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Shooting action with the E-M1 and Firmware 3.0

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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PA230023-Edit

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PB300180

PC050220

PC200100

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:

POLO2898
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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This Post Has 19 Comments
  1. Hi, some very nice photos there, im impressed.More so that Im doing the same thing – just sold all my canon stuff and bought the em1, em5 mk 2 and the 40-150mm f2.8 pro and I also love polo so I cant wait for the season to start here in sunny England..

  2. some well caught shots there Spike and also some good info on the new firmware. Thought I’d pop outside today and try my 40-150 on the EM-1 with the new firmware. It might be great for capturing horses at a polo game but it was pretty crap at bits of sleet and the odd snowflake flying by at 30mph. Perhaps like me it couldn’t be arsed to function in the freezing cold so I’ll give it a second go in a few weeks and, maybe choose a subject that the camera might just be able to lock onto.

  3. Thanks for this review of the 3.0 update, and the great image examples posted, I think it’s the only one outside of the dpreview micro four thirds forum! I wish they could do similar for the E-M5 ( Mk I) …

  4. Hi Spike, thanks fpr your very entertaining read. And i love your shots taken with the new firmware. Particularly the first one is stunning.
    Nonetheless, I have to contradic in two areas. First of all, there have been two different Olympus releases on the new C-AF in H, with the secind saying “…choose 9 FPS or higher.” I am using 10 FPS all the time and it works like a charm.
    And the second area is the keeper rate. I’m shooting with the nine-field block and the keeper rate with enabled AF lock is higher than anything I experienced in my life to date. Even with erratically moving subjects.
    Please take a look at these Threads with pics shown by me at DPReview.
    The first with two bursts of dogs running at me (the second, with the 40-150 Pro unfortunately was shot with AF lock disabled)
    and in the second thread, my Miss MoneyPenny was going crazy all of a sudden, I just had to start shooting without having a chance of preparing myself – and the C-AF kept her perfectly sharp, nevertheless.

    http://www.dpreview.com/forums/post/55376381

    http://www.dpreview.com/forums/post/55387212

    So, I’d say with a little practice to accustom to the C-AF in H without live view – or with the EE-1 Dot Sight taht already has been pre-ordered by me – the E-M1 will be the best sports and action camera I’ve used in my life – inclufding a 7D MKI.

    1. Thanks for your comments and clarification Don. I will try the larger focus block.
      Do you think the EE-1 will work with the E-M1? I don’t see why it shouldn’t, but I thought it was not listed as a supported camera. If it will, I am ordering too!

      1. Hi Spike, i am convinced it will. In Oly’s description it says ‘for any camera with hot or cold shoe’.
        Unfortunately, nobody at Oly is willing (or able) to reveal the release date.

    2. Hi Don Parrot.

      You mentioned that you used C-AF Lock OFF for the second series and that it was a mistake. I have experimented setting the C-AF Lock to Off, Low, Norm, and High, and I can’t really notice any difference. Have you noticed any differences between those settings,

      Cheers, Jens!

      1. Hi Jens,
        from my experiences, there is a significant difference. If you are shooting a really fast, eratically moving subject, AF lock keeps the focus at the correct distance if you lose the subject out of focus for a some fractions of a second.
        And on the other hand, it makes a negative impact if you are shooting an approaching subject that passes you afterwards. With AF lock enabled, the cam has got it’s difficulties to adapt from C-AF-ing to panning but it easily adapts with AF lock disabled.

  5. My impression is the EE-1 will work with most cameras with a hot shoe. It’s electronics are not dependent on a connection with the camera.

  6. Thanks for the review! Great pictures – even before the firmware update (love the surfer in sunset). Credit to the photographer (even though i applaud Olympus for improving the EM1 via firmware upgrades).

