Revolutionary bird photography:
Hand-held shooting with a 600mm lens

Incredible resolving power and image quality
Photos and commentary by Yusuke Odagiri

A bright, high-performance super telephoto lens is essential for capturing beautiful shots of birds. The M.Zuiko Digital ED 300mm f/4.0 IS PRO is the lens bird photography enthusiasts who use OM-D and PEN have been waiting for. Here I'd like to share different ways to make use of its power and how to master using this lens.

1Revolutionizing bird photography

The M.Zuiko Digital ED 300mm f/4.0 IS PRO is the fifth lens in the M.Zuiko PRO series, a line-up developed for professionals and known for its superb optical performance as well as splashproof and dustproof construction. It has a focal length of 300mm, which is 600mm when converted to 35-mm equivalent focal length. It has a bright f/4.0 aperture which is fantastic. Many times in bird photography a focal length of more than 500mm (35mm equivalent) is required, and the M.Zuiko Digital ED 300mm f/4.0 IS PRO is up to the task when combined with an OM-D or PEN.

Because this is an M.Zuiko PRO lens, its image quality is impeccable. Suppressing chromatic aberration and colour bleeding, which affect image quality on telephoto lenses, three Super ED lenses are lavishly used for excellent resolving power and optical performance similar to fluorite (extremely minor refraction rate changes from blue to red wavelength). Simply looking through the built-in EVF (electronic viewfinder) is enough to experience the superior resolving power.

One of the highlights of the M.Zuiko Digital ED 300mm f/4.0 IS PRO is the inclusion of an in-lens optical image stabilization system. Working in concert with the in-body 5-axis image stabilization on the OM-D (E-M1, E-M1 Mark II, E-M5 Mark II) and PEN-F, a 5-axis Sync IS system is formed to provide image stabilization performance equivalent to 6 shutter speed steps. Even on lenses with a long focal length that require a shutter speed of 1/1000 sec. or faster to prevent camera shake, 5-axis sync IS makes it possible to capture crisp images 6 shutter speed steps lower at 1/15 seconds. With 5-axis sync IS, even in dark conditions where a tripod is usually necessary, you can shoot handheld and achieve sharp, blur-free images.

M.Zuiko Digital ED 300mm f/4.0 IS PRO attached to the OM-D E-M1 (with HLD-7)

The level of detail is so fine that when photographing birds, the smallest details in the wings are captured and the texture of the features comes across clearly on the screen. Powerful image stabilization contributes to sharp images, and the widest aperture setting does not result in brightness falloff around the edges or a loss in image quality. The closest focusing distance is 1.4 m, with focusing possible up to 1.15 m from the end of the lens. Although a shooting distance of 3 to 10 m is the norm for photographing birds, unwary subjects can sometimes come in close, making a short closest focusing distance very helpful.

This is a male Daurian redstart perched on a tree 5 m away. Hand-held shooting makes it possible to quickly capture a shot of this small, restless bird.

Olympus OM-D E-M1, M.Zuiko Digital ED 300mm f/4.0 IS PRO, f5.0, 1/6000s.

Olympus OM-D E-M1, M.Zuiko Digital ED 300mm f/4.0 IS PRO, f5.0, 1/6000s.

This is a magnified shot of a Darian redstart's face. The detail in the plumage and feathers around its beak are sharp to the point where you can almost feel the texture.

This is a white-eye that came for the nectar in the flower. It was photographed from a distance of approximately three metres. Because the depth of field is shallow I stopped down to f/7.1, but with the eyes in focus, it still leaves the tail feathers out of focus.

OM-D E-M1, M.Zuiko Digital ED 300mm f/4.0 IS PRO. 1/320s, f7.1

OM-D E-M1, M.Zuiko Digital ED 300mm f/4.0 IS PRO. f/320s, f8

This is a sparrow that suddenly landed in front of me. Despite the extreme close distance of approximately 1.5 m, I was able to get a good shot.

2Holding the M.Zuiko Digital ED 300mm f/4.0 IS PRO

SHOOTING WITH TRIPOD COLLAR ON

If you have large hands, the tripod base plate can rest on the palm of your left hand and your fingers can be placed on the focus ring and the end portion of the lens for a steady hold.

Shooting With Decoration Ring On

For those with smaller hands or those who like to lighten their equipment even a little bit, the included decoration ring DR-79 can replace the tripod collar for an easier grip. Doing so makes the camera approximately 200 g lighter.

When the tripod collar is removed, the DR-79 decoration ring can be attached to hide tripod attachment parts.

Switches And Buttons On The Side Of The M.Zuiko Digital ED 300mm F/4.0 IS PRO

From the top you can see the Focus Limit switch, IS (image stabilization) switch, and the L-Fn (lens function) button. The Focus Limit narrows down the AF focus area, improving AF efficiency. It has three positions: the standard 1.4 m to ∞ (infinity), 1.4 to 4 m for close-up photography, and 4 m to ∞ for capturing far-away subjects.

