The photo above appeared in my last post about my first eagling adventure of 2015. It’s not a great photo and isn’t hardly one of my better examples of wildlife photography. For starters, there was too much distance between me and the eagles to really get a good shot, and I had to crop from 16mp down to about 5mp to even get this. That’s too much resolution loss; at that distance, the eagles are already taking up too few pixels in the image.
Unfortunately, wildlife doesn’t always cooperate with our expectations, which leaves a photographer with a choice between capturing a substandard photo, or no photos at all. And while I’m sure that there are photogs out there who would choose “no photos at all,” I’m the sort of person who has to come home with something to justify an outing. Even if it is a disappointing photo.
After thinking on it overnight, I’ve come to the conclusion that my problems stem from three points:
1) the Olympus 75-300mm, which is my current wildlife lens, is sub-standard. It’s simply an overpriced, cheaply built, consumer-level zoom, inferior to the Canon 75-300 IS I used in my previous system (to saying nothing of the Canon 300L f/4). Aside from its somewhat loose plastic construction, the aperture at 300mm is f/6.7, which is just dark. It’s also soft at 300mm, in both my testing and professional reviews. Unfortunately, it’s also the one of two options: it’s either the Oly, or the Lumix 100-300mm. I tried the Lumix first and my copy was even worse than my current Oly.
2) I acted stupid and forgot some hard-learned lessons. I’ve had trouble with my wildlife image success rate ever since switching to m4:3, and discovered last spring that a tripod made a huge difference. I was photographing feeder birds from my kitchen window and was distressed over how crappy the photos were, even with the IBIS system and a fast shutter speed. I setup the tripod as a last-ditch, and was surprised how much my photos improved.
The funny thing is that I can sit in the kayak and shoot with the Oly 75-300, at 300mm, and generally get at least a few keepers. I expected that sitting in the Jeep, I could expect the same performance, but that didn’t happen. 99% of my eagle photos were out of focus.
3) which brings me to my final point, thermal disturbance. In simple terms, think of the heat waves you see rising off pavement on a sunny day (even a sunny day in winter). Well, I experience the same effect when I roll down my window and its three degrees outside. The cabin heat begins flowing out through the window – I can actually see it at times. And I can only imagine that it is likewise affecting my photos, causing images to blur.
Taking this line of thinking a bit further, I have to wonder if the same thing is happening on a smaller scale inside my gear. The camera and lens are at cabin temperature when I start using them, as they’ve been riding in the car with me the whole time. There’s air inside the lens and the camera body, also warm, and it clearly takes at least a few minutes of cold-air exposure for the temperature to equalize throughout. Could I have heat distortions both inside my lens, and around it, as I shoot out the window? Would my situation improve if I gave both the cabin and my gear a few minutes to cool down before I begin shooting?
Granted, I’m not fond of the idea of driving the last ten minutes to my destination with the windows down and the heat turned off – it’s cold, after all. But next time, I’ll have to try this.
Next time, I may also experiment with setting the tripod up against the car door somehow. (Yes, I’ve seen all manner of window-mounted tripods and beanbags, etc, but I’m pretty sure I can do better with my tripod. Or even just resting the camera on a rolled-up town on the window.)
Some good news: Olympus is releasing a 300mm f/4 lens, I believe sometime in 2015 or early 2016. I will be preordering that lens. Oly primes are some of the best I’ve ever used, and I have to imagine that will carry over into this 300mm lens. At f/4, I’ll be able to shoot almost two full stops faster than I can with the 75-300mm. And really, what’s the point of the whole 75-250mm range anyway? Working with wildlife, I’m at the maximum zoom setting 99.9% of the time – and usually wishing for a little more. (So maybe Olympus will come out with a 1.4 teleconverter, too?)