Michael Rammell

A day at the race track with the Olympus OM-D E-M1

Gear, MicroFourThirds, Olympus, Review, Tutorials & TipsMichael Rammell8 Comments

My photographic calendar remains as busy as ever, with my most recent outing taking me to the Silverstone race circuit here in the UK to photograph the World Endurance Championship Qualifying and Practice races.

Was the Olympus Micro Four Thirds system up to the task? Read on to find out...

One area of uncertainty

Before I get into this post in detail I want to just set out what my expectations of the Olympus were. When making my switch to Olympus I thought that there were perhaps certain photographic niche's it just wouldn't be as capable of when pitted against a DSLR. That's not to say I didn't think it wouldn't be able to handle them, but more that it would be more of a challenge to wield the E-M1 and achieve the same results. The OM-D E-M1 is arguably the most capable of all of the mirrorless offerings (from all manufacturers), especially in terms of auto focus speed and accuracy, but having come from the world of Canon DSLR's a small part of me still worried that it wouldn't deliver the same quality when it came to motor sports and wildlife purely because of the pace of the subjects. This trip to Silverstone was both perfect practice for The Le Mans 24 Hour Race in June and also a great opportunity to put the Olympus through it's paces.

So, Did the Olympus Perform?

The short answer: Hell yes!

Any fears I had instantly vanished after panning with the first few cars. It locked on focus, stayed with the car and gave me a couple of keepers right off the bat.

It certainly is different than shooting with a DSLR though (and I'll talk about all of that and more in a minute). If you're not used to a mirrorless camera you will need to practice. Although it achieved everything I wanted it to, I did find a few quirks that took some getting used to though and I'm going to use this post to talk about it's strength's and weaknesses as a camera for motor sports and fast-paced action.

Sample photographs

To start this post let's take a look at some sample photographs, before going through the settings used to achieve them:

(Click any of these images to view them in light box mode):

Settings & Gear Used

My settings varied only slightly depending on where we were standing around the track and the available light. All of the images you'll see in this post were photographed using the Olympus OM-D E-M1 running firmware version 3.0. The lens was the Olympus M.Zuiko ED 40-150mm f/2.8 PRO

My settings were as follows:

  • A nice slow shutter speed between 1/80th and 1/160th with as low an ISO as possible. Which, on this day wasn't too much of an issue because it was a bright day. So much so that an ND filter would have been useful.
  • Seeing as I didn't have an ND for my 40-150 though, my aperture remained between f/11 - f/13 to reduce the amount of light reaching the sensor.
  • ISO 100-200 depending on cloud cover
  • I used single focus point, manually selected. The focus point would either be the very centre point, or, one to the left or right depending on the area of the track we stood.
  • Camera set to spot metering
  • The In-Body Image Stabilisation on mode 3, which is for horizontal panning.
  • The camera was set to Continuous Autofocus (C-AF)
  • High Speed shooting at 9 frames per second.
  • I had the HLD-7 Battery grip fitted for the extra battery capacity and to balance the camera & lens neatly.
  • I use 32Gb Lexar Professional SD Cards with a 600x / 90Mb write speed
  • I shot handheld and did not use a monopod. I personally find them cumbersome and restrictive. When I was in Le Mans in 2013 I found I was losing more shots when using the monopod. I do however see the practicality; panning for a few hours handheld was exhausting on the arms!

The Olympus' weight difference was a godsend here. I didn't have that same ache as before when shooting with a DSLR, allowing me to hold the camera more steady and to shoot for longer. A bonus by-product of the cameras size and weight!

Why such a slow shutter speed?

The slow shutter speed records motion in the wheels and also allows you to blur the background as you pan. Shooting much faster than 1/250th and the car begins to appear almost stationary with static wheels and an almost-static appearance to the background. When you start shooting at 1/1000th it almost looks as though the cars are simply parked on the track. So, to purvey a sense of speed slow your shutter. The slower shutter speeds whilst panning does of course require some practice!

There was something of a trade off to be had in these settings though. Those shot at 1/160th and 1/125th were marginally sharper, but those shot at 1/80th had a far blurrier and more pleasing background; the panning effect was more prevalent. It's noticeable if you're a pixel-peeper, but it's a matter of preference as to which you prefer. I personally feel those cars captured at 1/80th have a more dramatic feel and a sense of speed. It's up to you to decide which you prefer. Here are a couple of 100% cropped screen grabs from Lightroom. The yellow and red Ferrari is 1/160th. The blue and orange Porsche is 1/80th.

(you can open these as a light box to inspect a larger image. Pay attention to the edges of the numbers on the side of each car for a comparison)

Firmware Version 3.0

At the start of this post I mentioned I was using Firmware version 3.0 for my Olympus OM-D E-M1. If you're not running this already you ought to update as soon as you can. It's known to be stable and I personally haven't seen any bugs at all, but version 3.0 is more than just a patch - it's an enhancement!

