Photographing the Australian Open Tennis and dealing with the pros and cons of the Olympus E-M5 Micro Four Thirds camera

Written by Gary on January 20th, 2013

This week I had the good fortunate to have a day off from work so I could buy a ticket for the HiSense Arena at the Australian Open Tennis and as usual I take opportunities like this to test out my camera gear and hopefully get some shots that portray the ambience of the occasion.

If you have read my blog posts or wikipedia articles on mirrorless cameras which includes Micro Four Thirds cameras such as the wonderful Olympus OM-D E-M5 camera, you will quickly realise I keep repeating that as good as they are, they do NOT autofocus on fast moving subjects and do NOT do AF tracking of a moving subject as well as a dSLR camera with true phase detect AF systems.

So why am I taking such a camera to a sports event?

There are many great reasons why an E-M5 camera is better than a dSLR for the tennis:

  • the camera and its lenses are nice and small so carrying it around is not a big issue and it does not become intrusive and obstruct your fellow spectator’s view
  • the higher sensor pixel density gives it the best telephoto reach for focal length which is important given they do not allow focal length more than 200mm into the event (such lenses are only allowed by accredited pro photographers who pay for that privilege)
  • the absence of a mirror means that it is much less noisy and this is a major issue during play when the crowd is silent and firing off a barage of shots in burst mode can really annoy those nearby
  • it can shoot at 9fps (albeit without sensor-based IS or continuous AF)
  • it gives great image up to ISO 800-1600 as long as your exposure is nearly correct with a wide dynamic range which is often needed at the tennis
  • it has the best image stabilisation available (just not in 9fps burst mode)
  • it looks cool  – and the tennis is really as much a fashion event as a sports event!

Now for the issues and how I managed them or would like to manage them:

  • no phase detect AF for moving subjects – you just have to deal with this like all photographers did prior to 1990 or so – pre-focus while they are stationery, half-press shutter to lock focus, wait until the action starts.
  • no pinpoint AF – this was a substantial problem. Even using only the small centre square place entirely over the tennis players body while relatively stationary, the camera’s AF algorithms somehow decides to ignore the subject if there is a lack of contrast of the clothing or skin and instead AF on more contrasty adjacent backgrounds such as letters on advertising hoardings. PLEASE Mr Olympus, add pinpoint AF! My method to get around this was to AF on their shoes so there is no distant background to confuse the system, keep the shutter half-pressed for AF lock, then recompose, and in 9fps, the focus is deactivated for subsequent shots in that burst.
  • shutter lag – there is a tiny but noticeable degree of shutter lag, one just needs to anticipate this and start shooting a touch before you want the shot.
  • long telephoto wide aperture lens selection – the only long telephoto I have for Micro Four Thirds is my very handy Panasonic 14-140mm HD OIS lens which was great when the light was bright but at f/5.8 at 140mm, one has to crank the ISO up too high when heavy clouds come over or they close the roof and use the lights. A better option would be the promised Panasonic 150mm f/2.8 lens which would allow 4 times as much light in and thus allow 2 stops lower ISO to be used. Hopefully someone will also make a 100-200mm f/2.8 lens which would be awesome indeed for the tennis!
  • image stabilisation in 9fps burst mode – although the E-M5 cannot do IS during 9fps shots, this is generally not a great issue given that you will need to be shooting at 1/500th or faster to freeze the action anyway. However, to get around this, if you have a Panasonic lens with OIS, turn the lens OIS on and turn the E-M5 IS off, and you will get OIS even at 9fps!!! Very cool indeed … here’s hoping the Panasonic 150mm f/2.8 lens has OIS!
  • camera settings – S-AF, RAW+jpeg, 9fps burst rate, AWB, vivid picture style for faster AF, OIS on, IS off, autoISO with limit at 1600, Shutter priority with shutter at ~1/500th sec.

So let’s look at what can be achieved with the Panasonic 14-140mm lens at 140mm in the stadium – all these have been cropped about 30-50%:

13th seed Serbian player, Ana Ivanovic serving it up to fellow Serbian, Jelena Jankovic:

Ana Ivanovic serving it up

Ana Ivanovic powering her way through:

Ana Ivanovic in full flight

The joy of hitting a winning shot, but then Ana looked like she was enjoying the whole game – her wonderful smile was always there!

Ana Ivanovic - the joy of hitting a winning shot

Ana Ivanovic pumped up after finishing off a winning set:

Ana Ivanovic pumped up as she powers her way over fellow Serbian Jelena Jankovic

When you need a break from the stadium, it is time to swap lenses to the awesome Olympus 75mm f/1.8 and go for a walk to the other courts where you can get closer to the action and shoot some iconic shots on the way:

Note, I turned off the burst rate when on these courts close to the action as I didn’t want to distract the players with noise – even though the E-M5 is very quiet it is audible at 9fps – although perhaps the players would not notice it from 5-10m away.

Belgian player, Yanina Wickmayer:

Belgian player, Yanina Wickmayer in a doubles event

Serbian player, Bojana Jovanovski:

Serbian Bojana Jovanovski in a doubles event

Thought this promo girl was from Skin Cancer Australia stand advising that tanning is not healthy – it gives old guys heart attacks, or at least the poor guy inside this promotional Wilson tennis ball:

cheeky hands

But not everyone attending the tennis wore skimpy shorts:

not everyone wears skimpy shorts

On the way back to the trains at Federation Square, a chap in overalls was chillaxing in the late afternoon sun watching the tennis on the big screen Melbourne style:

Chillaxing in Fed Square watching the tennis

Hopefully these tips have been useful, cheers.



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