Bird Portraits with Micro Four Thirds & Adapted Lens

My favourite photographic competition is open again, the Ipswich Enviroplan. Run by my local council, this competition always gets a huge amount of amazing entries across the categories and I like to try and get a few entries in at least each one.

My fortay is landscapes, and I see it as a real challenge to photograph wildlife, especially birds. Micro four thirds cameras until recently have always struggled with this type of photography as they didn’t have the focus capabilities required especially for birds in flight. The latest top level cameras now have no issue at all with this, but I’m using slightly older tech. Regardless, when it comes to bird portraits (as I like to call them) focus is not as critical and it can be incredibly enjoyable getting out and about with just a long lens and camera, walking local parks, looking for subjects.

The issue for me has always been the cost of long lenses. The latest offerings by Olympus in the 40-150mm Pro and the amazing 300mm Pro are literally thousands of dollars, well out of my budget. But this doesn’t mean you have to go without. The photos in this post were all captured using a 20 year old 70-210mm F4 Canon FD lens, adapted to my Olympus OMD Em5.2 camera. The absolute beauty of Micro four thirds is because there is no mirror, and the smaller sensor size, you can adapt pretty much any lens out there and use it! This lens gives me the full frame equivalent of a 140-410mm lens, prefect for bird portraits.

When adapting lenses, keep in mind it’s best to get a fully manual lens (one that has adjustable aperture on the lens and is all manual focus). I believe you can adapt some autofocus lenses but the adapters can cost more than the lens. My Canon FD cost me a whopping $70 on ebay and the adapter was $27 On Amazon. Under $100 for a long telephoto zoom, than when used right works brilliantly? Yes please.

Take this first photo as an example of what you can capture with this lens. I’ll go through recommendations for settings further into this post. It was bright light, around 9am in the morning, and quite a high contrast scene. By exposing for the brightest feathers on the Pelican, I was able to make the background almost entirely black, really isolating the bird and to me, creating a wonderful portrait.

A stunning portrait of an Australian Pelican in the early morning sun, captured near Ipswich Queensland Australia by Landscape, Storm, and Weather photographer Murray Fox, branching out into wildlife photography and explaining how to use adapted Canon FD lenses on Micro Four Thirds Olympus OMD Em5.2 Cameras.
Olympus OMD Em5.2, Canon FD 70-210mm, F/8, ISO 200, 1/800 sec

The way I use this setup is to stop down the aperture on the lens 2 to 3 clicks, ending up around F/7.1 to F/8. This really helps minimise chromatic aberration these old lenses with their old coatings can get in high contrast scenes. You’ll see this as purple and green edges where bright and dark areas meet. Any aberration left is easily removed in post production.

I put the camera into full manual (M) mode. I will set the shutter speed depending on what focal length I’m at, and how much light there is, but as a general rule of thumb I try and have a shutter speed twice that of the focal length. For this shot I was at 210mm on the lens, which is the equivalent of 420mm on a full frame camera, hence I was at 1/800 of a second shutter. This helps eliminate any blurring from camera movement.

Yes the Olympus has brilliant 5 axis in camera stabilisation, and I’ll use it low light, but if I can get away not using it I will, I’ve just gotten sharper results, birds like to move unfortunately. The final adjustment is ISO. This is the setting I mainly use to adjust my exposure. If the bird is too dark, I’ll increase ISO, if it’s too bright, I’ll lower ISO. I set one of my dials to adjust ISO, making this super easy to do on the fly. If I’m at my max lowest ISO, I’ll then change the aperture to a higher F number like F/11, but to be honest, you rarely get that much light.

I will happily go to ISO 6400 to get a photo but generally max out around 3200. The main trick with Micro four thirds cameras is never under expose the shot. If you can adjust exposure so you are one tick off clipping the highlights, then you’ll most likely have a good photo and the noise will be very controllable, and actually add some detail.

This photograph I captured at ISO 2300, the histogram was as far right as it could go without touching the right edge, a perfect exposure. In post production I actually have to reduce the exposure to get everything back to looking good, and this really reduces the noise in the image. It’s the biggest trick with any camera and high ISO shots.

