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Shooting High School Football with the Olympus E-M1ii By Bob Panick

I updated the article to include Auto Focus information, lenses and a few minor corrections.

Disclaimer, I’m not an expert at this, I’m not a professional; this is just what works for me. You can check out my sports related work at Bob Panick Photography. The football shots are under the Carlson High School menu item.

I’ve had a few people asking questions on shooting football so I decided to put together a blog post on it. But first some background, I’ve been shooting High School Varsity football for seven years now at the high school I graduated from back in 1977. I’ve never made a dime off of the shots I’ve taken, I do it purely for my own enjoyment. I give the yearbook images to use since they don’t have any cameras that can get good shots of the game. I also go through the images at the end of the season and print up some of the best for the team.

So I started shooting with a Nikon D7000 with a Nikon 70-200 f/2.8, and I got some fairly decent images from it. When the Olympus E-M1 came out I tried shooting using the old Four Thirds 50-200 f/2.8-3.5. Which worked fine if there was enough light, but when it got dark f/3.5 was just too slow and I ended up going back to the Nikon. I didn’t go back to the E-M1 for sports until the 40-150 f/2.8 PRO showed up, at that point I sold my Nikon gear and I haven’t looked back. I’m now using the E-M1ii which is a big improvement on the original E-M1 for a lot of reasons I’ll get to.

Lenses

The work horse for shooting football is the Olympus 40-150 f/2.8 Pro. This is equivalent to 80-300 mm full frame equivalent; only one full frame lens comes close to matching its focal length and speed, the Sigma 120-300 f/2.8. If you’re shooting with an APS-C sensor like a Nikon D500 or the Canon 7Dii the 70-200 f/2.8 has the same range and speed.

Ideally something a bit longer like the Panasonic 200mm f/2.8 would be very nice to have. But it’s a bit of an expensive lens at $3000 and lacks the flexibility of a zoom.

I carry a second body which often has a 12-40 f/2.8, that’s equivalent to 24-70 f/2.8 on a full frame camera. I don’t use it too often for shots of the game, if they’re close enough I need that lens, I need to be getting out of the way. But I do use it for sideline shots.

Olympus E-M1ii with 12-40 f/2.8 Pro at 1/1000 second, f/2.8, 20mm ISO 6400

Another lens I use in the first few games while we still have some sunlight is the Olympus 300 mm f/4 Pro, full frame equivalent of 600mm f/4. This lens is quite frankly too slow for shooting under the lights, and is really too long for a lot of shots. But it does let you shoot the far side of the field and get some nice close shots. I’ve even shot with it from the corner of the field when play was 40 yards out. It’s a bit more difficult to shoot with since finding your target with the narrow angle of view, but when you do it can give some nice shots. With practice it gets easier and faster to acquire your target.

Olympus E-M1ii with 300mm f/4 Pro at 1/1000 second, f/4, ISO 5000

Settings

The information pertains to the E-M1ii, and most of them will apply to any camera, except obviously some of the settings specific to the E-M1ii such as Pro Capture and electronic shutter. The E-M1ii has three custom settings that can be stored. For me I use C3 during football season; C1 is what I use for wildlife, C2 is for HDR. Outside of sports season C3 usually ends up being High Res photography. And if anyone form Olympus is reading, I can make a good argument for a dozen or more custom settings. I've included my C1 settings for someone who doesn't want to use electronic shutter.

So let’s talk through the settings here and why I use them.

Image Type - RAW

Some people are going to look at me like I’m nuts. Yes, I shoot RAW. Why, simple the light I shoot in is crap, and I need all the help I can get to pull back the shadows; and RAW is much better at than JPEG. I also don’t have deadlines so I'm not in a hurry to get them sent out. If I get them out in a week, or even two it’s not a big deal. If you have deadlines, I would shoot RAW + JPG, so you have the best of both worlds. BTW, here’s a hint, write both to slot 1 and use a fast SD card (300 MB/s rating). If you try to split it so RAW goes to slot 1 and JPG goes to slot 2, you slow the write process down by a lot and you may run into issues with filling the buffer or not being able to clear it.

