How mirrorless is changing bird photography

I haven’t been talking much photography recently, partly because I haven’t been doing much to talk about, with all of the house work and general crazy of the recent weeks.

Fuji has been killing it recently with products aimed at extending the reach of their mirrorless systems into telephoto and super-telephoto ranges, bringing the mirrorless platform past the world of street and portrait work into the realm of the big glass nerds. But can a mirrorless system really hold up as your primary birding or wildlife camera?

For a long time I was strongly in the camp of “no”, but with the Fuji X-T1 Fuji made some nice improvements in the speed of the viewfinders and autofocus system, and so the camera was the first one I felt could handle the needs of an action photographer. Despite that, telephoto lenses stopped at 200mm, limiting the use of the camera in nature/wildlife/birding situations.

That changed with the release of the Fujinon XF 100-400, which took mirrorless out into the Super-telephoto realm, and the 1.4x teleconverter, which was certified with that lens and allowed you to use the camera with the same super-telephoto ranges of the DLSR world.

Taking it even further, in the last month or so, Fuji has released their 2.0x teleconverter. It also works with the 100-400 with full automation, which gives you the equivalent of a 200-800 lens — with full automation with the camera.

To me, this is a game changer, if it works and creates quality images. Does it?

I finally had a chance to get out and take some pictures.

I went out to one of the reliable birding hangouts, the sewer settling ponds on Radio Road in Redwood Shores, and because I’m a glutton for punishment, spent a couple of hours there in the middle of the day in full sun, maximizing harsh shadows and glare — because how often do critter photographers get to time their way to great light, anyway? How these platforms handle bad light is critically important, and full sunlight at noon in the middle of summer is an easy way to find bad light. To make things even more fun, I dropped the ISO down to 500 to force the shutter speed down to where I was going to be depending on the image stabilization as well.

I spent some time shooting hand held, and then I put the rig on a tripod using a gimbal and shot that way as well. So here I am, shooting hand-held, at 800mm, with a shutter speed of 1/210 of a second.

American Avocet Chick

I don’t recommend this approach. I did get a lot of dings in the stream because of camera or motion blur. But the fact that I could shoot an 800mm lens hand holding it in poor light and get any usable images with it? To me, that’s awesome.

White Pelican

Here’s a shot of a Forster’s Tern adult (mom, I believe, doing guard duty while dad occasionally brought back fish) with two chicks.

Forster's Tern and chicks

It really shows what I like about the Fuji sensor in this situation. In pretty harsh light, I’ve been able to both avoid blowing out the whites on the bird while being able to bring out some detail in the shadows. A big problem with terns is that too often, the eye simply disappears into the helmet and you lose a lot of the interest in the image when the head is just a big black blob. Here I was able to pull some of that detail out — not something I’d have been able to do with my Canon 7dII sensor.

Mirrorless plusses and minuses

If you’ve never shot a super-telephoto lens, something to understand is that technique becomes more and more critical. At 600mm or 800mm your field of view is extremely narrow, and so getting a bird into the frame is an exacting practice, and even a careless breath can cause enough camera movement to push the bird out of view again. Practicing how to hold a lens steady without excessive movement is a key still. Going to a mirrorless system doesn’t change this need for good technique, but in one key way it makes it easier: my Canon 7Dii with the Sigma 150-600 lens attached weighs over 8 pounds. You can hand hold that puppy, but at the end of the day you’ll be ready to go home, and you’re going to be limited to how well you can aim and steady the camera because you need to position yourself to support the lens properly.

The Fuji X-T1 with the 100-400 and a teleconverter on the other hand, is a much lighter weird at under 4 pounds. For a photographer, it’s much more like hauling around the Canon 100-400, a classic birding lens that works well hand-held. This means the Fuji setup opens up many more options and opportunities while still being a very viable carry-around lens. You can carry around that Sigma, but you won’t enjoy it.

On the negative side, this setup isn’t cheap — although once you start pushing beyond 300mm into super-telephoto type lenses, everything gets expensive (and big and heavy) pretty quickly. The Fuji setup (body: $1200, lens: $1800, teleconverter $500) will run you $3500. The Canon/Sigma combo is about the same, though with body $1600 and lens $2000 — that’s for the sport model; Sigma has a less expensive version of the 150-600 that will only set you back $1000 that I haven’t tested.

I’m ignoring crop factors here, but if you care, the Canon is a 1.6X and the Fuji is a 1.5X. And if you care, you have my respect and sympathy. For the purposes we’re looking at here, the crop factor bodies work as well as, or better, than the full-frame DLSRs for less money, and in general, I think this is an argument that mattered a lot more in the past than it does today.

Western Sandpiper

In general I came away very impressed with the results. In comparing the Fuji system with my Canon system, I now have a mirrorless camera that seems capable of doing anything I’ve asked the Canon birding rig to do — and with the 2.0 teleconverter, more. And the Fuji setup is smaller and lighter by a wide margin, even as it pushes my range out to 800mm.

If I were to put the two systems head to head, I’d say the 7Dii autofocus is superior and more configurable, but I’m still working out exactly how to best use the Fuji AF system in an action/bird situation (more on this down the road, because I found when I set it up the way I did the Canon with back button focus and the same general control structure, it failed miserably — I need to treat the fuji system as a Fuji, and not simply try to make it act like the Canon because I’m used to it…). I believe the Fuji sensor is a lot better than the Canon one, with much truer colors (Canon runs warm to me and I’m always pulling yellow out of my images), and the XT-1 is as good as, or a bit better at bad light and high ISO, while being a lot better at bringing out shadow detail while limiting sensor noise.

Mirrorless has grown up

We are now at the point where you can use a mirrorless camera system and do anything a DLSR can do. In some cases the mirrorless will do it better, in other cases the DLSR may have the advantage, but that’s true of any comparison between two camera systems; it’s just that until now, the lenses available for mirrorless didn’t exist to let you push out into the super-telephoto ranges needed for good birding or wildlife/action work.

If you are already invested in a platform like Canon, it can be hard to consider the investment of switching. In my case, I started with one aspect of my photography — landscapes — and grew the Fuji side of my kit over time as it made sense. Now I’m at that point where the only Canon gear I still own is the single 7Dii body and the Sigma lens; everything else has been retired and is either in Laurie’s kit or being sold off.

For now, I’m keeping the Big Bertha Sigma lens, at least through this winter’s refuge work, specifically as the tripod setup, but I don’t expect to use it much other than that, and if things work as I hope this winter, once we’re through my refuge work it’ll be sold off and I’ll be 100% Fuji in my bag. And I’ll have done that with no significant compromise to my work or the quality of the images.

That’s how you can tell that mirrorless cameras have grown up, and Fuji should be lauded for the care and planning that put into getting to this point. It was well worth it.

But wait! one more thing…

Fuji’s not done. This week they announced the next generation replacement for the X-T1, the Fuji X-T2, now available for pre-order for about $1600. The feature set has some interesting differences from the X-T1, with a bigger sensor at 24 megapixels, an improved autofocus system, improved burst mode, improved and bigger viewfinder and better high ISO performance. All in all, it looks like it will be a great follow-on to a great body and push forward some of the capabilities most needed for the kind of photography bird and wildlife photographers tend to need.

A few photographers have been able to get early access to the camera and have now published their feelings about it. For an early look at this new body, take a look at the reviews of Dan Bailey, David duChemin and Kevin Mullins.

It’s due for release in September, and you can expect I’ll be getting one for testing and use as soon as I can get my hands on it…