Capturing Action with a Micro Four Thirds Camera

For many people, the main limitation of the micro 4/3 systems, while being more portable and fun, has been in capturing movement and action, owing to the contrast-detection AF system. And they would be entirely correct. While it is super fast for static subjects, the lack of effective phase detection AF, as found on DSLRs and other mirrorless systems, causes difficulty in tracking moving subjects.

Skater in Motion #1

Olympus EM-5, Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8 @ f/2.8, 1/320, ISO 320

This has led many micro 4/3 users to resign themselves, albeit without complaints, to shooting mainly static subjects such as landscape, portrait and travel, while keeping their DSLRs for action, wildlife or sports.

Biker in Air #1

Nikon D90, Nikkor 70-200mm F/2.8 VR II, f/3.2, 1/400sec, ISO 200, More here

In the past with my DSLR I have shot all kinds of action, such as Red Bull stunt bikers, birds in flight and fighter jets at air shows. Fast moving and unpredictable subjects that required good timing, tracking, and dare I say, an efficient focusing system (and a little luck!). So, I completely empathise with those who find the lighter micro 4/3 systems a handicap in this regard. A DSLR can be a jack-of-all-trades and used for a vast range of subjects (with the right lenses, of course). But, as I stated in the previous article, I switched to micro 4/3 to lose the weight and bulk of the DSLR infrastructure, but without necessarily wishing to be limited in my choice of subject.

Eagle in Flight

Nikon D600, Nikkor 70-200mm F/2.8 VRII, F/2.8, 1/2000, ISO 200, More here

It must be acknowledged, of course, that long before the advent of autofocus and phase detection, many skilled photographers were (and still are) producing breathtaking images of sport and wildlife by manually focusing. And while some might argue that luck played its part, I think it is entirely possible to capture and freeze a moving subject independently of any autofocus system with a combination of skill, timing and patience. And I say this with all the humility of a continually learning hobbyist.

Fighter Jet in Flight

Nikon D90, Nikkor 70-200mm F/2.8 VRII + TC1.7III, F/9, 1/800, ISO 200, More here

Which brings me back to micro 4/3. My Olympus EM-5 doesn’t have the newer on-sensor phase detection of the EM-1, but I don’t let a little detail like that discourage me from shooting what I want. Recently, on a photowalk with a friend, I shot some skateboarders and cyclists at London’s Southbank with my EM-5 and Olympus 12-40mm F/2.8. They were whizzing about at breakneck speed, flying through the air with jumps and stunts, undoubtedly playing to the watching crowd. (The Southbank is under threat of redevelopment, so they probably wanted to show people what they’d be missing. And I’d certainly prefer to watch them than yet another new building or coffee shop!)

Now, I knew that tracking these guys in motion with the EM-5’s AF was a bit of a challenge. So, rather than be entirely reliant on the technology by spraying and praying and hoping for a keeper, I tried some old-fashioned methodology. I waited and watched, and worked out patterns of trajectory, i.e. where the skateboarders were likely to be at any given moment. I would then (pre-) focus on that spot, or just a little beyond it, and wait for them to pass by before pressing my shutter. Now, of course, this is staking my captures on a certain amount of predictability, but I believe this principle is applicable to all moving subjects, sophisticated autofocus or not. Everyone from wildlife to sports photographers use a certain amount of pre-focusing, anticipating where the subject is going to be to make their shots.

Biker in Motion #1

Olympus EM-5, Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8 @ f/2.8, 1/320, ISO 1000

Just as with wildlife or sports, the skateboarders’ movements would often be unpredictable, and getting the shot then was more challenging (read: higher failure rate!).

Biker in Motion #2

Olympus EM-5, Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8 @ f/2.8, 1/320, ISO 640

But from the photos presented here, you can see that I did have a measure of success. These are by no means perfect, and naturally, there were some misfires; I might have had a more complete keeper rate had I used my DSLR with its phase detection AF. But I want to demonstrate that not having phase detection, or even autofocus at all, should not be an inhibitor or deterrence to capturing moving subjects. And my skill (and camera) is no more advanced than yours; I simply used a technique to help me work around the handicap of the technology.

