I have not yet had too much opportunity to enjoy or put my new Olympus gear to the test, after switching from Nikon to Olympus at the end of January. With appalling weather in February and the world health coronavirus crisis and lockdown since…time spent behind the camera has been minimal. Plans are afoot to resurrect my garden hide set up before species other than House Sparrow and Starting start to move through as well as concentrate on more macro work in the short term at least. In the meantime, I’ve just been looking back at a couple of pre-lockdown Olympus sessions out into field on Shetland. The first early opportunity was on the westside of mainland Shetland, where, after a couple of failed attempts at approaching a very nervous Mountain Hare, I found another more confiding individual. Mountain Hare in early spring are still white, beacons against the harsh browns and dark peatlands of rural Shetland which rarely has any serious snowfall so little need for white camouflage ( or indeed any camouflage as predators are few and far between here). Given the culls of Mountain Hare on mainland UK, I think Shetland’s populations are probably the luckiest in Britain.

The upright-hoping-she-can’t-see-me approach, before settling a little lower in the heather. My first ever wildlife shot using the Olympus E-M1X with 300mm pro f4 lens & x1.4 converter hand-held. The conditions weren’t great, but I took this at ISO 640 at 1/400sec, f5.6. My initial thoughts I remember were being delighted to be able to take shots with such a lightweight set up which enabled me to nimbly move across boggy peatland to approach my subject. The set up actually felt almost toy like to hold and shoot with after lugging around my Nikon DSLR for so many years.
What a beauty…. The other immediate benefit was that I could so easily feel confident in my manual exposures (I always shoot manual) in a situation which was a little tricky with a white subject on a dark background. The ability to look through the lens and visibly watch my exposure changes and tweaks on the image in front of me – in LIVE exposure meant that when I took a shot – what I saw is exactly what I got – no need to check after or worry about over exposure (EVF).  The resultant image was as I had seen it when I took it. What a benefit.
The level of detail was astounding I thought at ISO 640 and with the 1.4 converter…..here is a similar shot to the image above but at 100%.

The changing topography of my approach to the hare meant that actually I ended up a little closer than I had intended to achieve a clean shot. In hindsight I’d have removed the 1.4 converter and given my fury subject a little more space – but in this instance I took what I could in the given opportunity. Mountain Hare are numerous and often approachable on Shetland. I can’t wait to go to a few of my hare hotspots after the lockdown finishes.

One of my first trips out with my new Olympus set up, I enthusiastically headed to the harbour in probably the worst weather conditions for some time, constant half light & drizzle. Well what better way than to dive straight into difficult photographic conditions with totaly new gear – it’s going to be a steep learning curve but I’ll start at the deep end. The seabirds I had been hoping to see weren’t around, but opportunistically, a trawler had just come into shelter from the stormy weather and a number of seals gathered around the boat, heads straining above the choppy waters….my first photo victims.

Atlantic Grey Seal  – Olympus 300mm prime f.4 pro lens. ISO 800, f5.6, 160/sec

First impressions were good, the auto-focus was fast & locked on to the seals quickly considering the movement of the water. I found ISO 800 my preferable limit before noise began to show too much and quality possibly began to be compromised. At this early session I was hesitant to hand-hold with low speeds, settling for  1/160 sec to try and freeze the seal in the relatively fluid, wild weather  – most shots of the seals at 100% did seem surprisingly sharp given the low shutter speed and low depth of field.

A regular Lerwick scene but gulls are a great way of practising various exposures and modes with new gear. If there is a sniff of bread, gulls often flock around the car and ‘hang out’ giving plenty of stationary subjects to practise on. ISO 800 f/5.6 1/100sec Olympus E-M1X with 300mm hand held.
Atlantic Grey Seal in choppy waters and low light – good results though a little grainy at 100%. ISO 1600, 1/250sec, f5.6.
ISO 1600, 1/320sec, f5.0. I love birds against ships, for the urban wildlife/natural abstract quality. Here the deep red ship worked well though at ISO 1600 there was notable grain with such a dark, one coloured, saturated background.
Taking an exposure reading from the bow of the ship. I was so impressed with the quality of the initial bright, pin sharp shots. Here an easy subject which didn’t move. ISO 1600, 1/400sec, f/5.6.

Most of my images are taken using continuous autofocus (C-AF) mode as a lot of the time I am working with birds, which are notoriously difficult to photograph as so often on the move, so a good, fast continuous AF is a real advantage to the bird photographer. Also, with so many of my images now take from a boat in the summer months and from the shore (or car!) of birds on the sea in the winter months, even slow birds are continuously moving on water, so also cry out for a good C-AF mode. Although early days, I have so far found the Olympus E-M1X coupled with 300mm f4 pro lens to be incredibly fast both with the initial lock on the subject and the subsequent tracking and focusing, getting a much higher hit rate than I had previously been used to with my DSLR.

