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Shooting action with the Olympus E-M1 II

Pattaya has a reputation for many things, most of them sleazy; but what it is not known for is the sport of polo. This is disappointing, because there are two polo clubs within 20 kilometres of the city centre; which is more than most cities in the world can claim. Prostitutes and polo, we have everything!

A typical game of polo has four periods, known as chukkas, each of seven minutes duration. But the game itself will last for more than an hour due to endless penalties (when the clock is stopped) and the need for the horses to be changed during and at the end of each chukka. There are two teams of four riders each, and in total they will exhaust sixty four polo ponies during a game; which is one of the reasons you need deep pockets to be a polo player. You also need big balls, or the female equivalent, because the action is fast, furious and dangerous. I have only seen one person die a violent death during my long life, and that sadly was during a game of polo.

I wandered into one of the local polo clubs many years ago, looking for something different to shoot. I discovered it was not an easy sport to photograph. The field of play is huge, which means you can only reasonably cover part of it, with even a long lens. There have been chukkas where I have not taken a single shot because the selfish bastards have been wasting time at the other end of the field. Then when they do come into range, are they going to do something interesting or, as usually happens, the referee will blow his whistle and everything stops for a while before they then disappear in the other direction? Over the course of an hour, there are only a few occasions when the opportunity arises to take some shots. So you need a camera that focuses quickly and reliably, and takes as many shots as possible while the action is in range of your lens.

My first attempts were with a Canon 30D and were of limited success. But they were better than nothing and the polo club kept inviting me to their events. After a while I made a jump to the Canon 1D3, which was a huge improvement; but was crippled with a design fault which limited the keeper rate. Finally I got the 1D4 and the legendary 300mm F2.8 lens and the shots were spectacular; which they bloody well should have been given the $10,000 investment.

By this time I was hauling 15kg of Canon camera and lenses on holidays and it was a no-brainer to pick up a Panasonic GF1 for some lighter weight shooting when it was released. Over time, the polo shooting faded, the Canon gear was sold, and I embraced M43. I accepted that I could no longer do action photography but wondered if one day I could return to a genre I much enjoyed. The GF-1 and GX-1 could not handle action. The E-M5 hinted it might but it was hopeless. It wasn’t until the E-M1 arrived that I could finally point the camera at a moving object and have an expectation that it could hold focus. In the three years I had the camera, I took many action shots (including polo) and concluded that you could go to an event and come home with some keepers, but not reliably and of sufficient quantity such that you could consider a request to take photos for a third party. “Sorry I didn’t get a shot of your uncle Rufus scoring a goal, my camera refused to focus”.

Not uncle Rufus:
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E-M1 II

Which brings us to now and the E-M1 II. Would this finally be the camera that could reliably deliver action photos? To test its viability as a sports camera, it seemed appropriate to take it to a polo event and see how it performed, so I did.

Let’s go through the options I used.

Focus point
The camera allows you to select 1, 5, 9 or all focus points as candidates to acquire focus. Whichever option you choose, when you do acquire focus, only a single point is highlighted as being used for focusing. If you are hunting birds in flight, I can see the benefit of using all the focus points, then the camera will select the one covering the bird. But in a field full of horses, surrounded by trees, using all focus points would offer a very low chance of your horse of choice being selected, or any horse at all (look at all these lovely sharp tree shots…). Even with 5 or 9 points, it would be hard to accurately to pick out your horse from a group of three or four; so I used a single focus point.

Stabilisation
I turned on vertical stabilisation. Probably could have managed with none at all; but I didn’t think it would harm to offer some vertically controlled assistance.

Focus type
I used continuous auto-focus (C-AF), obviously; and I also tried some shots with Tracking (C-AF TR). C-AF alone depends on you keeping the focus point on top of the subject. With the centre as my focus point, the camera will acquire focus, and then it is up to me to keep the centre point over the subject.

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Use C-AF TR, and after initial acquisition, the focal point will go wandering all over the screen as required to track the subject.

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Notice how the C-AF TR focus box is larger than the normal C-AF box.

Shutter type
Single shutter is not an option for most sports, you need a stream of images so you can pick the good one, delete the rest and pretend you are really good at catching the moment.

High speed continuous shutter is not an option because focus is only acquired on the first frame and after that it assumes that the subject has not moved, which it has, which means hello loads of out of focus junk.

Which leaves low speed continuous shutter (which is actually rather quick).
Forget about the shutter shock option, because you don’t want whatever delay you have set slowing down your shots; so you either have electronic shutter at a maximum of 18 frames a second (denoted rather confusingly by a little heart symbol which means you have to love it a lot), or mechanical shutter, which rather sadly has no special symbol at all, at 12 frames a second. I tried both.