Skater in Motion #2

Olympus EM-5, Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8 @ f/2.8, 1/320, ISO 1250

One thing I must admit to enjoying, however, is the burst rate of the EM-5. Shooting at 9 FPS is something of a luxury I could not enjoy on my Nikon D600, and certainly contributed to the success rate of these shots. Was I therefore relying on the technology to some extent rather than pure technique alone? Of course! I’m not so purist as to shun useful technology that could contribute to my success. If the features are there, I will make use of them. I should say that I would pre-focus first, and then run off perhaps 3-4 shots (not a whole 9!). There is little point in having even 9 consecutive shots if they are all out of focus!

Biker in Motion #3

Olympus EM-5, Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8 @ f/2.8, 1/320, ISO 1600

But had I not had this feature, and was limited to only 1 FPS, I would still have attempted to shoot these guys. Just as I have found when deliberately limiting myself to shooting with only one focal length of a prime lens, I believe technique can overcome most limitations. It certainly did so for photographers in the past that didn’t enjoy the technology we have today.

Skater in Motion #3

Olympus EM-5, Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8 @ f/2.8, 1/320, ISO 1250

So, hopefully I have demonstrated in a small way that with a little discipline, some patience and a sense of timing (and always a little luck!), it is possible to capture action with mirrorless and micro 4/3 systems. And using such discipline in your shooting will undoubtedly pay more dividends in the long run than simply showing up and relying on the technology.

Skater in Motion #4

Olympus EM-5, Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8 @ f/2.8, 1/1000, ISO 1600

I chose my m4/3rds system primarily because of its light and compact profile, and much of my shooting with it has been of static subjects. But there has not yet been a subject that I have not attempted with it, or thought that it would be wholly unsuitable for.

Once again, it has been a privilege to write for Photography Life, and I hope you have enjoyed my photographs. More shots of the skateboarders and cyclists can be seen on my website.

Comments

  1. Profile photo of Daniel Michael
    1
    ) Daniel Michael
    June 7, 2014 at 6:13 pm

    Hey Buddy!

    I’ve just spent the day at the local town fair with the kids, thinking “I’m so glad I brought my DSLR with a fast AF lens on it!”, then I come home to read this article!! So then I thought “Sharif must have set the aperture to like f-gazillion on those skateboard shots so he has more DOF”, until I scrolled up and read “f2.8″ Huh??

    Well I have to say, I’ve learned something yet again! Just a couple of questions to satisfy my curiosity.
    Do you use back button focus to pre-focus, and how exactly do you aim the focus into a spot in the air? Have you let them do the jump a couple times to lock on that spot then just time the shots the next time they come around?

    Sharif, a totally well written, engaging article, backed up with awesome shots!

    Cheers

    Daniel

    • Profile photo of Alpha Whiskey
      2
      ) Alpha Whiskey
      June 7, 2014 at 6:34 pm

      Hi Daniel! Thanks for the kind words!

      The DOF of smaller m4/3 sensors is greater than APS-C or FF sensors at any given aperture, and even at F/2.8, being some distance from the subject means that you don’t get as much shallow DOF, subject separation and bokeh as you would if you were closer. (Btw, when I am closer to my subject, the bokeh with this lens is beautiful – see recent post on my blog from Wimpole Estate Gardens.)
      On the EM-5 I use the shutter button to pre-focus on a point (or the touchscreen on the LCD). I can’t focus on mid-air, obviously, especially with contrast detect AF! So I have to find a hard point to focus on, and then either stay there, or lock focus (keeping the shutter held down locks it) and move my composition to where I want it. Manually focusing on the EM-5 is great as the LCD/viewfinder magnifies the scene as you adjust focus to help you make it accurate. I watch them jump a couple of times, yes, before deciding where to pre-focus, and then time the capture when they do it again.

      Hope this answers your questions? Hope you’re well buddy! :)

      Regards,
      Sharif.

