The Relearning Curve

Introduction

It’s been a few years since I’ve had a decent excursion just for wildlife photography. In that time, my gear has changed from a DSLR with an APS-C sensor with slow 50-200 and 150-500 mm zoom lenses and a lightweight tripod, to a slow 75-300 mm zoom on a Micro Four Thirds format mirrorless body with a hefty tripod and monopod. This change is significant in terms of handling and functionality: namely, I now have a lighter package that responds differently when being aimed and fired; I have an increased field of view at the long end, opening up from a 35 mm equivalent of 750 mm to 600 mm; and I also have a reduced field of view at the wide end, closing down from a 35 mm equivalent of 75 mm to 150 mm.

A white faced heron at Downing Bay, Dunedin. Olympus OM-D E-M5 with Olympus 75-300 mm II. 1/160 s, f/8, ISO 800, single shot autofocus, single shot drive mode, monopod.
A white faced heron at Downing Bay, Dunedin. Olympus OM-D E-M5 with Olympus 75-300 mm II. 1/160 s, f/8, ISO 800, single shot autofocus, single shot drive mode, monopod.

I have spent some time shooting wildlife with the new gear, but not enough (in my opinion) to really get comfortable with it, and more importantly, turn out consistently good results. Considering my bias over the past couple of years towards wider angles, flowers, sleeping seals, and the relatively tame bird life of the back yard, I decided that it was high time that I had a decent wildlife shooting session, to answer the question: can I do this, especially with wild birds? On Sunday, after four hours and over 525 frames contending with coastal rain showers, wind gusts, low temperatures, and the pain associated with all of these, I came up with the answer: yes-ish. Yes-ish, I can still handle wildlife shooting. More importantly, though, were the lessons relearned in planning excursions, and managing the camera for both relatively static and relatively fast moving subjects.

Planning

I went down to Aramoana, since there is generally a diverse range of birds down there, and a good number of birds on the way, too. I had confirmed this by taking a drive down there on Friday night, during which I noted an abundance of black swans, pied oyster catchers, and black shags. In my head, this plan was flawless: I had confirmed there was a wide range of birds, and due to their proximity to the Pacific Ocean, there was a good chance they were less tame than their urban counterparts. Unfortunately, this plan was so simple, it overlooked three key factors: vantage (and bird perching) points, approach, and embarrassingly, attire, storage and power.

A white fronted tern approaching  the Aramoana mole. Olympus OM-D E-M5 with Olympus 75-300 mm II. 1/400 s, f/8, ISO 800, continuous autofocus with tracking, high frame rate burst mode, monopod.
A white fronted tern approaching the Aramoana mole. Olympus OM-D E-M5 with Olympus 75-300 mm II. 1/400 s, f/8, ISO 800, continuous autofocus with tracking, high frame rate burst mode, monopod.

Vantage points on the coast, naturally, change with the tide. Tide tables are something I never bothered checking before leaving. This wasn’t ideal, as it turned out the tide was coming in the whole time I was out. This covered or isolated some of the better vantage points away from the road, which limited my ability to get reasonably close shots. In another instance, it nearly resulted in me being stranded at the foot of a small cliff, as the water came in around me. The lesson: check the tide tables and a topographical map, to establish the time and duration of accessibility to vantage points away from the roadside. Furthermore, this applies to the places birds perch – it seems they don’t like getting their feet wet any more than I do.

Two sacred kingfishers perch on a power line above the salt marsh at Aramoana. Olympus OM-D E-M5 with Olympus 75-300 mm II. 1/320 s, f/8, ISO 400, single shot autofocus, single shot drive mode, monopod.
Two sacred kingfishers perch on a power line above the salt marsh at Aramoana. Olympus OM-D E-M5 with Olympus 75-300 mm II. 1/320 s, f/8, ISO 400, single shot autofocus, single shot drive mode, monopod.

Approaching timid birds without disturbing them can be difficult, especially if it’s planned as poorly as my approaches were on Sunday. Being a narrow road, I was limited to formed pull-off areas, or stopping as far to the left as possible on one of the longer straight sections. Since I didn’t plan my stops in advance, this resulted in me stopping the car in positions where the birds were disturbed by the noise of the doors being closed (even gently). In future, I think I’ll check a satellite map to find pull-off areas away from areas there are likely to be birds. As a further precaution, I may also isolate the alarm siren, to eliminate that source of noise.

Southern black backed gull in flight at Aramoana, Dunedin. Olympus OM-D E-M5 with Olympus 75-300 mm II. 1/800 s, f/8, ISO 400, continuous autofocus with tracking, high frame rate burst mode, monopod.
A southern black backed gull in flight at Aramoana, Dunedin. Olympus OM-D E-M5 with Olympus 75-300 mm II. 1/800 s, f/8, ISO 400, continuous autofocus with tracking, high frame rate burst mode, monopod.

