Olympus E-M10 Field Test Part II

Sports, Wildlife and Long Exposures

By William Brawley | Posted: 3/26/2014

I was fortunate to have all the stars fall into alignment and was able to test the E-M10 on a variety of subjects, that happen to be some of my favorites -- sports, wildlife and long exposures.

The Olympus 12mm F2 lens gave me a fairly generous depth of field making precise focusing less critical. Also the tilting screen of the E-M10 let me easily get the shot from a cool, ground-level angle. (M.Zuiko 12mm F2: f/2, 1/1250s, ISO 1600)

Let the games begin. I had the fantastic opportunity to photograph a local college basketball game and thought it would be the perfect chance to see how a camera like the OM-D E-M10 would handle high-speed sports photography. Traditionally, sports photography is all about the DSLR -- fast phase-detect AF, rapid-fire FPS and bright wide-aperture lenses. With the ever-improving performance of contrast-detect AF systems, plus the E-M10's 8fps burst speed and a decidedly more compact setup, I was curious to see how the new Olympus E-M10 would handle a serious sporting event.

The previous JPEG edited in Adobe Lightroom 5 for a slight exposure boost, white balance correction, cropping and noise reduction.

Well, as they say, all that glitters is not gold, and with the E-M10, that's surely the case. There are good things and bad things about using the E-M10 to shoot sports, or many other fast action subjects for that matter. First, the size is great. The small E-M10 and compact Micro Four Thirds lenses are much more portable, as you already know. If you're shooting for hours on end, like at a basketball game, a smaller camera like the E-M10 is much more comfortable than a large, gripped DSLR and an f/2.8 telephoto zoom. I shot the basketball game with the E-M10 plus three Olympus fast prime lenses, and all I needed to carry was a small waist pack. No heavy, back-breaking backpack for me!

Fast FPS. The E-M10's 8fps burst mode does a nice job of capturing a sequence of action. Head over to the gallery page to view the full-res images (YP2200508.JPG - YP2200514.JPG).

Secondly, I found the 8fps Continuous High Speed burst mode plenty fast to catch an excellent frame or two, or even an entire sequence of a player going up for a shot. Of course top of the line DSLRs like the Canon 1D X and Nikon D4S can shoot at a massive 12 and 11fps, respectively, but as someone who has used a Canon 7D for sports with its 8fps continuous burst rate, the E-M10 felt plenty speedy. 

However, here's where we get to the first caveat. The Olympus E-M10 can shoot at 8fps, but only without continuous AF. So, if your subject moves closer or farther away and therefore out of the plane of focus, chances are you're going to end up with a not-so-great shot (or one in-focus shot followed by a bunch of out of focus ones). If you want AF working between each shot during continuous shooting, you're left with a mere 3.5fps, which is certainly not fast enough to capture a full sequence of a basketball player rushing past.

However, a caveat to a caveat: I found the buffer to clear at a more steady pace in the 3.5fps low-speed continuous mode, and I could therefore keep on shooting more or less at a constant pace if needed. The 8fps mode shot a fast burst of 11 frames, and then continued on with a much slower frames-per-second rate as the camera tried to clear through the buffer. (I was shooting RAW+Large SuperFine JPEGs at ISOs 1600 to 2500 with a Sony 94MB/s 32GB SDHC card. Your mileage may vary.)

(M.Zuiko 12mm F2: f/2, 1/1000s, ISO 2500)

However I was a little confused at first between "Sequential High Speed" and "Sequential Low Speed" modes and how they related to Continuous AF. Going into this, I assumed that the 8fps and 3.5fps were simply high- and low-speed burst modes -- similar to what you get on, say, a Nikon D7100. I assumed that by simply having Continuous AF (C-AF) enabled, the camera would automatically slow the burst rate if it had to when the camera attempted to refocus between frames.

So, when I selected "Sequential High Speed" mode and C-AF, I was surprised to find the 8fp speed working like a charm. I then thought perhaps it was the dedicated "AF Tracking" focus mode that slowed the burst rate -- nope. Still 8fps. I later found out that it's not the focus mode that determines the burst speed, but the burst speed mode itself that determines if the camera focuses between each frame. In "Sequential High Speed" mode, focus is locked at the first frame (even if C-AF is selected), while in "Sequential Low Speed" mode, the camera attempts to focus between frames if C-AF is selected. Chalk this whole thing up to user error, but I can see it being a little confusing to others unfamiliar with Olympus cameras as well.

