Last year I did an EM1x test of Gannets landing at Bempton cliffs wildlife reserve in the UK using ProCapture and Bird recognition tracking, and got some great results. I took 4382 shots of Gannets landing in 61 minutes, of which 3325 (76%) were in focus. More importantly, because of the Olympus technologies used, 398 (12%) of all those in focus were portfolio quality landing shots. If you have ever tried to capture Gannets landing at Bempton, you’ll know this is a pretty amazing success rate. This post cover the details of how this was done, and shows some examples.
Gannets at Bempton
Bempton cliffs on the east Yorkshire Coast of the UK is an RSPB nature reserve well known to birders and photographers. Its great feature is that the cliffs are over 300 ft high and as a result shots can be taken of the birds at eye level. The year-long residents of the cliffs are Gannetts although in winter Puffins and other seabirds congregate there. Gannetts are large birds and whilst attractive, they’re not particularly interesting in flight until they start to land, when their feet and wing movements are beautiful and comic at the same time.
Capturing these landing moments is pretty difficult because they fly in at high speed from the sea and at the last minute either drop down or carry on, giving the photographer only a second or two to capture the landing . With even the best birding cameras such as the Nikon Z9 or Sony A1, it’s very hard to efficiently do this, because by the time you recognise a landing is about to happen, and press the shutter button, you may have missed the shot. The only way to get round this is to continuously shoot the Gannet’s flight from the sea onto the cliffs and hope that it lands. The problem is the birds only land around 1 time out of 10 or 20 resulting in a vast number of uninteresting shots.
In all my previous trips to Bempton I got lots of shots of Gannets in flight but almost none of them landing because of the problem of reaction time. This trip was different. I used bird recognition AI tracking to follow the birds flying in, and ProCapture to continuously buffer the shots and only commit to the |SD card at the correct moment. This was a method I picked up from Thomas Stirr, and the results were exceptional.
Bird AI tracking
The advice from Olympus in EM1x Bird tracking has been to set the focus area to “all points”, but for many users this has not been effective. Thomas Stirr has got great results by using a much smaller focus area, sometimes as small as 1 point. Because the Gannet flights were typically starting 75-100m away out at sea, I needed a larger grouping to get them covered, so used a 5×5 grid. This really worked well, and the camera kept the focus box over the birds very effectively as they flew in.
Keeping the birds in focus as they flew in was useful, but the main challenge was to capture the landing sequence. This is where ProCapture comes in, because it specifically designed for capturing split second events. Pro capture works by continuously buffering raw images without actually committing them to the the SD card. The genius of this technology is that the photographer can follow the movement of a flying bird and only commit images to the SD card when something interesting happens. The moment the shutter button is pressed all the buffered images are saved but the camera keeps recording.
As a result, images before and after pressing the shutter button are saved, and this gives a vastly better chance of capturing interesting action, because it eliminates the problem of the the photographers reaction time. The instant the bird looks like it’s going to land, you press the shutter button and bingo you’ve captured the landing sequence and left out all the boring stuff, as you can see in the gallery below (these are the 30 best shots over multiple sessions at Bempton using this technique).
Results on the first day
Over 30 minute session on 7th August 2021 I took 2068 images of which 1620 (78%) were in focus. For a fast moving bird this is already a great result, but more importantly, 177 or (12% of those in focus) were exceptional shots of landing Gannets with wings and legs akimbo, an amazingly high percentage, which I never got close to before.
How can this be? In a ProCapture burst of 35 shots, approximately 15 shots were pre the event, 4 shots were of the event, and 16 were post the event. You can easily see I got a 12% hit rate of amazing shots. The technology is so powerful, firstly because you only shoot when there is an event, and secondly because you always capture the event.
When I got home I analysed the results and was astounded by the high hit rate of real keepers. This was so surprising that I went back to Bempton 3 weeks later, both to confirm the result, and to test the performance of the camera with different combinations of Pro telephoto lenses and teleconverters.
Using my favoured set of 40-150 f.28 (with and without the 1.4TC), and the 300 f4, I reconfirmed this very high hit rate. Over the course of both sessions (61 minutes in total) with these lenses, I took 4382 shots, of which 3325 (76%) were in focus and 398 (12%) of those were exceptional Gannet landing captures. I really don’t think any other camera system at any price could have got me this level of result.
This level of keeper rate brought its own problems. With other camera systems there’s no difficulty about choosing the best images because the vast majority are uninteresting shots of birds in steady fight. You might have 1000 images but there’s no difficulty in selecting maybe 10 or 20 to work on But what do you do if you have 400 incredible images? In my case I had great difficulty in deciding which ones to keep or which ones to drop, and I realised I would need to process at least 200 of them before I could judge the best of the best. This was now wedding photographer territory in terms of the image volume but with the added requirements of specialised bird photography post processing. To handle this, I developed a new workflow, which I will describe in a future post.
I also got some useful and surprising results from my lens comparison tests, and those results are here. The best 30 Gannet landings shots are in the gallery above, but to give you an idea of the overall quality and number, here are around 175 of them shown in a Vimeo video, which lasts only around 2 minutes. The video is of me paging through the Lightroom gallery, and as a result you can see the exif data etc as you go.
- Camera: EM1x
- Settings: manual with auto ISO and exp comp
- Lenses: 300mm f4 = 600mm Full Frame Equivalent (FFE) (29 images), 40-150 = 300mm FFE (16), 40-150+1.4TC = 420mm FFE (108 images)=420mm, 40-150 + 2.0 TC = 600mm FFE (23 images)
- Aperture: f4
- Shutter speed 1/2000
- ProCapture details: ProCapture L, frame rate: 15 fps, precapture=15 frames, post capture=20 frames
- Bird recognition AI with 25 point area