A few days later whilst experimenting in the harbour, photographing swimming tysties (black guillemots) and dunters (Common Eider) flocks feeding close to shore, I started using a new mode which immediately grabbed by attention = the continuous autofocus tracking or CAF+TR. I was perhaps reluctant at first, having been dabbling and gaining confidence with fine results in the basic C-AF mode alongside enjoying the little AF joysticks to quickly alter my focal point and position of the bird in each frame. However I was really pleasantly surprised at the fast focus and continued tracking obtained in this new mode and the high percentage of good, sharp imagery.

Common Eider, a flock of males moving briskly through harbour waters 1/500 sec, f/7.1, ISO 800 C-AF mode hand-held.
A smart male Common Eider taken using the CAF+TR mode.. ISO 500, f/6.3 1/400sec. This mode was quick to hit onto the subject and continually track it in focus (for 80% + of the 10 shots taken) as it moved across the water at some speed.
This black guillemot was busy feeding close to shore. 1/320 sec, f/7.1, ISO1600 C-AF mode, hand-held.
Good detail obtained with fine droplet of water on the black guillemots back and tail even at ISO 1600. Image enlarged to 200%.
Poor weather conditions, a little wing blur but perfectly sharp head and body. Olympus E-M1X, 300mm ISO 800, 1/320 sec f/7.1

Last week we released a public notice advising our many followers, customers, friends & associates of our temporary closure in light of the current Coronavirus health crisis & our tourist-based local business. We have been inundated with such comforting comments & support & have been overwhelmed by so many people who had booked with us for 2020 happy to keep there booking in place & have it carried over to a convenient 2021 re-booking instead. We have also now produced our new gift vouchers which are £45 for 1 adult & £25 for under 16’s each. Not only does purchasing one of these vouchers mean you have a booking with the Noss Boat, to take at your convenience & in whatever year, month & day of your choice (subject to availability) but it also supports our small family business in such uncertain times. THANK YOU – SST x
info@shetlandseabirdtours.com

SHETLAND SEABIRD TOURS Ltd.
– THE NOSS BOAT –
public statement – Wednesday 18th March 2020

We are very keen to let our many customers & followers know where we stand in a world which is currently experiencing a public health & financial crisis in light of the Coronavirus (Covid-19). The Shetland Islands are unfortunately no exception with a number of cases now being confirmed & many local businesses now on hold. We are, as a family & a business (which is totally reliant on the tourist sector) taking the ever-evolving UK government & NHS advice regarding Coronavirus very seriously & have halted the start of our boat tour season which was due to start near the end of March.

It is with regret that SHETLAND SEABIRD TOURS – NOSS BOAT is now CLOSED FOR BUSINESS for the rest of MARCH, APRIL & MAY 2020. We will re-evaluate our situation during May for the rest of the 2020 Shetland tourist season & hope that more positive news & boat trips may resume later in the summer.

We will over the next few days, be contacting all of our late March, April & May PRE-BOOKED CUSTOMERS to let them know our current situation & offering the two options below:

1. A cancellation & full refund.

2. A chance to postpone your boat tour until later in the year or for a date of your choice in 2021.

The above options are also available to all our PRE-BOOKED CUSTOMERS for the rest of the 2020 seabird tour season though we will not be officially closing the JUNE-OCTOBER tours or making any decisions on our Noss Boat trips during that period until after out next evaluation in May. Obviously, we understand that many of our customers are having to cancel their 2020 trips to Shetland regardless of our own business situation. If you are able to not cancel but postpone & carry over your booking with us into 2021 we would be extremely grateful though we know this is not always an option. We understand that this is a very stressful & uncertain time for all & our thoughts go out to those affected directly by the virus or as a result of the financial implications of it. If you have any questions regarding trips with Shetland Seabird Tours Ltd. please do not hesitate to get in touch by either calling Phil & Rebecca on:
07767872260 or email us at: info@shetlandseabirdtours.com

Yours sincerely,

Rebecca Nason & Phil Harris
Shetland Seabird Tours Ltd/Noss Boat.

A big day for me, 30th January this year, with more than slight relief but also a fair share of bond-breaking anxiety, I put down my Nikon gear after more than 20 years and enthusiastically raised my new lightweight pro set up – the Olympus E-M1X coupled with the 300mm f4 pro lens and 1.4 converter. I had been seriously thinking of switching my photo system for some time after becoming aware over the past few years of the rise in the lightweight mirrorless revolution and seeing the excellent results being obtained by professional photographers around the world, in particular by UK and Finnish pro photographer friends who had joined the converted and who’s imagery continued to impress and wow.

My Nikon system had served me well for many years but of late, it’s limitations and my knowledge of the alternatives on the market saw me feeling detached and dis-enchanted by my gear and hesitant to continue with it. Lugging my heavy D3s and 300mm VR f4 out in the field and in particular, out on the boat, was no longer working for me! It was time to either have a DSLR upgrade or totally change my photographic gear to a mirrorless system.