  7. I’m going the other way! I’ve had the em-5 since it first came out, then the em-1 and all associated lenses from Voigtlander to the ‘pro’ lenses and I shoot professionally with it. No client has yet said ‘oh that’s not a Canikon’ or the qualities not good enough! However, yesterday I used a Canon 5d mkIII and 70-200II for some skiing shots, and, well, ok, I have to say it, it was amazing! OVF for tracking the skiers (no black out) was sooo lovely, af target acquisition and tracking awesome, IQ jaw dropping, weight – enormous! (I had to ski with the bloody heavy thing) I’m fully into EVF shooting with WYSIWYG having speeded up my shooting (no chimping these days) and I must admit it felt weird looking through the Canons OVF and having no idea what the shot image would look like til I ‘chimped’ it! I guess as a sports shooter who has to carry his gear a long way to where the action is I will still use the em-1 and it’s still the best camera I’ve ever used from a handling point of view, but I’m kinda giving into the fact that I’m probably going to have to get a hulking big out of date DSLR for those times that I’m shooting certain things and I really must deliver images that I know are going to be printed big. There is also the small matter that my bread and butter work is shooting houses and man those Canon tilt/shifts are good!

  8. 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).

    Are you sure that using C-AF and High frame rate that PDAF was being used?

    According to DP-Review with micro 43 lenses, PDAF is used for C-AF + Tracking (http://www.dpreview.com/reviews/olympus-om-d-e-m1 “Only if you use tracking AF will the camera utilize phase-detection…”). According to Olympus, its a bit more vague (http://www.mu-43.com/threads/71330/ “…when a micro 4/3 lens is used, the camera decides when to take advantage of both systems”).

    I don’t have an E-M1 but my E-PL5 only refocuses between each frame when bursting at Low frame rate.

    Also, if I were rich enough and wanted the best keeper rate with an E-M1, I’d use Four Thirds lenses which were designed for PDAF.

    1. I am sure that focus is being re-acquired between each shot in High mode under version 3.0; and it wasn’t in prior versions. As Olympus and others say that it uses PDAF for perform the follow focus that enables this; then yes I am sure PDAF is being used.
      DPreview, in the wording of their original review, were incorrect.
      This, from a guideline of Firmware 3.0:

      Using 9 FPS Burst Shooting with Full-Time Autofocus
      If your subject strays from a parallel path, moving toward or away from you instead, it may be better to use C-AF mode with the Sequential H setting, which shoots at up to 9 fps (firmware 3.0 update required). Although 1 fps slower, the camera updates the focus so that you can shoot subjects moving toward or away from you and still capture sharp pictures.
      The E-M1 does not update the exposure value or white balance in SequentialH mode, even when using Continuous AF (C-AF) mode; only the autofocus is
      updated. Exposure and white balance is still tied to the first frame.

      The critical thing to understand about using the new firmware 3.0 speed is that the camera must be using Continuous AF (C-AF) mode in order to achieve up to 9 fps with active AF. No other mode, including C-AF+TR, allows you to use the new firmware 3.0 features.

    2. May I add that the term tracking AF is mis-used by DPReview. What they are talking about is the C-AF.
      The C-AF in burst mode H is fully PDAF based while the C-AF in burst mode L is a hybrid version when used with µFT lenses. Only when used with FT lenses it also fully relies on PDAF.
      And although the FT lenses were made for PDAF they don’t AF/C-AF as fast as the major part of the µFT lenses do. They apparently just weren’t designed for focusing that quickly. My 50-200 SWD, for instance, C-AFs fast enough for my own, medium fast, dogs or for horses, but when it comes to shooting sighthounds at full speed or RC racing boats at full speed, the keeper rate with the m.Zuiko 40-150 Pro or even the m.Zuiko 75-300and is far, far higher. And that’s not only because of the speed of the movemenmt alone but first of all due to the erratic movements that take the FT lenses to their very limit. They just can’t respond fast enough.

  9. I’ve been using the Em-1 for about year now. I have nothing but praise for the system, but I am finding 1 thing quite strange.

    When using burst mode (H & L modes), shooting in RAW, when I import them in Lightroom, they’re in a different order than what I shot them in. If I shoot a series of about 10 images, the last 3 sometimes are the first in the sequence.

    Is this down to my settings or a failing on the camera side? Or even Lightroom?

    1. I have noticed this too and I think it is down to Lightroom which, I believe, defaults to Capture Time as a sort method. When you use burst mode you are capturing images with the same capture time, so Lightroom just mixes them up. I change the sort order to “file name” (Grid view, bottom of page) and that solves the problem.

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