      • Profile photo of Daniel Michael
        3
        ) Daniel Michael
        June 7, 2014 at 6:41 pm

        Thanks Sharif,

        That pretty much answers it and the next question which I was going to ask which was about the smaller sensor on the EM-5 and the DoF….

        This will be my next exercise!

        Cheers!

  2. 4
    ) Peter
    June 7, 2014 at 6:47 pm

    Hello Sharif,
    Great article. Just want to point out that when using a EVIL M4/3 one can manual focus too.

    • Profile photo of Alpha Whiskey
      5
      ) Alpha Whiskey
      June 7, 2014 at 6:49 pm

      Yes of course! Thanks Peter! :)

  3. 6
    ) mayank Manu
    June 7, 2014 at 10:37 pm

    Dear Nasim
    in my last query that switching to D5300 will not make much diff for moire since they are more concerned with repeated patterns in fabric etc,
    As I do fashion photography so this is a common to have repeated patterns , Please suggest if it would still be good to upgrade to D 5300 OR stick to D 5100.

    OR
    is there any way to correct the Moire in post processing.

    regards
    Mayank.

  4. 7
    ) mayank Manu
    June 7, 2014 at 10:42 pm

    Dear Nasim
    in my last query that switching to D5300 will not make much diff for moire since they are more concerned with repeated patterns in fabric etc,
    As I do fashion photography so this is a common to have repeated patterns , Please suggest if it would still be good to upgrade to D 5300 OR stick to D 5100.
    OR
    is there any way to correct in Post processing

    regards
    Mayank.

  5. 8
    ) Tijmen
    June 8, 2014 at 2:22 am

    Recently I have switched camera’s from the Nikon D600 tot the panasonic gh4 (Mainly for the video functionality). I have tot say that I didnt even consider the autofocus system to be a bottleneck for photography. For example when shooting high speed ski racers, my hitrate would be better when prefocussing than when I would use the AF on my Nikon 80-200 ed.

    Some of the most incredible pictures have been taken on film cameras with no more than aperture shutter speed, ASA and manual focus. You just have to know how to work with it.

  6. 9
    ) Jano
    June 8, 2014 at 6:15 am

    While reading this I kept thinking about an AF feature that I believe is seriously missing in today’s cameras. I started photography with only MF lenses so when I first got a digital SLR with AF I kept thinking how useful this mode would be for action shots with both AF and MF lenses.

    I would probably call it something like AF-P (for “prefocus”) and it should work like this: You prefocus the lens which can be done with AF or MF lenses. Then choose an AF point (or area) where you want your subject to be in the frame. Now follow the subject with that AF point while pressing the shutter. The camera’s PDAF will know exactly when the subject will come into focus and will take the picture in just the right moment.
    This would be useful for so many things. It can overcome the limits of a slow focusing lens that has trouble following a subject. It can be done with MF lenses which can be had at great prices and still offer wonderful value (I tell you I still love my Nikkor 100mm 2.8 Series E for portraits. So small, light, robust and sharp and I paid 50€). With wildlife it will have its limitations but a kid running towards you will work great. A driving car, a moving person on the street should also work well. And even for MF portraiture this should do wonders. With MF on large aperture lenses it’s difficult to nail focus on the eyes. With “AF-P” you could just focus on the eyes, keep the shutter pressed and then move slightly back and forth with your body. The camera will take the shot at just the right moment.

    • 24
      ) Flores
      June 11, 2014 at 4:35 am

      There is a focus mode similar to the one you suggest in some Pentax bodies (I’ve used it a few times with my daughter’s K-5). Pentax call it “catch-in focus mode” but it’s only available (at least on the K-5) with MF lenses (or lenses with AF/MF switch) and it’s a bit slow, so there is room to improvement.

  7. 10
    ) Keith R. Starkey
    June 8, 2014 at 10:27 am

    Thanks very much.

  8. 11
    ) Don K
    June 9, 2014 at 12:47 am

    Sharif,

    You say that MFT cameras are handicapped because they lack a phase detect focusing system. I did quite a bit of research today, and it would appear that the Olympus EM1 uses both phase detect and contrast detection in both continuous autofocus and continuous autofocus/tracking modes. Many people think that phase detect only works with the older 4/3 lenses, but from what I have read, it applies to the newer micro lenses as well in those two focusing modes. Do you agree?

