PURPLE PROS  with OLYMPUS

Purple Sandpipers or ‘purps’ as birders affectionately call them, are gorgeous and rather enigmatic waders that are a regular feature of Shetland’s coastline in the autumn and winter months…….

Purple prose, as Wikipedia describes, is often referred to it a literal sense as “text that is so extravagant, ornate, or flowery as to break the flow and draw excessive attention to itself. Purple prose is characterized by the excessive use of adjectives, adverbs, and metaphors. When limited to certain passages, they may be termed purple patches or purple passages, standing out from the rest of the work. Purple prose is criticised for desaturating the meaning in an author’s text by overusing melodramatic and fanciful descriptions.

Olympus E-M1X with M.Zuiko Digital 300mm F4 Pro Lens & 1.4 converter, hand-held. ISO 1600, 1/800 sec, F5.6. with C-AF (continuous mode).

Ah, okay, my lightbulb moment of naming this post Purple Prose will hopefully not flagship the meaning of the term in a literal sense…and yes, I am the first to admit I can be a little flowery in my writing at times and stray from the point in question. But in this instance, my purple patch is the current arrival of the delightful Purple SandpiperCalidris maritima, a wader that has been migrating to & through the Shetland Islands from their high arctic breeding grounds in the last couple of weeks. The storm battered beaches, strewn with seaweeds ripped from their sandy beds, and peppered with Dunlin & Turnstone, are now joined by subtly mauve-toned birds heading south, many for the first time, to escape the harsh winter ahead – my ‘purple passage’.

Olympus E-M1X with M.Zuiko Digital 300mm F4 Pro Lens & 1.4 converter, hand-held. ISO 1600, 1/250sec, F5.6. with C-AF (continuous mode).

In fact around 7% of Britain’s Purple Sandpipers actually over-winter on Shetland, not that you would realise this when out in the field, with so many areas of suitable habitat for these waders in inaccessible remote rocky islets & geos. Many high arctic breeding waders travel a long way south for the winter, but Purple Sandpipers are not known as long distance migrants, remaining as far north as possible in the winter months. They are very conspicuous on the sandy beaches where they loosely associate with other tideline shorebirds, though less so on their favoured rocks where they become incredibly camouflaged.

When time has allowed & with social distancing not a problem on these wild Shetland beaches in November, I have enthusiastically headed out, camera on shoulder, to face the challenges of finding & then photographing the hardy, tidal zone dependant Purple Sandpipers. In the last two weeks I’ve encountered small groups from just a couple to over 20 on beaches in South mainland Shetland. Weather conditions of late, have not been pleasant to put it mildly; our neutral, overcast skies have been good but the heavy rain & very strong gales really put me off wader photography (actually any kind of photography) as I’m not too keen on sand in my face or my equipment!

Olympus E-M1X with M.Zuiko Digital 300mm F4 Pro Lens & 1.4 converter, hand-held. ISO 1600, 1/400 sec, F5.6. with C-AF (continuous mode).

High winds often put the waders off their usual feeding behaviour & with the birds on extra high alert, the opportunities to get close are minimal too. With favourable conditions however, waders here can be incredibly approachable given time and patience. Of my recent photo sessions, I ended up being no more than a couple of metres away from them as they soon lost interest in the thing on its knees in the seaweed edging towards them. With no shutter noise at all with my Olympus set up, there was a wonderful silence apart from the waders little peeping notes and the tidal flows.

Olympus E-M1X with M.Zuiko Digital 300mm F4 Pro Lens & 1.4 converter, hand-held. ISO 1600, 1/250sec, F5.6. with C-AF + TR (continuous autofocus tracking mode).

As well as being found searching for food amongst seaweed clad rocks or running the sandy tideline with other waders, Purple Sandpipers will readily take to the water as they did when I spent time with them, virtually swimming in the breakwater and effortlessly running through the foamy shallows, occasionally up to their necks. This provided me with some amazing opportunities to take images that reflected a different side to their behaviour.

Taking to the water…..Olympus E-M1X with M.Zuiko Digital 300mm F4 Pro Lens & 1.4 converter, hand-held. ISO 1600, 1/250sec, F5.6. with C-AF +TR.

Although planned photographic projects have taken a back seat this year, photography for me has in some ways been my most enjoyable for years due to changing to the Olympus mirrorless system back in January. Nature photography brings me such happiness, a strong sense of creative achievement and is a welcome mental sanctuary in a particularly anxious, chaotic world. Perhaps too, I’ve had a stronger awakening to appreciate and enjoy the environment and nature closer to home, on my very own doorstep, instead of hankering for far-flung destinations across the globe.

Purple Sandpipers are a regular feature of autumn and winter on Shetland along much of our wave-pounded rocky coastline.  I moved here in 2014, but it is only now I have found time to concentrate on finding their favoured haunts and on working with them photographically. It’s a reminder that we should take the time to appreciate what’s on our own doorstep  – I live in am amazing place and am surrounded by wildlife. I’m fortunate indeed.

