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Scott Bourne’s Bird Photography Gear Guide Micro Four Thirds Olympus Edition

DISCLAIMER: I will refer to crop factors in this presentation. It’s important to know that crop factor and the associated focal length multiplier only affects field of view. I prefer to reference this as effective focal length (EFL) but others use FOV. Feel free to use whichever term you like. Also please note I am an Olympus Visionary, but I made my switch to Olympus cameras before that honor was offered to me, and I paid for the gear I bought when I switched. I simply mention my status here by way of disclosure.

Are you interested in getting started with bird photography or are you looking to take your shooting to the next level? Believe it or not you can do it using Micro Four Thirds gear. I have made some great portraits, birdscapes and even flight shots with this gear, and even made salable prints from the RAW files I get from my Olympus cameras. I've had my images from Olympus cameras used in articles and on web sites and recently published a book that was mostly made of photos from my Olympus camera. My images have been used on greeting cards and made into posters. In every case, the quality of my pictures from this gear meets or beats that coming from other cameras I used to shoot with.

One of my favorite things about the switch to Micro Four Thirds gear is that it makes bird photography more accessible. For some, there is no other option. Many people who love birds and bird photography simply can’t physically carry or effectively wield the large, heavy full-frame gear that most associate with bird photography. Still others can’t come up with the $20-$30k that it costs to grab a couple of Canon 1DX bodies with telephoto lenses.

If you need to save space, weight or money, rest assured that the Micro Four Thirds gear I discuss here will get you some great results. I use this gear exclusively and have seen my keeper rate actually go up, because I can shoot longer than I used to when I carried the heavy full-frame DSLR.

This gear is expensive compared to some Micro Four Thirds setups, but it’s a bargain comparing to some other options.

Cameras

Ultimately, you need to get a camera body with excellent auto-focus, a high frame rate, a good buffer, and the ability to use fast, long glass.

Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II Mirrorless Micro Four Thirds Digital Camera. The big advantage of the OMD EM1 Mark II is that its tracking autofocus actually works. It’s the first mirrorless camera on the market to offer a tracking autofocus that is this reliable. It has several other advantages including: It’s roughly a third of the price of a Canon 1DX MK II, and about 1/3 the weight of the Canon and one half the size.

The autofocus points on the Olympus camera body cover a wider area of the viewfinder than the AF points on any DSLR. Very few cameras in the world can match the Olympus when it comes to active AF points with a teleconverter attached. This is an incredible advantage for people who need the extra reach offered by a teleconverter or an accurate AF.

At some point you can’t defeat physics. Full-frame DSLRs do have a small advantage in low-light because of their larger sensor. But given the size, cost and weight advantages, any shots I would miss due to the camera's sensor size are made up for in shots I get because I can work longer without getting tired. Beyond that, for most people, the cost of a 1DX MK II is simply out of reach. On the Canon side, the Canon 7D MK II is a crop-sensor camera that most entry-level bird photographers gravitate to and in my opinion, given the heavy lenses you have to use to make it work, it simply pales in comparison to the Olympus MK II. I think the Olympus body is better in every way except in some cases where the autofocus is a little faster in low-light on the Canon 7D MK II.

Another advantage of the Olympus body is the in-camera stabilization, especially when paired with a lens like the Olympus 300 f/4 Pro Lens. No other camera body I am aware of can match it. I got the starling shot below using the 300 f/4 with the Olympus teleconverter for an effective focal length of 840mm and I handheld the shot at 1/90th of a second!!! This is unheard of performance. In my entire career using Canon or Nikon 600mm lenses with teleconverters I never once - not one time - got a decent shot trying to hand hold.

By the way, the battery life in the Mark II camera is the best I've ever seen from a Micro Four Thirds camera body. I can get by on two batteries per day, no problem. So I do carry a spare battery - Olympus BLH-1 Lithium-Ion Battery (7.4V, 1720mAh).

The Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mirrorless Micro Four Thirds Digital Camera would make a good step-up camera for those who want to switch but can't afford the Mark II version. Note this camera is no longer sold as new. It’s been replaced by the Mark II version, but makes a very capable bird portrait camera. It doesn’t contain the fast autofocus found in the Mark II but if all you are doing is photographing captive birds or tame birds, it is a fine choice.