Sensible outdoor attire is something I pride myself on. Sure enough, I was smothered in it: scarf, gloves, thick leather boots, padded waterproof jacket, lined waterproof trousers, jeans, long sleeve t-shirt, cardigan, thermal leggings, thermal top and thick socks, all tucked into or overlapping each other as much as possible. It was warm, dry, and functional, except the boots. At Aramoana, there is a salt marsh, which I was planning to take some photos of. However, when I got there, I noticed a large number of birds on its far reaches. So, I stepped onto it, and promptly started sinking in while trying to dodge the large puddles on its surface. Gumboots would have reduce the sinking by spreading my weight over a larger contact patch, and would also have provided me with some degree of wading ability, which would have allowed me to creep closer to the far off birds. It’s a pity I no longer keep a pair in the back of the car all the time.

A variable oystercatcher with a mollusc it retrieved from the sand. Olympus OM-D E-M5 with Olympus 75-300 mm II. 1/160 s, f/8, ISO 800, single shot autofocus, single shot drive mode, monopod.
A variable oystercatcher with a mollusc it retrieved from the sand. Olympus OM-D E-M5 with Olympus 75-300 mm II. 1/160 s, f/8, ISO 800, single shot autofocus, single shot drive mode, monopod.

The reason I didn’t exceed 600 frames is simple: I forgot to bring a spare card, because I forgot how quickly shooting in burst mode fills memory cards. I have learned that I have spare cards for a reason, and should probably make use of them. I also forgot to pack spare batteries. Fortunately, the camera body had a fully charged battery, and the grip battery had enough charge to see me through the four hours on its own. While nothing bad happened, I should have planned for the batteries to conk out, and carried a couple of spares, especially as the camera hadn’t been charged for a week. On the flip side, I can now confirm that the OM-D can take at least 700 shots on a single battery, which comes close to what I got off my old Pentax gear (which used higher capacity batteries).

Relatively Static Subjects

Since I tend to handle relatively stationary things on a regular basis, they don’t present too much of a problem. The exception comes when using telephoto lenses, since I’m much less familiar with them now that I used to be. Although I was using the monopod to help keep things steady, I lost my first few frames due to camera shake beyond the capabilities of the OM-D’s image stabiliser. This was a stern reminder to increase the ISO to force a faster shutter speed when using telephoto lenses – I wound up using at least ISO 800 for much of the time, and only dropped to ISO 400 if the wind subsided and the birds stayed perfectly still. Opening the aperture to increase shutter speed would have been preferable to increasing the ISO, but I find the 75-300 gives it’s best at the long end with an aperture of f/8, which is less than a stop below it’s maximum aperture, anyway. This also gives some credence to my hankering after the new 40-150/2.8, 1.4x teleconverter, and yet to be released 300/4 lenses. They are brighter lenses, and with the teleconverter, would give me more reach – in 35 mm terms, they would range from 80 mm to 820 mm equivalent focal lengths. The longer reach has the benefit of increasing working distance, which decreases the likelihood of disturbing birds (or any animal, for that matter).

Little shags rest on rocks above the incoming tide near Aramoana, as two black swans waft past in the background. Olympus OM-D E-M5 with Olympus 75-300 mm II. 1/200 s, f/8, ISO 800, single shot autofocus, single shot drive mode, monopod.
Little shags rest on rocks above the incoming tide near Aramoana, as two black swans waft past in the background. Olympus OM-D E-M5 with Olympus 75-300 mm II. 1/200 s, f/8, ISO 800, single shot autofocus, single shot drive mode, monopod.

Relatively Fast Moving Subjects

The diplomatic way of summarising my experience with tracking moving subjects is: the results were less than ideal, with a low percentage success rate, and a high level of operator stress. The concise way of summarising it is: I swore a lot. There were some issues with the focus tracking identifying and following moving birds (especially the fastest ones), which wasn’t helped by me losing sight of the birds in the viewfinder. In the end, my success rate with tracking autofocus and high frame rate burst shooting was similar to my success rate using single shot autofocus frame-by-frame. I’ve learnt two things from this: I need to become familiar with some potentially useful camera functions I hardly ever use; and I need to improve my ability to track moving subjects.

A red billed gull flying over the beach at Aramoana. Olympus OM-D E-M5 with Olympus 75-300 mm II. 1/320 s, f/8, ISO 800, single shot autofocus, single shot drive mode, monopod.
A red billed gull flying over the beach at Aramoana. Olympus OM-D E-M5 with Olympus 75-300 mm II. 1/320 s, f/8, ISO 800, single shot autofocus, single shot drive mode, monopod.

Becoming familiar with tracking autofocus and burst mode shooting will come through experience. This means making a conscious effort to take photos of more moving subjects, to learn the limits of the functions, and the situations in which they are most likely to be helpful. This also means learning how to optimise their function, i.e. finding out how I can help them perform to their potential. In short: practice, practice, practice.

A fantail searches for insects on the road by the salt marsh at Aramoana. Olympus OM-D E-M5 with Olympus 75-300 mm II. 1/125 s, f/8, ISO 400, single shot autofocus, single shot drive mode, monopod.
A fantail searches for insects on the road by the salt marsh at Aramoana. Olympus OM-D E-M5 with Olympus 75-300 mm II. 1/125 s, f/8, ISO 400, single shot autofocus, single shot drive mode, monopod.

