Previous visitors to my website and YouTube channel likely know that I’m a fan of adapting old manual lenses to modern mirrorless cameras like the Fuji X system. This is a great way to explore new focal lengths and new types of photography without necessarily breaking the bank.
I picked up a 1970’s SMC Takumar 400mm f/5.6, a few years ago on eBay for around $150 USD, which is a really good price for a super telephoto lens. Prices have gone up since classic lenses have regained popularity, but it’s anything goes in the secondhand market so you might still be able to find some hidden gems. I also featured this lens in my M42 Lenses for Fuji X video, but admittedly it never really got much use after that. In fact, it was one of my least-used lenses ever.
I’ve always wanted to try this lens for bird photography, but the closest bird habitat I knew about was 2 hours away. Every time I tried to go there, it was closed due to avian influenza concerns so it never really panned out. Recently, I was out with my family and we discovered a great little spot in Tongyeong that has quite a few birds staying warm for the winter. It’s a sort of mini wetland right in our own town, just 10 minutes away! I’ve been back a couple of times already and I’ve really enjoyed the challenge as well as lessons learned from the experience.
I’m using the Fujifilm X-T4 + SMC Takumar 400mm f/5.6. I’ve adapted the lens with a K&F Concept M42-FX adapter. Overall, it’s a really nice and simple setup. The X-T4’s built-in in-body image stabilization (IBIS) allows me to shoot hand-held much more easily.
Settings and Configuration
- Essential settings – For Fuji X bodies, be sure to enable “Shoot Without Lens”, as well as dial in the correct “Mount Adapter Setting” so that the in-body stabilization will work correctly. It’ll also help keep your EXIF data accurate.
- Use a stabilizer – Whether it be a tripod, monopod, or IBIS, some sort of stabilizer will be very helpful. Long lenses are very sensitive to camera shake and a bit of stabilization goes a long way to keep images sharp, as well as making framing and composition a bit easier.
- Boost ISO – a little bit in order to increase shutter speed. As with many types of action photography, you’ll want to be in the 1/2000 second range to freeze motion and get sharp images. I’ve often found myself around ISO 800 in order to achieve these faster shutter speeds. Of course, you can also slow down the shutter a bit to achieve certain motion blur effects if you want.
- Stop Down – Older lenses tend to have more chromatic aberrations. For this Takumar 400mm in particular, I’ve found that f/8 or f/11 is a good aperture to reduce aberrations and increase sharpness. Stopping down also gives you more depth of field, which increases your chances of nailing focus.
- Focusing Aids – In conjunction with stopping down, use focus peaking to help you get into the focus range more quickly.
Learnings and Best Practices
I’m not an expert bird photographer by any stretch of the imagination, but I’ve found that the general rules of photography and composition still do apply. Here are some of the things I’ve learned along the way.
- As with outdoor photography in general, the best time to shoot birds is early morning or late afternoon for golden light. I read that morning is even better as birds more actively hunt for food, and it has turned out to be true. In my case, I choose mid-morning or mid-afternoon for my shooting time in order to have even more light to work with, since I have to stop my old lens down a bit.
- Be patient. A lot of the time, the birds will pretty much do nothing. However, after a bit of observation, you’ll start to see their patterns of movement. Invest a bit more time and you’ll find out what time they start to become more active and interact with each other and their environment. Also be patient with yourself. Manual focusing is not easy! Just keep practicing, use the settings and assistive tools previously discussed, and don’t get frustrated. Once you get into the rhythm, your hit rate will increase.
- Wait for peak moments of action, such as immediately before flight, mid-flight, and during landing. Birds catching food and interacting (i.e. fighting) with other birds are also good moments to capture.
- Remember the composition tools you can use to add interest to your photos. Here are some of my favorites:
- When using older lenses, you will likely need to use purple/green color fringe correction to remove aberrations and clean up the image.
- Tools like clarity, texture, and sharpness also help bring out more from the files, especially since these old lenses aren’t the best optically.
- Cropping in post also helps to tighten up compositions and add visual impact to the image. The long lens should get you in the ballpark so you’ll have enough resolution to do a bit of cropping.
Bird photography is a new and exciting genre for me and I’m really enjoying it. I also love the fact that a cheap old lens was the gateway to that. Unfortunately, I’m now considering getting a modern super telephoto lens like the Fujinon XF 100-400mm to explore bird and wildlife photography even further.
There are plenty of options out there for any type of photography, be it old manual lenses or the latest technology. Do your research and keep your eyes peeled for hidden gems. For me, the hunt for these hidden gems and unique lenses are also an exciting part of the photographic journey.
Also check out the video I made discussing this topic:
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