Lenses

The problem with bird photography is that it is often very expensive because of the telephone lenses favored by avian shooters. Big glass costs big bucks. There are things you can do to mitigate costs, but when it boils down to selecting where to spend the bulk of your money, you can’t go wrong with buying good glass. You may not need the super long glass if you’re lucky enough to live in a place like Florida where the birds are unbelievably tame, or if you have the luxury of working from blinds that are close to the action.

My first lens pick is the incredible Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 300mm f/4 IS PRO Lens. It’s a $2500, stabilized telephoto lens with an EFL of 600mm at f/4! It also pairs well with an Olympus 1.4 teleconverter to get you 840mm in a hand-holdable lens that costs about 1/4th it’s full-frame equal. It's one of the sharpest lenses I have ever used.

Long, telephoto lenses are crucially important to bird photographers. For years I shot with Canon’s $11,499 600 f/4 IS L lens. The Olympus 300 replaces that lens in my kit and is just as sharp, (if not sharper) allows just as much light to pass through (wide open) but weighs five pounds less, (Canon 8.75 lbs v. Olympus 3.25 lbs) close focuses to 4.59 feet (as compared to 14.76 feet on the Canon,) costs $9,000 less and is roughly half the size.

The close focusing distance advantage is truly amazing. It allows for close up pictures that fill the frame even when working very close to the subject. The color rendition, sharpness, contrast and clarity from that lens are all state-of-the-art. I've had the privilege of owning some of the best camera lenses in the world. This one belongs on that list.

The 300mm lens is fast to focus and its image stabilization is also state-of-the-art. These are all very important to bird photographers. Being able to hand-hold a lens with this kind of reach is amazing. You can also usually get by with any old ball head on your tripod. While a gimbal head always helps, if you can't afford one or can't find room for one, it’s not absolutely necessary when using this lens.

Along with the 300, I highly recommend the Olympus M.Zuiko Digital MC-14 1.4x Teleconverter which is also state-of-the-art. It has very little negative impact on overall image quality or autofocus speed. Compared to the more expensive Canon teleconverter, it offers slightly better image quality and slightly faster autofocus.

The Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 40-150mm f/2.8 PRO Lens is my mid-range flight lens. Offering long reach with an advanced feature-set and optical design, it’s a versatile 80-300mm equivalent telephoto zoom. As part of the PRO series of advanced lenses, this zoom distinguishes itself with a bright f/2.8 constant maximum aperture for consistent illumination throughout the zoom range to suit working in a variety of lighting conditions. Its optical design makes use of a series of aspherical and low dispersion glass elements to suppress chromatic and spherical aberrations for notable sharpness and clarity, and a ZERO coating is also used to reduce flare and ghosting for high contrast, color-accurate imaging.

More than 70% of my best eagle shots on my last Alaska trip were made with this lens.

Another lens I use to round out my bird photography kit is the Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 12-100mm f/4 IS PRO Lens. While I usually prefer primes to zooms, this zoom is very special and very versatile. While I don't shoot much in this focal range, when I need to do so, this lens is very easy to pack and very reliable.

Benefitting handling, the expansive zoom range is an optical image stabilization system that works in conjunction with this lens and select cameras' you get up to 6.5 stops of stabilization. A Movie & Still Compatible (MSC) high-speed imager AF system provides quick, accurate, and quiet focusing performance well-suited to both photo and video applications, and a manual focus clutch permits fast changing to MF for more precise control. Additionally, a lens function button is featured on the side of the barrel for direct settings adjustment, and the lens also features a weather-sealed construction for use in trying environmental conditions.

Flash & Accessories

Some people wrongly assume that a camera flash bothers birds. It absolutely does not in almost any circumstance, except when a bird is sitting on a nest with eggs in it. And even then, depending on the species it may be no problem. The smaller the bird the more likely the flash is to bother it in that situation. While somewhat controversial in some circles, I have no problem with using flash on wildlife photos.

Now just because I can use flash doesn't mean I do. In fact, the circumstances that require flash are rare. Accordingly, I don’t use flash very often, but when I am working close and against a backlit subject, flash is great to fill in the shadow side. The Olympus FL-900R Electronic Flash is always in my bag or my vest just in case.