So I used four different settings:
C-AF TR with electronic shutter
C-AF TR with mechanical shutter
C-AF with electronic shutter
C-AF with mechanical shutter

All shots were taken with the E-M1 II and the 40-150mm Pro lens, shot in RAW and processed with the preliminary version of Lightroom.

Note: There are some other focus related options in the menus which I have not yet investigated, either because I have not had time or because I don’t understand them!

Of course, being an actual event and not something staged for testing the camera, this was not a scientific exercise from which hard conclusions can be drawn. I shot three games for more than three hours, during which time the light changed from an early morning glow to midday glare, every shot was a different challenge and I became weary of shooting and a little dehydrated. Many factors! Still, I did get some impressions:

Focus acquisition
Immediate. Whatever mode I was shooting, the instant I half-pressed the shutter, the focus light came on indicating focus had been acquired. This is a huge change from the previous model where you could mash the button for what seemed like an age before lock-on. Very impressive, very confidence inspiring; when you are ready to start shooting, the camera is locked on and ready for you to press the shutter.

Tracking (C-AF TR)
This appeared to work very well. Occasionally the tracking would get bored and jump to another part of the screen, but a quick lift and half press of the shutter brought it back on-line. I could move the composition around without having to worry about keeping the centre point on the focus. Delightful.

But when I reviewed the images, I was not so impressed. It appeared that, even though the tracking box was lit and following the subject in the viewfinder, I had more missed shots than I had when tracking was not used. Your experience may vary, and it may be better in other conditions (birds in flight?), but I shall not be using C-AF TR again until a firmware upgrade claims to improve it.

C-AF
Which leaves us with plain old C-AF, mechanical or electronic shutter. I am pleased to report a massive improvement over the original E-M1. Coupled with the instantaneous focus acquisition already mentioned, the keeper rate is much much better than before. There were some missed shots due to my incompetence, and some missed shots in a sequence because the camera lost interest, but then after a couple of frames it would be back and spot on as before. Is it up to Canon 1D standards? Maybe not, but it is close, and again there are years of firmware improvements to look forward to.

Where it beats the Canon, and every other sports capable camera on the market, is the capture rate using the electronic shutter; 18 RAW frames a second, bitches! Performance with the electronic shutter appeared to match the mechanical shutter; and it was much more enjoyable to shoot with. The standard shutter noise is not unpleasant, but rattling away at twelve frames a second is another matter. Go electronic and all you hear is a light rustling sound. With both types of shutter the screen flickers, but not enough to hinder your view, and I felt the electronic shutter was the less intrusive visually. Of course there is always the risk of the dreaded rolling shutter; but I didn’t spot any photographing running horses. Your scenario may differ.

So the winner for me was C-AF with electronic shutter, and the extra images per second made a huge difference. A successful polo shot is, like many sports, a matter of capturing a moment that you can’t even see when you take the shot. Here’s a shot of some polo ponies walking about:

And here is a shot taken two frames earlier:

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It’s clear to me which gives the better impression of action.

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A diversion. Polo matches usually take place late in the afternoon in Thailand to minimise the heat. The fading light means I can shoot at 1/640th second with an aperture of around F5.6; this give a sharp horse/rider but with some blurring of the legs to give an impression of speed; like this:

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As the light fails I take hopefully blurry background side-on shots at slower and slower shutter speeds until it is too dark to shoot and everyone retires to the bar (polo clubs have very good bars).

This shoot took place in the morning, which meant brighter and brighter light and I either had too much depth of field or too high a shutter speed, or both. Don’t shoot polo in the morning sun.
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Reviewing the shots is like watching a movie, just step through and find the ones that please you most. Here’s a fun sequence taken with electronic shutter:

Share the images that please you, delete the rest, you’re a star!

Another improvement with the new model is the increased resolution of the 20 megapixel sensor, giving more cropping flexibility.

From this:
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To this:
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From this:

To this:
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Conclusion
The E-M1 II is a camera that can reliably be used a sports/action camera, with immediate focus lock and a high keeper rate. Lenses such as the Olympus 40-150mm Pro, the Panasonic 100-400mm and in some cases the Olympus 300mm Pro are all viable lenses for sports use. Inertia and existing sports pro lens collections means it may not unseat established sports cameras such as the Canon 1DX, but it is illuminating to compare specs:

The Canon has 18 megapixels, the Olympus 20 megapixels. The Olympus wins for cropping ability.
The Canon is full frame, the Olympus M43. The Canon wins for IQ and low light.
The Canon does 12 fps RAW, the Olympus does 18fps. Big win for Olympus. (The Canon will do 14fps in JPEG using Live View on the rear screen; good luck with that…).
The Canon body is more than twice the price of the Olympus. Then there are the lens prices….
The Canon and a big lens needs a tripod for any extended use, I can carry the Olympus around all day with no problem.

