M4/3 System                                                                
(27th December 2016)
Action Photography with M43 & GX8

Action, Sport, and Birds in Flight during 2016.

I keep reading that M43 is 'no good for action', and I have to say that statement does annoy me, as I have been photographing action sports for about 7 years with M43 cameras.

Egret in Flight. (Click photo for larger Image)
Panasonic GX8 with Olympus 75-300 Mk2. 1/2,000th. F6.5 at 258mm (FF516mm). ISO400.
Comment: Although this Olympus lens focuses a little slowly, it still nails the subject.
Tip: Do not zoom in to close until you are experienced at tracking birds in flight, otherwise you could lose them out of the focus area. It is easier to obtain focus when birds have a plain background.
Blue Tit arrives at a feeder. (Click photo for larger Image)
Panasonic GX8 with Olympus 75-300 Mk2. 1/6,400th. F3.5 at 100mm (FF290mm). ISO1600.
Comment: Using Panasonics 'Pre-Burst' mode at 40fps makes shots like this almost to easy.
Tip: Pre-setting manual focus is essential for a pre-burst shot of this type, as you are pointing the camera into what is effectively a blank space, so it will naturally focus on the background.
(Pre-burst is a special video stills crop mode, hence the strange FF equivalent focal length)
A Hawk takes flight over Dartmoor. (Click photo for larger Image)
Panasonic GX8 with Olympus 40-150 Pro. 1/10,000th. F3.5 at 40mm (FF80mm). ISO400.
Comment: Fast shutter speeds are essential to freeze birds in flight.
Tip: With nature it is important to anticipate behaviour, learn your subject.
High shutter speeds are needed for sharp 'birds in flight' photographs.

Admittedly the very first incarnation of M43 - the ubiquitous Panasonic G1 - did make it a little difficult due to its very substantial shutter lag, which meant I often missed that 'decisive moment'. But I dipped back in big time when Panasonic launched their rangefinder style GX7 a few years back and with in-camera stabilisation and no shutter lag at all, what a gem that little masterpiece of a camera proved to be. However the small M43 sensor did make it a little tricky to keep noise levels acceptable when light levels became dire during indoor sports, especially as I originally only had very slow kit lenses. 

Vintage ERA GP car at Wiscombe Hill Climb in Devon. (Click photo for larger Image)
Panasonic GX8 with Olympus 40-150 Pro. 1/80th. F3.5 at 50mm (FF100mm). ISO800.
Comment: Superb in-camera stabilisation allowed smooth slow speed panning shots
with this non-stabilised Olympus lens.
Tip: Panning using a slow shutter speed creates the sense of speed and motion. If this was
shot using a high shutter speed it would have looked like a parked car!
Tipping Point, unlucky competitors crashing at Fingle Bridge. (Click photo for larger Image)
Panasonic GX8 with Olympus 40-150 Pro. 1/400th. F2.8 at 135mm (FF270mm). ISO800.
Comment: The fast f2.8 aperture allowed me to freeze action even in dark woods during winter.
Tip: Here a fast shutter speed enabled me to freeze the moment of no return and
the fast f2.8 lens allowed subject isolation while keeping the action in context.
Vintage racer approaching chequered flag at Wiscombe Hill. (Click photo for larger Image)
Panasonic GX8 with Panasonic 12-35 Pro. 1/20th. F6.3 at 30mm (FF60mm). ISO200.
Comment: Superb in-camera and lens stabilisation enabled this dramatic ultra-slow speed shot.
Tip: Motor sport is about action, use a slow shutter speed to reveal that movement.

Then along came the GX8 and Fast Glass.

I realised that fast pro lenses would help quite a bit, so bit the bullet and purchased the Olympus 40-150 f2.8 Pro, originally specifically to shoot indoor Roller Derby. That proved a great move as I could now shoot at both a higher shutter speed and with lower ISO at the same time.

