Unfortunately for those of us so afflicted, bird photography is an expensive pursuit. With multiple genres of photography, advanced, professionals can use nearly any camera and lens to get professional results. In bird photography, it's impossible to escape the fact that getting close to wild creatures isn't easy and therefore, telephoto and even super telephoto lenses are the norm. Add in the fact that most of these critters don't want to be anywhere near humans — and, oh yeah, they can fly, well...you get the point.
The idea of emptying your bank account in pursuit of bird photography can be daunting. It's very easy to spend between $10,000 and $20,000 - even with Micro Four Thirds gear. Unfortunately, this leaves some people thinking they cannot enjoy this type of photography unless they win the lottery. There is good news. You can make fantastic photographs using entry-level cameras and lenses from Olympus. And while this gear may be affordable, that doesn't mean it cannot deliver spectacular results.
All you need to do is know your subject, learn everything that your camera and lens is capable of delivering, and then get out there and shoot.
Let's Start with the Camera Body
My camera of choice for bird photography is the OM-D E-M1X. If you can afford one of these cameras, then you are set. You have one of the best pieces of gear on the planet. But at nearly $3900 (CAD) a copy, you might prefer to start with something more palatable.
The OM-D E-M10 Mark III has a list price of $799 (CAD) and is more than capable of delivering professional results. It's an entry-level, interchangeable lens, mirrorless camera that offers a great 16.1 Four Thirds Live MOS Sensor and in-body image stabilization. The camera is powered by a Dual Quad Core TruePic VIII Processor. Because of this high-quality sensor and processing engine, the E-M10 Mark III does everything from high-speed shooting to 4K video.
You may be surprised to learn that a camera costing this little packs such a big punch. While Olympus made this one of their most affordable interchangeable-lens-cameras, they were generous when it came to features like the robust in-body 5-axis image stabilization system that can compensate for about four stops of shutter speed.
The E-M10 Mark III delivers 8.6 fps continuous shooting and a sensitivity range of up to ISO 25600. An electronic shutter function is present in the Mark III for even faster shutter speeds and silent shooting.The autofocus uses 121-points that cover the entire sensor. While it's AF tracking, and acquisition speed aren't going to match the flagship body's performance, the E-M10 Mark III focuses surprisingly well. Especially in good light.
AND NOW FOR THE LENS
The next component in your wildlife/bird photography setup is a solid, telephoto, zoom lens. Look no further than the M.Zuiko Digital ED 75-300mm f/4.8-6.7 II lens. With a list price of $699 (CAD), this lens, paired with the E-M10 Mark III, offers you a full-fledged wildlife/bird photography kit with a list price of less than $1500 (CAD), or lower when on sale.
The 75-300 has a 35mm equivalent field of view (due to crop factor on Micro Four thirds) of 150-600mm. This very lightweight, compact lens packs a punch with stellar optics like the single Super ED Element, and two ED Elements. There are also three low dispersion elements and three high refractive index elements to control both chromatic and spherical aberrations for a high degree of clarity and sharpness throughout the zoom range. A ZERO coating has also been applied to help reduce lens flare and ghosting for greater contrast and color fidelity when working in strong lighting conditions.
Even though this is not a fast lens with its variable aperture between f4.8 and 6.7, the R&D team at Olympus came up with a great idea. It features a rounded seven-blade diaphragm that contributes to a smooth bokeh quality.
At less than one pound, and with a length that is less than six inches long, the small, compact and lightweight nature of this lens makes it one that I sometimes use on long hikes. I own every Pro lens that Olympus makes, including the brilliant Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 300mm f/4 IS PRO lens — which gives me the reach I need for bird photography. But there are occasions when I pick the 75-300mm just because it's so easy to carry and it's light weight lets me shoot longer.
7 Tips for Getting the Most Out of Your Budget Camera Gear
Now that we've explored some options for gear, here are some things that you can do to up your chances for success with ANY camera.
Learn Everything You Can About Your Subject
The more you know about birds, the better chance you have of figuring out when and where you will find them. If you understand how birds behave, then you may even be able to get closer to them and even anticipate their next move.
Learn Everything You Can About Your Camera
Budget cameras can do much more than you realize, but you have to actually read the manual, watch videos on YouTube, study, etc., to find out what your camera can deliver. Read the manual and practice with all the relevant features before you go out looking for critters to photograph.
You can probably find a meetup or camera club in your area where you can learn more about photography and Olympus has a great web site full of free tutorials that will help, as well.
Work in the Best Light
To get the most out of the sensor in the E-M10 Mark III be sure to work in the best light you can find. Photography is all about light. So chase it, search for it, bathe your subjects in it and you will get tremendous results.
Don't Worry About Digital Noise
If you read the camera forums, this is all that some talk about. And it's not something I understand. There is no need to obsess over it. If you don't like it, then there are many software programs that will easily correct for digital noise with the click of a mouse. All the major photography editing programs have noise reduction algorithms and so do most of the plug-ins. Find one you like and you're good to go.
Shoot in RAW and Expose to the Right
This means set your camera to record in RAW (you can add RAW + JPG if you want quick access to a jpg but still want the RAW file to edit.) Look at your histogram and make sure that you have set an exposure that goes as far to the bright side (on the right) without clipping. This gives your post processing software more data to work with. While the photo might look slightly overexposed in your viewfinder or on your LCD, that's okay, because in post you will edit it so that it looks fine, but you'll reduce the chances that you'll have digital noise.
Practice Every Single Day
There's no substitute for being in the field, taking pictures. If you were to use your camera every day for a year, even if it was to photograph an empty beer bottle on the back porch, you'd probably get better results than someone who just got their hands on a much more expensive camera body. Practice doesn't make perfect but PERFECT practice does. So learn what to do and then do it correctly, daily, and you'll probably be a better photographer than anyone you know.
Treat Your Entry-Level Camera Like a Flagship
Take care of it. Love it. Treat it with respect. Use a tripod if you need to. Make sure to get a lens hood. Go the extra mile to wring every drop out of the gear you can afford and it will serve you well.
I am very lucky. I get to work with the best of the best Olympus gear every day. But I also know that there are people who really want to break into bird photography and who just cannot afford to do so at my level. For them, I can safely and confidently recommend the E-M10 Mark III. With it, I have a solution that just about anyone who's serious about photography can either afford or save up to own.
Be sure to post your bird shots in the Olympus User Gallery. Let us see your progress!
Olympus Visionary Scott Bourne is a professional wildlife photographer, author and lecturer who specializes in birds. He was one of the founders of “This Week In Photo”, founder of “photofocus.com”, and is co-founder of the new “PictureMethods” podcast and blog (picturemethods.com). He’s been involved with photography for more than four decades and his work has appeared in more than 200 publications.