New EM1x firmware 2.0 focus tests for Birds in Flight

Equipment tests
New EM1x firmware 2.0 focus tests for Birds in Flight

The EM1x firmware 2.0 update now has the ability for the AF system to recognise and track birds. For all current and prospective EM1x owners, there is great interest in how effectively it works. Now it is available, I’ve done some testing at my usual locations to get some preliminary insights.

Camera testing with EM1x firmware 2.0

EM1x firmware 2.0

I have taken over three thousand shots with the EM1x firmware 2.0 both at a local wildlife reserve (Richmond Park pen ponds, near London, UK) and at The Hawk Conservancy Trust (HCT) raptor centre over the course of 3 flying displays. I used the 300mm f4 and 40-150 f2.8 with and without the 1.4 TC. I shot in manual, wide open, at 1/2000 with auto ISO set to 6400 max, and used rear dial exposure compensation plus highlight/shadow indication to get the exposure right for the bird. I used a mixture of electronic shutter burst L, and Pro capture L for the shots.

HTC Test results

New EM1x firmware 2.0 focus tests for Birds in Flight

The results at the HTC are probably the most interesting as they provide some level of comparison with the 1.3 firmware at the same location earlier in the year. Here I did not use the 1.4 TC adapter, to give the system the best chance. For the winter months at the HTC, the order and content of the displays has changed. From being the last session in summer (and one which I often missed because of low light and the difficulty in getting good shots), the owl display was first, and had quite good light on the day I visited. The morning and afternoon sessions are also collapsed into a single display in winter, so I have extracted the equivalent shots for this comparison.

The owl session was a revelation. The owl arena is quite small, and full of trees, and the owls fly fast and very close. It’s very hard, almost impossible to lay a focus point on them as they fly. However, they can be captured as they take off from the keeper’s glove. I used Pro capture L almost exclusively, with the 40-150 f2.8 wide open, and got the best hit rate ever for this session, of 48%. This was massively better than the EM1x v1.3 and in addition every in-focus shot was bang on the eye. There is no doubt in my mind that when you want shots of a bird taking off, the E-M1x and f/w 2.0 is excellent.

However, for fast BIF it’s a different story. Slow-moving large birds were okay, but anything small and fast,   or any bird coming directly towards me,  did not work particularly well. and certainly was less effective than using 9 or 25 point CAF without tracking. For the equivalent of the summer morning session I got a 45% hit rate, compared to 61% with f/w 1.3. For the equivalent of the summer afternoon session I got 27%, compared to 45% with f/w 1.3. The first few shots were fine, then it would lose focus. I had the sensitivity set at zero, but I’ve recently heard that a setting of -2 is better. That’s a bit non-intuitive because +2 is the best setting for anything coming fast towards you, so on my next outing I will test both.

Pen Ponds testing

I used the 300mm f4 with the 1.4 TC at an effective focal length of 840mm and f5.6 aperture. This is a very difficult focal length for finding birds, and might have been too hard a test for a winter day with low light, on reflection. For that reason, I did not use the extender at the later session at the HCT. However, the recognition software certainly made using an 840mm focal length much easier as the bird usually snapped into focus pretty fast.

At the pen ponds there are always a lot of stationary birds on the water, and here the EM1x firmware 2.0 worked very well. The focus system locked on fast, and is extremely effective in finding first the bird body, then the head. With f/w 1.3 the camera would often focus on water droplets or the water surface. and miss the body or eyes. I am not really a shooter of stationary birds, but I do like to capture them as they land or take off from the water, so this new capability is going to be really useful.

However, for fast BIF it was a different story. On the day I tested, the only birds moving were seagulls, and although the system seemed to lock on fine through the viewfinder, on subsequent examination of the shots they were largely out of focus, and the EM1x firmware 2.0 tracking seemed less effective than using 9 or 25 point CAF without tracking on f/w 1.3 at the same location.

Conclusions so far

So far I think that the bird recognition with the EM1x firmware 2.0 is a game changer for stationary and slow moving birds, and superb with Pro Capture L. However, for fast birds in flight, it does not yet represent an improvement over CAF without bird tracking.

I think this might be a question of expectations being too high, however. I was a bit sceptical that the new firmware would be a huge improvement for fast birds, because I found all point subject tracking on the E-M1x f/w 1.3 not particularly effective for fast BIF, and to expect that to work much better at the same time as all the computational effort of recognising a bird is probably a bit unrealistic. It’s also undeniably less bright in the depths of winter than it was in August, so that may be a factor in the comparisons.

I’d love to be proved wrong though. I sold all my Nikon, Canon, and Sony systems in favour of this Olympus system, so I would love the EM1x firmware 2.0 to work well for fast BIF. That being said, for my kind of BIF work even without AI bird tracking, the Oly system beats out the D850, A7R4, A6400 and A9 cameras, all of which I have owned and/or tested extensively. I’ll watch with interest for any settings miracle on f/w 2.0 that might improve the hit rate.

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