SWAT Roller Derby - a Jammer with the stare of a gunfighter. (Click photo for larger Image)
Panasonic GX8 with Panasonic 12-35 Pro Lens. 1/100th. F2.8 at 35mm (FF70mm). ISO800.
Comment: The small fast Panasonic pro lens was ideal when shooting from within the tight confines
of the inside of a packed Roller Derby track during this championship bout.
Tip: Using a slow shutter emphasised the speed of this Roller Derby Jammer. When shooting
from the middle of the track a lot of referees are skating between you and the action, so use
manual focus to ensure a good hit rate, and keep tucked in tight or you will get hit.
Bristol Roller Derby Jammer powering out of a turn. (Click photo for larger Image)
Panasonic GX8 with ??? Pro lens. 1/200th. F2.8 at 106mm (FF212mm). ISO3200.
Comment: This sports hall had the poorest lighting I have ever worked in. Not only was it very
dark, the colour balance was horrendous and necessitated a white Card to set WB.
Tip: Getting down low will emphasise an athletes power.
Some sports halls flickering LED lighting will cause banding if using electronic shutter.
Take a white card to set white balance if lighting is tricky.  
Portsmouth Roller Derby make a charge at SWAT. (Click photo for larger Image)
Panasonic GX8 with ??? Pro lens. 1/250th. F2.8 at 64mm (FF128mm). ISO1000.
Comment: For many reasons Roller Derby tournaments can be very difficult to shoot well, here
turning the colour image to monochrome has helped to alleviate a distracting background. 
Tip: Roller Derby is 'messy' to photograph at the best of times because so many of the
athletes have their back to you during the bout. So look out for moves which provide a
story telling interaction between opposing teams. 

Then a year ago Panasonic brought out their latest flagship, a slightly larger and improved GX7 replacement, the GX8. And although the earlier model is adequate for action, this new GX8 was lightning fast in every respect. All control operations responded without lag, as did both the shutter and the focus, which with the Olympus 40-150 f2.8 Pro seemed to lock on instantaneously - even in extremely poor light - and when using it with the matching Olympus 1.4x teleconverter.

Thundercat Racing at Fistral Beach, Cornwall. (Click photo for larger Image)
Panasonic GX8 with Olympus 40-150 Pro & 1.4x. 1/6,400th. F4.5 at 210mm (FF420mm). ISO400.
Comment: Here an Olympus 1.4x teleconverter was added to extend the 40-150 Pro's focal range
to 210mm, which enabled capturing shots like this from the beach.
Tip: Use a high shutter speed to ensure a sharp image. Using a fast lens will help
isolate the front runner from the chasing pack. 
A Thundercat races along the beach front at Fistral. (Click photo for larger Image)
Panasonic GX8 with Olympus 40-150 Pro & 1.4x. 1/50th. F11 at 140mm (FF280mm). ISO200.
Comment: Using Panasonics 'Pre-Burst' mode at 40fps makes shots like this almost to easy.
Superb in-camera stabilisation allowed smooth slow speed panning shots with this lens.
Tip: When panning always twist smoothly from your waist to follow the action. Use a slow burst
mode to shoot because race boats bump across the water, and at slow shutter speeds many
panned shots could suffer from blurred vertical movement..
Thundercat Racing at Fistral - Leader of the Pack. (Click photo for larger Image)
Panasonic GX8 with Olympus 40-150 Pro & 1.4x. 1/5,000th. F5.6 at 210mm (FF420mm). ISO400.
Comment: Razor sharp close-up shots like this were handled effortlessly all day. However
frequently changing camera settings for different effects throughout the day meant that I accidentally used to high a shutter speed in the shot which froze the propeller motion!
Tip: Use an appropriate shutter speed for the type of photo you want. To prevent silly errors, preset camera memory with basic settings, one for panning shots and one for freezing action.

At last a M43 camera setup that would allowed me to compete on equal terms.

Well that's what I felt convinced I now had, but the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and as the saying goes: 'put up, or shut up'. So after reading once more in a very popular photography forum that M43 is 'no good for Birds in Flight, or Action Sport', I thought I had better look back to see if I did in fact photograph any of these successfully during 2016 before I replied. Fortunately I did find a few relevant events that I had attended, (but it seems I photographed no ball sports this year). However I hope there is enough of a selection of photographs here taken during 2016 to convince any doubters that when it comes to action of any sort, M43 is now more than just 'adequate'.

Over the Fence - Rock Solid 2016 obstacle race at Escott Park. (Click photo for larger Image)
Panasonic GX8 with Panasonic Pro lens. 1/1,600th. F2.8 at 35mm (FF70mm). ISO400.
Comment: It was a dark grey day, the colours were dull and everyone was covered in mud.
Tip: Position yourself behind blind obstacles and wait for competitor to look up in surprise.
Turn image to monochrome to reveal the grittiness of the event.
Another Wet Tunnel - Rock Solid 2016  at Escott Park. (Click photo for larger Image)
Panasonic GX8 with Panasonic 12-35 Pro. 1/640th. F2.8 at 26mm (FF52mm). ISO800.
Comment: This was a very dark location so increase ISO to enable a sharp shot.
Tip: Get in close and low, wait for the water splash and look out for great facial expressions.
Off with the Mud - The Commando Challenge 2016 event. (Click photo for larger Image)
Panasonic GX8 with Olympus 40-150 Pro & 1.4x. 1/3,200th. F2.8 at 64mm (FF128mm). ISO800.
Comment: This flooded pathway was seriously cold and provided great photographic opportunities. Unfortunately the sun was facing the camera and just out of shot to the right.
Tip: Use a high shutter speed to freeze the water droplets and wait for peoples expression
or reaction before pressing the shutter. Keep your distance to keep the camera dry.

