When students of the evolution of photo technology look back on 2021, they will undoubtedly see it as a year of seismic generational innovation, one when truly epochal products hit the marketplace. While innovations across the expanse of brands and cameras abound, two — the Olympus Micro Four Thirds 150-400mm lens and the Sony Alpha 1 full-frame mirrorless body — may well be the greatest of the bunch.
They are but two new products among a spate of items currently marketed to birders. The exponential growth in avian photography across all experience levels, which first accelerated with the transition from film to digital, is once again surging. The mirrorless camera revolution underway right now is attracting untold numbers of people into the birding and bird photography ranks.
Indeed, in recent history, most marketing metrics indicate a somewhat flagging general camera sales environment. One notable bright spot is the market for mirrorless gear, which is lighter than DSLRs. Mirrorless technology was first introduced by Epson and Leica at the turn of the century, followed by Olympus and Panasonic, creators of the Micro Four Thirds (MFT) format. In recent years, mirrorless has been enthusiastically embraced by legacy manufacturers such as Canon, Nikon, and Sony, which introduced mirrorless in the full-frame autofocus format.
Of particular note is the full-on drive to market mirrorless cameras to the birding community. And no wonder, as each mirrorless format brings to the table a lighter, more intuitive shooting platform, perfectly suited to capturing the vast varieties of birds, whether at rest or in flight. A major draw is mirrorless’ real-exposure indicator through an electronic viewfinder. To borrow the trendy technical term “WYSIWYG” (What You See Is What You Get), the viewfinder image is precisely the exposure captured by your camera. The days of guessing, presuming, and wondering if you’ve exposed properly are history.
With 2021 shaping up to be a banner year for avian photography, as the world finds ways to adapt to safe outdoor activities in the reality of the COVID era, here’s an opportunity to review some of the best mirrorless system options for birders and bird photographers. The list includes photo systems most likely to ensure success in your bird photography pursuits, whether you favor stationary subjects in portrait mode or frenetically flying raptors.
First up is the Sony a9 II. With unparalleled image quality and a superior autofocus algorithm, the a9 II is a professional-grade body that’s right at home in the hands of an advanced amateur and a serious bird photography hobbyist. The hybrid 693-point AF is a lock-and-hold wizard capable of reliable photos of the most erratic fliers. Paired with Sony’s 200-600mm zoom lens, the a9 II is a world-class tool ready for any action, anytime, anywhere. Its predecessor, the Sony a9, is still available for less and has most of the functional features of version II, whose upgrades are dominated by processor, memory card, and ergonomic improvements.
The Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark IV is a compact MFT that is heralded for its ease of use; perfect, in fact, for birders who want to take that next step into serious avian photography. Its 20mp sensor renders fine detail, while the 5 FPS mechanical shutter speed is a perfect entry point into the world of capturing images of birds in flight. The 15 FPS electronic shutter is on board and ready for the next step. Any of the Olympus telephoto lenses complement the M10 IV, including the new 100-400mm F/5-6.3.
The Canon EOS R5 takes acquiring extreme detail to a new level. With Canon’s robust DIGIC X processor and a 12 FPS mechanical frame rate (up to 20 frames per second with the silent electronic shutter), the R5 may just be the tool to reach for when planning that special birding adventure. Its 45 MP sensor favors scenes where large flocks of resting birds may be gathering or if the goal is to bring home images of micro-detailed feathers of small birds found in lush foliage.
The Panasonic Lumix S5 full-frame boasts an improved continuous autofocus from earlier models, as well as an integrated L-Mount lens system that opens up the growing Sigma line of quality L-Mount lenses. For bird photography, the Sigma 100-400mm F5-6.3 Contemporary is the perfect complement to the S5’s light and streamlined ergonomics — perfect for the hand-held photographer on the go.
FUJIFILM’s X-T4 is the only APS-C sensor type in our round-up. The X-T4 is distinctive as a multimedia workhorse, able to create 4K video at 60FPS, full HD video at 240 FPS for dazzling slo-mo, and up to a blistering 15 FPS continuous still image output.
The Sony A7R IV, with its 61 MP full-frame sensor and 567 AF points across 87 percent of the surface, stands as greatest among equals in the high-capacity category. Coupled with Sony’s 200-600mm E-Mount super-telephoto lens, this double-barreled quality combo is just the ticket for the photographer desiring to carry their image tools with utmost confidence.
Another high-image-capacity body is the Nikon Z7 II, at 47 MP. Its 493-sensor point autofocus platform facilitates accurate image capture. The focus system is of the hybrid phase-detection/contrast variety. Finding a diminutive warbler deep in the tropical shadows is a breeze thanks to the Z7’s low-light prowess. And it boasts a processing horsepower kick from new dual processors. Sustained rapid firing into the buffer seems endless, without a hint of slowdown.