I organised a brief but very helpful intro session with top bird photographer and official Olympus mentor David Tipling at his excellent hide set up in North Norfolk, trialling out the operationally very different Olympus camera bodies and lenses for the first time on a Sparrowhawk plucking away at a Wood Pigeon (see my first ever Olympus image below).

My first image taken using an Olympus mirrorless system using the E-M1X and accompanying 300mm f.4 lens. Hand-held at 1/160sec, f.4 ISO 400.

I had been slightly apprehensive about changing to such a different system which seemed theoretically at least to be quite complicated and others had told me it was a difficult, complicated menu – I was apprehensive it would be like starting my long self-taught photographic journey again……but no……(#1) different yes, difficult, no not really, that was certainly my first thought and a month on, still my thought. Although only touching the surface of such an advanced featured system, I was confident after handling the Olympus E-M1X for half an hour that this was a camera body I could get really excited about getting to grips with. (#2) The size and feel I found immediately appealing. Yes it is a large solid body compared to the other Olympus range of bodies, but still lighter than my previous Nikon body and it felt comfortable in the hand, the shaped hand grip perfect for solid, steady hand-held shooting.

My other initial impressions as I practised on that Norfolk sparrowhawk, well, at last, (#3) silent shutter shooting, what a dream, and at up to 18fps, no rapid gun fire, a total game changer for me after having spent years cringing with my DSLR. Even my old ‘silent mode’ was far from silent and only allowed single frame shooting in that mode, far from ideal with ever moving wildlife subjects. Canon was comparably quieter than Nikon too, something which always jarred with me when shooting alongside colleagues in the trade. This was incredible, it felt unreal, did I even just take a photograph at all? (#4) the bright, large digital screen certainly showed me that I had, a screen which also has a touch screen ability not dissimilar to an iPhone….I like that.

The lens I used with that initial trial was the Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 300mm f/4 IS PRO Super Telephoto Lens (a micro 4/3). (#5) What a lens, apparently the world’s most compact, lightweight telephoto lens on the market, and I can believe it. This seriously was a lens I knew immediately I had to own. No more carting round my enormous DSLR telephoto lenses, the physical endurance and back problems associated with my bird photography for years could be removed in an instant with a powerful image stabilised, (#6) super quick focusing 1270g of Olympus. This lightweight mirrorless system seemed initially to be almost toy like, it was so extremely lightweight compared to what I was used to. A lot of my photography back home in Shetland involves walking, often over rough terrain for hours at a time. In particular my many spring and autumn birding and photography trips to Fair isle would involve covering serious ground in the quest for good birds and often spontaneous, opportunist bird photography. With this super little transportable set-up, the constraints of the birding/walking v photography dilemma were alleviated. (#7) The ease of mobility with this lightweight lens and camera body, even with an additional converter was perhaps my No.1 reason for changing. The mobility and fast focus options would be so beneficial to me during the beautiful summer months on Shetland too, in particular whilst out on our daily Noss Boat surrounded by an incredible array of seabirds, the huge towering gannetry cliffs of Noss, the swirling masses of gannets circling and plunge diving close to the boat. So many opportunities I could now see being able to capitalise on with Olympus at hand.

A close up of the above Sparrowhawk image at 100%  shows the very high quality and detail obtained as well as low noise at ISO 400. I was certainly impressed by these initial images.

As I practised on that Sparrowhawk and other woodland birds, I started changing the ISO’s to see how much grain/noise was evident the higher I went. I had been told this was perhaps one of the Olympus limitations and this concerned me given that I am used to dealing with high ISO’s in the often dark, unfavourable conditions stuck out on an island in the middle of the North Sea. Particularly for rare bird photography, conditions often mean that I need a high ISO to attempt to hand-hold and achieve a sharp shot of often very mobile subjects in bad weather. ISO 1600 has often been the norm for me with my DSLR set up, the Nikon 200-400mm f.4 VR & 300mm f2.8 VR with accompanying converters attached to my D3s worked very well at ISO 1600 but not any higher and I certainly couldn’t hand-hold at less that 1/80sec without losing the pin sharp qualities I desired. At my initial intro to Olympus, I was not totally convinced it could match my needs as far as ISO’s go, still on the fence, I could though see that at least up to ISO 800 looked pleasing to the eye but any higher and the images started to suffer. However, as you will see in forthcoming blog posts, as I delved into what the gear could actually do post purchase, my thoughts on this changed quite dramatically.

Olympus has given my photography a new lease of life and certainly brought back my enthusiasm and passion for bird and wildlife photography. I can’t wait to get out in the field at every given opportunity. With the winter storms beginning to abate and with spring apparently on the horizon, there is much to get excited about and much to learn.