original below:

Original edited version of "Red-eyed vireo"
Lenses are usually best at their centers so it is best to keep your subject centered if you want to maximize your image's sharpness. I have learned a trick that "forces" me to better compose my images towards the center, which brings me to my next tip.

2. Turn your Digital Tele-Converter ON 

Turning on your digital tele-converter will crop your photo by a factor of 2 which can be beneficial for bird photography for two reasons: A) it forces you to frame the subject more towards the middle and B) it allows you to change settings while in a pseudo magnification mode. The EM5 has a magnification feature which blows up the image (from 5x to14x) so that when focusing manually you can "fine tune". This is great, BUT, when you are in this mode you cannot easily adjust your aperture, shutter speed, iso, or any other setting. Enabling your digital tele-converter results in a 2x "magnification mode" where you can quickly change settings without toggling back and fourth. If you have ever tried to photograph birds you know that most do not like to be photographed... Even if they do not know you are there some species are just quick and "flighty" in general --think hummingbird-- so it is important to be able to change settings quickly so that you can actually take your photograph before its too late. The nice thing about the digital tele-converter is that if you are shooting RAW+JPEG, the JPEG will be saved as a tele-converted file but the RAW version will be full size. If you took the picture with framing in mind, you can then use your JPEG as a map to crop the RAW file. HOWEVER.. a word of caution here!! If the bird is close to you (within feet) then turn your digital tele-converter OFF. In the photo below, I missed what I think would have been a good shot because I framed the birds head in the middle with the tele-converter ON and the birds tail did not fit in the frame. Meanwhile, theres LOADS of extra space to the left of the frame. 

Shake your tail feathers, 150mm, f/8, 1/640, iso 500
Well, you learn from mistakes and there is light at the end of every tunnel. The digital tele-converter has an additional inherent usefulness in that you can ensure that your shot is in focus before you hit the shutter button. The photo below was taken at the optimal aperture for this lens at it's long end (f/8) and with a fast shutter speed as to freeze movement. Also the subject's face was in dead center of the frame. Under all these "ideal" conditions (which require good light), I'd say the lens is a fairly good performer at it's long end and when your subject is fairly close you are able to capture fine details. Another thing to note is that even stopped down to f/8 the background exhibits a nice creamy bokeh and details are washed out as to not distract from the bird. 

Bobolink (Dolichonyx oryzivorus), 135mm, f/8, 1/640, iso1600
Unedited RAW, 100% crop
Migratory birds have a long difficult journey from North America to South America each winter. Most get there thoroughly exhausted, some half dead, and others just don't survive once they make it... I have come across a slew of dead warblers and vireos on this trip which is sad, but enabled me to see how much detail I could really get out of this lens. Which brings me to my next tip:

3. When In Doubt Use 70mm at f/5.6

I should have learned this earlier by paying more attention to the reviews on this lens, but when its feasible 70mm stopped down a bit is golden. I know that a measly effective focal length of 140mm is hard to work with when trying to capture distant subjects, but the details you can here are incredible. So if you can.. use this VERY sweet spot!!!

Layers, 70mm, f/5.6, 1/640, iso 400
Something to consider is that the shot above was taken handheld at an arms length away because I had to spread the wings out AND take the picture at the same time. In addition it was taken outside and in the wind so I had to really bump up the shutter speed to freeze the motion. Imagine how good this lens would perform at 70mm in a controlled environment, like say in a studio where your subject is still, well lit, and the camera mounted onto a tripod with a remote trigger?! If I am getting these kind of results from a $150 zoom I can only imagine how Olympus' $900 M. Zuiko Digital 75mm f/1.8 "the holy grail" portrait lens performs!! Wowza!  

Original edited version of "Layers"

Unedited RAW, 100% crop
Finally, I want to show an image that was taken in not so optimal conditions so that you can gauge your expectations. The following was taken during a rainstorm in which an Osprey was using the Viking I as a hang out to ride the storm out.. I saw him from the ship's bridge, so naturally I found some cover (as the 40-150 zoom is not weather sealed) and tried to photograph him in conditions that were out of this lens' comfort zone. On a side note, my body and lens got rained on because I was not completely sheltered, but it was only a small amount and everything turned out ok... I would be scared to use this lens out in the open on a rainy day, DON'T DO IT!

Caught in the rain (original RAW), 100mm, f/5.6, 1/250, iso 2000 
Admittedly this image is pretty sad.. but from the viewpoint of "all I need is a picture to help me identify this bird" it was OK and with a little Lightroom magic you could make out that it was an osprey.. a very wet, very sad osprey, but one nonetheless! If my subject had been warbler or sparrow sized I doubt identification with this lens would have been possible. Even a good sized gull may have been difficult.

Edited RAW, 100% crop
I thought this lens deserved a little attention and wanted to share my experience because I have been truly surprised by it's performance as a tool for photographing birds. It really shines stopped down at 70mm, but absolutely useful even wide open at its long end. If you are a field biologist who has to identify birds and work in mostly daylight then this lens is a steal for $150. I suppose my final tip would be to mind your lighting, make the effort to practice and experiment with your equipment, and be sure to have fun while doing it :)

- Sam D.

Additional Sample Images