Brutus Östling on photographing birds with the EOS-1D X
© Brutus Östling
Canon Ambassador Brutus Östling is a wildlife photographer who specialises in bird photography. Although based in central Sweden he spends much of his time travelling the world photographing birds, both large and small, as well as working with local subjects in Sweden. Since having the EOS-1D X DSLR he has travelled to the US states of Florida and Alaska and has photographed a variety of subjects, including America’s iconic bald eagles. CPN spoke to Brutus Östling, after he had spent two months shooting constantly with the EOS-1D X, to discover his opinions on Canon’s flagship 18.1 Megapixel DSLR.
CPN: What cameras do you currently shoot with?
Brutus Östling (BO): “Before the EOS-1D X I was using both an EOS-1D Mark IV and an EOS 5D Mark II. The EOS-1D Mark IV was for action, while the EOS 5D Mark II was used for landscapes and other static subjects. The EOS-1D X has changed this though...”
CPN: When you first picked up the EOS-1D X, what did you think?
BO: “I was in a restaurant in Sweden and someone from Canon had come over to bring me the new camera, and talk me through it. I put a card in, pointed the camera and took a few pictures. The face detection AF was turned on and, despite the fact that the only face in the frame was through a glass door in another part of the restaurant, the camera locked on and gave me a sharp picture!
As usual with pre-production cameras there was no manual available, but I had no real problems moving from the previous [DSLR] models. This camera feels like the old cameras. I did push the wrong button once or twice, but you very quickly learn what [control] has moved to where. The menu, especially the AF, is easy to set up because of the explanations provided on screen. It took me a day or two to work out, and remember where everything was, but it is much faster to move through the menu tabs now as they are better organised – it’s just like the earlier cameras, but better!
For the majority of practical features within the camera I didn’t feel that I needed a manual at all because it is so familiar, due to my use of previous [EOS] models.”
CPN: Are there any less obvious features that you are particularly impressed with?
BO: “I have made a lot of use of the ability to change from one set of settings to another at the push of a button. With wildlife you never quite know when the action is going to happen, so you may be shooting with a slow shutter speed when you suddenly need a fast shutter speed to freeze the motion. By using the custom settings I can push one button and immediately switch to a different set of settings, with a fast shutter speed and higher ISO. It’s perfect for subjects that are static, but may start moving suddenly, and saves me having to look down at the camera to change settings.
I also think the Auto Lighting Optimizer is fantastic. It works very well for some subjects and situations. With the three strengths available I can choose the one that works best to lighten the shadows and darken the highlights. In some cases it allows me to avoid using flash as well. And, if I forget to apply it, I can always apply it afterwards to the RAW files in the DPP software.”
CPN: The 61-point AF system is a big part of this camera; what are your impressions of using it to photograph birds in flight?
BO: “The easiest way to answer this is to say that I am very used to working with eagles and other birds in flight. And yet, despite my experience, I have never managed to get as many sharp images as I have with the EOS-1D X. There are so many that are sharp and so few that are un-sharp. If I get a soft image it’s because I missed the bird, not the camera.
There were times, especially with the bald eagles, where I was photographing one bird, but a second would move into the frame, quite often moving in front of the main subject. This can be tough for a camera and you can find that it jumps to the bird in front. However, with the EOS-1D X, it continued to track the main subject [bird] accurately.
To set up the AF system takes a little time, as there are quite a few settings to understand. However, the Case Study preset settings are very helpful and get you most of the way towards optimum performance. Pressing the INFO button gives a description of each setting as well, so it is easy to see when you might use each one. If I want to fine-tune each setting, for even better performance, I can, but it is so close with just the Case Study settings I’ve not found many situations where it would provide a lot of improvement.
One thing I have found very useful for birds in flight is the acceleration and deceleration tracking which makes the camera more responsive to subjects that change speed suddenly. It really is great for [photographing] some flying birds when they change direction. For example, an eagle falling freely and then moving directly towards the camera or an eagle flying towards the camera and then suddenly setting off on another, more parallel, direction.
I really like the addition of the Zone and AF Point Expansion settings too. I used to always use just a single AF point, maybe enlarged with two or four AF points, but with fast moving subjects it can be difficult to keep the point on the bird’s head. Now I use Zone [AF] and a larger AF Point Expansion to give me a larger area to put onto my subject.
I have found that Zone AF, or even using Auto Point Selection, is great when there is a clear background with little contrast, like a sky, as it makes tracking the subject so much easier. With a background that has contrast I tend to use AF Point Expansion to give me a little more control over the exact point being used for focusing.
I have also been using the 1st and 2nd image priority settings. Quite often I set the 1st image priority to release priority, with focus priority for the second and subsequent images. Despite not giving priority to focus for the first image, the system seems so quick that most of the time the first image is sharp anyway!
One area I thought I might have a problem with is the loss of focusing at f/8. The previous [camera], the EOS-1D Mark IV can focus from the centre point when using an EF500mm f/4L IS II USM (or EF600mm f/4L IS II USM) and an EF2x III extender or EF800mm f/5.6L IS USM and an EF1.4x III Extender, but the EOS-1D X cannot. A lot of people have been talking about this as a problem. The reality is that, in use, I have not found it a problem at all. I have found that if I need that focal length, then I should either be moving closer to my subject, or I can use manual focus accurately. The viewfinder is so clear that it is easy to see when something is sharp in the frame, and the new magnify button, which I have set to 100%, makes it very quick to check that I got the focus right.
