Birding with the Olympus 150-400 and Em1X
Wheres the Bird!!!
This is what my eldest asked me as I was going through my images taken at the Lava Valley.
In March 2021, I had gone on a birding trip to Lava Valley, Latpanchar and Mahanada Sanctuary in West Bengal, India. The object was to photograph the beautiful, rare and fleeting Himalayan birds. In 2017 I had done a similar trip to Mishmi Hills, which has similar birds. At that time I was equipped with the canon 1dxm2 and 800/5.6 which was state of the art for 2017. After walking for 10-15 kms every day with the heavy canon gear, I decided I couldn’t do that anymore and started looking for a lighter system. Enter Olympus. On this trip I shot with the Olympus em1x and the brilliant new Olympus 150-400 f/4.5 lens.
Birding in these regions is very tough for a couple of reasons. The birds tend to stay in the dense undergrowth and only come out momentarily.
the birds would be in foliage a lot.
And then they would peek out!!!…. Whiskered Yuhina
In 2017 I had been to Mishmi Hills with the canon 1dx2 and 800/5.6. In Mishmi hills, our guide regularly played bird calls and the birds would come out of the undergrowth for around 10-15 seconds. This was almost enough time for me to deploy my canon gear off my shoulder (I used a monopod on that trip) , line up the bird and then take some shots. On average I thought that if I got a 10-15 second window where the bird was stable or at least in the same area, then I could probably get the shot. The minimum I needed to deploy was something like 6-8 seconds. But because the birds tend to move around so much, a tripod/monopod combination is actually not a great choice since you lose a lot of flexibility.
The other big factor whilst birding in this area is the lack of light. Since the birds are in the undergrowth or canopy a lot, the available light is very less. So you either need to go to a higher ISO or lower shutter speed. Since I had the 1dxm2, I was quite comfortable with going upto ISO 3200 at shutter speeds over 1/800. That was almost the lowest shutter speed where I was getting sharp photos even on a monopod. The IS didn’t really help much. But often times, the lack of IS meant that I had to be over ISO 6400 or more. This did affect the IQ somewhat.
In my March 2021 trip to Lava Valley, our guide didn’t really play any bird calls so it was pretty much luck of the draw. In most cases the birds were really shy and would flit from perch to perch anywhere from 2-5 seconds. I can say with absolute certainty that I would have missed most shots if I were still on the canon or indeed any full frame mirrorless system of similar focal length. The response time needed in Lava valley was so low, that there wouldn’t have been time to maneuver a heavier system. The other factor was of course weight. While waiting for birds as they move around, I had to hand hold the system to my eye for minutes at a time. The maximum I could hold my old canon system was like 15 seconds. But with the Olympus system (150-400 and em1x), I birded the whole day (starting at 6 am and ending at 5 pm, walking 12 kms on average) with neither body fatigue nor arm fatigue. Arm fatigue is very important because once your arm starts getting tired, your ability to hold a lens steady (even if its on a monopod) goes down significantly. I was getting consistently sharp results at focal lengths of 1000mm (henceforth all focal lengths will be referred to wrt full frame equivalent) at shutter speeds of 1/400s. I think I actually have some shots at 1400mm at shutter speeds of like 1/160s, all hand held.
1400mm, 1/160s, ISO 1000, f/8.0….Himalayan Bluetail
For this trip, knowing it was a new system for me, and knowing I couldn’t really go to the high ISO’s, I decided to use shutter priority at 1/400s and I was reasonably confident that I would not get motion blur at this shutter speed.
My setup was as below
Shutter priority: 1/400s note: I varied between 1/400 to 1/800 depending on the situation
C-AF: sensitivity +1
Smallest single center focus point
LENS IS enabled this proved to be very important
Af scanner: mode 3
Af+mf enabled sometimes in dense foliage, you couldn’t find the bird so some shots are actually with MF and focus peaking
MF assist: focus peaking on
C-AF release priority: on
Image stabilization: FPS priority
On mode 2, I had the same setup but I had bird AI on because I knew there would be cases where the birds couldn’t be seen and I had to rely on the bird AI to find and focus on the bird.
C1: this setup was for BIF which I didn’t get to do too much of
5 point AF area
Release priority: off
I had done a different setup before I left but on the first day, I was having a lot of problems. The focus was on the back button, but even after pressing the buttons, AF wouldn’t start. I had to cajole the lens with manual focus and come close and then, maybe, the camera would kick in. I suspect there is maybe some problem with the ael/afl button, but I will check. Even when it kicked in, the AF was spotty and noise was very high. Of course I found out all this only in the evening when I revied the photos on my laptop. I was very upset because I thought I had done a mistake by getting into the Olympus system and it wasn’t capable to handle these birding conditions. However, I did a factory reset and then setup the camera as best as I could (as above) and decided to give it one more try.
