USING OM-D E-M1 MARK II AUTOFOCUS FOR BIRD PHOTOGRAPHY

BY OLYMPUS VISIONARY SCOTT BOURNE
OM-D E-M1 MARK II, M.ZUIKO 300MM F4.0 IS PRO + MC-14. F8.0, 1/1500, ISO 400.

The OM-D E-M1 Mark II camera body features the most sophisticated autofocus system of any Micro Four Thirds camera ever made. It is more robust than most mirrorless cameras – and with the right adjustment, can deliver autofocus performance that is on par with many DSLR cameras.

This sophistication does come along with some testing. If only you could just run down to the local camera store, buy the camera, and have it work perfectly for every possible autofocus situation! The good news is that with some practice, testing, consulting with technical people at Olympus, researching, shooting and then shooting some more, I believe I have figured out how to coax the most out of the 121-point Dual FAST AF system built into every OM-D E-M1 Mark II camera.

There are a number of systems working together to make the autofocus in an OM-D camera successful. It starts with the incredible “Active AF” and a new imager phase detection technology. There are numerous controls over the autofocus such as continuous AF and continuous AF with tracking. There are five steps of C-AF lock available and three types of AF scanner.

One of the most remarkable things about this new AF is the 121-point cross-type, phase detection with the ability to choose all 121 points, or a smaller, targeted group of nine area points, five area points or a single point as the target AF. When I shot with DSLRs, even flagship bodies costing three times as much as an Olympus camera, they only came with 61 AF points.

OM-D E-M1 MARK II, M.ZUIKO 40-150MM F2.8 PRO. F6.7, 1/1500, ISO 400.

ADJUSTING THE AF SETTINGS

It’s simple to get the basic settings you need to start shooting:

  • Set the camera to autofocus
  • Press halfway down on the shutter button to activate the AF. I don’t use back-button focus, but if you want to you can enable that function and still apply everything I discuss below.

CUSTOM MENUS

All the power of the E-M1 Mark II’s AF can be harnessed in the Custom Menus. While there are many different menus, all of the nomenclature has a purpose. The “A” series (A1/A2/A3) controls autofocus. It’s here that you can decide what you want the camera to do in any given situation.

Most of what you need to do is found in the CUSTOM MENU (Gear Symbol.)

Under the CUSTOM MENU you can use menu A1 to set the AF mode. Most of the time I use C-AF+TR (Continuous AF Tracking) or simply C-AF (Continuous mode.) My choice depends on subject, how much light I have to work with, and how much contrast there is in the scene. Large subjects, in good light and relatively contrasty scenes track the best.

If you’re new to this camera, you may not realize it’s fully capable of tracking moving objects (like birds in flight) quite well. To activate the C-AF+TR, press the shutter button halfway to focus; the camera then tracks and maintains focus on the current subject while the shutter button is held in this position.

I have a guide below which you can follow to set your camera to match my personal settings, but I want to discuss them first, so you are able to understand the theory behind them.

The hardest part of the Olympus AF system to understand right off the bat is the tracking sensitivity section of the menu. You have a choice of five different modes here that range from -2 to +2, with -2 being on what Olympus calls the TIGHT side, and +2 being on what Olympus calls the PLUS side. These settings control the way the AF sticks with a subject once another subject enters the scene.

The LOOSE end helps you track focus on the most irregular movement (like a bald eagle suddenly changing directions mid-air and flying erratically) where the TIGHT end deals with many obstacles (like a bunch of small birds on a perch.) When I am photographing larger birds generally moving across the scene in any direction I set this to LOOSE +2. When I am dealing with smaller perched birds, in a busy environment I switch to -2 TIGHT.

There are times when I am working with lots of perched birds in a tight area and here I usually turn off the tracking and just stick with Continuous AF. I select a group of five (sometimes even just one single AF point) keep that point on the birds, which usually produces a good result.

If you are trying to photograph birds in flight, go with LOOSE +2. For regular situations where you don’t anticipate much movement or many avian subjects, stay at the default which is ZERO (0) and when dealing with lots of birds go with TIGHT -2 or turn off tracking all together and go to just C-AF.

