Practicing on birds in poor light

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Lasse Eisele
Lasse Eisele Senior Member • Posts: 1,847
Practicing on birds in poor light
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Two years ago, I spent many winter days shooting birds close to a feeder in the nearby forest. I used Nikon gear back then, D800E or D7100 with the 200-500/5.6. I got many images that I was quite happy with and I had a lot of fun.
The last five days, I have tried the same thing again, but now with my E-M1 (mk I) and Oly 300/4. Mostly to see if the E-M1 would keep up with Nikon. So far, I’m only practicing. I will try to keep up with this project for several weeks, but I’d like to present my initial findings now, hoping that some of the real experts will chime in.
All days so far have been quite dark with a big fat cloud cover. Certainly not ideal for shooting small birds that are moving all the time. The fastest shutter speed I have used was 1/125 s. Needless to say, I had to catch the birds in the fraction of a second when they were sitting still. But I have used my Nikon gear in similar light many times. I’m only a casual birder nowadays, but I believe I have enough experience to make a comparison.
I’ll start with the negatives:
1) E-M1 + 300/4 focuses slooooow in poor light. Sometimes, with the wrong target, it simply refuses to focus at all. I haven’t been able to get a single in focus shot of the coal tits, for instance. I used S-AF (after advice from forum members) with a single focus point and face detection off. Focus limiter set to 1.45-4 m. My solution was to anticipate where the bird was going to settle and prefocus on that branch. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. Never had those issues with my Nikon gear under similar circumstances. I’m sure that AF speed dropped in poor light, but not enough to be noticeable. To be fair, the D7100 wasn’t always totally accurate. The D800E was much better in this respect. The E-M1 is perfectly accurate if and when it hits the target, I only wish it would happen more often.
2) Battery life is terribly poor. A newly charged battery doesn’t even last an hour on a moderately cold winter day with temperatures just below the freezing point.
3) Auto white balance isn’t very impressive. Most of the images came out too cold and sometimes too green. I found that the auto white balance in ACR was a lot more accurate. Don’t understand why.
The positives (apart from weight and bulk):
1) The silent shutter. I simply adore it and use it all the time, when possible. It’s particularly useful when shooting small birds from a close distance, because I can shoot a series of images without disturbing them. They don’t like the mirror/shutter slap from my Nikon bodies. After a while, they will usually accept a click but never several clicks in a row. This means that I have always tried to press the shutter button once, in the exact right moment. That’s not easy with a bird that’s moving all the time. With the E-M1 I have been forced to change my technique. If and when the camera locks focus on the eye, I hold the shutter button down to take a series of shots, hoping that one of them will catch the bird sitting still in a proper pose. I’m still a bit uncomfortable with that method, but, as you will see, it actually works.
2) The 300/4 is impressively sharp wide open. One effect of that is that I see moiré on many of my pictures, particularly on the back of the birds. I think this lens deserves a sensor with more resolution, like 30 MP or more. I’m eagerly waiting.
3) The sensor. Yes, you read it right. The 16 MP Panasonic sensor doesn’t seem to receive much love on this forum but I, coming from a state of the art full frame sensor, am actually impressed. Many of my shots the last few days have been taken at ISO 1600 and in reality even more, since I typically use negative exposure compensation in low light (I can explain why later, if anyone wants to know). Still, the quality is quite acceptable. I haven’t even bothered to apply noise reduction, because I doubt that the noise would be noticeable in a print.
To sum it all up: I have been swearing a lot at my camera the last couple of days. Silently, of course, not to disturb the birds. But the net result hasn’t been all that bad. The keeper ratio is low, but the total number of keepers per day approaches what I was getting with my Nikon gear. I said before that I’m only practicing so far, but I’m actually quite happy with some of the images. Not feeling ready for a final verdict, though.
I would love to know if the E-M1 II or G9 might offer significantly better AF performance in poor light (I know they are better in good light), If so, it might be time for an upgrade.
Here are finally some images. I have to apologize for the lack of variation, but I blame it on the poor light. The birds had to sit still.

Crested tit. My first decent shot, taken on my second outing.

Nuthatch. These birds are relatively easy for the AF system, thanks to the black streak through the eye. They're also sometimes sitting still for a second or two. A thin snow cover helped too.

Nuthatch.

Great tit. This is a bird that the AF system doesn't like at all. The lens hunted a lot before I finally got one sharp shot.

Crested tit. Not a great shot, perhaps, but a bit interesting. This bird was actually sitting absolutely still for 10-15 seconds and I was able to take a series of shots with perfect focus. The reason was that some other bird in the vicinity had sent out a hawk warning, with the result that all the birds made themselves small and were sitting totally still. This is one of the last images in the series. The bird has already raised its crest, which shows that it's beginning to feel more comfortable.

My personal favourite so far. This image shows, in my opinion, much of the personality of the crested tits. They are very cautious, all the time watching out for hawks and other threats. At the same time they are curious, constantly exploring the world around them. They are surprisingly smart too. It didn't take long for them to figure out that I wasn't a real threat to them. I'm sure they don't like my presence, but they accept it as long as I bring food.

A natural poser.

I love these birds. They look cool, they sound cool and they are cool.

Regards
Lasse

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Nikon D7100 Nikon D800E Olympus E-M1 Olympus M.Zuiko 300mm F4 IS Pro Panasonic Lumix DC-G9
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