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Old 19th May 2017
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Tesni Ward Workshop - some thoughts (image heavy)

As some of you know, I went along earlier this week to Tesni Ward's "Coastal Birds" workshop. I thought some of you might be interested in my experiences and thoughts.

1) The workshop

Tesni charges 100 for the workshop and I thought it was good value for money since I got to spend a day with a professional wildlife photographer and shared the experience with only two other people. It's the first time I've been on a workshop and TBH I'm usually the over-confident type who tries first to do things without help! So why take a workshop this time?

Well, I've been a photographer on and off for over forty years but have never really tried wildlife photography in any serious way. Unlike the landscapes and travel stuff I usually do, wildlife is elusive, moves a lot, can be too far away and above all, can be challenging to make images from that are original and inspiring. Mix in the need for excellent technique and the equipment to match and it's easy to understand why it's one of the most demanding of photographic genres. As such, I admired others' images but decided it wasn't for me.

At The Photography Show in March I listened to Tes's talk on the Olympus stand and I was impressed both with her images, which I think are full of character and emotion, and with her down-to-earth approach to her work. So, I decided to go on one of her workshops to see if I could emulate at least some of that magic. I came away with a dozen or so images that I'm very pleased with and gained enough basic knowledge to step out on my own to learn more if I decide to. Tes knows her wildlife, where to find it, and most of all how to use a camera to capture it.

Anyhow - here is a shot of the group, sans moi. JohnGG is on the left.

2) The Venue

The venue was the RSPB site at Bempton Cliffs in Yorkshire. I'm sure the birders amongst you are more than aware of it. It's easily accessible and pretty popular with visitors. However, it's even more popular with sea birds, so it's ideal to take the first steps on bird photography - both static and in-flight. Even if you don't fancy a workshop, just a visit there is well worthwhile. The coastal scenery is also very pretty - especially around Flamborough Head which has a nice lighthouse and some interesting cliff features. The weather was not great but I got a few scenic shots anyhow:

Flamborough Head by Paul Kaye, on Flickr

3) The Birds

Bempton is rich in Gannets, Guillemots, Razorbills, Fulmars and Kittywakes with the occasional Puffin, Jackdaw and other birds thrown in. I really liked the Gannets. They are very beautiful birds with quite stunning eyes and beaks. Their behaviour is interesting too - especially the "billing" antics between mating pairs. They mate monogamously for life.

Gannet Love by Paul Kaye, on Flickr

Heads Up by Paul Kaye, on Flickr

I'd never seen a Puffin before so it was quite exciting to see some. There weren't many to be seen but I did manage to get some shots, including this one of a bird stretching its wings that I really like.

I can Fly! by Paul Kaye, on Flickr

3) Equipment

I took my E-M1ii and managed to snag a 300mm f4 on the Olympus "Test and Wow" programme. I was absolutely delighted with the performance and the results from this combination. I took my 50-200 non-SWD plus TC but in the end didn't use it - the allure of the 300mm was too strong!

The camera performed faultlessly. I used a mix of S-AF and C-AF. S-AF for the static shots using back-button focus and C-AF for in-flight shots with shutter-button focus. This is how I had set my camera up anyhow but it was good to hear Tes recommending exactly the same thing. I have setup the rear lever to switch between these two modes which is very fast and intuitive. It's a nice feature.

Both focus modes worked faultlessly. I was expecting S-AF to be just fine, but I hadn't really used C-AF so I was interested to see how it worked with birds in flight. Now, I'm no expert in BIF nor in fancy panning etc, but I managed to get a success rate of greater than 50% without too much trying. Given the speed of movement of the birds and my inexperience I was very pleased with this. With some help from Tes, this is how I setup the camera for BIF:

- C-AF without tracking
- 9-box focus area - usually in the centre, but sometimes off-set
- AF Scanner - Mode 2
- C-AF Lock - 0
- AF on shutter button
- Electronic shutter at 18fps (Tes recommended a lower rate and when it came time to process the shots I can understand why!)

The technique was basically to keep the subject in the focus area and so long as I did this the camera generally nailed the focus. Focus acquisition and re-acquisition if I lost the subject was fast. Clearly I don't have experience of other systems with BIF, but I would think that the E-M1ii would be more than adequate for birding needs. Here are few examples. They are pin sharp viewed at 100%:

Fulmar in Flight by Paul Kaye, on Flickr

Touchdown by Paul Kaye, on Flickr

The last shot (Touchdown) I'm especially pleased with since I shot a sequence of about 30 shots as the bird approached and every single one was perfectly focused. Impressive!

For static shots as I said I used S-AF and back-button focus with a single focus point. It works superbly. I generally moved the focus box and focused using the final composition rather than focus/recompose which Tes recommended. I have got accustomed to using the rear screen as an AF targeting pad and I find it fast and intuitive to move the focus point so focus/recompose isn't really necessary. It perhaps makes little difference on birding shots when the subject is a good distance away, but for portraits etc focus/recompose can result in focus errors.

I was also mightily impressed with the camera's ISO performance. For the BIF shots I wanted to keep the shutter speed high and so often cranked the ISO up taking many at ISO 1000-1600. I also took a few shots using John's Panasonic 100-400 at the end of the day and with its smaller max aperture I was shooting at ISO 3200. In all cases the images came out very cleanly. I was surprised at this since I've taken lots of shots in dim interior light at these sort of ISOs and whilst they are fine at smaller magnifications, peering at 100% things get ugly. Not so with these shots. I'm guessing it's the better outdoor light to some degree and maybe also the superior optics. Either way, I'd be very happy shooting at ISO 3200 so long as there's not too much cropping later.

