Short-eared Owl in Flight
Bird Photography,  Photo Gear

Testing Olympus Bird Detection Autofocus on Birds in Flight

Olympus released firmware update version 2.0 for the E-M1X several weeks ago.  This firmware update included Bird Detection Autofocus.  The E-M1X is the only Olympus camera that has the Bird Detection AF feature.

For this blog, I wanted to mainly focus on birds in flight as there were several other blogs and videos on Bird Detection AF that focused on stationary birds. I will briefly touch on photographing stationary birds and also the settings that I used for Bird Detection AF.

I wanted to test the Bird Detection AF on several different birds in flight in different lighting conditions.  After several weeks and outings, here are my conclusions on Olympus’ Bird Detection AF.

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For all of these tests, I used the OM-D E-M1X handheld paired with the 300mm f/4 lens and 1.4x Teleconverter with Continuous AF + Bird Detection Tracking.

Short-eared Owl in Flight
Short-eared Owl in Flight

Short-eared Owls

The conditions were overcast and cloudy when I came across a group of 4 Short-eared Owls out hunting.  I used ISO 1000 to keep the shutter speed high enough so the owl’s wings weren’t blurred.

The tracking worked well on the high flying owls and I ended up with quite a few good images even at ISO 1000.  The owl’s are a large bird that fly in more predicable flight patterns.

I had quite a few keepers of the owls in flight and ended up with some really nice photographs shooting handheld at ISO 1000.  Overall, Bird Detection AF worked well for the owls in flight.

Tundra Swan in Flight
Tundra Swan in Flight

Tundra Swans

Like with the owls, Bird Detection AF worked well for flying Tundra Swans with the sky as the background.  When the birds flew in front of the tree line, tracking and focusing didn’t work as well.

Northern Harrier Hunting in the Tall Grass
Northern Harrier Hunting in the Tall Grass

Northern Harriers

In contrast to the owls, Northern Harriers fly low to the ground in erratic flight paths making them a more difficult target.  Bird Detection AF didn’t produce as many keepers.  These results didn’t surprise me as Northern Harriers can be difficult to photograph.

I photographed the Northern Harriers in both overcast and sunny conditions.  Not surprisingly, I had many more keepers in the sunny conditions, but the tracking seemed fairly consistent between sunny and overcast conditions.  Under sunny conditions (the photographs in this blog), I was shooting at ISO 640.

With the Northern Harriers, I had a couple shots where I was surprised with the results. 

  • On several photographs, the E-M1X nailed AF on the eye with the Harrier flying low in between tall grasses and weeds.  The AF usually did not fare well when the Harriers flew low into the vegetation.
  • On the other hand, I had a clear, close up shot of a harrier (filling over half the frame), where none of the shots were in focus.

Olympus / OM Digital Solutions may still have some tweaking to do to the algorithm.

Northern Shrike in Flight
Northern Shrike in Flight

Pro Capture Mode

Bird Detection AF also works with Pro Capture mode. I used the combination of these two modes to photograph bird take-offs. Bird Detection AF did a fairly good job of staying with the bird on several take-offs. 

On the above image, I was photographing a Northing Cardinal waiting for him to take-off, when a Northern Shrike entered the frame looking for a meal.  Bird Detection AF did a good job tracking the Shrike as it entered the frame and Pro Capture mode recorded the action.

Red-tailed Hawk Calling
Red-tailed Hawk Calling

Stationary Birds

Although I did get several good shots using Bird Detection AF, I prefer to stick with single shot AF and a single focus point for stationary birds. I use the joystick to move the focus point to the bird’s eye.

I found that it took a while for Bird Detection AF to find the bird when there were other objects like branches in the scene.   The keeper rate was also much lower with a busy background.

I use the Custom Mode Dial settings to quickly switch between single AF, Continuous AF with tracking, and Pro Capture mode.

Super Control Panel Settings for Bird Detect AF
Super Control Panel Settings for Bird Detect AF

Settings for Birds in Flight using Bird Detection AF

  • ISO between 500 and 1,000 depending on the lighting
  • Aperture – Between f/5.6 and f/8 depending on the lighting and whether there were multiple birds in the scene.
  • Continuous AF + Tracking – Set in the Cog – A1 – AF Mode menu or in the Super Control Panel
  • Continuous AF Sensitivity set to -2 in the Cog – A1 menu
  • Tracking Subject set to Birds in the Cog – A3 menu
  • AF Area set to All Focus Points in the super control panel
  • Sequential Low Shooting Mode

Bird Detection AF Conclusion

  • Worked well on subjects with a plain background like a sky.  The keeper rate dropped significantly with a busy background like a tree line or tall grasses.  This was consistent for both birds in flight and stationary birds.
  • Sometimes when initially focusing on a subject, the AF had difficulty finding focus.  I had to press the shutter button multiple times or focus on a distant tree line to get focus.
  • Although, I’m happy with the results of Bird Detection AF, there were a few cases where there were clear misses.  For example, the Northern Harrier that filled over half the frame.

Overall, I’m happy with the photographs I got using Bird Detection AF.  The algorithm isn’t perfect, but getting these shots would be a lot more difficult without this new AF mode.

Written by Martin Belan

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