Plus the new E-M1 does Pro Capture, high fps etc etc.

I know which camera I would rather own; which is fortunate, because I do!

Some more photos from my morning shoot are below. If you want even more, visit the album here.

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This Post Has 28 Comments
  1. Great to read your practical and useful observations. Thank you.
    A quick question – were you using any IBIS?

    1. “Stabilisation
      I turned on vertical stabilisation. Probably could have managed with none at all; but I didn’t think it would harm to offer some vertically controlled assistance.”

  2. Thank you very much for a great article. I shoot a lot of moving wildlife but struggle to get good IQ after cropping with the MK1 this gives me confidence to upgrade.

  3. This information based on your personal experience is very reassuring. Much appreciated. I have read the claims from Olympus that this upgrade was for sports and wildlife but like any marketing always questionable until proven. I particularly appreciate your recommendation to use CAF over CF Tracking. I suspect CF Tracking might be better for action shots coming towards you. I’ll find out. Great images.by the way. Polo makes for a wonderful subject.

  4. Spike,
    many thanks for a great story, fun to read, great images and good tips for other mFT action photographers interested in or already using the E-M1.2 and food for thought for those still using the “big guns”. Looking forward to read about your fndings regarding the rest of the AF options.

    Gavin, the “Mark II” is a different kind of beast.

  5. agreed on my findings with electronic shutter ,with previous m43 cameras i would get kludge like bits of wing missing etc but now all looks good with my omd em1 mk2 although for certain aspects i will still use mechanical shutter bike spokes wheels and props will still distort ,i noticed the polo sticks have curve on them i take it they do bend especially in the last sequence where horse and rider has gone over the white border lots of bens on the stick ,would of thought the 40-150mm f2.8 would of been a good choice for the event or is the fl limiting.

  6. Hopefully some of these images might even exchange hands in a way that lends itself to further enhancement of the SGPF – the Spike General Photography Fund…

    Now, your polo images are always a demonstration of excellent photographic technique, but lest we become blase with the accomplishment, I think some form of competition is called for. Not for us the shallow or two-dimensional challenge of picking the “best composition”, or “best action shot” or some other form of artistic impression [boring!] I propose two simple, new categories:

    1. Selection of best image for a Caption Competition…
    2. Best Caption for selected image[s]…

    To get us underway, how about the sixth image in the article. It is the one with four horses and riders; one of a pair of images included to show the value of an “action shot”. This image is bracketed by the text, “And here is a shot taken two frames earlier:” above the image and “It’s clear to me which gives the better impression of action.” beneath it. You get double points if your caption includes a speech bubble being uttered by the grey [horse]. Yes, I know that horses don’t speak English, but one look at the expression on that creature’s face and you just know that there was a world of sarcasm going on there…

    If that doesn’t appeal [or if it does, and you’d like to try more], how about the sequence of 5 shots taken with the electronic shutter?

    In the first of that selection the horse seems quite enthused by the whole process: “And we’re show-jumping! Look at me, Mum!” But by the last I think the appeal has worn off: “If you even *think* of sticking that polo mallet up my arse, I’m gonna “Buckaroo Banzai” you into the drinks tent, Mate…”

  7. Many posts ago, you spoke derisory about one of the big camera brands. I forgot which brand it was, and as far as I read a reason was never given. I’m bringing this up now because I will have to buy a new camera, something I’m not looking forward to, and that information might reduce the choice.

    1. If I didn’t justify my insults, why bother about my opinion? There are no bad cameras, just cameras that don’t fulfil your particular need.

    1. I see what you mean but judging by some of the other pictures it appears that the mallets bend quite a bit when swung, so not entirely clear how much of that is an artifact of the shutter, in fact.

  8. This is reassuring to me as an amateur photographer of athletics. With the first E-M1, which I’ve yet to replace but plan to soon, I too have failed to get focus at a critical time, like the finish of the feature race for the event. I’ve wondered if C-AF + Tracking would work okay when photographing a winning athlete as he or she moves about embracing the other runners—they don’t move fast in this scenario but I may want to vary the composition instantly. For me, capturing emotion is as important as capturing action. Face detection isn’t fast enough on the first E-M1, and it often targets the wrong face or multiple faces. I haven’t seen a review on this aspect.

  9. When you wrote that ‘Canon’ is full frame and Olympus is crop, of course Canon 1D4 is a crop it is 1.3X crop. Olympus is 2X crop. Ironically you can easily get 1D4 much cheaper today that you can EM1M2 🙂

    1. When I wrote that the” Canon is full frame” I was referring to the 1DX, which is full frame. Please read again.

      I am aware that the 1D4 is 1.3 crop because I owned one, and a 1D3, for many years.

      As it is out of production, I am sure you can get a 1D4 cheaply; but I would not swap my E-M1 II for one.

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