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Photographing high school football with the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II, part one

Editor’s Note: We welcome Bob Panick to Photofocus. Bob is an enthusiastic amateur photographer based in the Detroit area. Bob shoots a variety of subjects including sports, landscape, nature and automotive. Bob has little to no interest in being a professional photographer and shoots for his own enjoyment. Bob learned photography back in the 70s, got away from it and came back about 10 years ago. You can check out his sports-related work at https://photos.panick.com/.

I’ve had a few people asking questions on photographing 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, 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.

I started shooting with a Nikon D7000 with a Nikon 70-200mm 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 50-200mm 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 40-150mm 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-M1 Mark II which is a big improvement on the original E-M1 for a lot of reasons I’ll get to.

Lenses

The workhorse for shooting football is the Olympus 40-150mm f/2.8 PRO lens. This is equivalent to an 80-300mm field of view on full-frame cameras. 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 12-40mm f/2.8 — equivalent to a 24-70mm field of view. I don’t use it too often for shots of the game; if they’re close enough that I need that lens, I need to be getting out of the way. But I do use it for sideline shots.

Another lens I use in the first few games while we still have some sunlight is the Olympus 300mm f/4 PRO — equivalent to a 600mm field of view. 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 due to 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.

Basic settings

The E-M1 Mark II has three custom settings that can be stored. 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 (if anyone from 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 the electronic shutter.

Image type: RAW

Yes, I shoot RAW. Why? 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, meaning that 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. Write both to slot 1 and use a fast UHS-II SD card with a 300 MB/s rating. Splitting JPEG to slot 2 will slow down the write process, and you may run into issues with filling the buffer or not being able to clear it.

Shutter speed: 1/1000s

For sports, you want to be at 1/1000s 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, the sun is usually setting, or at the end of the season has already 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 due 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.

Exposure mode: Shutter priority

Some people swear by shooting in manual — that’s fine — but I’ll take shutter priority. This allows me to easily make exposure compensation adjustments 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 (usually 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, and shooting in shutter priority makes that easy.

ISO: Auto with max 6400

This is one of those cases where full-frame is definitely better. On these fields to maintain 1/1000s at f/2.8 you sometimes need to shoot at ISO 12,800 (or higher). I love my E-M1 Mark II, but I refuse to use it above 6400 ISO — I just don’t get many images I consider usable even with noise reduction software.

At the start of the season, we get setting sun for the first half and I simply use the camera at 1/1000s at f/2.8 with auto ISO enabled with a maximum range of ISO 6400, which is the maximum value allowed.

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. 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.

Stay tuned for part two, where I discuss some of the other settings I use when photographing high school football.

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