I use the Vello Off-Camera TTL Flash Cord for Olympus/Panasonic Cameras (3') to get the flash off the camera for better (more flattering) lighting.

The MAGMOD MagBeam Wildlife Kit Collapsible Flash Diffuser is what I use instead of a Better Beamer Flash Extender. This diffuser lets me soften the light that covers the bird and does so without costing too much light. It also extends the flash range which is important when using big, telephoto glass.

Lens/Camera Support

Avian photography is one of the rare photographic pursuits where the equipment can often make the difference between getting a shot or not. Telephoto lenses are hard to stabilize without a tripod. That said, I can, and do, often shoot without a tripod now that I have switched. But there are times (in low-light for instance) where a tripod can help. I often use a tripod or even a monopod if for no other reason than to rest my arms and let the gear do all the work.

I use the "Arca-Swiss" tongue and groove system to mount my cameras and lenses. The Olympus 300 f/4 Pro Lens has an Arca-compatible lens foot built right in. The 40-150 f/2.8 Pro Lens does require a lens foot. The 12-100 f/4 Pro Lens can be mounted to the camera and then the camera mounted to a tripod because it isn't a big, large, heavy lens.

Kirk Photo makes high-quality, affordable Arca-Swiss compatible plates. You can also find lots of Chinese knock-offs on Ebay and Amazon but I don't recommend them.

When you use a big lens you want to consider a gimbal head which allows you to balance the camera/lens combo in such a way that it swivels much like a machine gun turret. This takes the stress out of moving a big lens quickly. While it's very rare since I switched, I do still use a gimbal head. My favorite is the Jobu Design BWG-J3K Jobu Jr.3 Gimbal Kit with Swing-Arm HM-J2. It's affordable, small, Arca-Swiss-compatible and very sturdy despite its smaller size and relatively low price compared to competitors.

I still carry a tripod, even if I may not need it - just in case. And my favorite due to its super light weight, portability and reliable history is the Gitzo GT1542 Mountaineer Series 1 Carbon Fiber Tripod. It's fairly expensive, and if it's a bridge too far for you, consider the Vanguard Abeo Pro 283CGH Carbon Fiber Tripod with GH-300T Grip Head. The Vanguard comes with a head - the Gitzo does not. Prepare to spend $200 or so on a tripod head. I like the Induro BHD2 Ball Head.

More often than not, I do rely on a monopod. The Gitzo GM2562T Series 2 Traveler Carbon Fiber Monopod is extremely light, strong and small. It's very expensive but I have used a variant of this monopod for years and never regretted buying it. You can use this monopod with the Olympus 300 f/4 Pro Lens and walk around all day without getting tired.

If you want another idea for stabilizing your camera that is ultra portable, as in it will fit in any small bag or maybe even your pocket, look no further than the Platypod Max Camera Support. (There are smaller, cheaper versions available too.)

The Platypod Pro Max Camera Support is a wide, stable, and ultra low-profile platform that allows you to set up a large tripod head, camera, and lens on both horizontal and vertical surfaces.

Measuring 5.3 x 7.8" and only 0.2" thick, the Pro Max Camera Support allows you to photograph or record with a camera that is elevated only slightly higher than the tripod head it is used with. Four reversible, spiked feet that each feature rubber tips on one end can be distributed among five strategically placed, 1/4"-20 threaded holes. Once installed, they can be adjusted to level the platform on uneven surfaces, both indoors and out. For placement on unconventional surfaces and angles, two 2-inch belt shots allow the Pro Max Camera Support to be secured to a cylindrical object or to be taped onto angled floors. Two nail holes are included for permanent or semi-permanent mounting to walls, boards or ceilings; and for quick placement and removal from conventional tripods or quick release devices, 1/4"-20 and 3/8"-16 threaded holes are on the underside of the platform. You will need a bullhead for this unit, but when you want a stable camera and can't bring a tripod, this is often a great substitute.

