When I bought my first M43 camera in 2009, a GF!, I was a dedicated Canon man with a bag of gear and a tired back. As my M43 collection increased, my Canon collection dwindled; and eventually all I had left was a Canon 1D4 and the 300mm F2.8 lens. The reason I held onto this very expensive, very heavy and very competent combination was to satisfy a need for action photography, especially polo. In the end, I could not justify keeping $10,000 of gear for such limited application and the last of my Canon gear was sold; and I accepted that action shots would not be possible with M43 due to the inability of the cameras to track moving subjects. I did try, with the E-M5, and the results were pathetic.

Then along came the E-M1 with PDAF on the sensor. Completely ignoring my usual ritual of “new camera, take a cat shot”, I rushed out and tried to track some oncoming traffic. The results were promising:

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So I tried it out at various events. It was no match for Canon and the 300mm when it came to speed of acquisition, keeper rate or overall image quality; but it was still capable of giving sufficient shots that pleased me. Here are some examples:

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All very acceptable (to me), but not enough to get me back into shooting polo, for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, lens availability. My Panasonic 100-300mm was just too slow and too lacking in light to do the job, which left me with the Olympus 75mm as my longest lens. As “being flattened by several tonnes of horse” was not on my bucket list, I decided that getting very close with the 75mm was not an option.

Secondly, unlike motorsports, polo is an unpredictable sport, in as much as you never know exactly where the action is going to take place, and when it does take place it is often at the other end of the field with all the horse bums pointing towards you, which is not photogenic (unless you are a specialist horse bum photographer). To add the challenge, a game normally consists of four chukkas, each of only seven minutes. This means you don’t have much time to get a good shot, and even when opportunity presents itself you need to take multiple shots in order that you can pick the one that best displays the action; for example when all four hooves are off the ground:

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Canon 1D4 with Canon 300mm F2.8

The E-M1, shooting at 6.5 frames per second, should have been enough to capture these moments; but an ugly little blackout between each shot meant it was hard to keep the camera pointed at the action; which was all happening a long way away in the viewfinder, due to the 75mm lens.

So I waited.

The lens problem was solved with the arrival of the magnificent 40-150mm F2.8 Pro, which, together with the 1.4 extender, gave me a very similar field of view to the Canon 300mm on the crop 1D4; plus the ability to zoom up to that focal length.

And the arrival of Firmware version 3, with higher available frame rates, might reduce shutter blackouts? Let’s find out.

Off to a polo match this last weekend and it was soon evident that whilst the latest firmware did not make any noticeable improvement in the speed of subject acquisition or the keeper rate (shots acceptably sharp), the higher fps made a huge difference to the shooting experience. No more blackouts for a start, with only a slight jerkiness in the viewfinder spoiling an otherwise clear view of the action. Plus of course I was sucking in 9 frames a second which helped to capture moments like this:

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Olympus E-M1 with 40-150mm lens + extender

Hooray for the improved visibility while shooting, but boo for what happens when you take your finger off the shutter button after shooting several frames. The screen blanks out as the buffer is still writing. You can bring back the view by half-pressing the shutter button; but by the time you have done that the horses have buggered off somewhere else. The solution was to keep my finger on the shutter and continue to take shots in anticipation of something else interesting suddenly happening. My longest run was 45 continuous frames which, given I was shooting in RAW, was quite impressive. Gives you a load of shots to look at and then discard when you get home too!

Some discussion on shooting modes:

I shot in C-AF (not C-AF +TR which has never worked properly since the E-M5 and I don’t intend using it unless I hear some good news about that option). Shutter speed was set to High and 9fps. This setting will set exposure on the first frame and keep it the same until you stop shooting. Focus will attempt to track your subject while you keep the shutter depressed. Although I used centre point focus, my assumption is that the, provided you keep your subject within the large PDAF grid that displays in the viewfinder, then the camera will do its best to track.

The 10fps option remains for the High shutter speed setting and Olympus says this is because it is still available for S-AF mode. Of course I had to try it with C-AF mode. It certainly tracked some shots, but not sure if it was at 10fps or was defaulting back to 9. I would keep it on the recommended 9fps setting when using C-AF, just to be sure.

If you use Low shutter speed with C-AF, you will, as before, be limited to 6.5fps, but the camera will check exposure for every frame as well as carrying out tracking. So if you are shooting across an environment with significant shifts in lighting, the Low shutter speed setting may work better for you.

The latest firmware has certainly improved action shooting by not only increasing the number of images captured, but more importantly by providing a much clearer view of the action while you are shooting. I now feel comfortable with shooting polo with M43; something I never thought would be possible.

The Canon still scores higher when it comes to speed of acquisition, keeper rate and IQ, but the E-M1 and 40-150mm wins in other ways:

– Much lighter, no need for a tripod.
– Much cheaper.
– You can zoom out when the horses get close (then run away when they get too close).
– You get more depth of field for the same aperture, very useful if you want both the horse and the rider in focus (which you usually do).

And the 40-150mm can be used for so many other purposes; but that’s another story. I wouldn’t go back to the Canon.

Some shots from last weekend:

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