Manual focus tele lens techniques with m4/3 for birds and BIF's

Started Jul 22, 2016 | Discussions thread
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nzmacro Forum Pro • Posts: 18,082
Manual focus tele lens techniques with m4/3 for birds and BIF's

Had a lot of questions about this in my posts and it takes me awhile to get around to things like this, so here goes. Why I've been a bit quite lately. I'm no writer so don't look too hard at the grummer and spellunking


A few manual focus techniques using the Canon FD Tele lenses with mirrorless cameras. In this case the Olympus E-M10, but should apply to most mirrorless cameras.

First off the lens itself is important in how it relates to the sensor. M4/3 and APS-C sensors have always been excellent to use for the balance of image quality along with the crop factors involved. The issue with a slow EVF and the lag that was there with the Panasonic G1 and to a certain extent the G2, has gone, or at least not noticeable personally in the Sony NEX-7 and Olympus E-M10. Lenses used are the Canon FD 300 F/2.8L, 500 F/4.5L, 800 F/5.6L and a Canon FD 100-300 F/5.6L, one very sharp zoom lens that one with no CA, the only zoom I've kept.


The lens needs to have a smooth fine focusing system, I prefer internal focus tele lenses if given the choice. The feel needs to be there to make it easy to use. 300mm is great on m4/3 with what we are seeing and the 100-400mm Panasonic seems to be great as well. 400mm is where it gets interesting. 400mm on an m4/3 sensor needs care in using it with the field of view you get from it. Its not as easy as a lot might think. The settings become extremely important at that focal range on an m4/3 sensor.

500mm and it starts to get very unforgiving when used wide open as to what is in focus and what is not. DOF when used wide open on the Canon FD 500 F/4.5L is critical as well as the focus point. Its not easy at all, so we use certain techniques to start with.

What DOF

Good example of DOF with a 500mm at F/4.5 at close range on a Thrush. The head is in sharp focus, but the feet are well out of focus, so it doesn't take much to lose DOF with long tele lenses.


Magnified EVF Focusing

Generally its down to find the bird in the EVF and on a static bird if its stays in one place long enough, the magnify function comes into it. Highly accurate in showing the details that are in focus. There is no excuse not to nail every shot using that technique.


Manual focus bracketing

If it seems that the bird won't stay that long to use the magnified view, then simply find rough focus and focus very slowly forward and backward for a few shots using a SLOW burst. A fast FPS rate can make it hard to see what's going on in the EVF and plus, it tends to fill up the buffer too quick.

Out of focus, in focus and out of focus.

So the first shot as we shift the focusing ring slowly using a slow burst rate is out of focus. As we shift the focus ring, the second shot is sharp and lastly the last shot is out of focus once again. So we use the middle image in this case.



The only time this comes into play is on a perch, a bird that's in the water for a long time, on land and waiting for them to take off. On a BIF in the sky, that doesn't work and we will get into that later.

Pre-focused on a perch and waiting for a bird to come in

Focused on the perch and just waiting for one to come in.

Then we have the take off from a perch, the trick is to be ready for it and this is where a fast frame rate can come into it.

Still pre-focused on the perch, but this time its the take off


BIF time I guess.

Okay, its a technique thing again and similar to above, but different. You simply can't pre-focus as a lot of DSLR user's like to think. There is nothing to pre-focus on and it can happen in an instant, so its all about speed of using the lens and camera. Again though we start off with finding the BIF in the EVF, focus quickly until it looks correct (more than likely it won't be) and start focusing slowly forward and backward and again, using a slow burst, not a fast burst.

Simply can't pre-focus, there is nothing to focus on except the bird itself.


Often we find a BIF heading our way, so we start tracking it and slowly trying to keep up with it heading our way while slowly turning the focus ring and again, using a slow burst. As it gets closer its important to know when to push the shutter button. Too far out and you will never get decent details in the shot, so we wait until it gets within the right focal range, click, click, click !!

Far too way out for even a decent crop IMO.

Cropped from the above shot, but pretty much useless for anything serious.

So shooting from too far out and the need to crop far too much, we lose details and end up with a small cropped image which is not a lot of use for anything. We see it fairly often in the forums, but there is a limit and often enough, I go over it myself.

Close range and in the frame at a decent size. That is ready for a decent crop.

We wait until we get a decent sized BIF in the frame and then we can crop and still end up with a shot you can use ..........

Cropped and tweaked from the above shot.

Minimal cropping ends up with more details and a much larger image. Its a matter of clicking at the right time.

Horizontal with a BIF series of shots is a lot easier than head on and we will go into that after. So horizontal to start with.

Full set from a slow burst before it got too far away

A larger shot from the first shot of the series.

Personal favourite due to the wing position, second to last shot.

Zone focusing.