High pixel counts in rigs such as the Z7, Canon R5, and Sony A7R IV function as ad hoc focal length extenders because they retain fine detail throughout aggressive, deep image crops. In other words, extend your reach without increasing your “lift.”
Also new to the Nikon line is the Z6 II, which advances the Z line with a 24.5 MP sensor, two processors, and two card slots, up from one each in the Z6. Sporting a rapid 14 FPS mechanical burst rate for full-frame raw files and enhanced low-light ability for dawn and sunset scenarios, the Z6 II deserves attentive consideration when it’s time to upgrade your bird photography gear kit. An added point in its favor is a new, hybrid autofocus, which is critical in upping that keeper rate from a shot burst.
The Canon EOS R6 is yet another rig that should appeal to bird photographers. Its 12 FPS burst rate, married with an impressive 1,053 automatic autofocus zones, ranks it in the elite class of action and nature cameras. The two UHS-II card slots give it the power to move images quickly from the sensor through the buffer to storage. It includes a 20.1 effective megapixel sensor — the sweet spot to deliver high image quality and rapid buffer clearance to keep up with the action.
No mirrorless bodies are more deserving of a coup de maître citation for innovation than the new Sony flagship Alpha 1 and the Olympus flagship OM-D E-M1X, with its latest firmware upgrade that includes the bird autofocus detection system. Detection tools for everything from the human face to motorcycles have become commonplace. But a rigorous, reliable way to track and focus on flying birds is a most welcome advance in neutralizing perhaps avian photography’s biggest challenge.
The E-M1X and the new Olympus 150-400mm super-telephoto lens are trend-pacing leaps forward in the endlessly evolving world of mirrorless photo technology. You may safely presume that other manufacturers may soon be adding bird recognition to upcoming models and firmware upgrades.
Positive reviews, eager buyers
When the Alpha 1 was released earlier this year, it immediately stirred excitement to an extent rarely witnessed among new product announcements. When the initial run of the camera reached the hands of eager buyers, the pent-up anticipation ignited a flurry of instant, almost universally positive reviews across online forums. For the most part, the earliest adopters were professional photographers, likely owing to the retail price of $6,498. But that’s hardly the end of the story, as the exceptional performance of the a1 clearly defines it as the most advanced of all full-frame mirrorless bodies, one that commands consideration by all photographers.
Of keen interest to bird photographers is the Alpha 1’s feature that detects and tracks birds’ eyes. With sharp in-focus eyes the defining element of a superior avian photograph, this ability alone validates the camera’s peer-leading ranking. Time and again, field tests with the a1 and its Real-Time Eye AF, coupled with the Sony FE 100-400mm G Master OSS telephoto zoom and the Sony 1.4x teleconverter, returned tack sharp in-flight sequences. The strength of the bird-eye focus algorithm extends to full-body acquisition and lock during the most challenging erratic flight scenarios. The fact that the a1 also has discreet eye autofocus settings for humans and animals, as well as birds, speaks to the precision technology behind each setting.
That ability, coupled with the camera’s low-light focusing power and high frame rate (up to 30 FPS), makes it an almost irresistible option for anyone poised to take their avian photography to peak potential. When we want to capture birds’ activities after dusk or before dawn, lower noise and high ISO can be daunting challenges.
But the Alpha 1 is not to be denied. On a recent evening, I lingered after sunset observing Short-eared Owls when, without warning, a flying blur entered my peripheral vision to the right. I instinctively whipped around, and, with no time for conventional viewfinder focusing, I depressed the Alpha 1 shutter and captured several in-focus sequential frames of a Red-tailed Hawk carrying prey. If I’d had any of my other kits in hand, I am confident I would have missed the shot.
The Alpha 1 produces a blazing 30 frames-per-second capture rate of its 50 MP files when utilizing either JPEG or HEIF image formats. Over a multi-day evaluation period, I shot JPEG exclusively and found no discernible limitations in post-production editing when compared to RAW files from other brands. The a1’s high capture rate, coupled with 120 Autofocus and Autoexposure calculations per second, virtually guarantees image capture success, no matter the subject or shooting conditions. The 15-stop dynamic range can be said to virtually neutralize low light barriers, and the dual processors, which speed the rendition of Sony’s improved color science attributes, offer further assurance of high-pro caliber images.
There’s much to delight video enthusiasts as well. The a1 features 8K video at 30 FPS, along with 4K at 120 FPS.
Sony has taken a multi-model-year iteration leap with the Alpha 1 by integrating and improving upon the strong points of three proven models into this one ultimate package. By merging the large file size of the a7R IV, the video chops of the a7S III, and the accurate high-speed autofocus of the a9 II into one body, Sony’s a1 has managed to unify the best of its R&D into one exceptional creative device.
This article was first published in the “Photographing Birds” column in the May/June 2021 issue of BirdWatching magazine.