Now that I think of it, there could be a reason. I had used a camo tape to protect the lens. This is like a self adhesive tape that you just wind on the lens. Its possible that some part of the tape may have come between the lens mount and body mount and prevented a good contact.
The next day was a different story. The camera performed beautifully and I could really see the resolution and sharpness of the lens.
1000mm, 1/400s, f/6.3, ISO 640…. Rufous breasted Accentor
The conditions were also better on the second day. Whereas on the first day, all the birding was in dark undergrowth with no light, the second day was along a road so the light was much better and the birds were more visible. Still flitting of course, but quite visible. We saw some really nice species including wren babblers. These birds are very tough to photograph since they move around so much. They are often seen only in deep scrub and sit on a perch only 2-3 seconds at a time.
The handholding ability and range and of course the IS of the Olympus system were crucial for these photos. The lens really was fast in autofocus and when it caught on, it was really sharp. The ability to zoom out was crucial for this image. The bird was moving around so much and so fast, it was impossible to locate in the narrow FOV at 800mm. This is one interesting feature of this lens and a way to use it. Often at high focal length, you don’t find what you are looking for. The ability to zoom out, locate and then zoom in is very useful.
leaf on the bird removed for aesthetics. 470mm, ISO 2000, 1/640s, f/4.5….Rufous Throated Wren-babbler
Basically the Olympus system is for people who want a lightweight capable system. Olympus makes some really amazing lenses, the pro series like the 300/4, 40-150/2.8, 60mm macro are stellar. I would agree that the bodies are still not up t the competition but they aren’t that far. The main 2 drawbacks of the system are 1) higher noise, 2) higher depth of field leading to poor bokeh.
Higher noise: its certainly true that the noise of the current sensor of the Em1x (which is of around 2016) is quite high. I would be comfortable with shooting this upto ISO 2000-2500 or so but would really think about it if I had to shoot consistently at ISO 6400. However, this is mitigated by 2 things namely IBIS and software. The IS on the Olympus system is so brilliant, that you can really get away with using much lower shutter speeds. I have gotten away with shutter speeds of around 1/160 @ 1400mm. On a FF system you would probably need something like 1/800 or 1/1000s hence ISO 6400 or more. In many cases, you can get away using a lower ISO and shutter speed combination. Of course subject movement could be a problem at lower shutter speeds. But the 6 stop IBIS really works!!
To be fair, I think the new canon R5 is claiming a 7 stop IBIS. I haven’t used it personally so I cant comment on it. The 3 stop lens IS claimed on the 800/5.6 was not at all effective so I don’t know how realistic the canon R5 claims are. But I can definitely vouch for the excellent IBIS of the Olympus system. The second part of the equation is the software. I shoot exclusively in RAW so post processing is very much on the cards. The current set of noise reduction software is sheer magic. DXO deep prime and topaz denoise are absolutely amazing. As long as you shoot to the right, there should be enough data to do good noise reduction in most cases.
642mm,ISO 6400, 1/800s, f/8….. Dark Breasted Rosefinch-Male
Depth of field: The depth of field is 2x the depth of field of a similar aperture FF. Theres not a whole lot you can do about it. Sure you can blur the background in post processing (which I don’t do), but its better to carefully compose the photo and get the right background. I actually like having a better DOF for wildlife. So I am personally quite ok with it.
The sharpness of the 150-400 is absolutely stunning. When there is sufficient light, the lens performs brilliantly, revealing fine details which I had never seen with the earlier canon system. The lens is very lightweight and its easy to handle it the whole day without arm or body fatigue.
1000mm f/5.6, ISO 800, 1/400s….. Beautiful Niltava
The IBIS really works and you can get away with very low shutter speeds. I always had this impression that you should shoot at minimum 1/focal length. So for a 1000mm equivalent focal length, shutter speed should have been 1/1000. But I was able to shoot handheld at 1/250s at FF equivalent focal length of 1000mm and even 1400mm
1/250, ISO 2000, f/6.3 1000mm FF eq…. Blue Fronted Redstart
What this means for birders is that you can dispense with the heavy tripods, gimbals and other gear which are actually very cumbersome to use on the field. The only reason you need to use them is because the gear is too damn heavy to carry and. I know many people claim that noise even at ISO 8000 is very well controlled in the newer full frame mirrorless bodies but I don’t think it will be that very clean. Besides, how are you going to get 1400mm in a full frame? 600+2x will seriously degrade image quality. However, image quality is still very good with the 150-400 @1400mm.