Now for more on taking the shots……..

Olympus E-M1X with M.Zuiko Digital 300mm F4 Pro Lens and 1.4 converter, hand-held. ISO 1600, 1/250sec, F5.6. with C-AF.

The flexibility of the Olympus gear in the field is one of the biggest advantages for me. Walking a couple of miles along the coast to reach shorebirds with the E-M1X,  300mm f4 pro lens & 1.4 converter over my shoulder, I forget I’m even carrying anything. After time stalking through sand & seaweed bent low or on my knees whilst shooting, I feel no discomfort or physical limitations at all. With a rather weak back after years of flogging heavy gear around & with advanced osteoarthritis in my hips & knee, my ‘relatively young’ but worn out body revels in this new gear, allowing me to just keep on going, rather like a duracell battery! The only thing that halted these wader photo sessions was high tide when the birds retreated to offshore roosting spots.

Olympus E-M1X with M.Zuiko Digital 300mm F4 Pro Lens & 1.4 converter, hand-held. ISO 640, 1/2000 sec, F6.3 with C-AF + TR.

With these wader encounters I had quality time with my subjects constantly passing me with repetitive activities and light conditions.  Subjects like this for prolonged periods enabled me, at last, a chance to try out and compare some of the exciting new modes and set ups that my mirrorless, hi-tech camera system has to offer.

You can read up on as many camera features as you like, but nothing beats getting out in the field and practising to really see what works best for you, your subject matter and style.  For bird photography, much of which is very opportunistic on Shetland outside of summer hide work, I shoot in (M) manual mode, often keeping the speed high whilst maintaining a low depth of field, usually around f5.6 to achieve my favoured out of focus, clean backdrops. Both these of course set against a manual ISO choice, depending on any given situation. I try and stay with low ISO’s but, particularly on Shetland, this is not always possible so anywhere between ISO 500-1600 is standard for me. I use Autofocus, with Continuous C-AF MF mode a favourite. However, these wader sessions gave me a chance to enjoy two other options, that of C-AF + TR tracking mode and Pro Capture.

Pro Capture (L) Mode ……Olympus E-M1X with M.Zuiko Digital 300mm F4 Pro Lens & 1.4 converter, hand-held. ISO 640, 1/1600 sec, F6.3.
Pro Capture (L) Mode. Olympus E-M1X with M.Zuiko Digital 300mm F4 Pro Lens & 1.4 converter, hand-held. ISO 640, 1/2000 sec, F5.6.

The C-AF Tracking mode produced many good, fast, sharp hits, particularly with running tideline waders, see this purple sandpiper in action. As long as the backdrops are pretty clean and uncluttered, this feature works very well and stays glued to the subject, tracking it seamlessly without being distracted. This feature takes the pressure off the photographer tracking the subject and makes the camera do most of the work. You can also select a subject to help your autofocus tracking within the cameras customised menu. The subject list is found by navigating through the custom menu to A3 Tracking Subject. (Intelligent Subject Tracking). Up to now I have practised using the airplane mode or having the tracking subject feature turned off. BUT . . . .Olympus has just announced an exciting new ‘bird’ tracking option to be added to the list through upgraded firmware available this coming winter!  There are already options for Trains, Motorsports and Airplanes but a new Bird tracking feature is bound to send professional and amateur nature photographers alike clambering for the upgrade.

Pro Capture (L) Mode. Olympus E-M1X with M.Zuiko Digital 300mm F4 Pro Lens & 1.4 converter, hand-held. ISO 800, 1/2000 sec, F5.6.

I like to think I’m quite quick on the draw with tracking my subjects after years of practise, but there are always times when you just miss that moment, maybe the sudden unprovoked attack of one wader to another as they pass each other on the shoreline, or the sudden perfectly still, raised-head-side profile pose between frantic head-lowered feeding. The Pro Capture mode allows you the ability to capture those moments which has already gone by holding images in a buffer zone whilst you half press the shutter and follow your subjects around. What a feature, a camera that can act faster than my brain can react and take shots I would otherwise have missed!  Fully pressing the shutter from half way to full down as soon as you see the action happening captures those shots from that instant as well as the images held in buffer from before you reacted. A massive bonus, especially with action and behavioural wildlife photography. I use Pro Capture Low which allows for continuous autofocus, a must when photographing birds on the move.

P.S Card Alert: Watch out for your memory cards filling quicker than they ever have before. Is there anything worse than an incredible photographic situation and the ‘card full’ flashing on the monitor? Even with space for two cards in the camera, you are not safe in Pro Capture mode and its whopping 60 images a second capabilities.  I’ll be ordering a couple more cards to add to my day bag ……

By Rebecca Nason – November 2020

Striking a Pose. Pro Capture (L) Mode. Olympus E-M1X with M.Zuiko Digital 300mm F4 Pro Lens & 1.4 converter, hand-held. ISO 640, 1/2000 sec, F5.6.

 

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.

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.