Battery performance is pretty good too. I took about 3000 photographs during the day and flattened two batteries. I'm pretty pleased with that.

As to the lens - well, the 300/4 is just superb. I can't praise it enough. It's crazy sharp with stunning resolution. Even 100% crops look absolutely amazing. This shot is a 1300 x 1300 crop from the full frame and yet it's as sharp as many an uncropped shot I've taken:

Nest Building by Paul Kaye, on Flickr

Not only that, but:

- IS, along with the body IBIS delivers jaw-dropping hand-holdability. I took all my shots hand-held and had to remind myself often that I was using a 600mm equiv lens. For static shots I often used speeds as low as 1/125s and never once saw even a hint of camera shake.

- For a 600mm equiv f4 lens it really quite small and light. I held it pretty much all day and it really wasn't a problem.

- It's sharp at f4 and doesn't really change much as you stop down. Shooting 600mm equiv at f4 with a lens that's compact and easy to hand-hold is quite a game-changer for this sort of photography.

- It's beautifully built - weather-proof and robust and I'm sure capable of taking the knocks. In fact, Tes's kit looks like it's been bashed about a bit as I guess any working professional's kit would be!

Thinking about it afterwards, if there is a single argument for how u43 can deliver massive benefits over other systems then this lens is it. The other student, Gary, had a Fuji XT2 and the Fuji 200-400 lens. I held the camera and it's notably bigger and heavier than the Olympus combo. Picking any Canikon or Sony would only make things bigger. If I were shooting wildlife professionally then the Olympus would be my choice. At a shade over 2k, the Olympus lens is also great value for money considering its optical quality and capabilities. Consider me wowed!

As an example of the pure resolving power of the lens, here is a link to a Flickr image at high resolution that demonstrates just how good it is:


Portrait of a Gannet by Paul Kaye, on Flickr

Finally, I'll just add a few comments about the Panasonic 100-400. John and I swapped lenses for a half hour at the end of the day so I didn't get a lot of time with it, but I did form a few impressions. Firstly, the 100-400 is a very nice looking and handling lens. John's copy had none of the zoom stiffness I've seen on other copies so maybe Panasonic have sorted it now. It also feels every bit as well made as the Olympus lens and was actually lighter and more compact. The zoom flexibility is nice, but curiously I didn't find the Olympus's fixed focal length at all limiting during the day. I had expected to be wanting to zoom out, but it wasn't an issue.

From an IQ point of view the 100-400 is really very, very good - but it's definitely got slightly less resolving power than the 300/4. I doubt I'd have noticed it without being able to do a direct comparison but when you do see images side-by-side it's clear that the Oly lens is just that little bit better. On top of that, the Panasonic lens is slower - more than a stop at 300mm and a stop and a half at 400mm. That makes a difference too since you'll be shooting at a higher ISO or longer shutter speed with the 100-400. The Panasonic lens's IS is very good, at least as good as on the Olympus, but of course because of incompatibilities between the Sync IS features from the two manufacturers, the Panasonic's IS will not work in concert with the E-M1ii's IBIS. Ultimately this means that the Oly/Oly combo beats the Panasonic/Oly one in IS effectiveness.

Net, net then - if I were going for a lens in this range than I'd go for the Oly. I'm not knocking the Panasonic lens and TBH the flexibility of the zoom is still a massive draw, but I still feel the Oly lens is just that bit special. If I were looking for an airshow lens, then the decision would be different. In any case, the Panasonic can deliver great images:

5) Is it for me?

Well, the jury is still out. As much as I like the images I took I feel that they lack any real originality. Anyone with the right kit could have taken them with only a little guidance. I appreciate that these birds are easily accessible and that more "exotic" animals would pose more of a challenge. But would the more exotic animals produce any more artistic or worthwhile images? Is the challenge of finding them and photographing them enough? Does it make it better art if the animal is rare? I doubt there are many birds with more aesthetically pleasing eyes than gannets. Maybe the most "original" shot I took during the day was this one. David M (who knows a bit about this sort of thing ) seems to like it anyhow! TBH, it was the water on the bird's head which appealed to me:

Watching the Rain by Paul Kaye, on Flickr

I'd probably get more out of furry animals rather than birds (I'd particularly like to photograph some hares) but the same basic question raises itself in my mind. I'm not saying I won't do some more - especially since I can see that the activity of finding and photographing the animals is in itself a worthwhile thing to do, and it certainly gets you out and about - but right now I'm not enthusing about it in a big way. Curiously I felt the same about studio/beauty shots - I could get good shots with the right technique and a little guidance but I didn't feel they were different to 1000s of others I'd seen.

Now I appreciate that landscapes could have the same criticism levelled at them (or any genre for that matter), but I feel there are more variables in landscape photography and there is more scope for "seeing" the right composition or finding the right angle/lighting etc. It's a personal view I know, but that's what makes things interesting - right?

So, I'm not going to rush out and buy a 300/4 right away. I might try to find some hares or such like and use my 50-200 and see where that takes me.

Anyhow, that's about it. If you've got this far, thanks for sticking with it. There are a few more shots from the day in a Flickr album here:

E-M1ii, Pen-F and too many lenses
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