    • Profile photo of Alpha Whiskey
      12
      ) Alpha Whiskey
      June 9, 2014 at 3:05 am

      Yes Don, you are correct.
      In the article above I do mention that the EM-1 has phase detection AF (5th paragraph), but most models below or before that, such as my EM-5, use contrast-detection AF. Furthermore, the focusing systems of m4/3 cameras is not quite on a parr with DSLRs, so for people downsizing from their DSLR to m4/3, this may seem like technological handicap. But I was simply trying to demonstrate that with or without PDAF it is still possible to capture action/movement with m4/3, and one’s incentive to shoot such a subject need not necessarily be influenced by the type of autofocus they have :)
      Regards,
      Sharif.

  9. Profile photo of shawn
    13
    ) shawn
    June 9, 2014 at 9:23 am

    I want to be careful how I write this, as I don’t in any way want to offend anybody. I’ll try point form.

    1) The images are amazing. Great set. Alpha Whiskey has a great eye and puts in the effort required to get fantastic results.

    2) As the footer states, yeah, people should spend less time about their gear and more time taking images.

    3) Good photographers can capture very good images with older/inferior gear.

    …that said…

    4) Alpha Whiskey has plopped a $1,000+ lens in the 12-40 f/2.8 in front of his sensor. Given his talent and hard work, I’d expect results of the standard he provides.

    5) For that kind of coin, why not get a DSLR and a purpose built f/1.4-1.8 lens and have some of these AF issues disappear? For those of us not as talented as Alpha Whiskey, that seems more practical.

    • Profile photo of Alpha Whiskey
      14
      ) Alpha Whiskey
      June 9, 2014 at 10:44 am

      Shawn, you make entirely fair and valid points. :) And thank you for your kind words :)

      Addressing your last two points, I didn’t pay $1000 for my 12-40mm F/2.8, first of all, and I don’t believe the cost of a lens automatically entitles one to have good images. As you rightly say, the user has to apply themselves too :) Many people (including professional photographers) have spent far more than me on their gear, expecting to get unimpeachable results, and yet have been disappointed. The fault is not their gear, expensive or not :)
      Indeed I do have a DSLR and fast lenses with speedy AF that I could easily have used to shoot this subject. But my criteria for purchasing m4/3 was to buy something that was a lighter camera+lens infrastructure than DSLRs; smaller and more portable. That said, I didn’t want to skimp on quality, and to a large extent, I don’t believe I have. My Olympus and the lenses have given me everything I could want and need in a portable system. (I haven’t yet been asked to make billboard prints!)
      The article was intended to demonstrate that although the AF system of m4/3 is not on a par with DSLRs, I didn’t believe this was necessarily a handicap or a disincentive to using or buying into this system. It may be an issue if you regularly shoot sports/wildlife or action, but it was not an issue for me.
      I don’t believe I am especially talented, and this article was intended to show that simple technique can overcome the obstacles imposed by the technology.

      I think of the money I spend (however much or little it may be) on gear as an investment, and I believe I am now invested in a lighter, high quality kit, which gives me the results I want but with much less weight to carry around. There are many features it has, and many it doesn’t, that can enhance the shooting experience. But whatever it lacks can surely be overcome by a good eye and sound technique and discipline. I like the think that we ourselves make our pictures, not the camera, and we shouldn’t be over-reliant on the gear :)

      Many thanks,
      Sharif.

    • 15
      ) Don K
      June 9, 2014 at 3:13 pm

      Shawn,

      I think that you are missing part of the point here. Many of us have big DSLRs and want to lighten our load, especially when we’re traveling, without missing out on the quality that we’ve come to expect from the heavier cameras. I just sold a Nikon D600 and a couple of lesser used lenses to buy an Olympus EM1 and a few lenses, and I couldn’t be happier with the trade. The cost of the 4/3 lenses was considerably less than their comparable counter-parts. The 12-40 2.8 that Alpha Whiskey has is the equivalent of a 24-80 FX and the Nikkor 24-70 2.8 costs about $1,800.00 vs. about $800 for the 12-40 if you buy it with an OMD body. Even the equivalent Nikkor DX 17-55 2.8 is about $1,400.00. The 4/3 1.8 primes are all about $100.00 – $200.00 less than comparable Nikkor FX primes.