IS on/off can be controlled by the IS switch. Please note, controls may differ according to the camera body.

You can assign favourite functions to the L-Fn button in the camera's custom menu.

3A dedicated teleconverter for superb image quality

Although a 35mm equivalent of 600mm is sufficient for a super telephoto lens, it isn't enough for every situation. A longer focal length and narrower angle of view is better for photographing highly cautious birds and smaller birds that are difficult to approach. For situations like this, the MC-14 1.4x Teleconverter can be attached to the M.Zuiko Digital ED 300mm f/4.0 IS PRO. When using this teleconverter, the focal length changes to 420mm, or 840mm when converted to 35mm-equivalent length. Although the widest aperture value drops from f/4.0 to f/5.6, it produces results that do not lose to a high-cost 800mm f/5.6 super telephoto lens from an SLR manufacturer.

Although many people have the notion that image quality drops when a teleconverter is attached, this is certainly not true with the MC-14, which is composed of six lens elements in three lens groups, including one HR (high refractive index) lens. This accessory was developed specifically for use with the M.Zuiko Digital ED 40-150mm f/2.8 PRO and the M.Zuiko Digital ED 300mm f/4.0 IS PRO. Although the values drop in the MTF curve (spatial frequency value for looking at lens imaging performance), there is no noticeable loss of image quality in actual images. Because the MC-14 is compact (14.7 mm long) and lightweight (105 g), you will hardly notice it even if it is left attached to the M.Zuiko Digital ED 300mm f/4.0 IS PRO.

Because the combination of the M.Zuiko Digital ED 300mm f/4.0 IS PRO and the MC-14 1.4x Teleconverter leaves room to spare in an image, photos can be trimmed yet remain sharp. This is a significant advantage when uploading bird photos to share on the internet.

Another highly appealing point is the uniform image quality up to the edges of the image. Vignetting and light falloff at the edges is thoroughly suppressed, providing nicely rounded defocused points of light. This is one more piece of evidence that the lens was designed with uncompromising commitment to image quality.

The MC-14 1.4x teleconverter extends the focal length of the M.Zuiko Digital ED 300mm f/4.0 IS PRO by 1.4x. Its thin body at 14.7 mm is also appealing.

OM-D E-M1, M.Zuiko Digital ED 300mm f/4.0 IS PRO, MC-14 M.Zuiko Digital 1.4x Teleconverter. 1/800s, f5.6.

This is a mallard duck in the middle of a pond. Because it was difficult to get closer, this shot was captured with the teleconverter.

600mm-Equivalent Focal Length
Mallard duck photographed with the M.Zuiko Digital ED 300mm f/4.0 IS PRO, without the MC-14 teleconverter.

840mm-Equivalent Focal Length
Mallard duck photographed with the M.Zuiko Digital ED 300mm f/4.0 IS PRO, with the MC-14 teleconverter.

Olympus OM-D E-M1, M.Zuiko Digital ED 300mm f/4.0 IS PRO MC-14 M.Zuiko Digital 1.4x Teleconverter

Previous image cropped. This kingfisher was photographed through trees from approximately 10 m away. The photo is very sharp even when cropped.

Here is a shot of a female shrike that was taken a little against the light. The defocusing of the light filtering through the trees is beautiful. The defocused light points at the edges are nearly perfect circles and you can see that vignetting is minimised.

OM-D E-M1, M.Zuiko Digital ED 300mm f/4.0 IS PRO, MC-14 M.Zuiko Digital 1.4x Teleconverter. 1/160s, f6.3.

4Accurate focusing is important for sharp images

Regardless of whether your subject is a bird or not, when photographing living things, you usually focus on the eyes. No matter how nicely focused the body is, if the eyes aren't in focus, the photo will lack life. When photographing a bird perched on the branch of a tree, set the AF target to Single Target or Small Target and move the AF target wherever you like on the screen and use S-AF (single AF) to focus.

If you press the OK button on the rear of the OM-D E-M1, E-M5 Mark II, and PEN-F, the Super Control Panel appears. You can then use the arrow pad to select an option and adjust the AF mode, AF target type, and other settings for shooting.

For more precise focusing, I recommend S-AF + MF. The powerful image stabilization performance of the M.Zuiko Digital ED 300mm f/4.0 IS PRO should prevent the AF target from moving away from the bird's eyes and accidentally focusing on a subject in the background. However, because the depth of field is extremely shallow on the M.Zuiko Digital ED 300mm f/4.0 IS PRO, even when you intend to focus on the eyes, you sometimes end up focusing on a different part of the body.If you stop down one or two shutter speed steps the depth of field can be made deeper, but when the subject is close, the section in focus will move out of the depth of field if the bird moves even a few millimetres.