Besides this, I always found focusing at f/8, or with extenders fitted, was a little slower than normal, so the only time I’d really use it is for shooting static subjects like bird portraits – and, for this, manual focus works perfectly. Equally, for me, this requirement is the sort of thing I only need a couple of times a year at most, so I can easily work around it by shooting with the lens I have and then cropping afterwards because the detail and resolution is so good. It is honestly not a problem.”
CPN: What about high ISO performance? Have you had much chance to use high ISOs?
BO: “I like to shoot in manual metering mode, so I set the shutter speed, aperture and ISO in that order. I can do that now with the EOS-1D X because the ISO performance is so good, even at ISO 25,600. I can choose whatever shutter speed and aperture I want to achieve the creative look I’m after and, by adjusting the ISO, I can still get the correct exposure. This wasn’t possible a few years ago, because the ISO performance of DSLRs was not as good, but the EOS-1D X has opened up this new possibility, while still providing very high image quality.
For pictures of Hawfinches in my garden I needed to use a faster shutter speed than normal, because the birds are small and move very quickly. I also wanted to close the aperture down a little, from maximum, to ensure I had adequate depth-of-field in the image so that the eyes on both birds were definitely sharp. With such a fast shutter speed and a closed down aperture, I had to raise the ISO to get the correct exposure. As such, I used ISO settings between 6400 and 12,800 and, even looking at only the JPEGs, I am so happy. I have been stunned by the colours; even at these high ISO settings where usually the strength of the colours can be lost. With the EOS-1D X, though, the colours remain vivid and true.
As part of my Florida trip I took the camera to the Kennedy Space Centre and was shooting at ISO 6400 with the EF24mm f/1.4L II USM lens. When I looked at the pictures later I really thought I was looking at images shot at ISO 800, they were that good. I just don’t have to think about the ISO performance anymore.
My personal feeling is that ISO 6400 on the EOS-1D X is as good as, or better than, ISO 1600 on the EOS-1D Mark IV – it really is that much of an improvement.”
CPN: Are you happy having two CF card slots on the EOS-1D X or did you prefer the arrangement of the EOS-1D Mark IV, with CF and SD card slots?
BO: “I am so grateful for the two CF card slots! I now use two 32GB memory cards and I can shoot all day without having to worry about changing a card, and possibly missing some action. This is especially useful in cold environments where you are wearing big gloves, and it can be difficult to take a memory card out and put another one in – now I don’t have to!”
CPN: How have you found the handling and the build quality of the EOS-1D X?
BO: “The best thing I can say about this is that I haven’t had to think about it at all. I’ve been shooting with the camera in temperatures down to -20ºC for six to seven hours at a time, and I have not had a single problem. If I have to think about something it usually means there is something wrong with it, or I don’t trust it. But this camera has been brilliant from the start – I just take it for granted that it works wherever I’m shooting.
The battery life has been brilliant as well. I’ve shot more than 32GB in a single day, even using super telephoto lenses at -20ºC and the battery has lasted the entire day. I do sometimes switch the Image Stabilizer off, when shooting on a tripod with a fast shutter speed, but often it is on Mode 2 rather than Mode 1, so it is still consuming power, but the battery keeps running. Like not changing memory cards, not having to switch batteries in the cold with gloves on makes using the camera that bit easier.”
CPN: Is there anything you would like to see changed or improved in the EOS-1D X?
BO: “I’ve had the camera for two months now, and I’ve shot around 25,000 images. So far, I’ve not come across anything I would like to be done differently or to be improved. In fact, I’ve been so happy with the camera I’ve not even thought about what could be improved and that is a good sign. If I wasn’t completely happy I’d be looking for the problems, and telling Canon about them, but I’ve not had to.”
CPN: Do you have any final thoughts on the camera?
BO: “I was very glad to be given the chance to use the [EOS-1D X] camera and I’m even happier that I still have it! I hope I don’t have to give it back any time soon because this feels like such a really big step forwards, it will be hard using anything else. Apart from the shooting performance, the image quality – in particular, the fantastic colours, even when shooting at very high ISOs – is such a welcome surprise. Even though I’m still only able to see the JPEGs I expect to be even more blown away again when I see the RAWs.
I have been asked if I would have liked more pixels, but I have blown images up from this camera and I can capture so many details that it is not an issue. Even with a hard crop of an image, the results are so good that I just don’t need more resolution. In fact, having too many pixels brings it’s own problems anyway, so I think this is about perfect.”
Biography: Brutus Östling
© Remy Cortin
Brutus Östling grew up in Stockholm, Sweden, and started a publishing house, at the age of 22, in 1981. After publishing more than 1,000 titles in 2005 he changed his career and became a professional photographer, specialising in bird and wildlife photography. Three of his photo books have been bestsellers in Sweden, and some have been translated into English, and other languages. Two of his books won WWF Panda Prizes in 2006 and 2007 as the best nature books in Sweden. In 2006 he was chosen as ‘Nature Photographer of the Year’ in Sweden, and in November 2007 he was appointed as ‘Scandinavian Nature Photographer 2007-2008’. He became a Canon Ambassador in 2009 and has recently returned from a trip to Alaska and Florida photographing birds, including bald eagles.