I also like to shoot from my car, using it as a blind. For this the Kirk WM-2 Multi-Purpose Window Mount for Tripod Head (you have to supply your own head) is the best unit I've ever tested. It gives you a super stable shooting platform. If you prefer, the Apex Mini Bean Bag functions almost as well, but does take practice to get used to.

Filters

I don't use many actual filters on my lenses, but there are times I want a polarizer. My favorite is the Singh-Ray 77mm LB Warming Circular Polarizer Thin Mount Filter. It's great for cutting reflections and warming a scene. 77mm with step down rings can be used on most lenses.

Bags

The Think Tank Airport Security V 2.0 Rolling Camera Bag is far and away my favorite travel bag. It holds all my bird photography gear and can be either rolled through an airport or carried on my back. It's very versatile, strong, and flexible.

When I have to ship my gear, I rely exclusively on the Pelican 1614 Waterproof 1610 Case with Dividers or the Pelican 1510 Carry-On Case with Foam Set. I have never had a single piece of gear damaged when using Pelican cases.

Digital Darkroom Hardware

While it may only be temporary, I still use Apple computers for all my editing. Changes in Apple's approach has me considering going to Windows 10, but for now I use the MacBookAir as my laptop of choice and the iMac 5K Computer which has a bigger screen to work on at home or office.

One place where I have switched to Windows is my tablet. I use the well-reviewed Microsoft Surface Pro 4 - I prefer this to Apple’s iPad mostly because it has a USB port.

When it comes to storage, redundancy and backup, I currently rely on Drobo products. My Drobo line up consists of a Drobo 5Dt – Fast storage that’s reliable; two Drobo 5Ns – A great way to backup my images and access from the road with Drobo Access and a Drobo Mini – A portable RAID for the road.

Digital Darkroom Software

I use a variety of software to edit my images. I used to use Aperture from Apple but when they abandoned it, I switched to Adobe Photoshop/Lightroom CC.

In addition to Adobe products I like Perfectly Clear Plug-ins V. 3.0, Macphun Luminar and Topaz Impression.

Other Gear

While not absolutely necessary, the Olympus HLD-9 Power Battery Grip certainly is helpful in several ways. It makes shooting verticals (handheld) mach more comfortable. It adds bulk to the camera which is a good thing for some of us who have bigger hands. And it stores a second battery. I keep one body with the battery grip in my bag and one without.

I believe patience is the number one tool in any bird photographer's kit. To that end, I often find myself simply waiting on a bird to come to my preferred background. Because it's less wear and tear on my old body, I prefer to sit while I wait. The very portable, lightweight, but sturdy Walkstool Comfort 55 XL 22 is the perfect field stool. I simply never leave home without mine.

I hate dust on my sensor and thankfully, the Olympus camera I use simply doesn't have a problem in that regard. But in case there is a problem, I use the Giottos Rocket Blaster Dust-Removal Tool. It is effective and affordable and can also be used to clear any exterior dust and debris from any and all of your camera gear.

While it has limited use (flight photography with the 300mm lens) I do like the Olympus EE-1 Dot Sight. It has limited utility but has helped me track birds in flight so I always have it with me just in case.

Conclusion

I am thrilled with the results I get from this gear and very thankful to the engineers who created the Micro Four Thirds format. Without it, my shooting career might be over. Thankfully, I don't feel like I've had to compromise at all to make this switch and in fact, feel like I've gotten better images as a result. If you are interested in this gear don't worry, it's more than capable if you are.

About The Author

Scott Bourne is a member of The Board Of Advisors at Macphun, an Olympus Visionary and a professional wildlife photographer, author and lecturer who specializes in birds. He was one of the founders of This Week In Photo, Founded Photofocus.com and is co-founder of the new Photo Podcast Network (photopodcasts.com.)

Scott is a regular contributor to several photography related blogs and podcasts and is the author of 11 photography books.

Scott is available to speak to your birding group, photography group and for both private and small group bird photography workshops. For more information on engaging Scott as a speaker or workshop leader, or for image licensing and print information, e-mail scott@scottbourne.com.

All the images in this presentation were made using Olympus Micro Four Thirds cameras and lenses.

Credits:

Copyright Scott Bourne 2017 - All Rights Reserved - scottbourne.com - scottbourne.photography. 

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