Shutter Speed - 1/1000 second (ideally)

For sports you want to be at 1/1000 second if at all possible, faster is better here. That will freeze most action, except the football in flight. Quite frankly any camera and lens can shoot at 1/1000 in good bright sunlight. But if you shoot football in Michigan, sunlight is usually setting, or at the end of the season has set. High schools also don’t put a lot of money into the stadium lights so it can be quite challenging. There have been times I’ve had to drop down to 1/400 second at ISO 6400. That works, but the number of keepers will drop do to motion blur. I’ve found that above ISO 6400 the images aren’t very good, I get more keepers going to a slower shutter speed. Note, here when I say keepers I’m talking something the yearbook can use or some 8x10 prints, not things I would blow up large.

Exposure Mode - Shutter Priority

Some people swear by shooting in manual, that’s fine, but I’ll take shutter priority (S mode). Here’s why, in S mode I can easily make exposure compensations on the fly. I find I’m often shooting at -0.7 EV but that changes depending on where on the field they are playing. The zones of darkness (a.k.a. the end zones) can be a stop sometimes two stops darker than the middle of the field. I find I often have to change the compensation, shooting in S mode makes that easy.

Exposure Metering - Matrix

I have a running debate with a bunch of people about matrix vs. spot metering; and I’ve come to the conclusion I’m never going to convince them they’re wrong. Way back (like 5 years ago) people shooting with DSLRs had to take a picture, look at the back, and make an adjustment, and repeat until they got a good exposure. Today with mirrorless cameras, we have What You See Is What You Get (WYSIWYG), I simply adjust the exposure compensation so that my subjects look appropriate and fire away knowing that I have exposure nailed. By using matrix metering the camera is pretty consistent on exposure as the play develops. BTW, Olympus calls matrix ESP.

So why don’t I use spot metering. A little about football (and many other sports), the visiting team wear white jerseys, the home team wear team color or often black jerseys. There can be three or four stops exposure difference to the camera meter between the jerseys of the two teams. If you are using spot metering, during a tackle, the spot is going to be flipping around very quickly between light and dark targets, which will throw off your exposure reading.

By using matrix metering which averages the entire frame the differences are pretty minimal and I get much less variation, yet as they go from brighter areas to darker areas the camera can adjust automatically. I might tweak the exposure a bit as they move around the field, but not by much.

Blinkies - On

On the E-M1ii I can set the camera to show highlight and lowlight warnings (some cameras call these zebra striping), as blinking red or blue areas showing blown out or underexposed areas respectively. After dark the sky is going to be blinking blue, but I can generally ignore that. What I’m most concerned about is not blowing out the whites. In fact I try to keep the white uniforms within about 1/3 to 2/3 of a stop where they are blinking. This gives me a little hedge as the game moves along. Keep in mind I’m using matrix metering, so this solution works really well for fast moving plays that can cover a large part of the field. As the players are lining up for the snap, I’ll do a quick exposure adjustment by increasing the EV setting until I see highlight blinkies; then back off one or two clicks of the EV adjustment (1/3 or 2/3 stop). There isn’t much I can do about the lowlight blinkies, so I don’t worry too much about them. This is a very quick and fast way to handle the light changing as the play moves down the field.

Shutter Type - Electronic

When I first got the E-M1ii I shot using mechanical shutter, mostly out of habit because that’s what I used on the E-M1. After the first half I decided to experiment with electronic shutter. I honestly didn’t think I would need 18 FPS. Boy was I wrong. 18 FPS really helps, I look at it this way; at 10 FPS I got a little over a single stride per frame. With 18 FPS I get roughly half a stride in each frame. This gives me a bigger set of shots to pick from, one where the athlete looks your way, or they are in a nice Heisman pose, or dodging a block. Basically a lot more choice. The pictures below are 1/18 of a second apart, that works out to 56 milliseconds, but look at the difference in pose between the frames. If I had been shooting at 10 FPS I wouldn’t have gotten the middle frame, which is a much better pose. The nice part is I got several to choose from, that I wouldn’t have had at a slower frame rate.

