The Z50 and Bird Photography

I started taking bird photography more seriously last year, learning how to get sharper photos, using my giant mega zoom the way I’m supposed to, and buying a pro-level crop-sensor camera with a high continuous frame rate to increase my possible keeper rate. While my Z50 cannot detect birds in its animal eye AF implementation like high-end Canon, Sony, Nikon cameras, I still wanted to take it out and see how it compared. My DSLRs don’t have eye AF and I can get the shots I want, so it seemed fair to test the Z50’s regular autofocus capabilities. I used my Sigma 150 – 600mm lens and brought my D500 for comparison.

I went over to Prescott Park in Portsmouth hoping that there would be some birds nesting and seagulls flying around. It took a little time to find them, but find them I did. After about 30 minutes I had plenty of subjects in the air as well as some special guests on the ground.

I found my first seagulls at Four Tree Island a short walk away. Two were perched on top of the roof over a picnic area and the Z50’s auto area AF resulted in some nice sharp eyes. Though the birds were not moving much I was initially impressed with the accuracy given the 150 – 600 was adapted and isn’t the fastest performer even on a DSLR. While this situation worked out, it’s not where I really want to be. I don’t like auto area AF because I have zero control. In this case it meant that the camera always focused on the seagull that was closest, never focusing on the one in the background.

The Z50 can easily get shots of birds that aren’t moving, as can most cameras

I switched to wide area mode and that was somewhat better because I could choose my subject, but both the large and regular boxes were still too big to do what I ultimately wanted. They also took forever to move across the frame, making it difficult to compose before the seagulls moved. I switched to subject tracking mode because it was faster select and recompose. That worked better, but the camera would randomly lose focus on my selected seagull as it likes to do, even though they weren’t moving! I tried dynamic area for a bit but it didn’t seem to be much better and took even longer to move around because it was so small.

Z50 focus areas (top left to right): Dynamic, Wide, Auto, and my D500’s 72 point dynamic for comparison. Red box is the focused section.

All in all photographing still birds was OK. I got more sharp eyes than I initially expected to, but it was more work than I desired and I was starting to feel drained from the experience. I decided to move on to more distant subjects to test out subject tracking. It was… not great. Similar to my other experiences with the Z50, it frequently and quickly loses the subject that it’s tracking, resulting in a series of comically blurry images. It’s a bit unfair to the Z50 because I know it focuses adapted lenses more slowly than a DSLR, but most of my lenses will continue to be adapted, so it’s an important test.

Subject tracking often… doesn’t

I took advantage of silent shooting for some of the photos and achieved mostly good results. Static birds and objects were not an issue. I did end up with a few images that had slanted verticals, but overall it was a useful feature.

I did get some photos of birds in action, but I threw many, many away because the autofocus just could not keep up

On my way off of Four Tree Island I spotted a small chipmunk and used subject tracking to focus on it. The images came out OK but aren’t quite as sharp as I’d like. I don’t think the issue was the Z50 in this case: the chipmunk was in shadow and my lens was at 600mm, which is known to be its least sharp setting. The lack of strong light also dulls the details.

I made my way back to Prescott Park and encountered some robins hopping around the flower beds. I didn’t get many shots of them but they had a very cooperative friend over by the pier who cooperated. It stood on a rock staring at me while I fired shot after shot after shot. In this case the Z50 performed well. The bird wasn’t moving and the images really came out great. I needed to dial in some exposure compensation and I was delighted to leverage one of the Z50’s mirrorless capabilities by seeing the exposure change right in the EVF.

This cooperative robin made for some great images!

After about an hour with the Z50 I decided to take out my trusty D500 and give it a go. I had some success with the Z50 but I was getting frustrated with the controls and its continuous autofocus performance. As soon as I picked up the D500 I felt better. It’s a chunkier camera that balances my giant lens better, it has more buttons, and it’s super responsive. I popped it into 72-point dynamic area mode and got to work.

I love this mode because it gives me a single focus point to lock on with, but uses the points around it if the subject moves. This method worked really well for both stationary and flying birds, resulting in sharp eyes in many cases. I’ve found 72-point mode easy to use because it is large enough to position over the bird’s face as I follow it but not so large that it focuses on other things. It is a larger area compared with the Z50’s “wide-area” mode and it’s so much more useful. Selecting points on the D500 is also much faster, perhaps due to it having fewer points and not covering almost the entire frame. In this case fewer points equals faster movement, which is a benefit when birds are flying around.

Neither the Z50’s subject tracking nor its wide area AF would have kept up with these gulls

I was fortunate that a man started throwing a loaf (literally) of bread out for the seagulls to eat. They started swooping in from far and wide, providing me with plenty of opportunity to catch birds in flight. The focus locked on and the shutter fired rapidly. Not all of the images were sharp, but I’m confident it was my technique and not the camera. I don’t think the Z50 could have kept up with all of that motion, even with a native lens – the tracking is just too slow and inaccurate. I hear that it’s better on the Z6 and Z7 Mark II models due to their dual-processors, but tracking is still an issue compared with Sony and Canon.

My little squirrel friend

After the breadstravaganza, I encountered a squirrel who hopped from one side of the walkway and back again. It was tentative about me, hopping once, stopping to look at me, hopping again, stopping. This gave me a great opportunity to catch the bugger as it went. I even got a few shots mid-air! These unfortunately aren’t my sharpest images – I had the shutter speed, aperture, and zoom correct, but I don’t think I was panning with the squirrel quite well enough. Even so, I ended up with a few nice images.

Once my time at Prescott Park was over I headed to Have n Park and found yet another very cooperative robin. This robin moved more than the one I shot with my Z50 and I was happy to have the D500’s focus to follow it. It wasn’t flying, mind you, but it was hopping quite a bit and required some tracking. It allowed me to get very close and seemed rather interested in me. Even at f/8 my 150-600 was able to render nice out-of-focus highlights.

These are the few that came out

I continued on to the other side of the park where there are tennis courts, a dog park, and an inlet where the gulls like to hang around. Having so much success earlier I wanted to get a few shots of the gulls floating in the water looking into their reflections. I don’t really know what happened but most of my images were soft. I had my D500, I had the right aperture, a high shutter speed, and I was stabilizing myself, but most of them were terribly out of focus.

The image above looks fine from far away, but zoomed in it is soft. That’s how over 60% of the images from this set were.

That’s the thing with bird photography – sometimes the results are just crap. Sometimes the lighting isn’t great, sometimes I’m not using the lens in its sweet spot (150 – 450mm, f/8), sometimes the shutter speed isn’t right, sometimes I’m just not focusing correctly. Other times I am doing all of those things with a great camera and the images still don’t come out. That’s what practice is for.

All in all the Z50 is OK for animal shooting. I can use my long telephoto and I can get sharp shots of animals that aren’t moving very much. I can even get a good shot on occasion when one is moving, but the keeper rate is low. Handling is still good and overall I think I can do better with the Z50 than with my D3200. But when I want to be serious, the D500 is my tool. It’s more stable, more responsive, and more accurate. I’ll be very interested to see how improved Z9-style autofocus is and whether that could be the key to upgrading in the future.

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