With S-AF + MF, after focusing in S-AF, you can fine tune the focus with MF (manual focus). Select S-AF + MF in the Custom Menu > AF/MF > AF Mode. Also in the MF Assistance item, set Magnify to ON. Focus using S-AF when shooting, and with the focus locked, turn the focusing ring. Doing this magnifies the viewfinder image in the centre of the AF target, making it easier to check the focus. Stop focus ring operations to cancel magnified display.

Setting up "Thumb AF"

As a way to improve AF control, it is possible to customise operations by assigning AF activation to the AEL/AFL button on the rear of the camera. At default settings, AF operation is carried out with the shutter button, but this customisation makes it possible to switch AF operation to the AEL/AFL button so the shutter button can be exclusively used for releasing the shutter. This is useful in situations such as using MF to focus while in S-AF + MF. If you release the halfway shutter button press and then press it again, AF is activated. Assigning AF operation to the AEL/AFL button helps avoid this problem. In Japan, many know this as "Thumb AF" and it is a widely used method.

In Custom Menu A > AF/MF > AEL/AFL, set S-AF operation to "mode3". This separates AF operation from the shutter button.

Next, in Custom Menu B > Button/Dial/Lever > Button Function, select AEL/AFL Button Function and assign "AEL/AFL."

When activating AF, press the AEL/AFL button on the rear of the camera body with the thumb of your right hand. After focusing, the focus position is maintained even if you release your thumb from the button.

If you mistakenly select an AF target, the AF may focus on the branches or scenery in the background. Small Target is the best option for focusing on the eyes of small birds such as this one.

If you slide the focusing ring on the M.Zuiko Digital ED 300mm f/4.0 IS PRO toward you, it switches to MF. Distance markers are engraved, which are useful in landscape photography. However, because the rotation angle is narrow during MF (rotation angle from 1.4 m to infinity), it is best to fine tune the focus in S-AF + MF.

BEHIND THE PHOTO: This is a male Daurian redstart that flew onto a plum tree. S-AF and Small Target AF were used to focus on its beady eyes.
Taken with an OM-D E-M1, M.Zuiko Digital ED 300mm f/4.0 IS PRO, MC-14 M.Zuiko Digital 1.4x Teleconverter. 1/1000s, f7.1

Taken with an OM-D E-M1, M.Zuiko Digital ED 300mm f/4.0 IS PRO, MC-14 M.Zuiko Digital 1.4x Teleconverter. 1/1250s, f6.3
 

5Powerful image stabilization that makes hand-held
movie shooting possible

The 5-axis sync IS made possible by combining the M.Zuiko Digital ED 300mm f/4.0 IS PRO with the OM-D E-M1 is extremely powerful. Because of this I wondered if I could shoot some hand-held movies with my E-M1 at super telephoto range, and decided to record Full HD videos of white-eyes flitting among the blossoms of an ume grove. There was nothing to lean against in the ume grove and I didn't have a tripod or monopod to stabilize my camera. On previous cameras and lenses I would never have thought of hand-held shooting in this kind of situation, but the 5-axis sync IS did not disappoint, and the footage was even more stable than I had imagined.

With the coming of spring, all kinds of beautiful birds flock to the trees to drink nectar from the blossoms.
Taken with an OM-D E-M1, M.Zuiko Digital ED 300mm f/4.0 IS PRO
MC-14 M.Zuiko Digital 1.4x Teleconverter. 1/1000s, f7.1

Although there have been 600mm (35mm equivalent) zoom lenses in the past, there is no substitute for the brightness and crisp photos from a wide open aperture on a prime lens. It provides sharp, clear image quality. It has a powerful image stabilization system. A closest focusing distance of 1.4 m. It has a highly reliable splashproof and dustproof construction, while being comparatively light, allowing you to use it for long periods of time. I could go on and on. This is without a doubt, an essential lens for photographers who shoot birds and other creatures.

I took a Full HD movie of white-eyes flying from tree to tree in search of plum blossom nectar. The entire movie was shot hand-held without using a tripod or monopod. I left aperture, shutter speed, and white balance settings up to the camera and achieved very vivid footage. I then edited multiple clips together in Adobe Premiere Elements video editing software to create a single movie.

ABOUT YUSUKE ODAGIRI

Born in Tokyo, 1967, and currently residing in Kagawa prefecture, Japan. After working as an editor of Japanese camera magazines Capa and Dijicapa!, Odagiri began working as a freelance writer and photographer in 2009. His articles and photos have been featured in camera publications, bird publications, railroad publications, travel publications, and outdoor publications.

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