(M.Zuiko 12mm F2: f/2, 1/1250s, ISO 1600)

I also noticed a strange behavior with Continuous AF mode, not only when shooting sports, but also with birds and other wildlife. When shooting moving subjects or other objects that were small in the frame, such as birds, I could really see the inherent "wobble" of the E-M10's contrast-detect AF system as it continuously tried to keep the subject in focus. It was a little disconcerting at times, since I had a hard time telling if my subject was, in fact, in focus when I pressed the shutter button.

Of course, the E-M10 gives you the option of having Release Priority (RP) or Focus Priority (FP). With RP enabled, the camera will still take a shot when you press the shutter button even if the subject is not in focus, while FP mode does the opposite -- it delays taking the shot until the subject is in focus. As you might expect, with fast sports or quick-moving animals, the delay in FP mode would not be ideal and could lead to missing a shot at that perfect moment. Thankfully, the E-M10's AF speed is, in general, quick enough for most subjects I encountered, especially higher contrast subjects.

Just how fast is the Olympus E-M10? Find out by clicking here to see our full battery
of rigorous, objective speed and operation tests conducted in the IR Lab.

The E-M10 paired with a long 75-300mm lens was very comfortable to use thanks to the built-in EVF. The f/6.7 aperture of the lens, however, forced me to use a high ISO in this shot, which took a toll on fine detail. (M.Zuiko 75-300mm F4.8-6.7 II: 300mm, f/6.7, 1/320s, ISO 2500)

Compact wildlife camera? If you've read my other reviews, you'll know that I like to shoot wildlife, and particularly in my recent Panasonic GM1 review, I attempted to use long telephoto lenses with that small camera. The experience in that case was far from ideal. The lack of an EVF was troublesome as it forces you to hold the camera out in front of you rather than up against your eye, which enhances stability and comfortable, especially with these larger, heavier lenses.

Thankfully, the Olympus E-M10 has a nice built-in EVF in a traditional DSLR-like, on-axis design. Using a long telephoto zoom lens such as the Olympus M.Zuiko 75-300mm f/4.8-6.7 II was easy and comfortable, and gave me the very familiar, DSLR-like shooting experience that I enjoy. Plus, the addition of in-body image stabilization was extremely helpful, if only to steady the shot when framing at the full 600mm-equivalent focal length. I found the body-based IS works quite well, making it much easier to get shots on small subjects like perched songbirds or other scenes off in the distance where framing with long telephoto lenses can get tricky -- minute movements of the camera can equal large changes in composition.

Despite a long 600mm-equivalent zoom lens, subjects like birds are oftentimes still quite small in the frame. As such, I found the AF system, especially when using C-AF, to be a little disconcerting, as the camera had trouble focusing on small subjects. Like I mentioned earlier in the sports section, especially when using Continuous AF, I really noticed the hunting or wobbling effect of the contrast-detect AF system as it tried to achieve and maintain focus on the subject. I found it difficult at times to tell if the subject was in crisp focus when I snapped the shot.

Despite being a bright color, the E-M10 had trouble focusing on this Cardinal. It took a few tries before I was able to get a photo with the bird in focus. (M.Zuiko 75-300mm F4.8-6.7 II: 300mm, f/6.7, 1/250s, ISO 320)
In a crop of a shot taken just prior to the one above, you can see that despite a similar composition with the AF target over the bird, the E-M10 had issues achieving correct focus.

This is perhaps, not an issue with the E-M10 itself, but rather an inherent limitation of contrast-detect autofocus systems. The autofocus "points" of the E-M10 are not really points at all, but rather focus target areas, and you simply don't get the fine-grained focus point with CDAF systems that you do on straight phase-detect AF systems like in DSLRs. As such, photographing subjects like birds and other small objects can be tricky for CDAF cameras.

Worst-case scenario? Not only was this female Cardinal pretty small in the frame, the small twigs and low-contrast coloring made it even more difficult for the contrast-detect AF system to get a crisp shot of the bird itself, yet the E-M10 still managed to focus correctly this time. (M.Zuiko 75-300mm F4.8-6.7 II: 300mm, f/6.7, 1/320s, ISO 400)

As I mentioned up in Part I, the E-M10 does bring the more precise grid of 81 AF areas from the E-M1, which is a solid upgrade over the E-M5. These smaller AF areas allow you to more precisely place an AF "point" over your subject.

