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WITH ADAM DUCKWORTH

Shooting a sport event and don’t know where to start? Photographer Adam Duckworth shares his top tips for shooting action with the OM-D E-M1 Mark II…

Image by Mike Inkley

I was lucky enough to make it my profession, and have shot everything from Formula One and World Rally on four wheels to MotoGP and Supercross on two, plus world championship mountain bike racing, sailing and windsurfing at the Olympics and even some professional rugby and golf.

But it’s always been fast-moving vehicles that hold the most fun for me, especially motorcycles as you can really see the riders putting in the effort to muscle their bikes around. As a motorcyclist, I have the experience to predict and capture the peak of the action and to know where it’s likely to happen. In terms of kit, I’ve moved on from large DSLRs and their huge prime lenses to mirrorless cameras due to their light weight, plus fast frame rates and features that DSLR users can only dream about.

The latest Olympus OM-D EM-1 Mark II sets new standards for action shooters. As well as being weatherproof and light, the Olympus lenses are incredible. The M.Zuiko 40-150mm F2.8 gives the equivalent of an 80-300mm lens in a much lighter and more affordable package. And the new 300mm F4 gives the view of a 600mm lens which, it if were for a full-frame DSLR, would be vast in terms of both size and cost. It’s impossible to take grab shots or move quickly with a huge 600mm lens, but the Olympus lens makes it easy to do. The OM-D EM-1 Mark II, with these two lenses as well as some wide-angles, is a stunning package that is a fraction of the size and cost of DSLRs. And with its speedy and accurate autofocus as well as blazing-fast continuous shooting and Pro Capture modes, it lets you record shots you would simply miss with other cameras.

Give the impression of movement

Shooting action photographs is all about making something that’s moving actually appear like it’s moving in a still frame. The easiest way to fool the brain into thinking something is moving is to use some blur. So, a racing car zooming past a blurred grandstand at a circuit gives the clear message of speed.

An alternative is to freeze the action with the subject caught doing something that you know can’t happen naturally, so you quickly work out the subject is in motion. Like a mountain biker mid-leap, for example. You instantly know a bike can’t fly, so the biker is obviously in motion.

Image by Mike inkley

Choose the right kit

The Olympus OM-D EM-1 Mark II is an ideal choice for action, as the autofocus is very fast, the frame rate is very high and you can choose from a huge range of lenses. And it performs well when light levels drop.

The wide range of Olympus lenses will make a big difference to your shots. If you can get in close to your subject, a wide-angle lens will add drama and give a sense of location to your shots, while a telephoto zoom will allow you to fill the frame with your subject for more impact. Super-fast pro-spec lenses with fast F2.8 apertures allow you to keep shooting when light levels fall and also help to create softly blurred backgrounds, which make your subject stand out even more. The M.Zuiko 40-150mm F2.8 PRO is surprisingly light and versatile, but the M.Zuiko 300mm F4 IS PRO lens gives something no other manufacturer can at the price and size. It means your photos can get right to the heart of the action, even if you have to stand a fair distance away. And the different views and perspectives it can give you opens up a world of creativity like no other. A monopod can be useful, too.

Get the shit in focus

Getting your subject in pin-sharp focus is the goal of the action photographer. And if you’re using a long lens which gives a shallow depth-of-field, it’s even more critical and tricky to get right.

The OM-D E-M1 Mark II has lots of different advanced autofocus modes, but I prefer to keep it simple. I set the camera’s autofocus to continuous, and move the focus point to where I want the subject to be. I then try to track the subject in the viewfinder before tripping the shutter at the right moment. Alternatively, you can manually pre-focus if you know where the action will take place – like a pole vaulter at the peak of his leap or a cricketer at the wicket – then fire the shutter at the right time.

Select the right exposure mode

Shutter-priority lets you select the shutter speed you want and the camera works out the right aperture for you. You may want a high shutter speed – like 1/1000sec or faster – to freeze the action. Or a slow speed to give blur.

However, light or dark subjects can easily fool your meter. If you’re shooting a car race and a black car comes round the corner, then a white car, the camera meter can struggle. So it can be better to set the exposure manually, especially if the light is constant. Try metering off a neutral tone – like light-coloured tarmac or grass – then set that exposure. Take a test shot and check your exposure using the histogram. And it’s best to shoot Raw, as it offers the best quality and maximum dynamic range so you can pull out every little bit of detail from the highlights and shadows in your shots.

Choose the right shutter speed

There’s no hard and fast rule for choosing the right speed, as freezing or blurring the action depends on how fast the subject is moving, how far away you are, whether the subject is coming towards you or across your field of view, how big the subject is in the frame and the focal length of the lens. Having said that, a speed quicker than 1/1000sec is enough to freeze most subjects at most focal lengths. And anything slower than 1/250sec can usually result in some blurring, though you can go as low as 1/30sec if you have a steady hand. You have to experiment.

If you are using fast shutter speeds, you may have to increase your ISO to get the right exposure. In general, the lower the ISO the better the quality of the final photo. So keep it as low as you can.

Image by Mike Inkley

Panning for effect

Some of the most effective action shots are where the subject is sharp, but the background blurred. This helps the subject pop out from the background and give a real impression of speed. To do this, choose a slow shutter speed and, ideally, a long focal length lens. As your subject comes into view, try to lock focus on it. Then as it passes you, keep it as constant as you can in your frame by smoothly panning with the subject.

It’s all about timing

You are often trying to capture the peak of the action, like at the apex of a corner or a footballer scoring. The best sports photographers know their subjects well and can predict the peak of the action. But the fast frame rate of the OM-D E-M1 Mark II makes it so much easier. If you want to keep the focus tracking with your subject as you shoot, then you need to choose the Continuous Low frame setting which is 10fps using the mechanical shutter or 18fps with the electronic shutter.

If you use Continuous High, the focus point is locked at the first frame. So, if your subject is moving, it’s not the best choice. But at 15fps with mechanical shutter and a mind-blowing 60fps in electronic, it can work well if your focus doesn’t need to change. Pro Capture takes this onto a new level. Press and hold the shutter release button halfway and the camera continuously buffers a series of full-resolution images until you fully press the shutter button, at which point it will capture that image plus the 14 previous frames.

Image by Mike Inkley

Get the right viewpoint

If you’re shooting sport then there’s no substitute for getting to the venue early so you can check it out for viewpoints which will give your pictures dramatic composition, like a mountain biker framed against the sky or a motorcycle racer against a packed grandstand of cheering fans.

One of the biggest problems with sports images is messy backgrounds. Look for clean, uncluttered backgrounds or try to blur them with a shallow depth-of-field by using a wide aperture.

Image by Mike Inkley

PRACTISE!

When you start you’re not going to get a press pass for the World Cup, but there are plenty of local or amateur sports that welcome photographers. And it’s great practice. All the photos here were taken from public areas.

Article featured in Olympus Magazine Issue 57 – to see the latest copy of this free digital magazine click here.