      If a novice asked me whether she should buy an MFT or a DSLR, I would probably recommend the DSLR, and I do not intend to put my D3s in moth balls any time, but I sure like using the Olympus, and I don’t have to pre-focus since mine has the phase detect focus mentioned in Sharif’s well written article.

      • Profile photo of shawn
        16
        ) shawn
        June 9, 2014 at 6:46 pm

        Don,

        I think you make great points.

        Not having to pre-focus makes a huge difference. Maybe we’re at the point where mirrorless is an excellent option. Traveling light(er) is never bad.

        Sharif’s article is indeed well written and he takes excellent images. My only point is perhaps reserved for myself: if I’m going to be in a difficult shooting environment I’d be much calmer with the D3200 and the 28/1.8 (or the Sigma 18-35 for a little more money) and would be far more confident at getting some keepers.

        • 17
          ) Don K
          June 9, 2014 at 8:36 pm

          Shawn, I’ve owned your camera and took that together with a D5100 to Europe for a photo shoot of the Baltic states and loved both. That’s why I said that I would probably recommend a DSLR to a novice. I think that the probability of success with a DSLR is far greater. An MFT like the EM10 or even the EM1 is definitely more of a challenge. Photography should be fun, not a challenge. I encouraged my son to buy a D5300, and he loves. it. My point, and I think that Sharif’s point, is that with a little more effort you can get some great results with these lighter, smaller, cameras. Personally, I don’t mind the challenge, but I’ve been doing this for a very, very long time.

          (Sharif, I hope that I didn’t put words in your mouth).

          • Profile photo of Alpha Whiskey
            18
            ) Alpha Whiskey
            June 10, 2014 at 1:31 am

            Couldn’t have said it better myself, Don! Thank you! :)
            And thank you Shawn :)

  10. 19
    ) ZEESHAN MITRA
    June 10, 2014 at 5:05 am

    Sharif

    A wonderful article and equally amazing photographs and you have described the fact that skill is more important than what gear you are using, in a beautiful way. I always believe that it is the photographer who takes the images and camera is just a tool to capture the vision of the photographer. I have just started photography for the last 1 year and have made it a habit to shoot in manual settings from the very first day and do not like to shoot in automatic modes and most of the time manually focus, I have taken photographs of wildlife by focusing manually and got some decent shots, thus it is all about practice,skill,patience and yes luck. Photography is all about practice and patience. Thus do not let the lack of gear keep you from shooting just shoot with what you have and you will be amazed at the images you get. Once again thank you Sharif for the article.
    Thank you

    • Profile photo of Alpha Whiskey
      20
      ) Alpha Whiskey
      June 10, 2014 at 7:03 am

      Thank you very much Zeeshan for the kind words, and very well articulated points you make :) I admire your commitment to your craft, and I completely agree that success has much to do with patience and practice. Must keep shooting! I wish you every success in your photography.
      Many thanks again,
      Warm Regards,
      Sharif.

      • 21
        ) ZEESHAN MITRA
        June 10, 2014 at 7:22 am

        Thank for such kind words. I really appreciate it being a beginner in photography it is hard to get success with limited gear but practice and dedication is what makes you move ahead. Your encouraging words are a lot to me. At this age when I have to decide in which field I want to build my career it is tough to decide whether one should choose their hobby and make it their career or should go the conventional career path of corporate sector to survive, but whatever be the decision people should never let their hobby take back seat, there is always some time to practice it from our busy lives and your encouraging words will always be remembered by me.
        Thank you and looking forward for more amazing articles

        • Profile photo of Alpha Whiskey
          22
          ) Alpha Whiskey
          June 10, 2014 at 8:01 am