Once upon a time, I could track moving subjects with ease. Sadly, these skills have vaporised at some stage in the past few years. During Sunday’s session, I identified three key areas I fell short in: establishing speed, anticipating course, and anticipating range. This will be challenging to relearn, as all three are inextricably linked. Establishing subject speed determines how fast the camera has to be panned to keep a subject in frame. I frequently overshot birds by thinking they were moving faster than they really were, which caused them to lag behind where the camera was pointing. To make matters worse, I didn’t anticipate when birds would turn, which means that even if I was panning at the right speed, I got horribly muddled up and moved the camera off the bird before registering what I was doing. Things then became even more confused, as my working range changed every time the birds changed direction. This caused thoughts ranging from:

“That bird is too small to see,” to

“That bird has a surprisingly large head.”

This reminded me that I should be prepared to rapidly adjust the zoom ring.

Banded dotterels forage in the mudflats at Aramoana. Olympus OM-D E-M5 with Olympus 75-300 mm II. 1/200 s, f/8, ISO 400, single shot autofocus, single shot drive mode, monopod.
Banded dotterels foraging in the mudflats at Aramoana. Olympus OM-D E-M5 with Olympus 75-300 mm II. 1/200 s, f/8, ISO 400, single shot autofocus, single shot drive mode, monopod.

To help in solving my issue with keeping track of moving subjects, I’ve ordered an EE-1 red dot sight to sit in the hot shoe. This promises a wider field of view than the viewfinder, which should make establishing speed and direction easier. However, parallax error and the fact that it doesn’t indicate the magnification of the lens, may cause issues as birds move closer or farther away. Still, that’s all part of the relearning process.

A little shag flying low over Hamilton Bay, Dunedin. Olympus OM-D E-M5 with Olympus 75-300 mm II. 1/250 s, f/8, ISO 800, single shot autofocus, single shot drive mode, monopod.
A little shag flying low over Hamilton Bay, Dunedin. Olympus OM-D E-M5 with Olympus 75-300 mm II. 1/250 s, f/8, ISO 800, single shot autofocus, single shot drive mode, monopod.

Conclusion

Often, the pitfall of coming back to something after a bit of time away, is realising how much you’ve forgotten. Worse still, is coming back to something with completely different equipment. However, we supposedly never stop learning, so by extension, we probably re-learn a lot of things along the way, too. In this instance, it all comes down to reacquiring planning skills, as well as acquiring camera skills both forgotten and never previously learned.

There is some way to go before wildlife shooting and I regain a good level of familiarity. I’m relishing the prospect.

Update: a Requested Crop

A white fronted tern approaching  the Aramoana mole. Olympus OM-D E-M5 with Olympus 75-300 mm II. 1/400 s, f/8, ISO 800, continuous autofocus with tracking, high frame rate burst mode, monopod. Cropped to 9 x 9" (approximately 7.3 megapixels)
A white fronted tern approaching the Aramoana mole. Olympus OM-D E-M5 with Olympus 75-300 mm II. 1/400 s, f/8, ISO 800, continuous autofocus with tracking, high frame rate burst mode, monopod. Cropped to 9 x 9″ (approximately 7.3 megapixels).

A quick comment on the crop: in this case, the actual image was sharp enough to get a decent crop, and the crop has fulfilled the intended purpose of making the bird more visible. Theoretically, the image is still at a high enough resolution to print to almost A3 size. However, a side effect of cropping is that noise has become more noticeable, especially over the darker foliage on the hills in the background. While post-capture cropping worked, it would have been preferable to achieve the tighter framing by using a longer focal length lens – this would have preserved the ability to print above A3 size, and reduced the extent to which noise is noticeable in the image.

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5 thoughts on “The Relearning Curve”

  1. nice post. I like the second photo and wonder if it was cropped more to see the bird better, how it would come out. maybe a bit to fuzzy? I look forward to seeing more.

    1. Thanks very much 🙂 With respects to cropping the photo of the tern: it should work fairly well. I will have a go at it later this week and update the post with the result.

  2. i like the crop version better as the tern is not lost in the background, I feel. the position of the tern, I feel, makes it become lost in the background and the crop version highlights it better. as you have said, a longer lens would have brought the subject closer. a print, as you have said, would show the “noise” but, that may not matter much on the visual scope of the subject. I have learned to use as long a lens as possible to shoot birds because of the backgrounds and physical size of birds leads one, I feel, to using one. thanks for taking the time to do this.

    1. You’re welcome, and you’re quite right, it’s important to get in as close as possible to prevent a small subject getting “lost” in the background. That is why I’m quite looking forward to the better telephoto options which are in the pipeline for the Micro Four Thirds system, since these should prove to be better all-round (in terms of image quality and usability) than an adapted lens. As you say, the image noise doesn’t really matter; it comes down to my preference for “cleaner” files, like I’d get shooting low ISOs or slow speed films for landscapes and still subjects.

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