A beautiful Rainbow Lorikeet surrounded by colourful Grevillia photographed by Murray Fox, Landscape, Weather and Storm photographer at Colleges Crossing near Ipswich, Queensland, Australia
Olympus OMD Em5.2, Canon FD 70-210mm, F/8, ISO 2500, 1/640 sec

I should also mention here in bold, SHOOT IN RAW! This is really critical. Shooting in Raw captures so much more data than JPG does, allows you get really get colours correct, and is very important with regards to noise.

Other important settings I use is only shoot using the mechanical shutter. I’ve tested and tested and I can never get a photo as sharp using the electronic shutter as I can with the mechanical. I usually shoot in Sequential Low with the Diamond which stands for anti-shock being enabled. This gives me around 5 frames per second, and the birds generally are not moving that fast I can’t get a good series of shot from a burst or two. It also saves filling up the memory card so much and trying to sort through so many photos later back home!

For my view setup, I will enable highlight/shadow warning and the histogram in both live view and viewfinder. This allows you to very quickly judge if you are over or under exposed, and as mentioned before, you never want to be underexposed, which is different to letting some parts go black, but you want the bulk of the data as far right on that historgram as possible.

Now to probably the hardest thing to do with these old lenses, focus. It’s all manual, no autofocus here, you have to zoom, find the bird, fill the frame, focus, and shoot all in a very short space of time. Thankfully there are some great tools in Micro Four thirds that really help with this and the king is Focus Peaking. I have a button set to enable/disable focus peaking on my OMD. The reason for this is with the focus peaking enabled, you don’t get highlight/shadow warning or histogram in your viewfinder, so if the bird moves, or the light changes, you might now have an incorrect exposure as we are shooting all manual here.

So I will first check my exposure, then enable focus peaking and get the eye of the bird in focus (most important) and shoot a burst. If light changes, I’ll turn off the peaking and adjust. Rinse and repeat. With a button mapped this becomes second nature and extremely fast. You can also use zoom assist to really get in close and nail the focus, but usually only the the bird is quite content where it is and not going anywhere fast, this really takes time.

That’s exactly how I captured this last photograph. I really really love how this beautiful Blue-Faced Honeyeater is surrounded by those amazing orange Grevillea, a perfect frame for a beautiful subject. This also really shows off the depth of field you can obtain at 420mm f/8, quite impressive and lovely and smooth out of focus areas.

A beautiful Blue-faced Honeyeater surrounded by stunning Grevillea as photographed by Murray Fox, Landscape, Storm and Weather photographer at Colleges Crossing near Ipswich, Queensland Australia
Olympus OMD Em5.2, Canon FD 70-210mm, F/8, ISO 2300, 1/640 sec

So I’ll be out and about chasing more birds over the next few weeks, using all of the techniques I’ve discussed here. If you have the money, yes the latest offerings from Panasonic and Olympus are going to be a lot easier to use and give stunning results, or even some of the older gear like the Olympus 75-300mm will work very well. However, if you’re on a real tight budget, maybe even have an old lens lying around at home, adapt it and go!

Here is a list of the gear I use. These are affiliate links, by following them and making a purchase you help support my photography at no extra cost to yourself.

* Camera : Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mk II Body Only – Silver
* Canon FD to M43rd Adapter : K&F Concept Lens Mount Adapter for Canon FD Lens to Micro 4/3 Cameras
* My Goto Landscape Lens : Olympus M.Zuiko Digital 12-40mm f2.8 PRO Black Len
* My Favourite Tripod : ZOMEi Z818C Carbon Fiber Camera Tripod With Quick Release Plate and Ball Head (Blue)
* Best Budget Filters Ever : Zomei 10 in 1 Square Z-PRO Series Filter Kit
* Best Budget Portrait Lens Made! : Olympus M.ZUIKO Digital ED 45mm F1.8 (Black) Lens
* The Perfect Walkaround Lens : Panasonic 20mm F/1.7 Pancake Lens
* A great CPL for your 12-40mm : Manfrotto MFESSCPL-62 62 mm Essential Circular Polarizer Filter
* The Best Aftermarket Battery Kit : DSTE 2X BLN-1 Battery + DC133 Travel and Car Charger Adapter

All of my photographs are available for purchase as Fine Art Prints in A2 and A3 size, as well as ready to hang Canvas Prints. Just contact me for pricing.

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