The difference 18 FPS makes

One thing about shooting the Nikon D7000, I got in the habit of firing short bursts, because that’s all it could do. I still use that method today, short bursts the majority of the time. This keeps the number of shots I have to wade through a bit more manageable, which can be important when you have 1200 or more images to wade through, and the E-M1ii could generate a lot more than that without some discretion.

Pro Capture - On

For those of you who don’t know what Pro Capture is; it’s a mode in the E-M1ii that when the shutter is half pressed the camera starts capturing images to the buffer but it doesn’t write them to the SD card. Only the last X number of images are kept in the buffer, the older ones are discarded. When the action you’ve been waiting for finally happens, press the shutter all the way down and the images in the buffer are written to the SD card and the camera continues to write to the card as long as buffer space remains. X in this case can be adjusted in the menu, the max used to be 14 but it’s been increased to 35 with a firmware update. This can be set in menu item C1 > L Settings > Pro Cap > Pre-shutter frames. I keep mine set to 15, which seems to be a good compromise.

In my setup I use Back Button Focus (BBF) for controlling focus, and you’ll find many sports and wildlife photographers use BBF. I’m not going to get into the pros and cons, or even the configuration of BBF, there is a lot of stuff out on the Internet for that. With Pro Capture you really, really want to use BBF. Here’s why, Pro Capture is triggered by half pressing the shutter button, if you’re using the shutter button to trigger auto focus, you’ll also be triggering Pro Capture which is going to wear your battery down faster and doesn’t accomplish much. If you are setup for BBF, the AEL/AFL button is used for focus and the shutter half press does nothing with focus, instead it triggers only Pro Capture.

So here’s how you use it. You notice the quarterback is looking down field, obvious pass. So you swing down field and find the most likely receiver. Since you probably aren’t going to have time to track the throw to the receiver, you lock focus on the receiver using BBF. Then you half press the shutter to start Pro Capture and wait. Since you’re looking through the viewfinder you can’t see the ball coming in, you can see the receiver look back but that action takes just a fraction of a second. By using Pro Capture I take some of my reaction time out of the equation because I’ve already got a bunch of frames in the buffer. As soon as I see the ball hit his hands or he goes up for it, I press the shutter all the way down and commit it to the buffer. If I’m a half second late, it’s not a problem it’s in the buffer and I have it.

Now if Olympus could only add some technology for me to get the right receiver.

ISO - Auto ISO max 6400

You know all those discussions about full frame vs. APS-C vs. MFT, this is one of those cases where full frame is definitely better. On these fields to maintain 1/1000 at f/2.8 you sometimes need to shoot at 12,800 (or higher ISO). I love my E-M1ii, but I refuse to use it above 6400 ISO, I just don’t get many images I consider usable even with noise reduction software. Since I can’t afford a full frame sports camera and more importantly the 300 f/2.8 or even better 400 f/2.8 (remember I don’t make money at this) the E-M1ii has to do as is.

At the start of the season we get setting sun for the first half and I simply use the camera at 1/1000 sec at f/2.8 with auto ISO enabled with a maximum range of 6400. BTW, for some reason 6400 is the maximum value for auto ISO. A number of us have communicated our preference for a higher value, but it hasn’t happened yet. When the ISO hits 6400, I start dropping the shutter speed, I can generally manage 1/500 or 1/400, but sometimes it will drop to 1/250. If it drops below 1/250 I usually pack it in and watch the game. Now at slower shutter speeds your chance for motion blur goes up and the number of usable images goes down. But it’s better than not getting any shots and we aren’t looking to put these on the cover of Sports Illustrated, they’ll be small images or on the web where quality isn’t nearly as important as getting an image.