1400mm, ISO 3200, f/9.0, 1/800s. Dark Fronted Rosefinch-Female
Purple fringing is very well controlled. I had to do many shots against the sky in heavily backlit conditions and there was hardly any purple fringing.
AF is fast and pretty accurate. Knowing I was going with a new system, I had decided to shoot at 18fps and get maximum data. I shot something like 6500 photos in Lava valley and ended up deleting 5000 out of them. 18 fps accumulates data at an alarming speed. There has been talk recently of focus inconsistency in the Olympus system. This is related to IS priority or FPS priority, maybe AF sensitivity. Some more testing needs to be done to determine the cause and the solution. I have covered this in another post here https://glimpsesofnature.net/olympus-af-settings-for-static-objects/ But I can say that with 18 fps, the likelihood of getting a few shots in perfect focus is very high. However, be prepared to take a great number of photos and delete a great number too. This is not my preferred style, but you have to work with what you get.
A great example of the fast autofocus capability of this setup is below. I was sitting at a spot near where we were staying, the motel owners used to throw the washed food and titbits here so there used to be some birds like sparrows frequenting it. There was a ledge about 8 foot square, bordered by cardamom fields. I was waiting for dark fronted rosefinches to come and feast on those grains. Suddenly this turned up.
800mm, 1/500, f/7.1, ISO 2000…..Chestnut Crowned laughing thrush
This is a chestnut crowned laughinthrush. It was comical cause it was like a western shootout. We saw each other at basically the same time and from the point it landed
to the time it took off
was like 2-3 seconds. Would I have been able to get this shot with a heavier less versatile setup???? I doubt it.
The range of the 150-400 is really good. So you can start at 300 mm if you want to take habitat shots like this
379mm, ISO 3200, 1/800, f/4.5….. Hodgsons Frogmouth… Very Rare
700mm, ISO 1250, 1/640, f/6.3 ….. Red Vented Bulbul
Or you could zoom in to 800mm at f/4.5 (its f/4.5 throughout the zoom range). The lens has a built in 1.25x teleconverter which you can engage quickly at the flip of a switch and u get 1000mm f/5.6. The quality with the inbuilt teleconverter is exceptional and I think most photographers may use this all the time. After all you cant have too much range in bird photography.
Of course, you can also put on the 1.4x teleconverter and get 1120mm/6.3. The quality with this combination also remains excellent.
1120mm, ISO 320, 1/400s, f/6.3….. Fire-tailed Sunbird
Or you could go all the way and engage both the inbuilt teleconverter and the 1.4x teleconverter and get a whopping 1400mm f/8. The quality with this is also very very good.
As a last resort, you could try adding the 2x teleconverter and going to a crazy 2000mm. I was only able to use upto 1600mm but even at this focal length, the quality is very good. As a worst worst case, 2000mm f/11 might be feasible but I think you would need very good light for this.
2000mm, ISO 1000, f/10, 1/800 s….. Darjeeling Woodpecker
In summary, I was very very happy with the performance of the 150-400. It’s a sharp sharp lens and an absolute game changer for wildlifers and especially birders in general. The ability to go from 300mm to 2000mm in a lightweight body is astonishing. There is no sacrifice of sharpness until at least 1400mm and I would say even 1600mm (bare lens+2x) is very very usable. Its on the combination of 2x+1.25x in-built tc that things might get a bit soft. However I haven’t been able to use this in the field much except a few shots so cant say for sure. The amazing IBIS of the Olympus system makes this package even better. I shot in Lava Valley which until now has been the most difficult photography situation to shoot in due to low light conditions and very frisky birds. However, the lens and the Olympus system really shone through and got the job done. I got many shots which I probably wouldn’t have gotten with any other system. It is somewhat true that, on paper, the Olympus bodies are not as good as the newer canon and sony bodies, wrt AF performance and noise, but the system as a whole works very well. Its is up to the user to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the system and use them to their advantage. There are many things like IBIS and lighter weight that could compensate for the possible deficiencies in the m43 system. I have no doubt that there will be newer, better bodies in the days to come that will make the system more attractive, especially since they already have the most important part down pat, i.e. the lenses.
Lastly I can only say, if u are a serious birder or wildlifer and can afford the 150-400, definitely get it. Its like no other lens.
BTW, did I mention that the close focusing distance of just 1.3m makes it a great lens for large macro like flowers, large insects etc…..
The lens is like 4 lenses in 1. Just amazing. Get it if you can.
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