          Zeeshan,
          I briefly considered photography as a potential career option, and for many professionals it is extremely rewarding, albeit very hard work. Especially nowadays with all the competition out there. Everyone with an ‘iPhone’ is a ‘photographer’ now :)
          But for me it is something I keep as a hobby, without the complication of deadlines and money. Basically, it’s good for the soul. It’s one of the things I have to take me away from everything else :) And occasionally someone pays me for my photos or a calendar, or a cover, and it’s like a bonus.
          They say if you love your job you’ll never work a day in your life, but you need to decide if you’re ready and willing to try and beat the competition, to offer something no one else has seen; to compete on price; to spend hours in front of a computer editing and sorting through your work; to invest in relevant media for marketing etc… All of these are important considerations. That won’t necessarily diminish your enjoyment, especially if you have a passion for your work. If you can’t imagine doing anything else other than photography for the next few decades of your working life, then go for it. Persevere, be optimistic and never let any one rejection, dejection or defeat bring you down. You will inevitably succeed :)
          However, bills have to be paid too, and perhaps it’s worthwhile to get your foot on the ladder of another career to at least be financially secure, or even to fall back on during lean times. Photography is still something you will always have and be able to profit from, whether it’s your career or not. :)
          Best of luck, and I am sure you’ll be a success whatever you choose :)
          Warm Regards,
          Sharif.

          • 23
            ) ZEESHAN MITRA
            June 10, 2014 at 8:24 am

            Thanks again. It is true when hobby becomes profession it is no more work but still commitments are there thus keeping it as a hobby is better and making money out of it is not important for me it is joy of shooting that is important and a ocassional appreciation of my work is apt for me. Thank you once again. I also wish you all the success for your future.

  11. 25
    ) Richard Stern
    June 11, 2014 at 5:16 am

    A superb article, and mirrors my experience
    exactly for BIF. I have been using a Nikon D7000 with a 300f4 lens and teleconverter, and now find it to bulky and heavy for traveling. I find I can get better results for birds that are relatively stationary with my E-M5 and 100-300, and am slowly getting better at using this combo for BIF. I wish I had seen this article before asking the same question in a forum on DPReview recently. A related question though, would the E-M1 give a higher keeper rate for fast moving objects than the E-M5 using the same technique, or is it pretty much operator
    dependent? Thanks, Richard

    • Profile photo of Alpha Whiskey
      26
      ) Alpha Whiskey
      June 11, 2014 at 9:42 am

      Hi Richard,

      I imagine the EM-1 would have a higher keeper rate. It’s not as good as a DSLR for erratically moving subjects, but birds in flight tend to have a steady trajectory so the EM-1 should be better than the EM-5 for that. The pre-focusing technique depends somewhat on the predictability or anticipation of where your subject will be, and that involves waiting and watching. I think overall success rates are operator dependent to some extent, since you still have to make decisions; there’s no getting away from that!
      Hope this helps :)
      Regards,
      Sharif.

  12. 27
    ) Richard Stern
    June 11, 2014 at 10:31 am

    Sharif, A point of clarification – most of the on-line searching I have done on the E-M1 talks about the on-sensor PDAF working with full 4/3 lenses. But in the conversation above, with Don K, suggests that it also works with true M4/3 lenses (e.g. my Panasonic 40-150 and 100-300), thus allowing much better continuous AF than the E-M5 with the same lenses. Can you verify that this is the case?

    Thanks, Richard

    • Profile photo of Alpha Whiskey
      28
      ) Alpha Whiskey
      June 11, 2014 at 1:04 pm

      I believe this is true, as Don K says, yes. The EM-1 was designed to be used with m4/3 lenses.

    • 29
      ) Don K
      June 12, 2014 at 12:46 am

      Richard,

      I’m not sure that Panasonic lenses were included. At least one article that I read said that the EM1’s memory was loaded with every Olympus 4/3 and MFT lens ever made so that when you mounted the lens the camera knew which lens was attached. I don’t recall reading anything about Panasonic lenses being included since my main concern was about PDAF becoming active for MFT lenses in CAF mode.

      Don

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