The E-M10 takes it a step further by bringing over the "Small Target AF" option from the E-M1 (shown on the right). With this mode, the comparatively coarse 81 AF area grid is shrunken down to a much finer-grained grid, which are more akin to typical DSLR AF points. This mode makes is easier to autofocus on smaller subjects, such as birds perched in a tree, although you can still see the distinct "wobble" when using Continuous AF.

You can also magnify the display by up to 14x for an even smaller AF area, and of course there's always manual focus which supports magnification and focus peaking.

The Olympus E-M10 is also much quieter than competing DSLRs, which means you are less likely to disturb skittish animals. (M.Zuiko 75-300mm F4.8-6.7 II: 300mm, f/6.7, 1/250s, ISO 2000)

I'm seeing stars! I've realized I like shooting extremes -- fast-moving, hard-to-capture subjects, such as sports, as well as very slow-motion subjects with a more involved setup, such as long exposure shots. The Olympus E-M10 did reasonably well at capturing the fast stuff, but it makes easy work of the slow stuff, which in this case are long-exposure multi-shot star trail composite photos.

Typically, with star trail photos, you need lots of time, an intervalometer to make the camera continuously take photos periodically for a long span of time, and then lots of post-processing time stacking and combining hundreds of photos -- not to mention additional time if you want to mask in a foreground shot, perhaps done with some light-painting, for a really interesting nightscape.

I've always wanted to try my hand at creating star trail photos, and the Olympus E-M10 makes it a much simpler endeavor -- all you need is time and a tripod. And clear skies, of course. Introduced as a new feature on the E-M10, the Live Composite mode lets you build multi-shot long exposure photographs right in the camera! And you see it all happening live on-screen in real time!

The E-M10 lets you adjust the exposure time for Live Composite shots from 1/2s to 60s.

Accessed in manual exposure mode by scrolling down past Bulb Mode, Live Composite Mode takes an initial shot of the scene for noise reduction, and then a second press of the shutter button begins the live sequence of continuous shooting. Prior to shooting, you adjust the exposure time per shot, from a half-second to a long 60s shutter speed. After capturing the scene for your desired length of time, simply press the shutter button again and have the E-M10 combine all the shots into one final image. The cherry on top? It can also produce a composited RAW image, allowing for all the increased flexibility with post-processing that RAW images give you.

While I never had a great star trail scene to experiment with, I was able to test this cool new feature, and I have to say, I am impressed. It worked exactly as described. I set the camera up on a sturdy tripod, adjusted the timing, and let it capture away. Sure enough, periodically checking back on the camera, I could see star trails slowly building up on the screen. If you don't know how or don't want to spend lots of time photoshopping hundreds, possibly thousands of individual images together, the E-M10 makes it super simple to get great star trails or other long exposure shots (fireworks photos also come to mind as a possible use for this mode).

With the E-M10's new Live Composite mode, you can see star trails build up on screen in real time. I used a 10s exposure time and kept the camera running for about 30 minutes. As you can see, be aware of objects like aircraft that enter the frame. (M.Zuiko 12mm F2: f/2, 10s, ISO 200)

There are a few issues or notes worth pointing out, however. You can use Live Composite mode with either the EVF or rear LCD screen; however, one of the screens will remain powered (even if it's mostly black -- no battery-friendly OLED rear screen here like in the E-M5). So be sure to charge those batteries before setting off to shoot for very long periods of time. (There's still no word on an AC Adapter for the E-M10 like we saw with the E-M5 to let you keep the camera up and running via mains power.) Also, shooting is limited to a maximum of three hours (or however long your battery lasts), so no super-long all-night photos with the E-M10.

Also, as with other long exposure shots, be aware of vibrations and other camera shakes. It's recommended to use a remote shutter release to avoid bumping the camera. Thankfully, the built-in Wi-Fi on the E-M10 works for Live Composite mode, and I was able to use my smartphone to start and trigger the shutter. Also, be aware that if you're shooting into the open sky, you might have an unwelcome visitor or two appear in your final photo. In this case, airplanes. Clouds are another possibility.

Overall, the Olympus E-M10 did well in these little experiments, and while it won't replace a DSLR for me when shooting sports or wildlife, it's generally very speedy with excellent burst performance if you don't need continuous AF. The contrast-detect AF is excellent on all but very small and low-contrast subjects, as well. The built-in EVF is large and easy to view and makes it comfortable to use larger, longer and heavier telephoto lenses even though the E-M10 itself is quite small. Lastly, the Live Composite mode works exactly as described, giving photographers an easy way to explore the world of astrophotography and other long exposure, multi-shot compositions.

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