White Balance - Auto

You’ll notice I have white balance set to auto. I’ve gone to the trouble a few times to set a custom white balance, but I’ve discovered most of the time it doesn’t do me much good because the light varies across the field. What I generally do is use the fact that half the players are wearing white. I can get pretty close using the eye dropper in LR to set white balance by tagging a white jersey with the white balance eye dropper. It’s not perfect, but you can get pretty close, and usually a little bit of adjustment takes care of it. Now if we could only get the players to where some 18% gray patches on their uniforms in strategic locations that would be a huge help. I’d even settle for the field lines being 18% gray instead of white.

Auto Focus Mode – C-AF

The E-M1ii has two modes of auto focus, Single (S-AF) and Continuous (C-AF). S-AF is the preferred mode for when you have something that doesn’t move, it tends to be a bit more accurate since it uses Contrast Detect auto focus. But it can’t react fast enough for moving subjects. For moving subjects like football players, you need to use C-AF. C-AF uses the other focus mode in the camera phase detect, this is the same system used in DSLRs for years. The implementation is a bit different, but the results are the same. Phase detect can tell how far and in what focus direction something is moving allowing you to stay on target.

Here’s a hint that Scott Bourne pointed out. The C-AF mode if it gets confused tends to take quite a while for it to require the target. Rather than wait for it to reacquire the target, simply release the focus, and press the focus button again. It will quickly get the lock and your back in business. This takes a bit of practice to get the hang of. But after a while you don’t even think about it.

Auto Focus Tracking - Off

I’ve experimented with Auto Focus Tracking, and found that it doesn’t work all that well with football. If I was just tracking one player running by themselves or even two close together it wouldn’t be a problem. The problem comes when you have a lot of players in the scene. I sometimes have a hard time following the ball carrier, expecting tracking to follow them is asking way too much. So I just turn it off.

Auto Focus Point Size - Small

I’ve experimented with all kinds of different focus point sizes. For me the best is to set the focus point to the smallest single point focus point. I then move it one or two spots up from center. This allows me to put the focus point on the helmet of the player I’m interested in, and by setting it up a few spots I don’t chop off the feet. Is this method perfect, nope, but it works 90% of the time. It also keeps the focus on the part of the player I tend to think is most important, the helmet. There are a few times where this may not be quite as optimal, for instance the player going up for a catch. But in that case I simply set the focus point on the body and that handles the adjustment.

Post Processing

I know quite a few people use Photo Mechanic; but I just use Lightroom (LR). More specifically, I use the LR import previews. First thing I do when I start the import is to hit the select none button, then I expand the first image to show it larger. Then I press P to pick, and then the right arrow to move to the next image. I’m spending only a second or two at most on the image. If I’m not sure I include it and I’ll deal with it in LR. The point is to get through the a thousand or more images as quick as I can.

After the import is done, I’ll go through and flag (P) key again the images that I want to work on. This time I’ll look at the set for a play that I brought in and decide which is best. I don’t spend any time editing, I just want to get through this pass.

Finally, I’ll filter to show only flagged images and start processing them. I use a sports plug in that was developed by Matt Kloskowski called Sports Game Day (Light). I tweaked the settings a bit for my needs since Matt intended them to be used during the day, not after dark.

Conclusion

I hope you found this useful and that it improves your own sports captures. I thought I would leave you with a few closing lines when you run into a sports photographer that gives you a hard time about you’re small camera.

  1. I’m afraid I just couldn’t go back to shooting at just 12 frames per second.
  2. Yes you’re $20,000 camera rig probably does better than my $3000 Olympus, but is it 6 times better?
  3. Doesn’t having to haul that mono pod and big ass lens around slow you down?
  4. Rain covers, never heard of them, what do you use them for?

Yes, I’m a smart ass, and I work hard at it. Happy shooting.

Created By
Robert Panick
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Credits:

Bob Panick Photography

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