I like the manual feel of moving the focus ring, but here goes with a very old technique, zone focusing. Someone mentioned this awhile back and had forgotten all about it, so time to go back to the old trick awhile ago.

What you do with a BIF is to focus slightly in front of it and let the BIF fly through that zone and this time, set a high frame rate, this is where a fast burst rate will work well once again. Sounds easy huh. It does work, but often it does miss. Not exactly the challenge I want I want though.

Waiting for it to enter the focusing zone and then using a fast burst rate. Dull day this one, but worth a shot or two anyway.

So that's zone focusing and you just need to be fast and prepared for where the bird is going.


Know the gear and settings.

You don't need the latest and greatest new gear. All you need is the settings needed and very few functions. A shutter button, ISO settings, FPS mode, an EVF, the aperture is on the lens and really that's about it.

Here's where we all become different. I shoot quickly in manual mode, I like to know exactly what my camera is doing. ISO is locked, aperture is usually set wide open. Trying to get the highest shutter speed while keeping a fairly low ISO is what I'm after. Doesn't always work, but that's the goal.

Auto ISO, shutter priority, aperture priority, etc, just gets in the way for me personally. That's where it becomes a choice and there is no right or wrong, just different. People all have their own preference and that's the way it should be, to feel comfortable when shooting with what you know that simply works. At the end of the day its the shot that counts. With how I set the camera all I do is adjust the shutter speed slightly.

The reason I always have dialed in a fast shutter speed is a simple one. A bird on a perch, land or water will take off, its what they do. The trick is to be ready for it, so a fast shutter speed is needed for that type of action.

Typical reason why

You need the settings and the hand on the focus ring, be prepared and its a lot easier that way.

So the trick is to have the settings already set for when something does happen. Having a fast shutter speed set allows for fast action when it does happen. A slow shutter speed and you will miss the shot in a blur, literally.

You need to know which way the focus ring focuses from infinity to its closest focal point. If I turn the Canon FD focus ring from right to left I automatically know its for the bird getting closer, if its heading the other way I move the focus ring left to right.

Get to know your gear so its all automatic to use without having to think about it.


Focus Peaking.

Used on the Sony NEX-7 which had excellent focus peaking. On the E-M10 focus peaking is not great at all. Other m4/3 cameras have caught up to the Sony by the sounds of it, so that will be different. On the NEX-7 I used low contrast using yellow, worked really well. So now with the E-M10 I just use the old eyes and don't really have an issue which is good news.


Personal settings.

Generally shoot with the sun at the back and the settings for a BIF are 1/2000 - 1/4000, ISO 200 - 400 with the lenses wide open. Slow burst mode. Pre-focused on a perch waiting for the take off or coming in, a fast frame rate does work well.

For a static bird where I don't want the take off and to get full feathering details, 1/800 - 1500, ISO 200. If I'm after those details I'll also lower the aperture on the lens to around F/5.6 - F/8 on the 500mm FD/4.5L


Your built in tools

Yes you have built in tools for manual focusing. They are, stubbornness, patience, relax while shooting (not all jerky motions, relax), you have to love it and you have to love the challenge. Take away that challenge and I would give up to be honest. If you don't have those, then move on, MF is not for you. Practice is number one on the list and don't expect perfection, you won't find it no matter what you use.


IBIS is another interesting one

Tried all the settings and for a long time, so its not just a casual try out. For BIF's I now turn it off. I find with the speed we move at it takes time to settle down, but still too long when you need to move fast. So its now turned off. Starting to use a monopod more now days and mount a quick release head to it. One flick and the monopod drops away for hand holding. Not exactly a light weight option, but neither are the lenses. Find it easy to carry and certainly stable enough with a monopod using the 500mm. For BIF's in the air, I still like to use the lenses hand held. So many angles you just can't get with a monopod or tripod.

Neck breaking time with a 500mm

Near impossible to take using a monopod or tripod, hand held is about the only way.

The tripod (read that as madly heavy) is used for the 800 F/5.6L only with a gimbal head. Its just too darn heavy and the focus knob placement you can't use hand held anyway. Not a lens I would recommend to many people using m4/3, but it takes shots not many lenses can.


Distance vs the shutter click and the subject.

Contrary to what a lot of people think we do with long tele lenses, we use them at close range. The closer to the subject the better and that applies to any tele lenses really. That's where the details are, in being close to the subject. The idea is to let the subject get as close as possible before you push the button. You are better off not taking the shot and wasting time if its too far out to start with. You need to learn what you can get away with using PP and cropping after the shot. Learning that saves a lot of wasted shots.

Bound to have forgotten a lot of things, so let me know if you need some specific answers.

We are all different so this is just my views on it. Again, no right or wrong, just different. Get close and RELAX.

All the best folks.


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