Michael Rammell

Shooting Soccer with an OM-D: Can it do it?

Reader Question, Olympus, Musings, MicroFourThirdsMichael RammellComment

This week we have a question that was sent in from Andrew Kern (or, AJ). Rather than replying to the email directly I thought it would be best to answer AJ's question right here on the blog for everyone to see.

If you're in a position to listen then go ahead and hit play on the audio player below, if not, scroll down a little further and you can read through today's question from AJ and my response. Either way the audio is the same as the text to make sure you're not missing out.

AJ is an Olympus shooter photographing High School Soccer (or, as we call it in the UK, Football :) ). AJ writes:

Hi Mike,

I'm already in the Olympus camp. I jumped in buying an E-M10 kit with the stock lens. After that I picked up a 40-150mm f/4.5-5.6 MFT lens and after that a used 4/3 50-200mm f/2.8-3.5 non-SWD with an adapter. Using Manual Focus with peaking and High sequence mode I have managed to get good results by anticipating where play is going to be and then focusing there. However, I'd like to increase my keeper rate and not feel as though I'm missing shots by anticipating play. Most of the games happen under lights near dusk so I feel that a fast lens is a must. I'd love to say that my gear puts bread on the table but that's not true. So my question is what should my next investment be to help me:
  1. Better glass (OLY 40-150mm f/2.8)
  2. Better body that can better use the glass I already own (E-M1 second hand prices should dip a little when the E-M1 mkII is released)
  3. Something else?

Thanks AJ for your question. This is rather timely. Only last week my good friend Paul Griffiths and I were discussing how each type camera has it's place as a tool. Paul, being a Fuji shooter and myself, using Olympus of course, both agree that when it comes to professional sports photography a sports-oriented DSLR is probably still the way to go. I'll dive into the reasons why in just moment as part of my answer. But, to start I'll address each of your three points separately:

1. Better Glass?

When is there a reason not to get better glass? Well, in all honesty the answer is actually that you should be using the best that you can reasonably afford, with particular emphasis on the 'that you can reasonably afford' part. AJ mentions that sports photography doesn't pay his bills, which to me says instantly that AJ should be looking for good value in his lenses and equipment. That said, when it comes to sports photography we need more than just sharp glass. We've all come to know and love Olympus lenses for their sharpness, there is no doubt about that. Even some of the entry level lenses that could be considered budget options are able to resolve fantastic sharpness.

However the difference these days between a top lens designed for a Pro and an entry level lens isn't just it's ability to resolve sharpness. That's more of a minimum requirement. The difference in fact is the quality of the components inside those lenses, specifically the motors and mechanisms that rotate and move the optics inside the barrel. Naturally more expensive lenses will use higher quality components, which, as you would expect work faster and more accurately. So yes, in effect the Olympus M.Zuiko 40-150mm f/2.8 PRO will focus faster than the lenses you've mentioned in your question and they'll stand a better chance of maintaining that focus too.

Add to that the 40-150mm f/2.8 PRO is a constant f/2.8 aperture and comes with a tripod/monopod collar and you're looking at a lens that is definitely more tuned to shooting soccer. That said, the lens won't make all the difference. In fact, a better body will likely be a smarter investment:

2. Better Camera Body?

The OM-D E-M10 you mention is quite similar to the other OM-D's in the range, however, let's be clear; sure it may be able to produce images just as sharp, but again, it's ability to maintain focus on a moving subject is going to be far more limited when compared to it's more premium brothers. Even (and especially) when compared to the now rather old Olympus OM-D E-M1. Aside from not having things like weather sealing, the area in which the E-M10 comes up short is that it only has contrast detect autofocus. So, when it comes to locking focus on a static subject in reasonable light it shouldn't have a problem at all, but the issue is when that subject is moving and light is less than favourable.

You may have seen my motorsports images that I shot with the E-M1. There were some circumstances that allowed me to do this. For starters, the E-M1 itself makes use of phase detect autofocus, meaning it is able to better determine the subject by the distance between the subject and it's background and by what's moving. The E-M1 does this in conjunction with contrast detect; it will pick out the vivid colours of a car (or the lights on the side of a car in the case of Le Mans) and use that to help maintain focus. Above all that though, and perhaps most importantly the subject is moving in such a way that it is ultimately easier to photograph: the cars themselves are actually moving in a predictable motion; i.e from left to right and they're also maintaining a relatively similar distance to me throughout the entire panning range.

Soccer, or Football and other team sports, whether that's hockey, Basketball, NFL football etc will pretty much all feature players changing directions and pace quite rapidly, which is why really you see the top sports photographers using those cameras with full frame sensors with a multitude of huge pixels making use of phase detect (often cross type I may add) focus points. Another factor is  of course the multiple subjects. You will have players on the same team in the same colours both in the foreground and the background of your frame making it even harder for the rather limited focussing system on the E-M10 to determine which is the intended subject. Effectively cameras, such as the Canon 1Dxii and the Canon 7D are all going to lock focus using both the contrast and the distance of the subject and then be able to better maintain focus on that subject. They're going to far superior at shooting sports than the E-M10 (and E-M1) Which brings me to my final answer...

3. Something Else?

My answer to this last part is purely because your question talks about high school soccer. If you were shooting anything else, such as motorsports, weddings, portraits, macro work etc then sure, I'd tell you to keep at it and keep practicing, if you can reasonably justify an E-M1 and or a 40-150mm then go for it - it will help your cause.

But, given that you're shooting soccer, I would advise you to go and hire, or even buy if you're that way inclined, an old Canon 7D mark 1 at least and see if you can get a telephoto lens to go with it. You'll be able to see the difference immediately. Your keeper rate will improve no end. Not least because of the more capable auto focussing system, but also because the optical viewfinder is simply faster at this point in time. Perhaps in future the EVF's we've all become so fond of will refresh just as though you were looking through the lens, like with a DSLR. For now though, using a mirrorless for sports will reduce your keeper rate.

That's not to say that practicing won't get you some way to negating this. I found that with motorsports my keeper rate went up every time I went back to the track to make more photographs. 

Lastly, I would add also that even Fuji and Sony mirrorless cameras won't do the same job as a high-fps, crop sensored DSLR can do when it comes to shooting this sort of subject. I'm sure they'll be there before long though. At the time of writing and recording this post an announcement for the E-M1ii is just a week away, but right now, if we talk about using the right tools for the job, I think realistically the most instant way to increase your keeper rate when photographing a team sport such as soccer, is to pick up a DSLR.

Your Results?

I would love to see sample photographs of Football (soccer), NFL, Hockey or any team sport that you've made using your OM-D or O;ympus camera. Share a link below for us all to go and take a look at and I'll be sure to give you a shout out in the next episode.

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