So do the big question is do you need the latest M43 camera and expensive Pro lenses to shoot Birds in Flight and Action Sport ?

In brief 'NO'. I have used mainly fast glass and my newest M43 camera for all these examples posted in this article, but have been shooting BIF and Action Sport for years with M43. Depending on what sports you are photographing and in what lighting conditions you are in, any M43 camera and a kit lens can get you great results. The latest and best kit just makes it a lot easier, and also allows photographers to take shots in certain conditions that they previously would not have been able to. Living in the UK and blessed with frequent dark grey skies, every little improvement helps a lot.

World Surfing Champs at Fistral 2016 - 6a. (Click photo for larger Image)
Panasonic GX8 with Panasonic 100-400. 1/4,000th. F6.3 at 364mm (FF728mm). ISO400.
Comment: This first tryout for my new Pana-Leica 100-400 lens was on the finals day of the world surfing championships at Fistral Beach in Cornwall, England ...and there were virtually no waves!
The action was so far out that I was stood in the sea at knee level all day, and struggled to stand
upright and not drop my kit when the waves washed the sand from under my feet!
Tip: Take a monopod to support the weight as holding long telephoto lenses
up all day without support is out of the question. And it can also it help with your stability!
World Surfing Champs at Fistral 2016 - 6b. (Click photo for larger Image)
Panasonic GX8 with Panasonic 100-400. 1/3,200th. F6.3 at 40mm (FF800mm). ISO400.
Comment: Still no big waves, but the worlds best surfers can make good moves even on a small swell. The surfers face off in pairs, so which one do you point the camera at?
Tip: Unless you know the sport very well, choose a competitor to keep your camera pointed at,
otherwise you will tend to miss all the best moves from both. Competitive surfers rarely
move in a smooth line suitable for panning shots, so use a very high shutter speed to
freeze the action and water droplets.
(All these surfing images were heavily cropped, thank goodness for the 400mm reach.)
World Surfing Champs at Fistral 2016 - 6c. (Click photo for larger Image)
Panasonic GX8 with Panasonic 100-400. 1/2,000th. F6.3 at 400mm (FF800mm). ISO400.
Comment: During the semi's and finals the light had moved to extreme left and slightly behind the surfers, but they were still so far out there was no option for me to reposition for better light.
Unless you know the sport well and can anticipate the action, set camera on burst
to ensure you capture the best moment.

Why do I turn so many shots into Black & White.

I love colour but as you will have noticed I frequently turn images into monochrome and there are many varied reasons for doing this. A black and white monochrome image will often add drama, or a sense of time to a scene. Also by removing colours which can be distracting, a viewer can be encouraged to focus attention on other elements in the scene that the photographer wishes the viewer to notice.

In the early days of M43 when pushing the equipment beyond what it could comfortably handle in low light, some colour photos could look decidedly washed out, and in those cases converting an image to black and white was often an effective way of recovering an almost unusable image. The same scenario also applies when shooting inside some sports halls where the lighting used is not full spectrum and hence will not allow recording of proper colour, which leaves black & white as the only option. 

However, sometimes it is simply because I am in a 'Black and White and Monochrome' photo-group and enjoy both colour and monochrome photography.

Addendum: November 2019 Update ...

For the last two and a half years since I wrote this article I have been shooting fast action, many sports, plus birds and Dragonflies in flight with the Olympus EM1-Mk2 and what a revelation it has been. The 20Mp sensor equipped Panasonic GX8 was and still is a very capable camera, but for fast action, sports in low light, and for acquiring fast focus on birds flying in front of a very busy background, the EM1-Mk2 is streets ahead. Ultimately the image quality is only slightly improved, but what really makes it leaps ahead is the ease at which the Olympus EM1-Mk2 now makes it all so effortless.

I am currently writing up a side by side real world comparison between the 2 cameras as a recent low light Roller Derby match where many of the differences will be quite clearly seen, so do the look out for the new link to that test article appearing in the left side menu.

 Article Adrian Harris