There are probably more entertaining ways to spend a Sunday afternoon but this stunt display in a field in London was reasonably diverting. I had shot stunt shows before using a Nikon DSLR and the Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8. But I knew my EM-5 had only contrast detection AF and was not really camera for shooting action. Nevertheless, there was only one way to find out how it would fare and I took it with me, along with the Olympus 40-150mm f/2.8 and 12-40mm f/2.8.
In a previous article about shooting moving targets, I explained that pre-focusing was a good technique to overcome the AF limitations of contrast detection systems. On this occasion, however, I wanted to see if I could track or capture the performers and vehicles in mid-flight.
One thing that contrast detect systems sometimes do is inadvertently lock focus on the background if it offers suitable contrast. In order to prevent this from happening, I chose the smallest AF region. This way surrounding details would not distract the AF point from the subject.
I had read that using C-AF mode on the EM-5 was hit and miss, and that it performed better with a slower burst rate (around 4FPS). But the C-AF mode is simply too slow on the EM-5 to effectively keep up with moving objects. Locking on in S-AF mode and panning was far more effective. I also set the high burst rate (9FPS) although I hardly ever used the full 9 shots.
It was rather difficult to use prefocusing on these performers, as oftentimes they would be in the middle of a blank overcast sky, and manually pre-focusing onto nothing is rather pointless. Instead I locked focus on them as they moved up the ramps, using only the centre AF point to lock focus, panning with them and recomposing as necessary until the point that I wanted to fire.
One fortunate aspect in my favour was my distance from the subject. I was just far enough away that their movements were slow enough to allow me to lock on. In fact, several times I locked focus while they were in mid-air, rather than panning with them, and I had a surprisingly high keeper rate. If I had been much closer, I believe their movement would have been perceptibly faster and thus more difficult to lock focus onto.
The exposure meter wants to darken the image once you move from the ground up to the sky, as the overcast sky is read as being too bright. To prevent this from happening, I locked the exposure on the ground using the AE/AL button so that the performers would be adequately exposed once they were in the air and not just rendered as silhouettes. I knew that this might give me a lot of blown out skies behind the performers, but I didn’t care about that; I wanted to capture the performers, not the sky. You might argue that I could simply brighten the details in post but that would be unpredictable and perhaps introduce unnecessary noise into the image. In any case, a few blown out skies were a perfect excuse to render some of the images in B+W.
The Olympus 40-150mm f/2.8 (offering a FOV equivalent to 80-300mm) is a solid performer, and although I haven’t done (and wouldn’t waste my time doing) a side-by side comparison, in many instances it looks as sharp, if not sharper than the Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8 VR II. I realise that may rattle some owners of the Nikkor lens, but I own both lenses and am simply expressing a view as seen by my own eyes (I don’t need glasses and have 20/20 vision). However, designed for use on a smaller sensor the Olympus obviously cannot produce the same impressive bokeh as the Nikkor, even at f/2.8.
I imagine that these settings could also apply to shooting other types of action or even birds in flight and that’s really why I thought to share them here. Hopefully other m4/3 users without phase detection systems can still feel confident about shooting action.
More from the stunt display can be seen here on my blog.