Shooting Sports with Micro Four-Thirds Gear

The conventional wisdom is that no one should attempt to shoot sports events with a Micro 4:3 camera, and the detractors will read a litany to you: the sensor is too small, the lenses are too slow, the viewfinder cannot refresh quickly enough, etc. And last but not least, the MFT gear is JUST NOT MACHO ENUF. This last is far more important than you may think. An entire generation of ushers, admission personnel, guards, and the like have become conditioned to think that huge and heavy gear equals professional, equals respect and special treatment. If they don’t take you seriously, how can you take yourself seriously?

I, for one, amdetermined to find smaller and more portable gear to make quality sports photos. How many of you have shot sports with a Speed Graphic and a Honeywell flash gun? No fun, was it? Slides to pull, film holders to change around, hot, very hot, bulbs to replace, as well as follow the action. I did all that in High School, and thought it was a dreadful outfit. Then I got to use a Rollei 3.5 and an electronic flash, and thought life could get no better. Except that, well, I could not change lenses the way that I could on my own Leica IIIg. So, now I have a Nikon D600 with a 70-200mm f/2.8 zoom lens, and guest what? The is just as heavy, just as bulky, almost as cumbersome, as the old Speed Graphic. Yes, I don’t have to change film holders or flashbulbs, but the outfit is even more unbalanced. And yes, I should count my blessings, Matthew Brady had to drive his darkroom wagon from battlefield to battlefield during the Civil War, and keep his horse healthy too.

I have begun using an Olympus E-M5, and a Lumix GH3. This past winter I started with the E-M5 and the Oly 45mm f/1.8 prime lens for college basketball. It is a particularly quick combination, locking focus rapidly, and providing a fine field of view when action is right under the basket and close to those of us on the baseline. I use it with the battery grip attached, so as to be able to get 300 or more shots without changing battery and also to get the flexibility of changing from portrait to landscape perspective with full control. The results are every bit as good as those with the Nikon, and I know that contravenes the story every pro will tell you. Problem is, I have the pictures to prove my statement true. There are reasons why I can make that assertion. and I’ll detail them shortly, but you won’t be able to get me to publish a retraction. This summer, I have obtained the GH3 and the Panny 35-100mm f/2.8 pro zoom. It is the absolute equivalent of that honking big workhorse Nikon, because of the sensor size in m4:3. I’m still learning the camera/.lens combination, but I have shot some amazing photos in summer basketball league games. (Truth be known, I have shot some absolute junk, too. That’s what comes with learning new gear.) I’m having the same experience I had when I first moved to Nikon DSLRs and couldn’t get focus with them that was up to standards my old Leica gear had set. After workng, and testing, and working some more, I got the Nikon gear to perform, and I expect to do the same with the Lumix.

Now, let’s go the FINE PRINT. Just as my friends over at will tell you, I have to say that one needs to use the right tool for the job at hand. (“If all you have is a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail.”) I am shooting for projection, in this case, for projection on a computer monitor or a TV set. I am NOT creating files to be enlarged to 8 FEET by 10 FEET, and mounted on the wall of a gym! My files will not be used on a highway billboard! But if I were shooting for those situations, I probably would not be using the D600, either; I’d be using a Leica S2 or a Hasselblad, or a Leaf. A sports event photographer needs to be able to get shots which are in-camera good, nay very good, and to hand them over to his editor, within 30 minutes (at the outside), so that they can be posted on a website, or printed in a newspaper in no time flat. There is no time for finessing the last ounce of perfection through post processing, and no intention that these shots will be made into massive prints. Focus must be sharp, colors must be crisp, and especially for projection use, about a third to a half stop rich (underexposed). These two cameras can, and will, deliver that sort of result. There are photographers much better than I, who will be doing that THIS YEAR. And those shots will show up in nationally visible locations.

More fine print: I don’t get the same comfort shooting with these cameras, that I do with the Nikon, I just get the same results. And no one cares about my comfort level, only the final shots. The EVF view will still freeze up, and the photographer will still have to keep shooting with faith that the camera is going to do its work. That does not bother me, because I am so old that I had to have that same kind of faith, when I shot the Speed Graphic! In those days, we had to be confident that our exposure was close enough to accurate that we could rescue things in the darkroom, and we had to develop the technique with the specific camera such that we could get the peak moment of action. Nothing’s changed in that respect. And remember, I had to endure week s of shitty shots from the Nikon gear, while I learned the precise combination of menu settings and handling to get proficient with it. I am also VERY confident that within 3 years, the issues with EVF will have been solved, and there will be no reason to use the Nikon at all, unless I need its very large files.  Now, did you catch the implied statement that I will still use the Nikon from time to time? Yes, until I have fully mastered the new small gear, I will use the Nikon from time to time- but not as often as the m4:3 cameras, and not with any pride.

And let me end on that note. Say what you will, and rationalize all you want, a photographer DOES take a certain satisfaction in the camera and lens he/she uses to make a photo. There truly is nothing like shooting with the Leica M3, and a good Leitz lens. But, it’s day has passed, and film is now hard to come by, and I for one, no longer have a true darkroom with multiple enlargers, temperature controlled liquids, and all the trappings. So I use what is currently available, and in my case, there is no comparison. When I use the Oly, or the Panny (or my new toy, the XPro 1), I receive a certain joy, a psychic satisfaction, that is not possible with any Nikon. Take your pick, D600, D800, D4, they are just a tool, like a hammer. You use them for the job, but you never take them out for pleasure shooting. They are today’s Speed Graphic:  competent, blunt, utilitarian.

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