Once updated to 3.0 your E-M1 will go from shooting 6.5 frames per second to 9 frames per second in continuous auto focus. Impressively, at that frame rate the E-M1 will be making use of 37 on-chip phase-detect auto focus points. This gives fantastic tracking ability and makes it even more suited to motorsports and fast moving subjects.

By comparison, the Canon 7dii shoots at 10 frames per second and whilst it does sport 65 cross-type phase detect points, that number can vary depending on the lens you're using. Anotherr consideration again is the difference in price too:
Canon 7Dii: £1,500 body only
Olympus OM-D E-M1: £899 Body Only

Changing Weather Conditions

One thing that any sports photographer will tell you is that the camera has to be able to stand up to the elements, as well as get great quality photographs of course. For the purpose of this post the weather on the day couldn't have been better. When we arrived it was very cold and very wet with the rain pouring steadily. We didn't stop shooting though. My good friend Neil Graham was there with his Canon 7D Mark ii and Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 L IS USM and we both stayed out in the rain with our gear getting wet. It didn't affect the performance of the cameras at all. E-M1 and Olympus M.Zuiko 40-150mm f/2.8 PRO as a camera for all conditions.

Later in the day the sun made an appearance and it actually started to get quite warm. Once again the E-M1 and 40-150mm Pro lens from Olympus proving that they are tools for the pro, as much as toys for the enthusiast. Don't think that the Olympus is just a fair-weather camera!

Battery Life

I hear people regularly talking about battery life on the Olympus (mirrorless cameras in general) being poor. Whilst I would agree that they don't have the stamina of a DSLR battery I'm finding them perfectly acceptable. I use only Official Olympus batteries (the BLN-1) in my cameras and only changed batteries once during the day. I had the Olympus HLD-7 Grip fitted and so my setup for the day had 2 batteries in at all times. I managed to shoot a little over 2500 shots on the first 2 batteries before they required changing. I then went on to shoot the same again on the second pair of batteries before we left for the day.

I personally was very surprised to achieve this many shots, especially as I was using such a high fps, but it did occur to me that I didn't ever review or delete any of my photographs as I worked, mainly because I don't feel the need to, but secondly because I can see the shot I just made in the EVF. All settings were changed using the dials and buttons and never the LCD.

I also always use my batteries to the last drop: I'll wait for my camera to turn itself off through lack of power before changing batteries. This also ensures they're fully drained before I place them back in their chargers (Again, official Olympus chargers too).

Keeper Rate

I'll be honest here and say that my keeper rate probably wasn't as high as it would have been on my old Canon 7D, which was my go-to camera for this sort of application. Of a burst of 5 or 6 shots at 1/80th perhaps 2 frames were sharp enough to be considered keepers. I'd say that back when I was shooting with the Canon DSLR the keeper from 5 or 6 was more likely to be around 4 per burst.

Although this wasn't too much of an issue, because of course you only need the one shot in focus of each car, it does go to show the very fine margin's between the systems. The Olympus OM-D E-M1 was still able to achieve the same end result, but it just dropped a few more frames.

Having said that, the last time I photographed motor sports of this kind was at Le Mans in 2013, so the technique required to pan with the cars wasn't practiced, whereas i had the best part of 3 days before the last race to get my technique down.

Conclusion

So, is this the camera you should buy if you're going to shoot motor sports? The answer is a matter of preference and priority. There are lots of cameras on the market that will do what you've seen in this post, and some of them better, but I'm yet to see a better and more capable mirrorless system than this. So if it's specifically mirrorless you're after, the Olympus as both a body and lens system, is surely the winner.

It works for me and it works damn well too. As i've shown this excellent system can track, pan, shoot at super fast 9 frames per second and handle much more than many people realise. The E-M1 and 40-150mm f/2.8 pro come together to form a DSLR-beater. The E-M1 is a middle weight camera with a super heavy weight punch, but as is so often now-a-days people judge a book by it's cover, or rather a camera by the size of it's sensor, which is a real shame.

Small-sensor syndrome often causes people to overlook the Olympus in favour of the Fuji system or even Sony, but in all honesty those cameras just don't hold a candle to the OM-D E-M1 and the range of Olympus lenses on offer. 

Showing that the E-M1 is more than just a small camera will lead some to say "Jack of all trades, master of non", but if you want to know the truth all you have to do is pick up one of the cameras from the OM-D range to believe what they're capable of.

For me, I'll use this for motor sports, wildlife, weddings, portraits and pretty much anything I need to shoot. The Olympus OM-D E-M1 has well and truly snatched the crown from my Canon DSLR's, which are long gone now. The more I use this camera and the Olympus lenses, the better it gets.

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A few more samples

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