Another factor that seems to impact the performance of the tracking capability of the AF is the number of frames per second, and type of shutter. I have found the best results at 10 FPS with the mechanical shutter.

OM-D E-M1 MARK II, M.ZUIKO 40-150MM F2.8 PRO. F5.6, 1/1500, ISO 320.

OM-D E-M1 MARK II, M,ZUIKO 40-150MM F2.8 PRO. F5.6, 1/1500, ISO 400.

TECHNIQUE

When you have the camera set to tracking AF, you will get a green box that says things are in focus. The AF target is displayed in red if the camera can no longer track the subject. Release the shutter button and then frame the subject again and press the shutter button halfway. This is SUPER important. It’s an old technique which is called “bumping the focus” and it’s absolutely crucial to getting the best results from the E-M1 Mark II. I’ve done it with every AF camera I have ever owned. By constantly bumping the focus (i.e., acquiring, and then re-acquiring as often as necessary) I can make sure the camera keeps up with any moving subject I want to photograph. Practicing this skill and using it regularly will dramatically increase the number of “keepers” you get with tracking AF.

WHEN TO USE ALL 121 AF POINTS

If you are photographing a bird flying against a clean background, like a clear blue sky, use all 121 AF points. There’s nothing to compete for the AF’s attention in these situations and 121 AF points active make it much easier to stay on the bird.

WHEN TO USE FIVE AF POINTS

If you are photographing a bird flying against a busy background, in front a grove of trees or low to the water where white caps are lapping up against the surface, use five AF points. There may be objects trying to compete for the AF’s attention in these situations, so limiting the number of active AF points active make it much easier to stay on the bird. (Use the D-Pad to move the group of five points so that they are active on the bird’s eye area.)

WHEN TO USE ONE AF POINT

If you are photographing a tame, lone bird, and you want to obtain critical sharp focus on the eye, place one AF point on the eye (using the D-Pad to move it around) and you will get the best results.

MY RECOMMENDED SETTINGS

FOR BIRDS IN FLIGHT
*If not mentioned leave to default
A1 AF MODE C-AF+TR
Leave to default (Unless you want to use back-button focus - use this button for that)
AF Scanner Mode 2
C-AF Lock +2
AF Area Pointer On2
A2 AF Illuminator On
C1 Res Priority C On
Settings Drive Low 10FPS Mechanical Shutter
C2 Image Stabilizer S-IS 1
Image Stabilization IS Priority

For birds perched, use all of the settings mentioned above, except C-AF Lock -2.

BONUS – COMMON AF PROBLEMS & SOLUTIONS

  • If you are using a PRO lens with a focus clutch, make sure the focus ring is in the auto focus mode. This is pushed away from the camera. Pushed towards the camera is manual focus mode.
  • Make sure you haven’t set the manual focus through a button. You should see MF in the viewfinder.
  • Here are common ways to change the active focus points from one to five, to nine or all. The easiest way to change this setting is to use the Direction Pad (D-Pad) on the back of the camera. (You can also use the Function 1 button if you haven’t reassigned it and the SCP.) Using the D-Pad, just press one of the direction arrows to bring up the focus point selector. Now use the front and rear wheels to select the number of focus points and eye detect options.
  • Sometimes the camera won’t focus because you are too close to the subject - step back.

OM-D E-M1 MARK II, M.ZUIKO 40-150MM F2.8 PRO + MC-14. F8.0, 1/1500, ISO 400.

Like everything else in photography, obtaining satisfying results with the autofocus system on the OM-D E-M1 Mark II takes practice and patience. I switched from Canon to Olympus, and everything from my muscle memory to my basic understanding of the camera’s menu system had to be re-learned. But once mastered, and used regularly, most of the things discussed in this post become second nature. You won’t even have to think about them! Stick with it and you’ll find the sweet spot. If this information didn’t answer any of your particular questions feel free to reach out to me for clarification at scott@scottbourne.com.

The settings I have described work best for me, based on my personal shooting style. Your mileage may vary. Don’t be afraid to experiment with these settings and by all means do your own tests to find what’s right for you!

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